Fiddle Festivals | Bowing Down Home

Fiddle Festivals began springing up on Prince Edward Island in the late 1970s and would become the major performance venue for Island fiddling for the next two or three decades. Essentially, they filled a void resulting from the decline of square dancing and the end of the local fiddle contest scene (at the founding of the PEI Fiddlers’ Society, imembers voted to refrain from competing against each other in fiddle contests).

Island fiddle festivals are essentially large-scale local talent shows. Local fiddlers take their turns entertaining the audience; other attractions include singing acts, step-dancing demonstrations, and mass-fiddling by members of the Prince Edward Island Fiddlers' Society. Although such festivals generally feature a paid headliner (who is almost always brought in from off-Island), all other acts perform on a volunteer basis.

The most prominent such event on PEI is the Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival, held the third weekend of July. In the summers of 1991 and 1992, we attended three other fiddle festivals – the Atlantic Jamboree, the Richmond Scottish Fiddle Festival, and the Festival acadien (at L’Exposition agricole).

Atlantic Jamboree

The Atlantic Jamboree was a one-afternoon event held the first weekend of August in a large public hockey rink in the district of Abram-Village – in the heart of the Evangeline Coast perhaps 20 miles west of Summerside. This is a heavily Acadian area, and for the most part the event attracted Acadian fiddlers and an Acadian audience.

In 1991 and ’92, the hockey rink was filled to overflowing with an audience that numbered roughly two-to-three thousand. The atmosphere was electric, and most performances were instilled with a manic energy. Among the relatively local fiddlers who performed at these Jamborees were Eddy Arsenault, Edward P Arsenault, Louise Gallant Arsenault, Peter Arsenault, Jim MacDougall, Dennis Pitre, and Zélie-Anne Arsenault Poirier. One particularly well-received act was a precision step-dancing team known as Les Jeunes Danceuses Acadiennes (Young Acadian Dancers).

The headliner at the 1991 festival was Joe Cormier, a Cape Bretoner who lives in Waltham Mass. In 1992, the headliner was Lisa Ornstein, an American considered to be an expert in Québecois fiddling.

On the evening immediately following each Jamboree, a music party was held in nearby Mont Carmel at the home of Festival organizer Philippe Leblanc. This party was attended by most of the fiddlers who had played at the Jamboree, and also by prominent step-dancers and devoted music aficionados. To say that the music played at the Leblanc household was intense on these evenings would be a gross understatement.

Les Jeunes Danceuses Acadiennes perform at Alantic Jamboree, 1991; fiddler is Louise Arsenault

Helene Arsenault Bergeron dances to fiddling of her father Eddy Arsenault: Atlantic Jamboree 1991 (Tunes are Duke of Gordon's Birthday, Sheehan's Reel, & Georgina Campbell)

Richard Wood step-dances at Atlantic Jamboree, 1991; fiddler is Louise Arsenault

Richmond Scottish Fiddle Festival

In the summer of 1991, the MacKinnon Family of Richmond PEI organized a fiddle festival near their home that was modeled closely on the Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival. The headliners were Jerry Holland and David MacIsaac of Cape Breton. Although the music and dancing were superb, the event was relatively lightly attended and was not renewed thereafter.

Festival acadien

L’Exposition agricole – an annual event held on the grounds surrounding the public Hockey Rink in Abram-Village the first weekend of September – is much like a big County Fair. There are carnival games, food and drink for sale, displays of farm animals and machinery, etc. Two aspects that make the event unique are the inaugeral parade (led in 1992 by members of the step-dancing troupe Les Jeunes Danceuses Acadiennes), and the afternoon-long Festival acadien, which serves as the Exposition finale. The Festival acadien is much like the Atlantic Jamboree, although it could perhaps be said that the Exposition audience in 1992 was even larger and even more enthusiastic than the Jamboree crowd of that year.