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Bandmate tells story of fiddling legend

De Jarlis fought battles with health, stage fright

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GIMLI -- Part of what's so compelling in the life story of Métis fiddling legend Andy De Jarlis was his health and psychological battles.

"He'd struggle with breathing," said former bandmate Joe Mackintosh, who played accordion with Andy De Jarlis and His Early Settlers. "It was so bad that, playing with him on stage, he'd have a spittoon and he was constantly bringing up phlegm."

Then there was his stage fright. De Jarlis is usually regarded -- certainly in Western Canada -- as a fiddler and songwriter superior to the East Coast's Don Messer. But De Jarlis struggled in the limelight. In 1940, industrialist Henry Ford was such an admirer that he invited De Jarlis to perform for him. Ford had the status of someone like Steve Jobs in modern times. But De Jarlis excused himself.

Mackintosh, who lives in Gimli, has penned a long-overdue biography of De Jarlis, who popularized Métis heritage music that was born from the musical influences of the Selkirk settlers, aboriginal peoples and French-Canadian fur traders comingling at The Forks.

De Jarlis was born in 1914 in Woodridge, southeast of Steinbach, the youngest of 14 children. He had one dream, and that was to be a fiddler like his father, Pierre. The family moved to Winnipeg in 1934 and teenage Andy immediately won a fiddling contest and $5 from radio station CJRC (later CKRC), owned by James Richardson and Sons at the time, before it was sold to the Winnipeg Free Press in 1940.

Shyness hurt De Jarlis's career, but it didn't dull his brilliance. He would go on to pen some 200 songs. He recorded 37 long-play records, mostly with major-label London Records, but also with Quality Records. He hosted regular radio and TV series in both Quebec and Manitoba. He sold books of his songs in sheet-music form. His songs are regularly played when old-time music players gather today.

Mackintosh didn't so much choose to be De Jarlis's biographer as De Jarlis chose him. De Jarlis and Don Messer had a great mutual admiration and corresponded frequently by letter. But when a book came out about Messer, De Jarlis wanted a book about his own life, too. He cajoled Mackintosh into recording his recollections before De Jarlis died in 1975 at age 61. Three decades later, Mackintosh, with time on his hands in retirement, delivered with Andy De Jarlis: The Life and Music of an Old-Time Fiddler.

It's an enjoyable book, published by Great Plains Publications, but one largely overlooked since its release last Christmas. Mackintosh is not a professional writer but has done a commendable job, with help from his journalist daughter Karen. What he is, is a musician who understands the musician's life.

That's everything from musician dates -- go to a dance where he plays and she sits and watches -- to the drinking binges that surrounded dances. The party atmosphere around live music didn't start just with rock 'n' roll. De Jarlis once played at a dance from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. -- for $5.

It's fun to read the names of old dance halls where De Jarlis performed: the Rainbow Dance Gardens on Smith Street, the Normandy at Portage Avenue and Sherbrook Street, the Trianon ballroom on Kennedy Street, the Electric Lunch, where Winnipeg City Hall now stands, Patterson's Ranch House (a converted barn) at Logan and Keewatin. Dances were held almost nightly but stopped at midnight on Saturdays to observe the Lord's Day Act. The night ended with the band playing God Save the Queen. Everyone stood. This dates back to the 1940s. De Jarlis continued performing regularly well into the 1960s when rock 'n' roll ushered in a new era.

His songs are often named after Manitoba geography or arcana: Assiniboine Polka, Buckskin Reel, Bull Moose Reel, Early Settlers Breakdown, Golden Boy Two-Step, Interlake Waltz, Killarney Jig, Louis Riel Reel, Lucky Trapper's Reel, Morning Glory Waltz, Moccasin Reel, Woodridge Breakdown and at least five titles with Red River in them, including Red River Gumbo.

Mackintosh, a graduate of Deeley's Accordion Studio as a youth, played accordion with De Jarlis in his later years from 1968 on. He later taught economics in Red River College's business administration program.

Andy's widow, Irene, his third wife, is still alive and remarried.

The book is available at McNally Robinson Bookstore, and Tergeson and Sons in Gimli. It also comes with a four-song CD sample of De Jarlis hits, including the famous Red River Jig.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 31, 2011 A6


Updated on Monday, October 31, 2011 at 9:40 AM CDT: Fixes cutlines.

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