The only thing I know about Big John McNeil is that it’s a popular Canadian fiddle tune. It’s a fun tune to play, not too difficult, but when you play it as fast as they do, just about anything can tie your fingers in a not. It also has some similarities with Durham’s Bull.
I also found this thread on ancestry.com about a man named ‘Big’ John McNeil. 🙂
Big John McNeil according to Fiddler’s Companion
BIG JOHN McNEIL(L)/McNEAL. AKA and see “John McNeil(‘s Reel).” Canadian, American, Scottish; Reel. Canada, widely known. USA; New England, Missouri. A Major. Standard (or infrequently AEae) tuning. AABB (Gibbons, Messer, Sweet): AABB’ (Miller & Perron): AA’BB’ (Begin, Perlman, Phillips). Though now known as a Canadian standard it originally was a reel composed (as “John McNeil”) by the brilliant Scottish fiddler Peter Milne (1824-1908), one of J. Scott Skinner’s teachers and early playing partners, who earned his living playing in theaters until his opium addiction (he abused laudanum, originally prescribed for rheumatism) reduced him to busking on ferry‑boats crossing the Firth of Forth. He died in unpleasant circumstances in a mental institution. John McNeil was a famous Highland dancer of the mid-to-later 19th century (see note for “John McNeil’s Reel” for more). The melody was in the repertoire of Cyrill Stinnett, a fiddler who epitomised the ‘North Missouri Hornpipe Style’ of playing, who apparently learned it and other tunes from listening to Canadian fiddlers broadcasting on the radio from Canada. Indeed, an influential recording of the tune was made ‘Down-East’ Canadian fiddler Don Messer with his group the Islanders, early in the 1940’s—among the first of the sides the group waxed. A similar melody is “Lord Ramsay’s Reel .” Perlman (1996) notes the tune is a popular tune on Prince Edward Island, and a favorite vehicle for stepdancing in Prince County, PEI, on the eastern part of the island. Irish fiddler Sean Maguire recorded the melody in the 1960’s under the title “Betty’s Fancy .”
Sources for notated versions: Max Sexsmith (British Columbia), who learned this “classic” reel in the 1940’s from radio broadcasts and records by Don Messer and His Islanders (who recorded it in 1942) [Gibbons]; Jay Unger (West Hurley, New York) via Bud Snow (Putnam County, New York) who also learned it from Canadian fiddler Don Messer [Fiddle Fever]; Dawson Girdwood (Perth, Ontario) [Begin]. Francis MacDonald (b. 1940, Morell Rear, North-East Kings County, Prince Edward Island) [Perlman]. Begin (Fiddle Music in the Ottawa Valley: Dawson Girdwood), 1985; No. 5, pg. 19. Feldman & O’Doherty (The Northern Fiddler), 1979; pg. 187. Gibbons (As It Comes: Folk Fiddling From Prince George, British Columbia), 1982; No. 11, pgs. 28‑29. Messer (Anthology of Favorite Fiddle Tunes), 1980; No. 12, pg. 79. Miller & Perron (New England Fiddlers Repertoire), 1983; No. 133. Perlman (The Fiddle Music of Prince Edward Island), 1996; pg. 96. Phillips (Traditional American Fiddle Tunes, vol. 1), 1994; pg. 23. Silberberg (Tunes I Learned at Tractor Tavern), 2002; pg. 9. Sweet (Fifer’s Delight), 1964; pg. 77. Condor 977‑1489, “Graham & Eleanor Townsend Live at Barre, Vermont.” Flying Fish FF 247, “Fiddle Fever” (1981). Fretless 101, “The Campbell Family: Champion Fiddlers.” GRT Records SP 203, “Ward Allen Presents Maple Leaf Hoedown, Vol. 1” (reissue). GRT Records 9230-1031, “The Best of Ward Allen” (1973). MCA Records MCAD 4037, “The Very Best of Don Messer” (1994). Rounder 0320, Bob Carlin & John Hartford – “The Fun of Open Discussion” (taught to Hartford in his early years by Missouri fiddler Gene Goforth).