Cape Breton Fiddling | Bowing Down Home

When Cape Breton fiddling broadcasts and recordings first reached PEI in the late 1930s, they created a sensation among many Island fiddlers. To begin with, the playing represented a far higher level of performance practice and technical development than was prevalent at the time on PEI. Moreover, many of the tunes played by Cape Bretoners were much more elaborate than those that were then circulating on the Island.

The Cape Breton fiddle recording and broadcast scene was just hitting its stride around the time that Island fiddle broadcasting began to coalesce around the music of Don Messer, whose style may have been much admired elsewhere in Canada but was regarded by most Islanders as fundamentally alien. Since Cape Breton fiddling was seen as a kindred style, its recordings and broadcasts served as a convenient alternative to Messer’s, while also filling a void left by the virtual disappearance of Island fiddling from the media marketplace.

Here are some of the many Cape Breton fiddlers whose broadcasts and recordings have been influential on PEI over the years:

 

Early Period, c. 1935-65:

  • Dan J. Campbell (1895-1981)
  • Angus Chisholm (1908-79)
  • Angus Allan Gillis (1897-1978)
  • Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald (1914-87)
  • Bill Lamey (1914-91)
  • "Little Jack" MacDonald (1887-1969)
  • Joe MacLean (1916-96)

 

Middle Period, c. 1965-90:

  • John Campbell (1929-2010)
  • Joe Cormier (1927- )
  • Jerry Holland (1955-2009)
  • Sandy MacIntyre (1935- )
  • Carl MacKenzie (1938- )
  • Hugh "Buddy" MacMaster (1924-2014)

 

A more recent generation of Cape Breton media fiddlers reached maturity after 1990; perhaps the two most prominent players of this group are Ashley MacIsaac (1974- ) and Natalie MacMaster (1972- ).

Over the last few generations, Cape Breton fiddling broadcasts and recordings have had a powerful effect on Island repertoire. Nearly every Island fiddler has adopted at least a few tunes that have been composed or disseminated via the Cape Breton media, and some of the Island’s currently most popular tunes – such as Heather on the Hill, Sandy MacIntyre’s Trip to Boston, and The Dismissal derive from Cape Breton sources.

Some other relatively recent developments in Island fiddling can also be traced to the Cape Breton model. Island fiddlers in general now pay greater attention to performance-practice, employ or at least experiment with Scottish-style ornamentation, and are again exploring such Scottish genres as strathspeys and pipe marches. Also due to Cape Breton influence, many Island fiddlers now play medleys or groups of tunes at gatherings, concerts, and dances; have taken up note reading in order to mine old tune books for repertoire; and are actively composing new tunes.

Despite all these changes, few traditional PE Island fiddlers were motivated to alter the fundamental sound of their playing. By and large, most of them played the new tunes in their own styles and with their own assortments of twists. The one exception was northeastern Kings County, where the Cape Breton stylistic impact had been significantly amplified through the example and influence of the Chaissons, an extended family of fiddlers from Bear River.

Joe Pete Chaisson and his brother “Old Peter,” Chaisson of Bear River became great aficionados and exponents of the Cape Breton fiddling sound as early as the 1940s. Joe Pete passed on his love for Cape Breton fiddling to his sons Kenny, Kevin, and “Young Peter.” In the late 1970s, Joe Pete and his family helped found the Eastern Kings branch of the PEI Fiddlers’ Society and the Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival, both of which strongly emphasized the Cape Breton approach and repertoire. Just as important, their musical prowess and enthusiasm helped carry many other fiddlers from their region into the Cape Breton stylistic orbit.