AMONG FRIENDS BY ROSALIE MACEACHERN
John Spyder Macdonald's favourite songs are those that tell stories of hard times or happy times on the seas and across the country. Rosalie MacEachern photo
John Spyder Macdonald gave up a job at the Pictou shipyards and, as he sings in one of his signature tunes, headed for Halifax to earn his fortune as a full-time musician.
“I’m still working so draw your own conclusions,” he quipped.
If fortune eluded him, he has collected a wealth of stories from years in a business that allowed him to play happily for royalty and in soup kitchens. He recorded with Susan Aglukark’s band and was invited by the legendary Denny Doherty to join him in Laurel Canyon, the Los Angeles’ neighbourhood favoured by musicians and immortalized in Graham Nash’s Our House, written for Joni Mitchell, and the Mamas and Papas’ Twelve Thirty.
“I was looking for some guys to form a trio and ran into Denny Doherty (of the Mamas and Papas) at Acadia University. He told me it didn’t matter how good any group was because there was no one to hear us ‘up here in the bushes,’ in his exact words. I passed up the invitation and considering the music scene and the drug scene, I don’t know if I missed an opportunity or dodged a bullet.”
Macdonald started out playing trumpet in the Pictou Firemen’s Youth Band but he learned to play guitar from his brother Alastair, the same brother who supplies many of his songs.
“I shouldn’t say Al taught me to play guitar because he would not have had the patience for that as I didn’t pick it up all that fast. He helped me get started and always had useful tips. I spent a lot of time trying to play along to records.”
His father grew up in a musical family in rural Cape Breton, served in the Second World War and brought home a bride from Birmingham, England, who, at 93, still takes in some of her son’s shows. They settled first in Cape Breton but raised their family in Musquodoboit and Pictou. It was at Pictou Academy that a track and field coach, observing Macdonald’s long arms and legs, first voiced the nickname that stuck.
“I was well aware that John Macdonald was a common name so I could see the value of a nickname but I didn’t pick it. I did, however, change the spelling when I discovered the Porsche Spyder. I also planned to have that car some day but so far all I’ve got is the personalized plate.”
He may have picked up Cape Breton influences from his father but he remembers growing up with a wide variety of music.
“The first songs I loved were folk songs, songs sung around campfires at Scouts or with family. Then rock and roll started to come on strong. My two biggest influences were Gordon Lightfoot and the Beatles which I still love.”
When he told his parents he was quitting his job to see where the music could take him, there were no objections.
“I remember my father said I should learn some of the popular wartime songs because there would always be old soldiers in the bars and he was right about that.”
Bands and band mates came and went but bars and lounges brought in a lot of entertainers and things were going pretty well until Macdonald was seriously injured in a highway accident. He spent six months in hospital, the first five weeks in intensive care, and it was more than a year before he could get back to work.
“The Halifax bars were changing so I headed for Ottawa. Between Eastern Ontario and western Quebec, there was work six nights a week in the seventies. Our group had good arrangements, good harmonies and we were great at improvising. We’d pull in a brother or friend as needed. We played different music for different bars, rock and roll or Irish or folk or country, whatever they ordered. As an Irish band we could get gigs that lasted four to six weeks in those days.”
An aortic aneurysm, the complications of which are still with him, brought another extended interruption.
“There were complications which resulted in spinal stenosis. It took the use of my legs and it took a long time to get them moving again. The muscles in the back of my legs are paralyzed so I’m a bit unstable. It is why I have quite a collection of canes.”
He stepped away from the music business to study radio broadcasting and got a job in Halifax.
“I liked it but it didn’t pay very well so I started playing again when I could. The trouble was my radio job was a night job so I couldn’t do both and the music paid better.”
He eventually left the full-time music business again to attend Mount Saint Vincent University and was partway through a public relations program when his wife died, leaving him with two young sons to raise.
“After a while I decided if I was going to raise these boys on my own, I was better off in a small town and I came home to Pictou.”
He worked as much as he could while he and the boys settled into small town life. His family later introduced him to a woman who was home from Ottawa and also raising a son. Eventually they married and occasionally sing together.
“The original idea was the boys might like to play together. The boys started off like oil and water but Marj and I got along great. Still do.”
With the boys all grown and Marj running her own business, Macdonald still relies on his adaptability as a musician and actor. Summers are jam-packed with regular shows at the deCoste Centre, entertaining on the ferry to P.E.I., playing pubs and brunches at the Pictou Lodge, festivals and shows such as Saltwater in Your Socks, Ships of 1801 and Strathglass Farewell, and also playing a role in a movie being shot in Pictou and the Carolinas.
Next week he’ll close the deCoste’s summer shows when he performs as Alexander Cameron, a ship Hector immigrant, in Highland Dreams, a play written by John Meir.
By the time winter rolls around, Macdonald will be busy creating custom stained glass pieces, a skill he picked up years ago in occupational therapy, but the guitar will never be far from his side.
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org