Accompaniment | Bowing Down Home

Feet And Other Rhythm instruments

Instrumental accompaniment for fiddle music was fairly rare at house parties and district dances until the 1930s, and fiddlers had to provide their own source of rhythmic support by heavily "tapping" out the beat with their feet (a practice still common today). Even when there was no instrumental accompaniment, there were still plenty of ways for community members to help fiddlers keep time. Those not on the floor dancing would generally echo the fiddler's foot-tapping with their own feet. People might also help keep time by making impromptu rhythm instruments out of such common household items as pairs of spoons, pots and pans, buckets, or horseshoes.

Fiddlesticks

Beating on the fiddle-strings with sticks or knitting needles was another popular form of accompaniment. The "percussionist" would stand in front of a playing fiddler, and – selecting a spot somewhere on the upper fingerboard away from the path of the bow – beat out a rhythm on the lower, or back strings of the instrument.

Pump Organ

The most popular accompaniment instrument prior to the 1930s was the pump organ. Its special properties soon led to the development of a distinctive fiddle-accompaniment style, which involved a gentle attack with relatively few chord changes. Musical accents (emphases) were provided not by striking the keys more forcefully, but by sustaining certain notes longer. The overall effect was a gentle wall of sound behind the fiddler.

Hear pump organ and fiddle together on the following selections:

Chinese Breakdown, Lord MacDonald’s Reel, Tennessee Two Step: played by Sidney Baglole, fiddle and Margaret Ross MacKinnon, organ

Maple Sugar: played by Attwood O’Connor, fiddle and Margaret Ross MacKinnon, organ

New!: Most of the audio selections on the Delphine Arsenault site: Delphine Arsenault, fiddle and Zélie-Anne Arsenault Poirier, organ

Piano

As the piano became increasingly popular on PEI, most organists took the accompaniment style they had developed on organ and more or less transferred it to the new instrument. Listen, for example, to Margaret MacKinnon’s piano style on various selections featuring fiddlers Sidney Baglole, Stephen Toole, and Johnny Morrissey.

Judy Lowe developed a different approach to piano accompaniment from most of her contemporaries, influenced in part by Waldo Munro, who played the instrument for many years with Don Messer and the Islanders. Lowe’s whimsical, syncopated style can be heard on all selections featuring Elliott Wight, in whose square dance band she played for roughly four decades.

Guitar

There were hardly any guitars on PEI prior to the 1940s. The first wave of interest in the instrument was sparked by its high profile in country & western and western-swing recordings. Although the guitar's balanced sound and easy portability made it ideal for fiddle accompaniment, it was the 1960s before the guitar was firmly established at Island dances. By the 1970s, the guitar had begun to displace both pump organ and piano as primary accompaniment instruments, especially at smaller events where a keyboard instrument might not already be present.

Examples: fiddler Kenny Chaisson with guitarist: Lemmy Chaisson

Attwood O’Connor with guitarist: Stanley Bruce

Denny Pitre and Victor Doucette with guitarist: Vincent Doucette.

Keyboard

Probably the most important recent development in Island accompaniment has been the spread of electronic keyboards. These instruments offer both the tonal range of the piano and the portability of the guitar. Piano accompaniment styles are also rapidly changing, as many younger players have begun to emulate modern Cape Breton piano accompaniment, with its highly syncopated, percussive attack and wide dynamic range. The pioneer and major role model for this stylistic shift has been Kevin Chaisson, who describes his general approach here. Hear his piano accompaniment on all selections featuring JJ Chaisson, and on some of those featuring “Old Peter” Chaisson and Paul MacDonald. His approach to guitar accompaniment can be heard on some selections featuring his brother, “Young Peter” Chaisson.