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John Allan Cameron: Canada's 'godfather' of Celtic music

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John Allan Cameron, legendary Maritime musician and Celtic music pioneer, died on Nov. 22, 2006 at 67. Cameron, who died from a rare form of bone cancer, was a trailblazing East Coast musician who helped bring traditional Irish and Scottish music to national prominence over the course of four decades. In this CBC Radio clip John Allan Cameron, his son Stuart and Cookie Rankin look back on his life and legacy.
• A musician, ordained priest and actor, John Allan Cameron was born in Glencoe Station in Cape Breton, N.S., on Dec. 16, 1938. He grew up in Inverness County, a western part of Cape Breton known for its traditional Gaelic "ceilidhs" or kitchen parties.
• Cameron was raised in a musical family. His mother, Katie Ann, and brother, John Donald, were avid fiddlers. Cameron's uncle was Dan Rory MacDonald, a renowned fiddler and composer.

• Cameron began playing guitar for his brother at local dances when he was just 12.

• Cameron switched career paths in 1957 and moved to Ottawa to pursue the priesthood. He told the Cape Breton Post in 2005 "when I was a kid, the two most important people in the world were the priest and the fiddler."

• He spent seven years with the Order of the Oblate Fathers, taking his final vows in 1964. Six months later he received a papal dispensation to return to performing.
• "I knew that 10 years down the line I would be unhappy," he said.
• While pursuing a music career Cameron enrolled in St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

• He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1966, and earned his Bachelor of Education the following year.
• In 1967, he started teaching (English and religion) at a Catholic high school in London, Ont. But after one year he quit and returned to music.
• In 1968, he played sold-out shows at both the Newport and Mariposa Folk Festivals.
• Soon after, Cameron signed a recording contract with Apex Records. His debut album, Here Comes John Allan Cameron (1968), would become a seminal Celtic folk album.

• At first, Cameron had a difficult time reaching Canadians with his traditional music. "There was no music industry in this country for God's sake," he told a reporter in 2003. "And Celtic music wasn't regarded as music."
• Cameron was known for his interpretations of Scottish pipe tunes using a 12-string guitar. He also became known for wearing a kilt on stage.

• The kilt became a personal trademark after he began wearing it on CBC Television's Singalong Jubilee in the early 1970s.
• In 1970, Cameron was asked to play one song at The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. His band was such a hit that it played for 15 minutes and got a standing ovation.

• Cameron performed on a number of CBC shows, including The Irish Rovers, before getting his own weekly musical variety show in 1979. The John Allan Cameron Show featured traditional Celtic music mixed in with skits.
• The show played host to Roger Whittaker, Ian Tyson and Bruce Cockburn before its cancellation in 1981. It's widely cited as providing many Canadians with their first taste of Celtic music.

• John Allan Cameron released 10 albums over the course of his nearly 40-year career, but he is best known for his work in the 1970s.
• Records such as 1972's Get There by Dawn and the 1973 classic Lord of the Dance helped to establish his reputation as a champion of traditional Irish and Scottish music long before its popular revival in the 1990s.
• Cameron was known as either the godfather or the grandfather of Canada's Celtic music scene, and at one point was dubbed "The Thinking Man's Stompin' Tom Connors" by Maclean's magazine.

• In the late 1980s, Cameron took a break from music to perform on the dramatic stage in the Stephenville Festival and at Halifax's Neptune Theatre.
• Cameron's followers include the likes of Rita MacNeil, Jimmy Rankin, Natalie McMaster, Ashley MacIsaac and the Barra MacNeils. All of them have credited him with paving the way for their success.
• In 2003, Cameron was made a member of the Order of Canada in honour of his role in reviving and preserving the heritage of Celtic music in Canada.

• Cameron's son, Stuart Cameron, is a musician who has played with Ashley MacIsaac and produced albums for Natalie McMaster.
Medium: Radio
Program: Morningside
Broadcast Date: May 24, 1996
Guest(s): John Allan Cameron, Stuart Cameron, Cookie Rankin
Host: Peter Gzowski
Duration: 10:12

Last updated: April 18, 2013

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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