The people’s music: Cape Breton on the floor, part 3

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Concluding the lecture that Professor Dan MacInnes delivered to the 1998 John MacFadyen Memorial Lecture/Recital.

The history of the Cape Breton fiddler as well as the related art of dance piping have received comparatively little study. There are high and low moments in this history and it has not been told as of yet despite Allister MacGillivray’s attempt to get some of the early biographies recorded.

I re-read Allister and did a quick count of some qualities of the greats. Out of the forty players whose one-page biographies are cited, 12 were also step dancers, 15 were note players and 17 were either pipers themselves or their fathers or brothers were. Most interesting was the notation that nine competed in various fiddling competitions at home and abroad. All save two were Gaelic speakers.

In recent years, the customary way of performing in concert, at a dance or in the kitchen is one fiddler at a time with his or her chosen accompanist. It was common at one time for players to know a great number of tunes. Today there are only a few with this kind of repertoire, but Cameron Chisholm for one is supposed to know more than 200 jigs and he is not particularly partial to jigs.

Allister MacGillivray’s book on Cape Breton fiddling.

In these solo performances, if a true follower of the music were to walk in without knowing in advance who was playing they would still be able to identify both the tune and the player by the fragment they heard. This is a quality I appreciated when I first attended the Northern Meetings at Eden Court. While I enjoyed the playing that first year I had heard great playing before at other venues. However, at Eden Court I found the audience’s appreciation for the music to be outstanding. Outside Scotland it is a rare encounter with an audience who appreciate what the pipers are playing. Such is not the case in North America and is hardly a feature of the games circuit anywhere. What is precious about Cape Breton is the number of people who are not themselves musicians but can tell you the first time they heard a particular tune and who was playing it. It is the love of the music.

In Cape Breton, this affection for tradition is strongest among the people from the western part of the Highlands and Islands. The ranks of the fiddlers are filled with people who are descendants of people from Lochaber, Moidart, Morar, Eigg, Barra and Uist. The only other parallel development, which compares in the precentor and waulking song traditions once found on Cape Breton’s North Shore among the people whose ancestors came from Harris and Lewis. That tradition has all but died out as the people there bury the last generation of Gaelic speakers.

[At this point, either Allan MacDonald or Roddy MacLeod – we are unsure which – played The Vaunting. The tune was composed by Ronald MacDonald of Morar who had taught some of the ancestors of the Nova Scotia emigrants. We do not have a recording of Allan or Roddy’s performance so instead here is the late, great Alasdair Gillies in 2005 playing the tune]:

I hope that by this point in the lecture you are truly sorry for believing all those bad things you’ve heard about Cape Breton. I myself have read on the all knowing internet that authentic piping has often appeared in Cape Breton among the folk – authentic appears to mean piping far removed from the military’s narrow interpretation and equally removed from the uniformity enforced by the competition platform. It is rumoured that in Cape Breton we have had generations of ‘born free’ pipers. There is no need to be insulted by this search for purity instead recall what Rousseau said just before the French Revolution, and here I quote “piping was born free but everywhere today it is in chains”.

Cape Bretoners like their music. They like it better than Irish music and Scottish music. Those who have made comparisons feel that you lost out when you adopted the box instead of the violin. For that matter most are pleased now that we have seen it that Scottish country dancing has failed to get started except among recent expatriates living in Vancouver. We, like you, have our blind spots and prejudices. We insist that correct dancing is close to floor. This rules out both Scottish Country dance and Riverdance. The steps are understated, and the feet are so in time with the music that the feet themselves might be said to be instruments. It is all in the feet – not the upper torso. To put it in the piping vernacular, it is as if the dancer were doing crunluaths with his toes. Now think of that for subtle feet – that’s close to the floor.

 Since we still share the same music we get absorbed in some odd questions about where it might be going. All of us know that the musical heritage is fragile. The challenge for each generation is recruitment and preservation but these goals are not necessarily harmonious – recruitment may be enhanced by change and preservation can steer away the young and innovative.

Piper’s Parade in Sydney, Cape Breton, some time in the 1950s.

At this time in Cape Breton a struggle for authenticity is going on. It is the young people who represent Cape Breton to the world. Culturally, they are totally unlike their predecessors. Their raison d’étre is not tied to the community nor even to the community dance. They do not embody the culture and represent it as did the earlier generations but increasingly they represent themselves. Moreover, the culture they come from is disintegrating demographically and socially. The language, stories, and self-identification of Gaels as a people is disappearing. Kinship has broken down as the main form of social organisation, or as the older people would put it, “people no longer know who they are”. Yet, and here is a paradox, in terms of international renown, the fiddler is doing better financially than at any time in the past. They get in a night what fiddlers once made in a year. The fiddle is now being studied (see Kate Dunlay and David Greenberg’s Traditional Violin Music of Cape Breton).

Money is not all. Correctness has disappeared as a criteria for performing. Players play too fast, they play the first part of a tune do a turn and then skip the next four parts, they regularly miss entire lines and insert bars where they are not supposed to and they introduce tunes heard round the world on CDs. In step dancing, Irish steps have been introduced. Riverdance, an American abomination of Irish dancing – a dance sure to increase the number of groin injuries among normal beer drinking populations was recently shown on a Halifax produced television show entitled ‘Electric Celtic’. We watched in shock and fervently hoped that since the show was intended to be shown in both Canada and Scotland, the Riverdance bit was intended for your benefit.

Last year, one of the great innovators-bad boys of the new fiddling scene, Ashley Maclsaac came to the Antigonish Highland Games. He gave an unscheduled and free performance in the very traditional Concert Under the Stars. Alone on stage, in an awesome 25 minute session he completely reinvented the great strathspey, Tullochgorum. The reaction was predictable. He was decidedly incorrect but his variations of the theme were powerful in the way they were executed and musically brilliant. Nobody could ever dance to what he played that night but in that stilled audience it was clear to many that change in the music was not all bad. Here was something old being reinvented.

Many of my generation do not like a lot of the changes. Younger players may be able to reproduce the music that evolved over the past several generations but it appears certain they will not want to reproduce the culture. Last week when Natalie MacMaster began her North American tour she started it in Nashville, Tennessee and introduced a new dance routine. Young people are impressed with this. In their imagination they have already appeared in the large centres. What discovery means is to get dressed in a new raiment. Whatever it lacks in visual or dramatic form will be added. There are some who argue this is not the first time it happened to the music of the Gael. Allan MacDonald will play the next tune, a MacKay tune. The title will be no surprise … the interpretation of the tune may be related to the title, The Unjust Incarceration.

[We have no recording of Allan’s performance of this tune on the night. Instead we have Bruce Gandy’s rendition at the 2015 Glenfiddich.]:

* From the August 1998 Piping Times.

* Read Part 1.
* Read Part 2.