Monday, November 24, 2008
The late Ward Allen was one of the great Canadian fiddlers of all time. Despite this, very little has been written or observed about either the man or his music. He is most often recalled as having written "Maple Sugar", the enduring two-step that has become virtually an anthem in Canadian fiddle culture. While this has certainly kept his name in circulation for over fifty years, very little of his life and work outside of his association with this famous tune are documented in any significant way. With the passing of years there are fewer people who remember the days when Ward Allen was a major Canadian star.
Warden Ambrose Allen was born on a farm near Kirkton, Ontario on May 11, 1924. A village on the border between Huron and Perth counties, the area continues to be considered by some as "fiddle country" even today. Square dancing can still be found on Saturday nights if one knows where to look, as can many weekend fiddle jamborees where the Old Ontario repertoire of tunes is still favoured. No doubt this was even more so in Ward's day. If publicity from the height of his fame is correct, he was immersed in the old music from the very start. The notes from his first LP state:
"At 4, he was clambering up on the piano stool in the parlour of his family's home near St. Mary's, Ont. and playing old time favourites (Flowers of Edinburgh, Haste To The Wedding, etc.)
"At 5, while on a month's visit to Regina, he daily entertained his cousin's kindergarten with mouth-organ and step-dancing - his first public appearances.
"Music was in his blood. On both sides of his family, uncles and grandfathers were noted for their ability in fiddle-playing and step dancing. His four older brothers all played fiddle, and when unobserved, Ward would lovingly tune and play the forbidden instruments. His talent could not be hidden for long. By the age of 12, it was known that young Ward had a flair for the strings and his older brother Lorne started him out as a partner on barn dance dates, Ward playing twin fiddle and sometimes "doubling" on piano."
At some point in his youth, Ward suffered a debilitating injury. Varying accounts recall it as either an automobile accident or an encounter with a kicking horse. It is during this period of convalescence that Ward is said to have begun to excel beyond the abilities of the average fiddler. He must have made a full recovery, as for a farm boy from southwestern Ontario he apparently got around quite a bit in his youth. The above quoted LP notes go on to say:
"In his teens, Ward won many local fiddling contests, but it was not until after a soujourn in the West (harvesting in Manitoba and logging for several years at Port Alberni, B.C.) that Ward Allen became a name of national significance."
By the late forties, Ward was back in Ontario and at some point became associated with radio station CKNX in Wingham, Ontario. CKNX was home at the time to what was billed as "The World's Largest Travelling Barn Dance", a live country music showcase that was broadcast from a different location in the surrounding area every Saturday night. With the CBC sometimes picking up the show for national transmission, it became somewhat of a Canadian equivalent to the American "Grand Ole Opry". Artists from all over the country relocated to Wingham for a chance at national exposure. Many artists who later went on to fame started their careers there, including CBC veteran Tommy Hunter and Gordie Tapp of "Hee-Haw" fame.
The exposure that this station would have given Ward, especially in Canada's rural regions, cannot be overstated. In addition to the Barn Dance, there was an almost endless stream of country music programming produced at the station by artists such as Earl Heywood, Cactus Mac, Jack Kingston, etc. Ward participated in many of these shows. At CKNX, Ward was part of a group of back-up musicians that included among others pianist/accordionist Bill Mankiss, steel guitarist Lloyd Bank, and fiddler Mel Levigne. Ward and Mel Levigne often performed as "twin fiddlers", and there are surviving recordings from Earl Heywood broadcasts with the two playing "western" style fiddle in close harmony.
However, Ward's renown was as much more than just a back-up fiddler. The postwar era in rural Canada was in some ways a golden era of fiddle music. At a time when Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Canadian ex-patriot Hank Snow were the huge country stars in the U.S.A., fiddlers playing reels, jigs, two-steps and waltzes were headlining their own shows in Canada. Spurned on by the phenomenal success of Don Messer during the war years, the 1950's saw the rise of regional and sometimes national fiddle stars such as Ned Landry, King Ganam, Andy Dejarlis, and an extremely shy adolescent prodigy from Toronto named Graham Townsend. These players headlined with clean, rolling renditions of old jigs and reels, as well as many new tunes composed in the old forms. Singers on these shows were often considered a secondary attraction; the rural population came out first and foremost to hear how well a pro could ornament, slide, and double stop the tunes rural Canadians had grown up hearing.
This zest for fiddling amongst Canada's rural people led to the strong resurgence of the fiddle contest in those postwar years. With automotive travel now commonplace, what had once been mostly local affairs grew to become regional and national gatherings. The first great contest in Ontario was at the Canadian National Exhibition, or "C.N.E.", and Ward won this contest in both 1949 and 1950. In 1953 he became the second fiddler in history to win the annual contest held at Shelburne, Ontario after his partner Mel Levigne had won it in 1951 and 1952, it's first two years of existence. Based on his 1953 win at Shelburne, Ward was chosen to represent Canada the same year at the International Fiddling Contest held at the Louisville State Fair in Louisville, Kentucky. One of Ward's tune books claims that legend of his Shelburne win spread so far that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II requested a recording of his winning performance for her royal library.
With this kind of exposure, Ward was definitely poised to sell records, and he made his first 78 rpm sides for Toronto's small Alvina label in the early 1950's. In 1954 he began recording for Sparton records in London, Ontario. Sparton pressed records under contract for many American labels, including at one time the mighty Columbia. Ward benefited from the excellent distribution the company could provide, and his records found their way into homes in all corners of the nation. In 1956 Sparton released a record of Ward playing the old Ontario tune "Back Up And Push" (not to be confused with the American breakdown tune of the same title) and as the B side they included a fairly simple two-step Ward had composed titled "Maple Sugar". In a classic case of the flip-side eclipsing the intended A side, "Maple Sugar" went on to become a bona-fide jukebox and radio hit in Canada, and achieved enough attention in the States to get Ward's records released on Pappy Daily's small "D" label out of Houston, Texas. Based on the popularity of the record, Sparton released a long playing album of Ward's tunes, titled "Maple Leaf Hoedown".
Of course, Maple Sugar was only one of the many great tunes Ward composed. Tunes of Ward's that are still played commonly by fiddlers today include "The Old Box Stove", "Maple Leaf Two-Step", "C.N.E. Breakdown", "Back To The Sugar Camp", "Frenchie's Reel", "Frisco Waltz", etc. It is probably not fully appreciated how much of a stylistic influence his playing has been in Canada and beyond. His playing stands up today for it's flowing phrasing, strong tone and beauty of expression. In retrospect, he fits neither into the school of "Down East" devotees of Don Messer or the generation of Canadian fiddlers who attempted to copy the hoedown fiddling that came via Nashville. He played many of the tempos and phrasings that are still heard in southwestern Ontario today. He doesn't use double stops excessively, but does not avoid them. He makes great use of drones by playing the fourth finger as well as the next highest open string. His fiddle often achieves a unique deep woody tone, which has rarely if ever been duplicated. His recordings can evoke a spirit of the Canadian landscape at times equal to great works like the songs of Gordon Lightfoot, or the paintings of the Group of Seven.
It is only a matter of speculation at this point as to where Ward Allen found such inspiration. As mentioned, he was known to travel extensively about our country. He completed many years of Canadian tours, first with the legendary Wilf Carter, and later with the group "The Happy Wanderers". How much of a toll this kind of travelling might have taken on him is unknown. It is known that by the mid fifties he had developed a reputation for consuming alcohol, and this too has become part of his legend. There are some who feel it was his burned bridges from drinking on jobs that caused him to leave CKNX and relocate to Ottawa in 1955.
If this is indeed true, his troubles seem not to have followed him, at least at first, for he became truly legendary in the Ottawa Valley. Ward is so associated with the Ottawa Valley that many people believe him to be from there, when in fact he was born and started his career on the other side of the province. He became part of the CFRA "Happy Wanderers" who were stars of regional radio and dances for a decade leading up to Ward's death. Ward continued to record, producing numerous singles and two more volumes of "Maple Leaf Hoedown" LPs as well as two volumes of the printed collection, "Ward Allen's Canadian Fiddle Tunes". The Wanderers were on CFRA radio from 1955 to 1964, and on CJOH TV in 1964 and 1965. Fiddle stars like Don Messer and Graham Townsend recorded Ward's compositions, and Maple Sugar became a standard in his short lifetime.
Nevertheless, apparently Ward's busy schedule combined with his drinking took its toll. In late summer of 1965 Ward played on a recording with the great American bluegrass star Mac Wiseman. Mac was recording an album of songs composed by Canadian artists with distinctly Canadian themes. One of the tunes was Ward's own "Maple Sugar", with words that had been written by the Ottawa Valley's Hank LaRiviere. The album, titled "Mac Wiseman Sings at the Toronto Horseshoe Club", was released by Sparton in Canada and by Wiseman's own Wise records label in the U.S.A. Unfortunately it would be Ward's last recording as two weeks after it was finished he passed away while playing a show in Hull, Quebec on August 3, 1965. Ward left behind a wife and two sons, as well as a country full of fans and aficionados of his artistry. His nephew, Lorne's son Jim, as well as Ward's protégé Graham Townsend recorded tribute albums of his tunes. Mac Beattie wrote and recorded a tribute song, "The Maple Sugar Blues". In 1983 Ward was inducted into the Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame. Ward Allen is interred in a small church cemetery near his boyhood home.
His records continued to sell into the 1970's, kept in print on the GRT label after Sparton became defunct. Eventually the GRT releases went out of print, and his original, unaltered recordings have been absent from the shelves for decades now. His old records are practically family heirlooms, especially the rare singles. Because of this, many young fiddlers are no longer familiar with his work or his style, even if they've learned his tunes from books. Perhaps in the future all Canadians from our governments and cultural organizations on down will be more mindful of our own great heritage and Ward Allen's influence will once again be stronger felt. In the meantime it is hoped that this profile will expose many old fans and new converts once again to Ward Allen's "Maple Leaf Hoedown" fiddling.
Back To The Sugar Camp, Back Up And Push, Big John McNeil, Blue Pacific Hornpipe, Bread N' Butter, C.N.E.Breakdown, Chain Lightning, Dancing Slippers, Fairy Lake Waltz, Fiddler's Dream, Fishing Rod Reel, Frank Ryan's Hornpipe, Frenchie's Reel, Frisco Waltz, Grizzly Bear, Heather On The Hill, Iroquois Gathering, Joys Of Quebec, Londonderry Hornpipe, Macton Reel, Maggie & Jiggs Two Step, Maple Leaf Two Step, Maple Sugar, Mary Anne's Reel, Mengie Of McBride's Hill, Mountain Girl, Mountain Park Breakdown, Mowing The Hay, Mr.& Mrs.Maple, New Scotland, Orange Blossom Special, Pappy Daily's Breakdown, Peek-A-Boo Waltz, Pretty Betty, Redwing, Snowflake Breakdown, Sunset Waltz, The Braes O'Mar (Highland Fling), The Flowers Of Edinburgh, The Hunter's March, The Old Box Stove, The Red Haired Boy, The Road To Boston, Two Step Polka