Late Revival | Bowing Down Home

By 2006, it was clear that by and large the Fiddling Revival had been an overwhelming success. There were hundreds of youngsters on PEI seriously playing fiddle. A new class of paying venues for fiddling had developed, along with an audience to support it. What’s more, there had been a substantial proliferation of available fiddle instruction and the beginnings of a professional music scene.

Efforts aimed at producing a new generation of players had begun to bear fruit by the mid-1990s. Among the many youngsters who had reached playing maturity by that time were Paul MacDonald, Richard Wood, JJ Chaisson, Melanie Chaisson, Sheila MacKenzie, Ward MacDonald, and Anastasia DesRoches. By the early 2000s, a second wave of young players had appeared on the scene, including Timothy Chaisson, Adam Crane, Elmer Deagle, Cynthia MacLeod, Courteney Hogan, Nathan Condon, and Keelan Wedge.

Two factors helped fuel the continued development of young players during this period – the near-disappearance among adolescents of social stigmas attached to fiddling, and the perception – fueled by the examples of young Cape Breton recording stars such as Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac – that a career in fiddling could serve as a path to fame and fortune.

The 1990s also gave rise to a huge increase in the number of paying concert venues – most significantly the locally produced variety shows known as ceilidhs (KAY-lees). By the end of the decade, on any given night one could find multiple ceilidhs taking place around the Island – particularly during the summer tourist season.

Helped along by appearances at such newly-established regional conventions as the East Coast Music Awards and Franco Fête, several young Island fiddlers and groups began to tour extensively in North America and Europe, notably Richard Wood, JJ Chaisson, and two bands from the Evangeline Coast region: Vishten and Barachois. The latter group, which featured Albert Arsenault, Chuck Arsenault, Louise Gallant Arsenault, and Hélène Arsenault Bergeron was particularly influential in promoting the notion that traditional musicians must focus on stage presentation as important aspects of their performances. Another significant influence in this vein was Winnipeg transplant Roy Johnstone, who for many years has been one of PEI’s few full-time professional fiddlers.

The number of instructors conducting private or group lessons around the Island increased perhaps tenfold between the early 1990s and 2006, and nearly all instructors were experiencing record demand for their services. In addition, at least two public schools – Donagh and Ellerslie – had instituted fiddle-instruction programs.

In the old days on PEI, fiddling was almost entirely a solo activity. By 2006, however, the Island’s many instructional programs had created a large pool of trained recreational players, who fueled an exponential increase in the number of fiddle clubs, fiddle organizations, and amateur bands such as Mary Smith & Friends and the Murray Harbour Six. Another related development has been the introduction and growing popularity of fiddle-tune jam sessions.

Despite all these positives, in 2006 some Islanders were still feeling uneasy about the course of events. Some felt that there were simply too many ceilidhs, which could result both in over-saturation and a dilution of the talent pool. Some were concerned that young fiddlers were too focused on stage performance and on promoting their own careers, and not sufficiently concerned with becoming good dance fiddlers or maintaining a connection with the styles of older players. Some were concerned about a growing commercialism in the music. Still others felt that the local audience was growing too old, or increasingly less knowledgeable about fiddling’s fine points.

All things considered, however, the overall outlook for Island Fiddling in 2006 was highly positive. The sheer number of fiddle students and accomplished players was encouraging, and there were signs that a youthful audience for fiddling might be forthcoming. What’s more, a few experienced traditional fiddlers had begun teaching systematically, pointing to the preservation of some older styles. Finally, enhanced career opportunities and exposure to a wide variety of influences seemed likely to create new musical dimensions for the latest generation of Island fiddlers to explore.

See also: Early Fiddling Revival