A giant among us

I sat at Gryphon Theatre last October (1997) enjoying the musical winter series that’s been offered for years. When I saw a Don Messer Tribute in the lineup, I had a ho-hum attitude about the show, but I’m a theatre supporter with a paid-up subscription, so I went.

It was a wonderful trip down memory lane to early television shows in the 50’s when Don Messer and his Islanders brought Maritime music to Canadian living rooms. Through the tribute songs I remembered the kind faces of Marg Osborne and Charlie Chamberlain. I remembered guest appearances by Gordie Tapp and Tommy Hunter.

But that night in Barrie I was introduced to a fiddling giant. Graham Townsend was just 11 years old when he appeared on the Don Messer Show. An 11 year old fiddler who was born in Toronto, lived in Buckingham Quebec, settled his growing family in Willowdale, and finally moved to Barrie. On Gryphon’s stage I saw a man about my own age who owned the audience that night with his humble skill.

Behind Graham Townsend there is a much bigger story.

Graham died Thursday, December 3 and was buried this past Tuesday from Bethel Church. He had struggled with colon cancer, had sought out alternative therapies with the financial help of friends in the music industry. His funeral bouquets included tributes from the music greats of Canada… Stompin’ Tom, Tommy Hunter…

Graham exemplified much of eastern Canadian culture, which began with his residency in Buckingham, Quebec. News of this child’s ability travelled east from Buckingham and this rich Nova Scotian culture opened its arms to a youngster with innate talent.

In his life, Graham made countless radio and television appearances. He won top honours at the Old Time Fiddlers Contest, once a national treasure, held annually in Shelburne, ON. In fact, last year he was inducted into the Canadian Fiddlers Hall of Fame in Orangeville.

While he made his living mostly in music, his son Gray shares that for a period of time he worked at a bottling factory. It was during these years that Graham and wife Eleanor were raising their two children; son Gray and daughter Catherine. Graham wrote over 450 songs, recorded 42 albums, the most recent with his son; Graham played music with lyrics written by Gray. Called Road to Amendments, the CD was recorded right here in Barrie, at Power Plant with the Beacocks.

Two months ago Graham was still playing the Don Messer tribute. He did six days of Don Messer revival dates in November and played his last Don Messer performance a month ago at a Brampton Theatre. His last public performance was just weeks ago at the Toronto Flying Cloud folk club.

Graham played down east fiddle music, splendid jazz music, folk music… his skill rode over every kind of music a person could want. He picked up the instrument and breathed his own life into it. His songs have been recorded by national artists in Ireland, Scotland, Australia, and all over North America. He was known across the English speaking world.

As I shared snippets of his life on Tuesday morning with Gray Townsend, I asked about his dad’s last week. After his last performance Graham began to make calls, connecting with lifelong friends, getting ready to leave his earthly address. “Dad’s done a ton of interviews during his life; this is the one I can do for him,” responded Gray when I apologized for calling.

Graham Townsend packed a lot of living into 56 years. He leaves us with a legacy of music that captures a time and a culture that often is easily passed over. He leaves 42 albums and over 450 songs which he wrote and played.

Graham Townsend never had a music lesson.

Graham Townsend was nearly blind; his eyesight was so poor that reading music was impossible. But playing music was his life.

Thanks, Graham.