George Hector’s life gives one a glimpse of the music which permeated the challenging lives of African Canadian Maritimers. Former Poet Laureate of Canada, George Elliott Clarke, coined the term Africadians to describe these longstanding communities, which could be found in New Brunswick as well as Nova Scotia.
Canada has always been proudly free of slavery, as long we begin our history abruptly in 1867.
There most certainly was slavery in pre-Confederation Canada, as the abolition process was slow, and began with allowing immigrants to keep their slaves after arriving in Canada.
George Hector’s story takes place in and near Gagetown, New Brunswick where houses built by slaves were still standing when Anne Fawcett wrote her biography, Whistling Banjoman – George Hector in 1999.
The local slave population was small and, with the expansion of abolition, Upper and Lower Canada became popular destinations for fleeing American slaves. The English offered land to fleeing African Americans. The English offered land to any Americans willing to help quell the revolution there. These naturally became Canadian land grants after the British lost that war.
Africville is the best known Africadian settlement, but smaller and more isolated places existed around New Brunswick. With their sparse numbers, eking out a living was difficult. Everyone hardscrabbled for what income they could find, as well as doing tasks associated with subsistence living, from farming and trapping to cutting ice in the winter.
George Hector was born into this environment on April 14, 1911, when the few doctors available had to travel to their patients. Needless to say, George was born at home, with no doctor. Hector’s father once described helping a doctor cure a neighbour’s gangrene by holding the man down while the doctor sawed his leg off, above the knee, with no anesthesia.
The senior Hector juggled a 30 kilometre mail route, shovelling snow for the CPR, driving cattle by foot from the field to the slaughterhouse, loading freight at the port in Saint John, and working as a deckhand on the riverboats which were once common on New Brunswick’s waterways.
As George came of age, he trapped animals, mostly muskrats, and sold the stretched hides. He also got a job working the cable ferries which were common at the time. Like other underdeveloped economies, New Brunswick in the early twentieth century essentially had a winner-takes-all political system. When the Conservatives that Hector’s family supported lost an election, all the Conservatives who enjoyed government-enabled jobs were suddenly unemployed. This was accepted, and each losing side could hope to get their jobs again after the next election.
George’s mother played accordion, and while the younger Hector didn’t study music, he took to it and soon enough could play live. Local songs were a mix of British Isles ballads and ditties, as well as African American gospel.
He described how, at the age of 3 or 4, he could sing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” Hector continued, “the same spiritual songs that are still coming out of the south, I knew them when I was a kid through my mother and father.” He tried his hand at his mother’s button accordion before picking up the banjo.
Thus began over seven decades of playing local square dances. Interestingly, “guitars were never thought of in those days.” Banjo music was much more popular at the turn of the last century.
Indeed, Saint John African Canadians The Bohee Brothers, may be the first Canadians to release a recording, before they packed their banjos and relocated to England where they enjoyed still more success.
So it was logical the banjo should have captured George Hector’s imagination after he heard the instrument on an early Victrola, owned by someone in management at the Railroad.
Hector explained his determination to play the five stringed instrument- “I had never seen a banjo but I saw pictures of banjos and I made it round. I got a hold of a tobacco can … and I carved out a piece of wood to sit down over the top. I made a hole in the centre for the string to go across and a neck on it. I didn’t know how to put a skin head on it, so I didn’t have any. I couldn’t buy banjo strings, so I bought violin strings, steel. I didn’t know how to tune it, but I just tightened the strings so that they were tight enough that I could pick out a tune.”
His father bought him a real banjo in Fredericton, and George found a teacher, freshly relocated from New York.
Soon he’d play country dances, but Hector always worked other jobs, including one he was lucky to get, as a chauffeur earning decent money during the Depression.
In 1938 Don Messer was passing through, and he hired George Hector, casting him as “The Singing Chauffeur,” a gig they took to the airwaves in Saint John. Hector’s whistling talent had him renamed The Whistling banjoman around this time.
Hector and a few local players established The Maritime Farmer Barn Dance, which ran once a week for 20 years. As TV became more affordable, the Farmers’ radio show moved to the new format, still paying six dollars a week per man.
Don Messer relocated his show to PEI, and became a Canadian television staple for many years. Hector declined Messer’s invitation to head east from New Brunswick, but Hector was comfortable where he was, and stayed in New Brunswick.
Intriguingly, in his biography, Hector mentioned acetates of radio shows which were routinely recorded; the were 18” plates which “was cut from a groove as it went along. The stuff had to be taken off. And you’d see them with a pencil winding that stuff up just to keep it from clogging the needle. They done that every radio programme. They must have had tons of them.” One wonders if any acetates of 1940’s Canadian radio shows have survived and are sitting somewhere, ignored. These acetates predated tape, and likely would have better survived the last 80 years.
Meanwhile, Hector set up a deal to take over live music at Saint John venue, The New Moon Dance Hall. While he undertook the negotiations, the hall’s new owners “didn’t want to recognize me as a leader because I was coloured. I should have originated my own name and my own band and had it registered or copyrighted or something and gone right on just the same as Don Messer and His Islanders…”
His career stunted, but still playing live, George Hector worked building homes until an accident almost killed him in 1968. He relocated to Toronto briefly in the mid 1960’s, but he didn’t think he’d ever be let in the local musicians’ union. He’d also put in 20 years shovelling snow for the CPR, and didn’t want to lose that income.
Hector’s only album was released in 1982. The l.p. is a collection of banjo led instrumentals with Ned Landry playing fiddle, and some original songs sung by George. He released a cassette later in the 1980’s called “Further Along,” but most of Hector’s playing was at local fairs, and the square dances he helped to keep alive.
Hector was almost certainly the first Africadian with a regular spot on Maritime television, and possibly the first to record an album since the Bohee Brothers left New Brunswick almost a century before.
George Hector passed away October 17, 2004 at the age of 93.
Erik Twight @VeritableInfusion, proprietor of Basil’s Books & Vinyl and Freelance Writer specializing in current affairs, history, photography, and music. He produces a weekly podcast/radio show on CIUT.fm (89.5FM Toronto) arranged thematically and with commentary.