Early Revival | Bowing Down Home
Islanders often cite the founding of the Prince Edward Island Fiddlers' Society in 1975 as the step that set the Fiddling Revival in motion. Under the initial leadership of Fr. Faber MacDonald, Joe Pete Chaisson, John Gauthier and several others, the new organization, soon dubbed the PEI Fiddlers, held weekly meetings and practices, organized festivals and concerts, performed en masse at seniors’ residences and other charitable events, set up instructional programs, and in general served as an advocate for fiddling with both provincial authorities and the public.
Very early on, the PEI Fiddlers split into three branches: the Prince County Fiddlers, the Queens County Fiddlers, and the Eastern Kings County Fiddlers. Although there has been extensive cooperation among the three, each has maintained its independence and developed its own character. MacDonald served as the first director of the Queens County Fiddlers, and was succeeded in the mid-1980s by Fr. Charles Cheverie. Joe Pete Chaisson was the first head of the Eastern Kings Fiddlers; at his passing, that position passed to his sons Kevin, Kenny, and “Young Peter." Gauthier headed up the Prince County branch from its founding through the early 1990s.
The PEI Fiddlers embraced a number of notions and practices that represented significant departures from Island tradition, including playing fiddle tunes in large ensembles, performing standard versions of tunes, learning to read music, and encouraging females of all ages to take part in fiddle instructional programs and group performances.
Unlike many comparable organizations in Britain, Ireland and other parts of North America, the PEI Fiddlers did not employ competition as a tactic to maintain interest or attract newcomers. Because of hard feelings that had arisen over the years, a bylaw was passed early on that forbade members from competing against each other in fiddle contests.
Motivated in part by feelings of nostalgia, the activities of dozens of other groups around the Island also helped restore fiddling to the public arena. Among these activities were town days, fiddle clubs and amateur ensembles aimed at performing for seniors, old-time dances, fiddle festivals, and commercial ceilidhs. One prominent fiddle club active in the 1980s and 90s in the Alberton area was the West Prince Fiddlers.
All these efforts were helped along by the development of a parallel revival in the art of step-dancing. Numerous step-dancing schools were established across the Island, and at any one time literally hundreds of youngsters – mostly young girls – were enrolled. Because live accompaniment was usually employed, these youngsters were exposed to fiddle music in such a way that they could not fail but appreciate its varied melodies and compelling rhythms. From the fiddler’s viewpoint, accompanying step-dancers was simply great stage craft: it showed fiddling in its best light (i.e., as dance-playing), while also offering audiences an exciting visual.
Island youngsters had once learned to play through a largely haphazard process involving listening and physical emulation. This system broke down in the modern era, and some kind of formal instruction had to be made available. The most ambitious teaching program that developed was organized by the Eastern Kings Fiddlers. Using proceeds from the Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival, they hired violin instructor Kathryn Dau Schmidt, and offered free weekly fiddle classes to all comers at the Rollo Bay Consolidated School. Eventually a dual approach to teaching fiddling was hit upon. Dau Schmidt would systematically impart violin fundamentals, while organizers Kevin and “Young Peter” Chaisson would provide periodic illustrations of playing style.
Despite these positive developments, the prognosis for Island fiddling as of 1992 was still murky. Only two fully developed young players had appeared on the Island since the Fiddling Revival had gotten underway – Paul MacDonald and Richard Wood. And while there were several promising youngsters enrolled at the Rollo Bay Program – most notably a nine-year-old named JJ Chaisson – no full-fledged players had yet emerged there. As Dau Schmidt notes, one of the main obstacles then faced by organizers was the effect of negative adolescent peer pressure. Taking full stock of the situation, Kevin Chaisson offered this prayer for the future.