The Clansmen played for the crowd
The Glengarry Celtic Music Hall of Fame holds its induction ceremony Friday, May 24, at the Bonnie Glen Pavilion in Alexandria. This is part of a series of inductee biographies submitted by the Hall of Fame.
The Clansmen were formed in 1973 under the direction of Sylvester MacDonald. This was one of the very few Scottish dance bands in Glengarry at the time and they would change the way dance music would be played for many years to come. Sylvester was the first one who really started singing for dances and any dance band that started up soon after would also include vocals. Previously, it was mainly instrumental groups that played for dances.
Soon, larger centres like Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and the USA started calling, looking for a talented Celtic dance band. Always dressed in tartans, the first song that the Clansmen would play was “Come in come in, we’ll do the best we can.” By the second song the dance floor was full. When it was a dance at the Bonnie Glen Pavilion, where the Clansmen played countless times, they always filled the hall. The band definitely had a following.
The popularity of the group was so great at the time that in the mid seventies and eighties there would be periods where they would perform every day for two weeks straight and sometimes twice a day if they were playing at a seniors’ residence in the afternoon. They were also one of the first groups to play at the Glengarry Highland Games at the Friday and Saturday night dances. Those dances were so popular that the Games committee had to build a picket fence around the stage in the old Angus Grey Hall to keep the crowd from standing and sitting on the stage.
In 1975 they performed throughout Eastern Canada including Loretteville, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Bridgewater, Nova Scotia and Glendale, Cape Breton. When the group played for Robbie Burns or St. Andrew’s Balls they always started the night off with The Grand March. If it was for a St. Patrick’s dance they wore green and played mostly Irish music.
Sylvester and the Clansmen always recognized and respected the talented youth in the area and gave many of them a chance to get up on stage and perform with the band whether it be vocal, fiddle or bagpipes etc.
The popularity of the band was so great that it prompted them to do two recordings including “The Clansmen” in 1976 and “At Your Request” in 1982.
Members of the original Clansmen, including Sylvester, were: Rob Taylor, John (Jack) Job, Jackie Smith, Lyle MacMillan and Rene Fleury. Not long after that, he hired two very talented ladies, his niece Thwyla McDonald (accordion and vocals) and Clara MacLeod (piano). Along with Sylvester they became the core members of the group. Other members that played over the years were: Dave McCormick, Paul Smith, June (Aubin) Prosser, Mike Johnston, Byron Haley and Darrel MacLeod.
When Pipe Major J.T. MacKenzie took the stage to play some bagpipe selections with the band, Sylvester never missed a chance to sing along with the pipes, something that is quite commonly done in groups today.
Some of the former members of the group went on to form or join groups including The Brigadoons, Dornie Express, The Cobblers, McCormick & MacLeod, The Seanachies, Six Mile Cross and Antrim etc.
The Clansmen were one of the original, innovative and core singing Celtic dance bands in Glengarry of our time. They played for the crowd, Scottish, Irish and a little Country “whatever would make them dance.”
Their longevity was such that they played not only for weddings, but some of the same couples’ 25th anniversaries as well. As time went on and they resigned from dances; they still played at seniors’ residences and concerts up until Sylvester’s death in Feb. 2008.
AS ADVERTISED: Sunshine was the theme of the 37th Heritage May Show Festival in Vankleek Hill Sunday. Thanks to the weather, the day lived up to its billing as skies cleared for the “Festival of Fun for Everyone” (Top left) The “Mysterious Gitana Georgia” dance show drew a crowd; (above right) Jim Caputo demonstrated artifacts from the era of the fur trade; (below left) Gregg Chamberlain judged a butter tart, while Jack Williams, of Alexandria, offered Jack’s Fudge at one of many food booths.