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Brooksby – Mud – What a Band!! (Part One)

In September 1965, Fay and I had just begun our first teaching positions in Star City, Saskatchewan. 

Another couple from our new home town invited us to go to a Friday night dance at nearby Brooksby. We dressed in our finest, and OFF we went.

We arrived at Brooksby Hall. It had rained heavily. The parking lot was a bed of mud. I, a gallant young man, scooped my wife up and was making my way to the hall, only to encounter two of my Star City students involved in a bout of fisticuffs. “Boys!” I barked in my best teacher voice. The blows ceased. One of them replied, “Oh, sorry Mr. Harrison. You go ahead.” 

Up the hall steps we went. As we passed through the doors I looked back over my shoulder.  The fight had resumed in earnest. Alarmed, we wondered just what the rest of the evening would bring.

Then the band on the stage broke into song. And what a song it was – pure, phenomenal Rock and Roll. We, who had gone to dances in big Regina, had never heard anything that compared. I turned saying to the couple who had brought us , “Who are these people? They are incredible!”

“The Cottonpickers!” my friend replied. “They hail from Christopher Lake just north of Prince Albert.”

The rest of the night flew by. We danced and danced and danced. It was the best dance we had ever attended.

The rain we faced on the way to Brooksby had made the gravel road difficult to navigate. Going home would be none the better. My Star City companion suggested mounting the car on the railroad tracks. He told me, to my shocked amazement, that he had often done that in the past. I was adamant -NO! So we slowly navigated home through pot holes and mud.

Little did I know that the fantastic band, worthy we thought of national recognition, had navigated miles and miles of such roads spreading entertainment, dancing, and enjoyment far and wide.  

The Cottonpickers began with Llewellen (Llew) Bell, a man of indomitable energy, ideas, love of music, and a man filled with an overpowering desire to entertain. To say he had musical talent would be an understatement. Give him an instrument and he could play it. Give him a song and he could sing it. That was Llew Bell.

Llew took this love of music to his first teaching position in 1957 at Wild Rose School, just north of Holbein. There, in the teacherage,  he spent evenings with local fiddle, guitar, banjo, and bass players, along with sister Bev on the keyboard, accompanied by two talented and attractive vocalists,  sisters Irene and Dolores Zbesheski.  Dolores’ voice, in particular, had a strong attraction for Llew (soon they married).

A band was formed. But what to call it? One version of the name’s source, according to Bev, came from the oft used phrase around the kitchen table ‘Keep your cotton picking fingers off that!’ The Cottonpickers were born.

They started off small. Band members and instruments, a full sized stand -up bass being one of them, crowded into a 1947 Oldsmobile, and off they went to nearby Holbein, Crutwell and Shellbrook. The first audiences may have been limited, but the band was an immediate success( Fay and I weren’t the only ones to be overwhelmed). 

This column does not permit a full rendition of the band’s history. Much of that can be found by ‘Googling’ the Cottonpickers. I will focus on fascinating stories arising from the Cottonpickers efforts to bring music, fun and dancing far and wide.

The band, as it made its way to countless country halls,  was a boon to single guys who stacked the stag line surveying the pretty girls seated along both sides of the dance floor. Innumerable marriages emerged from those chance meetings.

But those halls first had to be decked out before the dance started. Many times the Cottonpickers used their own ‘cotton picking fingers’ to fasten the paper streamers and hand made decorations to the walls, ceilings and stage prior to start time.

Moreover to get to a few of those establishments, such as that at McIntosh Point on Emma Lake, the band crew often became a road repair crew, filling pot holes in order to get to the hall. (Through rain, snow, pot holes and mud - ‘the band played on.’)

There is much more to tell and it’s too interesting not to do so – More ‘cotton picking’ stories next column.

Until then keep your toes a tapping!    

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Wednesday January 12, 2022