Entire books have been written on the rich history of fiddle playing and tunes from Cape Breton Island, and its tradition still continues with robust strength today. Type “Cape Breton fiddling” into YouTube and you’ll get everything from early recordings, to private performances at house parties, from professional contemporary players like Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac, to local youths performing, to festival performances, to this 1971 documentary, “The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler.” It may have been vanishing in 1971, but by outward appearances it appears it’s being vigorously kept alive, along with accompanying stepdancing. Today, Cape Breton is often considered the international stronghold of true, traditional Scottish fiddling.
Because of this, there’s little reason for didactic platitudes on this subject – except to state the very basics: the tradition stems from the Scottish Highlands. Highland immigrants began settling in Cape Breton in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly between 1817 and 1838 (relating to the mass emigration brought on by the dissolution of the “clan system” in Scotland, known as the Highland Clearances). With them, of course, came music for dancing – and Cape Breton’s traditional tunes have been well documented in various songbooks for the past century or more. As you’ll hear in this example, its style is forceful, often intense. One of the noticeable differences between Cape Breton fiddling and other traditional styles is the strong “up driven bow,” particularly on strathspeys, and what’s been described as a strong “whip” in each stroke, along with an extensive use of fast triplets. (Admittedly, I’m writing as a novice here – guided by ears.)
Folk music from Cape Breton was recorded erratically and only occasionally during the 78 rpm era, until Bernie MacIsaac bought a music store in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and re-named it the “Celtic Music Store” in 1935. At about the same time, he started an independent record label, also naming it “Celtic,” and got some of the very best fiddlers in the region to record for his local label, namely, Angus Chisholm (who had already recorded for the Decca label), Hugh A. MacDonald, Winston Fitzgerald, Angus Allan Gillis, Dan J. Campbell, and today’s featured fiddle player, William Hugh “Bill” Lamey. The Celtic label is legendary, despite their limited amount of releases, having done a marvelous job doing just what it should have done: serving a relatively small population with well-recorded, excellent performances of local folk music. They helped to preserve the tradition, which later was taken up to a degree by the Rodeo 78 rpm label.
Lamey was born on Cape Breton Island in 1914 and first had his own fiddle at the age of 18. While in Sydney, he continued learning from local players and eventually got his own radio show. He recorded at least six 78s beginning around the early 1940s, though his career continued for many years. This side features his long time piano accompanist, Margaret Jessie MacDonald. In 1953, he moved to Boston, and in 1966, perhaps one could say that he helped to usher in a renewed interest in Cape Breton fiddling when he became the first fiddler from the region to perform at the Gaelic Mòd in Inverness, Scotland, where he apparently devastated the crowd with his performance, earning standing ovations.
Unfortunately, very few of these classic performances have made it to the CD era. In the late 1970s, Richard Nevins of Shanachie/Yazoo issued two pivotal collections of Lamey’s and Angus Chisholm’s early sides, but they remain long out of print. Hopefully that will change. This piece features a strathspey and reel, and a wonderful end note by pianist MacDonald. Sometimes you don’t know when to stop…
Issue Number: 028
Matrix Number: CT 7320
May 18, 2008
The last French Canadian folk music I posted was six months ago, so I thought I might feature another this week – especially since I found myself humming this song repeatedly. When that happens, I feel I have to go straight to the shelves, grab that piece of music, and remind myself of the innate qualities therein. This I did, and here it is for you, too.
Joseph Ovila LaMadeleine (1880-1973) was a left-handed fiddler based in Montreal, where he owned a music shop. In the late 1920s, when he was already nearly 50, he began his recording career for Starr Records. For the next 15 years on Starr, he recorded 54 records of wonderfully played reels, quadrilles, and waltzes like this track, which was recorded in the winter of 1937. While this tune is not a fiddle showdown like some of his others, I find it beautifully unpretentious, largely due to the vocal by his daughter Jeannette.
Starr Records got its name from the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana. The Starr Piano Company also produced a little label called Gennett, only one of the greatest, most sought-after record labels in jazz, country, and blues history. The Compo Company (run by the son of Emile Berliner) began pressing the Starr and Gennett labels in Canada in 1919, and gradually began recording as well. The Starr label continued into the 40s, long after Starr Piano left the record business, with the Starr label reserved strictly for Canadian recordings.
For more LaMadeleine, there is a track on the Rounder collection Raw Fiddle. You can also visit The Virtual Gramophone and hear quite a few LaMadeleine recordings, albeit at 64kbps. Better than nothing!
Lastly, an announcement for 1960s African music fans: very soon I will be writing a guest post over at the fine Matsuli Music blog. There will be LOTS to download, and it will be very limited, so if you don’t want to miss that, keep checking Matsuli.
Issue Number: 16066
Matrix Number: 7968-1
December 3, 2007
While there’s plenty of incredible American, Cajun, and Irish-American fidders, there’s also a rich history of fiddle-based folk music from Canada. And while some diehard fans of the back-woods American fiddlers might scoff (and I, myself, first gained interest in 78s through early American country music), it’s difficult to deny a track like this, Isidore Soucy’s quadrille, which is similar to a square-dance, except without calls. According to one source I found, a quadrille is historically a dance representing a maiden fleeing a young man’s advances, and like much folk music, was performed at community gatherings, parties, or with family.
Isidore Soucy (b. Ste-Blandine, Québec, 1899, d. Montreal, 1963) was a force in traditional Québécois folk music. His recording career began in the late 1920s as a soloist, and lasted well into the LP-era, recording often with his wife and four children as the Famille Soucy. His fiddling is not as raw as some American country fiddlers, it’s more stylish and rhythmic, and its European influence is more apparent (especially with it’s piano accompaniment, like many Irish-American fiddling records of the day) – but the virtuosity is there. This track was recorded at a very early point in his career, ca. 1927.
You can find more Soucy at the virtuous Virtual Gramophone website, which has dozens of fine French-Canadian folk music tracks for download (though, not this one). I would also recommend listening to some tracks by Joseph Allard.
Issue Number: 34103-F
Matrix Number: E 2685