BluesWax Spotlight On
The Man, His Festival, His Legacy
By Kim O’Brien
“The thing about music, is that it don’t matter what you sing or play, it’s all in how you do it.”
Every August, Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada, is home to a three-day blues festival featuring international, national, and regional blues artists. Its official ambassador is none other than blues legend James Cotton, and it has attracted such luminous artists as Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Hubert Sumlin, Shemekia Copeland, Jimmie Vaughan, Colin James, among others.
Now, you may be thinking, “What does a part of the world known more for Celts, kilts, and fiddles know about the blues?”
As it turns out, quite a bit. There is a vibrant blues scene on the east coast of Canada – Matt Andersen, winner of the 2009 International Blues Challenge, is from the province (state) next door and now makes Nova Scotia his home – or rather his home base since he spends so much time on the road. John Campbelljohn, whose CDs have been reviewed in Blues Revue and who was the subject of a previous interview in BluesWax, also lives in Nova Scotia.
In fact, in Canada’s three smallest provinces with a combined population of about one and a half million, the local blues society lists 36 member blues bands and I know of at least four more who aren’t members. These aren’t garage bands, these are working bands. It may be the most vibrant Canadian blues scene outside of the Toronto area, which has a population of about six million.
That may surprise you, but here’s the kicker: The father (or at least the Godfather) of the entire Canadian blues scene was a native son of Nova Scotia. His name was Norman Byron Mason, but he is known by his nickname, “Dutch.”
Dutch Mason was a bluesman and a real, genuine character whose approach to the music industry was, to say the least, unique. One of his favourite stories was about how he and his band were booked into Sullivan’s, one of Toronto’s best known blues clubs back in the 1970s. In those days, clubs booked bands for a week at a time, not the one or two nights they do today. As a result, the bands usually ate, socialized, and drank at the establishment they were playing in, and put everything they consumed on a tab. At the end of the week, the band would be paid whatever was left after the club deducted what the band owed them.
At the beginning of their week’s booking, Dutch told his band to “drink as much as you can.” Even then, the Dutch Mason Band had earned the reputation of Canada’s hardest-drinking band – blues, jazz, rock, or whatever. At the end of the week, the club owner, Garrett, after whom Dutch would name his son, told Dutch that his band had consumed more alcohol than what they were being paid would cover. “Well,” said Dutch, “I guess you better have us back next week to pay it off.” Whenever he told this story, he chuckled, “We were there for two years! That was my strategy and it worked.”
Dutch started playing the blues in the late 1950s when there was virtually no blues scene in Canada, much less in Nova Scotia. Before he discovered the blues, he played crooner-style music, then shifted to the rock ‘n’ roll of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. But up in the attic of his house on the Atlantic coast, he had a radio that could pick up the “race” radio stations of the U.S. It was when he heard B.B. King that he knew he found the music he wanted to play.
In an interview on CBC Radio (Canada’s national public radio network like the U.S.’s NPR) about a year before he died, he recalled, “Everybody hated it when we played. They’d walk right off the floor. I remember this one time, one couple stayed on the floor, but only because they were drunk and they couldn’t walk, they could just stand and sway to the music.”
His love of the music, though, helped him persevere. So off he and his band went, crammed into two Cadillacs with all their gear crisscrossing Canada.
For much of the 1960s and early 1970s he was Canada’s bluesman. He opened for just about every major international blues act that played in Canada – John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and his idol, B.B. King, who gave Dutch a new moniker.
Dutch had just opened for King in Montreal, and when B.B. took the stage he called Dutch “Canada’s King of the Blues.” One of Dutch’s bandmates (there is still some disagreement about which one, but in an interview Dutch said it was his harp player, the late, great Rick Jeffery) Canadianized it, saying, “Nah, B.B.’s the King. Dutch. You’re a Canadian, you should be the Prime Minister of the Blues.” It stuck and it was a nickname Dutch was proud of for the rest of his days. When he turned 6o, Prime Minister Chretien sent Dutch a birthday card that read, “From one Prime Minister to another.”
Yes, it was Dutch who kept the blues alive in Canada. He was later joined by the Downchild Blues Band, whose brothers, Donnie and Richard Walsh, provided the inspiration to Dan Aykroyd for the Blues Brothers when Aykroyd was a struggling actor in Toronto.
But before them, before Jeff Healey, before the fabulous Shakura S’Aida, before guitar whizzes Colin James and Colin Linden, before IBC winner Matt Andersen, before any of the hundreds of great Canadian blues artists, there was Dutch Mason, inaugural member of the Canadian Jazz & Blues Hall of Fame and recipient of the Order of Canada (an award given by the Canadian Government for outstanding artistic achievement and contributions to Canada’s cultural scene).
Dutch was afflicted with a severe form of arthritis that forced him to stop playing guitar (he was also a more-then-fair piano player), but he kept going, singing and fronting the band. Toward the end, he was performing out of a wheelchair. He says with his usual aplomb, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Dutch Mason, Order of Canada, musician, bandleader, father, was born February 19, 1938 and died of diabetes-related illness December 23, 2006.
His legacy, however, lives on in his talented son Garrett Mason and the biggest blues festival east of Montreal. A festival he helped start, and which fittingly bears his name.
In the next installment, we’ll talk about his talented son, Garrett and the festival that bears his name.
To be continued…
Kim O’Brien is a contributing writer at BluesWax.
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