Michael “Bear” Millar fondly remembers hammering in tent pegs at the 1967 Blackstrap Folk Festival. It was Humphrey and the Dumptrucks’ first official gig.
They had no contract, and were not even sure if they were going to paid, let alone how much. But Saskatoon was their big break — once they put up a large tent on the Pion-era exhibition grounds.
There was Gary Walsh on the banjo and dobro. Their friend and mentor, Sid Wilsdon, jokingly gave him the nickname “Humphrey Dumptruck” one day. The other band members immediately seized on it and kidded Gary all the way home. The name stuck. But it would be 40 years before Gary’s mother allowed the boys to call her Mrs. Dumptruck.
Humphrey was unbelievably shy on stage, always hiding under his straw cowboy hat. But he was one of the best banjo players in Canada.
Then, there was Michael Millar, a bear of a man to this day — hence his nickname. Bear played piano from an early age, but coveted bagpipes. He got them on the understanding that he kept up his piano. Given his size, Bear was a natural for the bass but also played jug and guitar.
The other Michael (Taylor) was known as “Earnie.” It was his job on stage to introduce the band members. One night, he described himself as “earnest.” In a review the next day, it had been shortened to Earnie.
Earnie grew up singing around the piano with family members. At 16, he got a Sears model guitar and would practise all the time with Bob Dylan and Donovan records. He also mastered the autoharp.
The fourth member was Graeme Card, simply known as “G.” He played guitar and mandolin. He left the band in 1973 for a solo career, and the other members simply moved on without looking back.
At the start of the Blackstrap Folk Festival, Humphrey and the Dumptrucks formed a jug band and rode a float in the Pion-era parade. They played “Salty Dog” over and over again to the delight of the crowd.
They also played for hours every day inside the tent that week. “It was a hell of a lot of fun,” Bear Millar recalls.
That’s when they decided to try to make a living at it. But they had to tell their parents — one of the hardest things they ever had to do.
Both Bear and Earnie waited a month to break the news that they were quitting school. At first, there was anger and disbelief, but soon their parents were coming to their concerts.
What made Humphrey and the Dumptrucks special was their sound. At a time when most new bands were playing rock n’ roll, they had no interest in that kind of music — or using drums.
They were influenced by folk and bluegrass, but didn’t really fall into any particular genre. And they liked it that way. Today, Earnie describes them as “a string band,” while Bear suggests that “the music we played was something people never heard before.” Maybe it was because they were not afraid to feature the kazoo or washboard in some of their songs.
They also worked at their instrumentation. During their practice sessions at the Merry Mansion, they were constantly tinkering with their arrangements. They took pride in not needing a sound system.
Humphrey and the Dumptrucks did not sign their first record contract until 1970. Until then, they used a gestetner to crank out a monthly promotional newsletter that was mailed, posted or handed out.
They often played at Saskatoon high schools over the lunch hour and would split the 25-cent admission fee with the student council. They also performed regularly at Jack’s and Yip’s and helped open Saskatoon venues to live music at night.
The band soon became a favourite of the CBC, which constantly featured the group in its radio and television programming through the 1970s. They also appeared at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
But they were first and foremost road warriors, travelling across the better part of the country in their van to performances. Bear reckons they travelled 65,000 miles in three consecutive years — and often ended up sharing the same hotel room or sleeping on the floor in a welcoming home.
Looking back 50 years, Earnie and Bear have no regrets. Sure, they wished they had made more money. But they still delight in the memories and the music.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Michael “Bear” Millar (left to right), Gary “Humphrey Dumptruck” Walsh, and Michael “Earnie” Taylor outside the Merry Mansion
Photo Source: “GOPHER SUITE” ALBUM BACK COVER
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.