Published on February 25, 2019
Elizabeth Patterson : email@example.com
It’s an iconic image that haunts you when you think about the late John Allan Cameron.
It comes from the cover of his first album. It shows the man often described as the godfather of Celtic music smiling as he stands among the weeds, clad in a kilt, armed with his trusty 12-string guitar.
Fifty years ago, John Allan unleashed that album, “Here Comes John Allan Cameron,” onto an unsuspecting world. It would be the first multi-track recording done by a Cape Bretoner and it was recorded in the fall of 1968 in Montreal.
Little did John Allan know then that he would help popularize an entire genre of music devoted to Celtic songs and tunes familiar to this region and that he would inspire hundreds, if not thousands, to follow in his footsteps.
Or maybe he did.
Maybe that’s why he’s got that big grin on his face.
“We wore that album out.”
Heather Rankin knows a thing or two about Celtic music in Cape Breton. A member of the Rankin Family and now an established solo act, she’s been singing professionally for her entire adult life and has toured around the world many times. She’s just returned from an Asian tour, performing in Indonesia and Malaysia. She credits being able to do all that to John Allan.
“When he had a record, it was unheard of to be able to record a record,” says Rankin. “He was somebody who was so proud of his culture and the music that came out of where he grew up and he wore it, he literally wore his culture. I don’t think we realized it at the time but, looking back, he was definitely a huge influence.”
When she was growing up in Mabou as a child, the Rankins lived across the street from John Allan’s mother. Rankin remembers sneaking over to watch “The Edge of Night,” a popular soap opera at the time, on a floor model colour TV that the singer had bought for his mom.
Rankin says she realizes now just how great a contribution John Allan made, at a time when it was nearly impossible for a local musician to receive international recognition.
“He made us realize that we could sing our music even though it may have been considered regional music - that it had a market outside us, our community. It even made us realize that we could eventually make a record if we really wanted.
“If John Allan could come out of Glencoe Station and come from nothing and go and make a living doing his music, maybe we could too.
“He was a superstar in our eyes for sure.”
John Allan was born Dec. 16, 1938, in Glencoe Station, Inverness County. He was the second of five sons and two daughters of Daniel Cameron and his wife Katie Ann MacDonald.
His father was a farmer and a fisherman and his mother spoke Gaelic fluently. His uncle was the noted composer Dan R. (Rory) Macdonald but the family didn’t own any instruments until the father came home with a fiddle in 1951. Brother John Donald taught himself how to play and eventually became known as one of the great Cape Breton fiddlers. John Allan (usually pronounced as one word, “JnAlln”) grabbed the guitar when his father arrived home with one a year later. The two brothers were soon playing as a fiddle and guitar duo at the local dances. By 1955, John Allan had managed to save enough money to buy himself a Gibson, a better quality instrument.
When he was 17, John Allan headed to Ottawa where he entered an Oblate Seminary to study for the priesthood. He remained there for seven years and had even taken his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in 1963.
But his love of music had never left him. He received a special dispensation from the Vatican so he could perform music outside of the church. But just months before he was to be ordained, he decided against becoming a priest.
About the Artist
He went to St. Francis Xavier University to complete his bachelor’s degree and there, he received a 12-string guitar that would become his signature instrument. It allowed him more freedom in playing bagpipe and fiddle music, something that would be showcased on that first album. Many believe he was the first to do that on guitar.
“He was so original because he took traditional Scottish tunes and music that would have been written in Cape Breton and he played it on the 12-string guitar and I don’t know of anyone else who was doing that,” says Heather Rankin. “He was a real trailblazer.”
Before the album came out, John Allan went to Dalhousie University for his teaching degree. Along the way, he performed regularly in coffee houses and even appeared a few times on Don Messer’s Jubilee and Singalong Jubilee.
John Allan moved to London, Ontario in 1968 to teach at London Central High School but CBC soon called, offering regular work and the opportunity to keep performing. With more gigs lined up, John Allan began thinking that having an album might not be such a bad idea.
He was becoming better known. He was a good guitarist and he had a distinctive voice that set him apart. And there was something else, something more about John Allan that was apparent to everyone who ever saw him perform.
“First and foremost he was an entertainer,” remembers singer and multi-instrumentalist Allie Bennett, a Sydney Mines native who now lives in Dartmouth. “He would be the first person to tell you he wasn’t the world’s greatest singer but he could sing on pitch and he had his own style.”
Style, he had. The moment he opened his mouth, you knew it was John Allan. You also knew he wasn’t going to blend into the background anywhere.
“He had the music, he had the talent, he had the charisma, he was developing the audience, but he had nothing to sell, nothing for the people to bring home,” says Cape Breton Post music columnist Dan MacDonald, who knew John Allan well and was his agent for three years.
““Here Comes John Allan Cameron” solved that problem. When it came out, the LP was a staple in almost every home around.”
Recorded in a single day, “Here Comes John Allan Cameron” featured folk tunes, instrumentals and Gaelic songs – not exactly chart-topping stuff. But it was a hit at home. Cape Bretoners couldn’t get enough of it and the rest of Canada soon followed.
“I seem to remember as a kid seeing more “Here Comes John Allan” albums than Beatles albums in living rooms across Cape Breton,” says Stewart MacNeil of the Barra MacNeils. “He caught on like wildfire with that album because it had all the elements of a good house party including sing along songs, fiddle music, puirt a beul and a bit of goofiness. He was an entertainer from the old school who used all his talents instead of focusing on just one thing.
“The album really set the tone for his exceptional career.”
“My father’s biggest fear was that people were going to forget him.”
Even though it’s a phone interview, you can imagine guitarist and producer Stuart Cameron smiling at his father’s unfounded concern. After all, to this day, the elder Cameron remains a beloved figure in Canadian music.
“So now it’s been 12 and a half years that he’s been gone and I still on average … every two weeks on Facebook, I’ll get a call or a message from somebody telling me stories about my father. They share it and it’s beautiful. It’s absolutely wonderful.”
Stuart had just finished a rigorous 10 day-10 concert tour through the American South with the Crash Test Dummies, a band his father had introduced to him when he was a child.
“I remember my father driving me to school after he was away at the Winnipeg Folk Festival – he was driving me to school on a Monday morning – he said I want you to listen to this band – this guy’s voice is really interesting. It was the first recording of “Superman’s Song” – it was the initial recording of it before even their first record. And it was on the B side of this white cassette. It was a compilation of a bunch of artists who were playing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Crash Test Dummies happened to be one of them. He actually introduced me to the band.”
Ironically, John Allan’s last recording in a recording studio was on a Crash Test Dummies song that Stuart produced back in 2003. Not surprisingly, being back with the band on the road unleashed a flood of memories for Stuart.
“He's been on my mind like crazy the past week. I had to stop myself from telling so many stories.”
Although he was born three years after its release, Stuart knows much of the lore surrounding the album.
“He had no idea you could go back and hear the playback,” says Stuart. “So the first time that he heard the record was when it was released. And there are mistakes all over the place on that thing. But his manager at the time was too cheap to buy new reel-to-reel tapes so they just used “used” tapes.
“Interestingly enough, the four-track machine that the record was recorded on was the exact same machine that recorded John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Give Peace A Chance.”
“And it was recorded live off the floor, one take, bam! Pretty amazing.”
Pretty amazing indeed.
The album opens with “There Was An Old Woman From Mabou,” a lively takeoff of the Irish folk tune, “The Old Woman of Wexford.” It’s a ditty about a marriage gone sour, a seemingly odd choice for someone fresh out of the priesthood to select as the first song on his first album.
There was an old woman from Mabou,
In Mabou she did well
She loved her husband dearly,
But another man twice as well
With me right fol lid-der-al ar-yl,
And me right fol low-rel le.e
But musically it worked, thanks to John Allan’s lilt. Picking the best music for his distinctive voice was a knack that he had, says Allie Bennett, who began playing with John Allan when he was 13-years-old.
“He had a tremendous ability to search out song material that was suitable for him,” says Bennett. “He was the first person to introduce John Prine’s music to Canada by recording a couple of his songs. He was also the very first person to record “Song For The Mira.””
Bennett says John Allan was proud of his roots and refused to bow to those who might try to diminish East Coast culture.
“The biggest thing I learned from him is to, whatever you’re doing, just do it to the best of your ability,” said Bennett. “Another key thing I learned from him is to never apologize onstage. He was always very proud of his roots and proud of his music.”
For John Allan, it was about the music, but it was also about family and giving back to others.
In the late 1960s, John Allan met his wife Angela at the Big Pond outdoor concert.
“My cousin and I were serving the tea in the tent … and he asked me to ‘save me a square set’ because we had a dance afterwards. And I did and I’m glad that I did,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Ajax, Ontario.
Known as Lala to her Cape Breton family and friends, the Sydney native married John Allan in Scarborough, Ontario in 1969, where she was living at the time. He was the ideal husband, she says.
“He was very kind and generous and he was like that our whole married life,” she said. “He just loved to share his music with everyone ... I think that was kind of automatic. He was a trailblazer.”
Son Stuart was born in 1972 and he soon followed in his father’s footsteps, often performing with his father on stage. According to Lala, there was never a doubt that their son would become a musician.
“I think that was kind of automatic.”
John Allan died in 2006 of bone marrow cancer, a type of leukemia, at the age of 67. Lala, 69, is sure John Allan would still be performing today if he had lived.
“He would have been 80 in December which would have been hard to believe,” she said. “I’m sure he would have been playing his music and doing everything the same.”
Stuart remembers his father often leaving to go on the road, even at Christmas. Yet he has no resentment about his father not being at home all the time.
“There were a couple of Christmases that he travelled to the Middle East to perform for the troops and he would sit me down and explain to me why he wasn’t going to be around for Christmas that year and talk to me like an adult. He said, look, all of these men and women are giving up being with their families for Christmas. They’re making a sacrifice and life is about charity and giving back. So what your father is doing is bringing a little bit of joy and Christmas to people that may not enjoy it because they’re missing their loved ones.”
The fact his father took the time to explain the importance of what he was doing and how it was helping others meant a lot to the young child. John Allan asked his son to take care of his mother when he was away, something that he’s never forgotten.
“I still talk to my mother every single day – it was his dying wish that I would take care of my mother – that she would be taken care of and he gave me that when I was a kid.”
Mother and son remain close to this very day.
In a career that spanned about 40 years, John Allan recorded 11 albums and three compilations, hosted his own television variety shows, became a member of the Order of Canada in 2003 and performed at the Grand Old Opry. He played for the troops, performed in Las Vegas (and yes, he wore a kilt) and had recording contracts in the U.S. Yet, despite the fame, he never lost his downhome touch, says MacDonald.
“And through it all, he was just someone from Glencoe Station, someone who opened doors, smashed down barriers, and opened the eyes of so many,” said Dan MacDonald. “The Cape Breton Celtic Culture, something that was looked down upon by so many, was suddenly popular.”
Songs on the original recording, “Here Comes John Allan Cameron”
Other musicians on the recording:
“Here Comes John Allan Cameron” is the album most East Coast musicians cite as a powerful influencer over the past five decades of East Coast music and there’s little doubt why. Fiddler Natalie MacMaster, a relative of John Allan, still listens to the album regularly and says “Banks of Sicily” is one of her favourite cuts.
“It sounds really patriotic. It’s that time signature, it’s in three so you feel like raising your fist in the air and charging forward in whatever it is that I’m doing,” said MacMaster from her home in Ontario.
She’s used the album to get songs for her six children to sing. MacMaster’s children with her husband, fellow fiddler Donnell Leahy are budding performers who have appeared on stages across North America with their parents.
“John Allan is a good person to listen to,” she says. “John Allan did all sorts of things that paved the way. He was fun. He was always cheerful and upbeat - a real musician in that he carried an air of a child-like nature with him.”
Now she’s passing on his music on to her children, keeping it alive for another generation of performers.
“Great musicians usually have a lighthearted childlike way to them - and John Allan was absolutely that. He was just lighthearted about life and he pulled that out of other people through humour and his personality - he was so spirited.”
John Allan Cameron’s Discography
Fred Lavery who runs Lakewind Studio in Point Aconi remembers a man who liked to help younger musicians. At one time John Allan had a record company called Glencoe Records and he offered Lavery and his band at the time, Road, a record deal.
“We had Paul Mills, Stan Roger’s producer, produce the album along with the now famous Daniel Lanois as engineer at his studio in Hamilton, Ontario,” says Lavery. “It was an amazing opportunity for me and it really took my career to the next level.”
Eventually, Lavery and Road began working with John Allan as his band and got to meet many of this country’s top performers and up-and-coming artists.
“John Allan was a real champion in bringing new talent to light, whether it was up and coming singer songwriters like Stan Rogers or young stars like Natalie MacMaster or Gordie Sampson. One of the many gems I remember him quoting as he introduced a new talent was, “talent does what it can, genius does what it must.” He was a really generous guy and helped a lot of folks along the way. That was important to him.”
Singer songwriter Buddy MacDonald had the good fortune to have one of his songs recorded by John Allan.
“He did record and did a CMT video of “Getting Dark Again” which definitely popularized it,” says MacDonald. “He also performed other songs of mine live and always with such kind praise and credit.”
More importantly to MacDonald, John Allan made him realize he could make a living as an east coast performer.
“He was the first person to make me realize that it was possible to create a job that would support me in doing what I loved to do,” said MacDonald. “(He was) always genuine and fun to share a stage with and always giving of his time to other artists.”
If nothing else, that first album showed that it doesn’t always take a lot of money or polish to make an impression.
“A simply made recording, done in a day, and using the backing of friends and family, opened the doors for the Rankin Family, The Barra MacNeils, Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, and so many more,” says Dan MacDonald.
“Here Comes John Allan Cameron” was the basis of so much of the revival of Celtic culture in Cape Breton.”
“It should be remembered and honoured.”