MacDonald, Dan Rory
Origin: Judique, Inverness County, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
Dan R. MacDonald
"Heroes have nothing to do with perfection; they have, in fact, to do with a great and very interesting negotiation between very obvious strengths and very obvious weaknesses."
Ken Burns (Documentary Filmmaker)
Dan Rory MacDonald (1911 - 1976), born in Centennial, Inverness County on Cape Breton Island, becoming one of Cape Breton's most prolific composers of fiddle tunes.
Usually known as "Dan R.", MacDonald took an early interest in music, encouraged by his fiddle-playing father. He made his first radio appearance in 1935 on fellow fiddler Bill Lamey's show on CJCB in Sydney. The next year he composed his first tune - a reel called The Red Shoes.
He made his first recording in 1939, including one of his own compositions called Lassies of Campbell Street.
Several of his tunes appear in 1940's Cape Breton Collection of Scottish Melodies, the first book published featuring Cape Breton composers.
Dan R. enlists in the army in July 1941, and sees service in Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium. While stationed at Abergeldie Castle in Scotland with the Canadian Forestry Corps, he played regularly on the BBC.
He also met J. Murdoch Henderson, a noted Scottish composer and music critic. He played with Scottish fiddle orchestras in Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh and other communities in Northern Scotland while on furlough from the Forestry Corps.
Impressed with Dan R.'s abilities, Henderson taught him some of the intricacies of the music, and had a considerable lasting influence on him. His sister, katie Ann, would often tell Dan R. to swim over and kiss his arse when her brother spoke about Henderson at length.
During his time in Scotland Dan R. composed Heather Hill, which he supposedly wrote down on a tree stump while working in the woods. While stationed in Scotland he saw little of the true war, but once deployed in Europe in 1944-45 he witnessed things that would have a lifelong affect.
After his discharge in January 1946 Dan R. moved first briefly to Boston, and then to Hamilton, Ontario, before spending eleven years in Windsor working in automotive plants. The Detroit-Windsor area had a large number of transplanted Cape Bretoners, and Dan R. became immersed in the local music scene. He became part of the group the Five MacDonald Fiddlers, organized by a fiddler named Johnnie Archie MacDonald. The group recorded two LPs for Rodeo Records.
In 1957, Dan R. left Windsor and moved to the mining town of Elliot Lake to work. Fellow Inverness Co. fiddle legend Angus Chisholm was working as a security guard in Elliot Lake and their exploits during the year there are legendary. Dan R. gave up his job due to failing eyesight, and he moved back to Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1959.
He settled in a Sydney boarding house on 7 Ferry St. near the Lyceum Concert hall. The Lyceum doubled as a recording studio and Dan R. recorded four LPs for Rodeo Records over the next decade. In 1968 he moved back to Inverness County to live with his sister on Back Street in Mabou. He lived next door to the famed Rankin Family and had a huge influence on a young John Morris.
He spent his remaining years living in various parts of Inverness County. During the 1970s he became a regular performer on the CBC Television program Ceilidh with his old friend Angus Chisholm. They were rumored to have kept alcohol in the bathroom at the studio and occasionally were drunk on the set which eventually got both he and Chisholm fired.
He made his final public performance in July 1976 at a concert at Broad Cove. He died on September 20, 1976 at Inverness, Nova Scotia.
Although Dan R. had a reputation as an outstanding fiddler, people remember him best for his composing. He estimated in the early 1970s that he had written over two thousand tunes. Many of his compositions have become part of the "standard" Cape Breton repertoire, and other musicians have frequently recorded them.
In addition to the ones already mentioned, some of his best known tunes include Lime Hill, Tom Rae, The Boys of the Lake, The Trip to Windsor, and Reichwall Forest. Two published volumes of Dan R.'s compositions exist: The Heather Hill Collection and The Trip To Windsor Collection.