I’ve been doing some genealogical research on famous fiddlers Graham Townsend (1942-1998) and Eleanor Reed Townsend (1944-1998). I’ve been having a difficult time finding out particulars about Graham’s father Frederick until this morning when I came across 1925 and 1926 Globe & Mail newspaper articles on his incarceration for forgery. Shortly thereafter I found your 12 April 2022 Barnardo Home clipping on him (final item on the page). I don’t know if you realized that Fred eventually achieved a measure of fame:
Thank you Hans,
I can’t do this job alone and thanks to you I get to document this for generations to come.
Fred and his daughter in law Eleanor
Fred was born in England in 1900. His parents were so poor that they had to send him to Canada in 1908 for adoption. He found a home with the Marks, an Irish family who traveled by covered wagon putting on shows in farm villages across Ontario. Along the way, Fred learned the art of traditional square dance calling and in time became the official caller for Don Messer and His Islanders. Fred taught his son, Graham, the love of old time music as well as its great purpose – “Bringing people together.”
Canadian caller, born 1900, who was the caller for Don Messer’s bands on its many cross-country trips. A three-LP boxed set of his dance calls (Let’s Square Dance) was released (Doncaster DS-3-102). Father of fiddler Graham Townsend.
One Sunday, young Graham was driving in Quebec from Wolf Lake to Quyon with his father Fred, and Ottawa Valley stepdancers, George McKenny and Andy Dougherty. The car broke down, so naturally they put a plywood board on the roadside, and everyone took turns stepdancing. Graham fiddling away while Fred played the harmonica. Soon traffic was backed up for miles. People left their cars to join the fun, along with some provincial police who happened to be fiddle freaks. Nobody liked the fellow who finally got the car working again.
“That’s the way it was in the old days,” says Fred. “Everybody was close to the country, and Canadians just couldn’t resist a country dance.
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From: Hans Havermann
You perpetuate the very prevalent meme that Fred came to Canada in 1908 (which is, alternatively, at age 8). I believe I know how this misperception came to be. It must have been stated (by Fred, or others) that he went into a Bernardo home at age 8, which is true enough. But people may not have realized that there was a Bernardo home in England as well as in Canada. I certainly didn’t know that until my genealogy research associate, Marlene Frost, found Fred Townsend in such a place in the 1911 UK census. Fred came to Canada in 1912.
I’m contemplating writing a blog on the ancestry of Fred Townsend and of his wife, Enid Rainey, but Marlene and I are still very much in the research phase of the endeavour. I have written an article on the Barrie “Townsend fire”:
… which is very much speculation based on newspaper accounts. I did not like the way Eleanor Townsend got blamed for the arson when she had no opportunity to defend herself. And I certainly don’t understand why reporters at the time didn’t dig deeper.
His son Graham Townsend
Canada lost its most prolific and versatile old-time fiddler with the Dec. 3, 1998 death of Graham Townsend in hospital. He was 56 when he died of prostate cancer. When Mr. Townsend picked up the fiddle at age eight and bought for $50 from an Irish immigrant fiddler named Billy Crawford he never put put away. Fiddling became his life. By the time he was 11, he was the youngest person to break into the top three at the 1953 Canadian Fiddling Championships.
With the silver medal in hand, he won the Canadian National Exhibition competition and shortly after started making guest appearances on CFRA’s Happy Wanderers, an institution for country-music lovers in the ’50s and ’60s. read-Looking for Info on The Happy Wanderers etc.
All this, yet Mr. Townsend couldn’t read music. In fact, anything written down was a blurry mess to his eyes. He had a congenital eye problem with an optic nerve condition that glasses couldn’t correct “He learned how to play the fiddle by ear. “He was a child prodigy,” says his ” wife Eleanor, 54. “He would sit with Billy, listen and instantly play what he learned”
His natural ability to play earned Townsend the nickname “Greyhound.” “It was a name that sounded similar to his own and he, like the dog, was very list and could cover a lot of ground. Someone once said that he has at least a million miles of tape in his head. An only child of Fred Townsend and his wife he was born in Toronto in 1942 and spent most of his younger years in the Ottawa Valley, ‘there he was exposed to a diversity of talented fiddlers. “He could play any style,” says Len Grace, the president of the Canadian Grandmasters Fiddling Championship. “Perhaps there are no “fiddlers that are as versatile as he was.” French, Irish, Scottish, Texas swing, Jazz, Ukrainian, the list goes on.
If someone could name it, Mr. Townsend could play it. He was billed by agents as “the most versatile fiddler on the continent.” He also created new styles of fiddling, says his 23-year-old son, Gray Townsend Jr. “He would learn a tune and then make it his own,” says his son, who is a singer, songwriter and pianist.
Mr. Townsend recorded 42 albums and had 400 of his own tunes in his repertoire. “Wherever there was old-time fiddling, you found Graham Townsend,” says Mr. Grace. “We won’t see his like again in our time.” Mr. Townsend fiddled for the Queen, toured internationally and played fiddle back-up for many famous performers, including Anne Murray and Rita MacNeil. When he was 24, he was chosen by Canada’s most popular fiddler, Don Messer, to join his group on the Jubilee coast-to-coast tour in 1967. “He was the only musician that Don ever added to tour with him,” says Ken Reynolds, a booking and touring agent who met Mr. Townsend nearly 50 years ago. “Because it was a long, long tour and because it was a centennial year, our 100th birthday, he wanted to have somebody else along to share the load.”
Mr. Townsend was inducted into the North American Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989. Both he and his wife were named this October to the newly established Canadian Fiddlers Hall of Fame, which will be built near Shelburne,Ont. It was the fiddle that brought the couple together. They met in 1963 in Shelburne, the birthplace of the Canadian Fiddling Championships, and were married in 1971. “I remember thinking he was a great star and I was nothing,” says Mrs. Townsend. “I started learning from his records before I knew him. I remember adrniring his eyes and his fingers.”
A classically trained violinist, Mrs. Townsend is a remarkable fiddler in her own right. She was the first woman to win a national championship and has written the only Canadian book on teaching fiddling, The Townsend Old-Tyme Fiddling Method. The couple was often called Mr. and Mrs. Fiddle. They both won the national championship Mrs. Townsend in 1979 and Mr. Townsend in 1963, 1968, 1969 and 1970 and they’ve recorded many albums together. Four months ago, Mr. Townsend received a lifetime achievement award at the Canadian Grandmasters Fiddling Championship at Centrepoint Theatre in Nepean. He played two 30-minute shows. “He wanted to perform so badly,” says his wife. “He had to sit down which he didn’t like because he wasn’t strong enough to stand up. He kept himself going for as long as he could, but he wasn’t very well.”
CLIPPED FROMThe Ottawa CitizenOttawa, Ontario, Canada13 Dec 1998, Sun • Page 11