The Dark Side of Fiddling | Bowing Down Home

In the old days, Island fiddlers as a class were victimized by pervasive negative stereotypes. Their talents were quickly sought out when a house party was in the offing, but otherwise they were often regarded as persons of dubious character, who were prone to neglect such “real” work as farm chores and fishing in favor of an activity regarded by most as merely an amusement. Fiddlers were also viewed as overly dependent on alcohol, and often blamed for the general climate of drunkenness and violence that all too often surrounded Island dances.

These stereotypes concealed an unfortunate set of social arrangements in which fiddlers in effect were exploited by their neighbors.

Islanders believed that it was a fiddler’s sacred duty to share his or her God-given musical gifts, and that it was his or her secular duty to provide music for local events as an expression of neighborliness. Although the fiddler had these strong obligations to the neighbors, they acknowledged none in return that stemmed from his or her music making. If a fiddler grew exhausted playing all night for a dance, neither church nor community took it upon themselves to compensate him in money or kind, nor even to send representatives on the following day to assist with the chores. And as fiddlers grew older and less energetic, it was often their farming or fishing that suffered.

Fiddlers were continually plied with alcohol at dances on the theory that an inebriated fiddler would happily play throughout an entire occasion without protest. Should fiddlers’ energies falter, alcohol was considered the magic elixir to revive them. In addition, the gift of a quantity of rum or ‘shine (homemade whiskey) was often considered fair payment for a night of playing outside the community. In addition, customs derived from PEI’s long-standing Prohibition Era (c. 1880-1950) dictated that Islanders do their drinking in private. Since fiddlers were often seen drinking in plain view, they thereby labeled themselves at best as uncouth, and at worst as alcoholics with no self-control.

All too often, house parties, weddings and other Island dances were associated with fisticuffs, brawling and other forms of petty violence. As a general rule, however, fiddlers were far less likely than most of their contemporaries to become direct participants in dance-related mélées. If nothing else, combatants were usually careful to avoid involving the fiddler. After all, if he was hurt or his instrument damaged, the dance was over.

Similar negative stereotypes about fiddlers were also present in British, Irish and other North American traditions. Such characterizations may well be traceable in part to long-standing Church doctrines that characterized players of the instrument as being in league with the Devil.