Pigeon on the Gatepost | Bowing Down Home

About this tune

This key of A reel – often known as Pigeon on the Gatepost – has been one of the most widely played tunes on Prince Edward Island for generations. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, competitors performed it at The Great Fiddle Contest of 1926.

The most common name for this tune in Prince County is The Twin Sisters. In Southern Kings County I have heard it referred to variously as Jack Tar, Pigeon on the Pier, and The Sturgeon Tea.

Versions from the eastern part of the Island – such as those by “Old Peter” Chaisson, Omar Cheverie, Gus Longaphie, and Francis MacDonald – tend to have have an inherent elegance and evoke the skirl of the bagpipes. Those from the west – for example, renditions by Joe Albert, Louise Arsenault, Sid Baglole, and Andrew Jones – have a powerful liveliness and feature extensive use of sawstroke syncopation. Aside from these general differences, there is wide variability among fiddlers as to how the various phrases of the tune are played.

There is quite a bit of confusion surrounding this tune, both musically and in terms of nomenclature. Musically, there are two close analogs to Pigeon on the Gatepost. First, there’s an infrequently played reel in the key of G which has been recorded under the name Pigeon on the Gate. Second and more significant is the strong similarity between Pigeon on the Gatepost and another widely played Island reel in the key of A called Pride of the Ball.

Probably because of this perceived similarity, in eastern PEI the tune Pride of the Ball is sometimes referred to as Pigeon on the Gatepost. Similarly, in Western PEI Pride of the Ball is sometimes referred to as The Twin Sisters.

Separating Pigeon on the Gatepost from Pride of the Ball with confidence requires some precise musical criteria. In the opening phrase of the low turn, Pride of the Ball starts with two descending A-major arpeggios (E-C#-A), whereas the opening of Pigeon on the Gatepost describes an ascending section of the pentatonic scale in which the third note of the A-scale is omitted entirely (high A-B-D-E). Then in the high-turn, the second phrase of Pride of the Ball outlines a G-major arpeggio on strings 3 and 2 (essentially repeating the second phrase of the low turn). In Pigeon on the Gatepost, on the other hand, the second phrase of the high turn stays up mostly on the first string of the fiddle and is essentially a continuation of the first phrase.

It should be noted that in general Island fiddlers regard these two as separate tunes. Many fiddlers maintain both in their repertoires, and during performance each tune is accorded its own unique package of twists, ornamentation, syncopation, and general “atmosphere.” Sometimes both tunes are medleyed together, as in the performance here by Peter Arsenault.

Having said this, it should be noted that there are some variants in circulation are in effect hybrids of these two tunes (one example here: both Reuben Smith and Jim MacDougall renditions are comprised of the low turn of Pigeon on the Gatepost and the high turn of Pride of the Ball).

Looking at early published versions, one close match to Pigeon on the Gatepost as played on PEI appears in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (1903) under the title The Pigeon on the Gate. A close cousin to the key of G Pigeon on the Gate is found in Allan’s Irish fiddler (c. 1920), but it is presented in the key of B. Many other melodies published early on as Pigeon on the Gate are more closely related to the Island way of playing Pride of the Ball.

In terms of early media versions that may have been influential on PEI, Alex “Alick” Gillis of Cape Breton recorded Pigeon on the Gatepost for Decca back in the 1930s. The Key of G version was recorded relatively early on both by Elmer Briand of Cape Breton and Jean Carignan of Québec.

Notation for a version by Louise Arsenault, and one by Jim MacDougall are available here. Notation for versions of Pigeon on the Gatepost / Twin Sisters as played by Eddy Arsenault and Andrew Jones – plus an alternative high turn by George MacPhee – are in Fiddle Music of Prince Edward Island.