Singing Fiddle Tunes | Bowing Down Home
When no fiddler was available, many Islanders were able to amuse themselves by singing fiddle-tunes, an activity known in Anglophone communities as jigging or tuning, and in Francophone communities as musique à bouche, or turluter (toor-loo-TAY). Instead of just humming the melody, the “tuner” uses nonsense lyrics or abstract vocables to articulate the notes of a tune. Generally, he or she tries in his rendition to imitate the phrasing of the fiddler and the rhythmic pulsation of the fiddler's bow. And in order to enhance the rhythmic effect of the music, the tuner taps his or her feet in the same powerful way that a fiddler would.
Nonsense lyrics are real words that fit the rhythm of the notes but which otherwise make little sense. A common example from the Appalachian tradition (to the opening phrase of Mrs. McLeod’s Reel) goes “Did you ever see the Devil, Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe / Did you ever see the Devil, Uncle Joe.” Abstract vocables are simply convenient syllables – such as “deedle, deedle, dum” or “ee-aye-ee-aye-oh” – that are used to articulate the melody.
Jigging tunes was a very popular activity. Men and women jigged as they went about their daily chores, and they also jigged for recreation. Sometimes a person who was "good to jig" might be asked to accompany a square dance. Skilled jiggers were reportedly able to match the fiddler note for note and accent for accent. Along these lines, fisherman coming off their boats in Tignish at the end of the work-week would often step-dance to the tuning of their mates.
Most Island children learned to jig at a fairly early age, and jigging fiddle tunes was often a common children's play activity. This ability to jig would often progress to another common children's game, in which the youngster pretended to be a fiddler. Many youngsters would ultimately tire of pretend fiddling and become motivated to attempt the real thing.
Jigging served as an important tune conduit, enabling even non-musicians to become actively involved in shaping the traditional repertoire.
Tuning was brought to the Island by its original Scottish and Irish settlers. In Scots Gaelic it is known as puirt-a-beul, while in Irish Gaelic the terms are poirtaireacht or poirt bhéil. In Irish-English, the equivalents are mouth music, lilting, or “jigging" (in Irish Gaelic, the word port means both “tune” and “jig”). Scottish tradition makes a distinction between puirt-a-beul, in which melodies are performed using nonsense lyrics, and diddling, where a tune is articulated using abstract vocables.
Some Gaelic language puirt-a-beul survived on PEI into at least the mid-20th century. Here are two examples of English-language puirt-a-beul from Teresa MacPhee Wilson.
- Couldn’t Get Across (to the tune of Red-Haired Boy)
- No Slippers On (to the tune of Paddy on the Turnpike)
Here are some additional examples of tuning / jigging / turluter:
- Armand Arsenault: Acadian Song
- Zélie-Anne Arsenault Poirier: Old Man & the Old Woman
- Stanley Bruce: Old Man & the Old Woman
- Reg Banks: Stack of Barley