Jack Millikin - The Man
Mentor, Supporter & Progenitor of Saskatchewan Music For over 84 years, Jack Millikin’s old time music brought pleasure to others. While his banjo was his favorite instrument, he also played fiddle, piano, saxophone and accordion. Jack was able to play almost any instrument he set his hand on, as playing by ear came naturally to him. One only has to look at the long line of Millikin musicians preceding Jack – complemented by his own offspring’s musical achievements – to see that talent was in his genes. From generation to generation, music has been passed down and Jack did his part to preserve the family value, while also contributing to the well being of others through his music.
Jack’s musical career was on its way when he, as a wee lad, set sail with his family from Scotland in 1926. He was placed upon a make-do stage to sing My Old Top Hat to the throng of people gathered to see their loved ones off to Canada, the land of homestead and hope. A small-statured man who captured the attention of young and old alike, he could be identified by his classic black and white striped railroad hat – exemplary of his 33 years with the Canadian National Railway and which became his signature as a musician. One could either see him on stage with banjo in hand or surrounded by a crowd of people who shared his passion for music. Age barred no barriers for Jack, as long as there was music involved, he was in his element.
A few years after his 1926 journey from Port Glasgow, and after schooling in Saskatoon, Jack planted his roots near Big River. It was 1931. A bristling community, this little logging and fishing town was situated in the Boreal Parkland forests of North Central Saskatchewan. Seven miles out of Big River and close to Prince Albert National Park border was Stoney Lake, adjacent to the land acquired by his older brother, Andrew. Here, he and his family were to live through the trying times of the Great Depression when pancakes with lard was a common meal for Jack. But to sustain them during those hard times was music – and plenty of it. Jack’s environment was one in which singing and playing instruments was a regular activity for he and his family. A hard day’s work was often rewarded with a few tunes in the evening.
Eventually, after establishing themselves on the homestead, the Millikins held a work bee to build a dance hall. With the help of friends and neighbours, they erected the hall in the fashion of their log cabin house residence. The Millikin Homestead, as it was called, became the hub of social activities. Community was strong and harmonious during those hard and hungry times and people were drawn together to share the lighter side of life through music. As the end of the ‘30s broke out in the Second World War, Jack’s two older brothers enlisted and were sent overseas. Jack, however, whose poor hearing had prohibited his participation as a soldier, remained on the homestead cutting and hauling cordwood before starting at the Big River saw mill. He entertained those Canadian families in his neck-of-the-woods homefront by playing for War Effort dances.
In 1945, Jack was sent to meet the train and greet Miss Hopkins, the new teacher for the oneroom schoolhouse located not far from the homestead. It was love at first sight. He was married to this prairie girl, Doris, a year later. Living in Big River – where Jack resided until 2005 – Jack and Doris raised four children. Weekends were for playing music. He and Doris became a team – not only in the home, but also as a pair of musicians who played for weekly dances with a variety of orchestras for the next four years. Crowds two-stepped, waltzed and foxtrotted around many a floor during those early years. Accompanied by Doris on the piano, Jack would play whatever instrument the tune called for. As Doris’ parents had an orchestra, as well, gathering with her family were as musical as they were with the Millikins.
More dances, concerts and a variety of social functions made up their repertoire of professional engagements throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. There was even the odd television appearance. In 1969, Jack and Doris performed on CKBI Prince Albert show ‘Spotlight on Talent”. His fame in Northern Saskatchewan continued to grow during the ‘70s when enthusiasm for Jack’s performances spread during the annual Big River winter carnival, “Klondike Days”. Jack’s teenage son, Don, accompanied his parents on the guitar. Don, like Jack, grew up on music as being a way of life. He represented the next generation of Millikin musicians. The ‘70s slid into the ‘80s, and Jack and Doris found themselves evermore frequently sharing the stage with Don’s band, Crooked Creek. By then, Don, who shared this father’s passion for music, had become an accomplished musician in his own right. Representing Saskatchewan at Expo ’86 was one of many Crooked Creek’s achievements to make Jack and Doris proud. And, as all good parents and teachers, they were in Vancouver to support him.
Jack and Doris enjoyed playing with Crooked Creek. In fact, so frequently did they play together, that festivals, concerts and varied social events became their musical mainstays of the ‘80s. Doris, who’d been Jack’s musical partner for nearly 45 years was to play one of her last gigs at the end of decade. It was less than a year after performing at a small 1989 Ecological Fair near their home of Big River when Doris passed away. The death of his wife, to whom he was devoted, was a turning point in Jack’s life. It was as if this Ecological Fair was symbolic of what was to come for Jack as it was the predecessor of the Ness Creek Music Festival (and situated only a few miles from the old Millikin homestead). Folk, blues, jazz, reggae, alternative, traditional and world beat music make up this cultural roots festival (considered one of Saskatchewan’s most treasured) which has become a diamond-in-the-rough venue for talented Canadian musicians and a highlight of the summer event for attendees. Jack, who performed at the first pre-Ness Creek Ecological Fair has played each consecutive Ness Creek Festival since.
On stage, Jack was popular with audiences. At the first strum of his banjo, or word of his song, listeners would turn their heads to see this elderly and charming man do what he did best. Through the 16-year history of the Ness Creek Festival, Jack also participated in numerous workshops where his mentoring was valued by up-and-coming musicians and appreciated by those musicians who, like Jack, had come into their own. He was a musicians’ musician. To many, Jack was an icon of the Festival. The goals of the Ness Creek Society are to “promote, celebrate and sustain the music, beauty and culture of the North.” Jack contributed to this goal through his music and it could be said that he embodied the goals of the Society. He became known then, and really always was, the Grandfather of Ness Creek.
On stage, Jack was accompanied by his son Don. Together, they comprised Old Style Millikin and titillated the audience with a blend of catchy tunes performed on an assortment of instruments. Included in this repertoire were Jack’s favorite novelty items: the saw played with a violin bow as well as his set of water-filled mickey bottles played with drumsticks. With Ness Creek’s help, Jack made a cassette in 1992. By digging up tunes from his past, he compiled a collection of (mostly) his own compositions. Log Cabin Blues, Woodchopper’s Hornpipe and Black Poplar Waltz were but a few titles that depicted his life in the forested North. Others, such as South Stoney Rug and Tamarack Jig, resonate with his connection to the land, his roots and his culture. In 1997, Jack turned 75. To recognize his contribution, the Ness Creek Society organized a celebration in his honor.
Since the early ’90s Jack maintained a modest apartment in Saskatoon, along with his Big River home and spent time traveling between both places, tending his prolific garden and playing music. After a minor stroke in 2004 he made a permanent move to Saskatoon where he lived in the Broadway area until his passing. He will always be remembered for the pleasure he gave his listeners throughout his life, while being a mentor, supporter and progenitor of Saskatchewan music. He helped preserve his cultural heritage by passing down his musical influences to the next generation. And those who carry on with it will inject their own style – like Jack always did – while sustaining the essential elements of its cultural roots.