Back in the early 1960s, Don Messer’s Jubilee was a top-ranking CBC-TV variety show, but Don Messer wanted to tour in the summer instead of sticking around Halifax to record a television series. Unlikely as it sounds, his hot weather replacement was Pete Seeger, the guitar-playing balladeer behind Where Have all the Flowers Gone and Turn, Turn, Turn.
An American protest singer might seem an edgy substitute for Mr. Messer, a traditional and taciturn Maritime fiddler, but it was the era of hootenannies and glee club TV shows like Sing Along with Mitch. Besides, Mr. Seeger was no stranger to Halifax. He and his banjo made annual treks to the True North, where he performed live and led a radio singalong on the CBC.
In December, 1960, Mr. Seeger made a pilot for the summer series, tentatively called Singalong With Seeger, with producer Bill Langstroth. A lanky, raven-haired broadcaster with a knack for spotting and nurturing talent, Mr. Langstroth, who died on May 8 at 81, had already made his name on the Messer show.
“Bill was front and centre,” recalled Jack McAndrew, later head of CBC-TV Variety. “He worked to the strength that Don Messer had, which was that he was a helluva fiddle player, and he built a supportive cast around him.” To compensate for Mr. Messer’s shyness, Mr. Langstroth brought in Don Tremaine as the host of the show. “He was warm and affable,” said Mr. McAndrew, “so Don could remain basically mute and play his fiddle, and then Charlie Chamberlain and Marg Osburne became the two featured performers.”
Producing Singalong with Seeger, a 13-week national show, offered Mr. Langstroth the opportunity to make a younger, hipper show. Then disaster struck. Mr. Seeger withdrew as host shortly before taping was set to begin in June, 1961. A former Communist, he had been found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and given a 10-year prison sentence. The conviction was later overturned, but while it was under appeal, Mr. Seeger feared that if he left the U.S., he might have trouble recrossing the undefended border.
With the cameras about to roll, Mr. Langstroth became the solution to his own problem. He and his first wife, Shirley, were part of a “gaggle of thirtysomethings with young families [the Langstroths had a son David in 1953 and a daughter Margot in 1958] who couldn’t afford to do anything,” according to Mr. McAndrew. “So we gathered on Saturday nights in each other’s living rooms and sang folk songs and drank beer or rum.”
That lifestyle was the inspiration for what would become Singalong Jubilee. Together with producer Manny Pittson, Mr. Langstroth quickly put together a cast and a show with singer/songwriter Jim Bennet, blind guitarist Fred McKenna and himself as a singing banjo-strumming host.
In its 13-year run, beginning in 1961, Singalong Jubilee discovered and promoted huge talents such as Catherine McKinnon, singer songwriters Shirley Eikhart and Gene MacLellan, and a husky-voiced blonde named Anne Murray, with a warm alto, a stunning range and a presence that caught the camera’s eye.
When Ms. McKinnon auditioned for Singalong Jubilee in 1963, she was 18 and fresh out of Mount St. Vincent College in Halifax. “I loved Bill,” she said in a telephone interview, describing him as multitalented, with a wonderful laugh and the ability to make everybody feel good. “He had this great sense of humour and he played the autoharp and the banjo and he clowned around all the time. We called him our fearless leader.”
They were like a family that sang and played together, said Ms. McKinnon. “Those bonds were forever.” After appearing on Singalong in the summer, Ms. McKinnon, best known in those days for her haunting performance of Farewell to Nova Scotia, appeared for two years in the mid-1960s on the Messer show, which Mr. Langstroth directed in the winter season.
As for Ms. Murray, the tomboy who liked to perform in her bare feet, she was rejected when she initially auditioned for Singalong Jubilee in 1964 – they apparently had too many altos – but was given another chance two years later.
After joining the show, she became an international star with her recording of Snowbird, a song written by Gene MacLellan, another member of the cast. Of Mr. Langstroth, she said, “He taught me so much in those early days,” mentioning camera technique, lip-synching and three- and four-part harmony. “He took me under his wing, as he did everyone,” she said and although he was “a taskmaster” who “ran a tight ship” he was “a great leader and kept everything so enthusiastic.”