Western Prince Edward Island, Rounder CD 7014
Note: this is a twin CD set compilation of fiddlers from East and West Prince Edward Island
Prince Edward Island is home to one of the oldest, strongest, and most vibrant traditional fiddling cultures in North America. Fiddling was first established here by Scottish immigrants in the late eighteenth century, greatly influenced by Irish immigrants arriving a generation or two later, and strongly seasoned by the unique rhythmic sensibilities of the original European inhabitants of the Island: the Acadian-French.
Despite the strong revival of fiddling that has just recently burst into flower on PEI, old-time fiddling (as the older styles distinct to the Island are collectively known) is in imminent danger of passing from the scene. Instead of emulating older musicians from their own communities, many young PEI fiddlers are patterning their playing on the styles of such young high-profile artists from nearby Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, as Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac. Given the fact that the median age of the old-time players on the Island is now over 70, this two-volume Rounder set of recordings - Fiddlers of Western PEI and Fiddlers of Eastern PEI - may represent one of the last opportunities to hear these older Island styles.
Prince Edward Island is Canada's smallest province both in land area (2,000 sq. miles) and population (130,000). It lies about ten miles off the Atlantic Coast in a crook formed by the neighboring provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. As has been the case since the first days of European settlement, the major occupations are farming and fishing.
Because of a variety of historical factors - not the least of which was a long term policy by the Canadian Federal Government that promoted growth in the center and west of the country while ignoring the east - PEI was long an economic and cultural backwater. Many advances that urban North Americans take for granted - such as electricity, paved roads, and automobile travel - were not a part of rural Island life until well into the 1950s.
Most of the fiddlers who appear on this recording, therefore, grew up at a time when technology and community life were virtually the same as in the days of their great-grandfathers. People rarely traveled more than a few miles (a comfortable wagon or sleigh ride), and rural communities were responsible not only for maintaining their own livelihood, but for organizing and conducting their own entertainment.
Virtually every district (as rural communities were called) had its own stock of fiddlers who supplied the music for the dances that served as the primary form of recreation. The most common venue for these dances was the informal house party. Word would go out, a kitchen would be cleared, the fiddler would set himself up in the corner, and the neighbors would gather together for an evening of square dance form known as step-dancing.Back then... there was no radios, there was no television, and that was the only entertainment we had. In the wintertime probably once a week somebody'd have a house party. And... everybody'd bring a pound of sugar, and they'd make fudge, and we'd have fudge. And then they'd clear all the stuff out of the kitchen, and I'd get the fiddle out and away they'd go and they'd dance 'til twelve or one o'clock and that was an evening's entertainment. There was nothing else! And it was good pastime.Not only did fiddling and dance provide "entertainment," but they also served other important functions within the district. When money had to be raised for the upkeep of the local school house, the community held a fiddle-dance. When the local church needed support, it scheduled dances as part of a "tea party" or parish picnic. When a wedding was decided upon virtually the first act of the families involved was to line up the fiddler.
Archie Stewart, Milltown Cross
If this all sounds a bit familiar to devotees of Southern and mid-Western fiddling, this is probably no accident. In all likelihood, there was once a pan-North american fiddle culture which developed in the nineteenth century as immigrants of Celtic heritage established themselves in various parts of the New World. As "modernity" progressed, this larger scene seems to have shrunk to a number of disconnected pockets (the Appalachians, the Ozarks, the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and so on.)
Making music in Island districts was not just the province of the fiddler. Most residents knew at least the more common tunes by heart, and a fair percentage excelled in an activity known as tuning, jigging, or (in Acadian communities) as turlutting - singing fiddle tunes with full rhythmic nuance using abstract vocables or nonsense lyrics. There's a brief example of this art as performed by Armand Arsenault at the conclusion of this recording.
Music was passed down between the generations by ear. A fiddler learned his first tunes by listening to the playing and jigging of family or community members. By the time most youngsters were old enough to manipulate a fiddle, they had already committed to memory a large portion of the local repertoire.
Many young fiddlers developed ears so sharp that they could absorb the essence of a tune in a couple of hearings. According to most accounts, retrieving a new tune from memory was often a subconscious process. A fiddler would awaken in the middle of the night, be lying abed in the morning, or be at work and a recently heard tune would appear to him in its entirety. If a fiddle could then be immediately got hold of, the tune could be picked out and retained in memory. Otherwise it was lost.
The art of fiddling was believed to be an inheritable gift, like hair and eye color. One still common theory holds that great fiddling skips a generation, and that those who have fiddling grandfathers on both sides (like J.J. Chaisson on the Eastern PEI recording) are most likely to be themselves recipients of the gift.
As indication that it was inheritable, Islanders could point to the fact that fiddling in many areas was dominated by large families. Interestingly, such households - where at least one parent and several children played the instrument - produced most of the Island's few active female fiddlers. One family that was renowned for its female fiddlers was that of Joe à Bibienne Arsenault of Abram Village, Prince Co. In fact, his daughter Zélie-Anne Arsenault Gaudet (who plays harmonica on this recording) and several of her sisters were among the first female fiddlers on PEI to play regularly at community dances and entertainments.
The Island fiddle repertoire these days is a hodge-podge of tunes from a variety of national and regional traditions. The initial stock of tunes wa brought along by Scottish and Irish fiddlers. Over the years this has been supplemented by local composing, travel, and by access to tune-books (a music-reader in the community would play tunes from printed collections for ear-players to learn). In the last couple of generations, radio and recordings have also become an important factor. Today, the Island repertoire features tunes - not only from Scotland and Ireland - but from Cape Breton Island, mainland Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, New England, and the Southern United States.
Radio and Recordings
Although Island fiddling first appeared on radio in the early 1920s, its presence there was relatively short-lived and had little musical impact. After 1939, local fiddle-music broadcasting was almost exclusively dominated by Don Messer - a New Brunswick fiddler whose ban-oriented straight-ahead playing style was actually quite foreign to Islanders. Broadcasts featuring the music of fiddle players from nearby Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia were also a major factor on PEI and they eventually became so popular among Islanders that there hardly seemed to be any need for a home-grown product.
Among most old-time PEI fiddlers, the major influence of radio and recordings has been on repertoire, not playing style. Nearly every player has learned tunes from Messer's broadcasts, or from broadcasts of recorded material by such Cape Breton players as Winston "Scotty" Fitzgerald and Angus Chisholm. Québecois and Southern US tunes have also been picked up via broadcast. Regardless of where the tunes came from, however, they were generally adapted by each Island fiddler and played in the distinct style of his or her home area.
In some cases, such tunes have undergone marked changes in just a couple of generations. The common North American tune, St. Anne's Reel is a case in point. It first reached the Island in the 1930s via broadcasts from Québec. Since step-dancers were unable to get good lift from the tune in its original form, alterations had to be made in its melody. This transformation is most evident in the western part of the Island, as can be heard in the version by Dennis Pitre on this recording.
Some Island players have indeed altered their styles due to the influence of radio. Over the last couple of generations, for example, many fiddlers from northeastern Kings County have been very heavily influenced by the Cape Breton playing style (see in particular selections by Peter Chaisson Sr., Peter Chaisson Jr., and J.J. Chaisson on the Eastern PEI recording). There are also a number of other individuals scattered throughout the Island whose playing styles have been distinctly influenced by radio. Two who immediately come to mind (both on this recording) are Peter Doiron (who patterned his style largely on Don Messer's) and Eddy Arsenault.
Sense Island fiddling was more or less banished from the world of radio, no superstyle (a dominant individual's sound which becomes a template for future generations) ever had a chance to develop here. Consequently, many regional styles have retained their vigor. For purposes of identification, the reader should be aware that PEI is tri-sected into three counties called (moving from east to west) Kings, Queens, and Prince.
The most obvious stylistic division on the Island today is between the Scottish-influenced Eastern PEI style, and the Acadian-influenced Western PEI style. This dichotomy is most extreme as you approach the periphery of the Island. Fiddlers from the Northeast Kings County (right across the water from Cape Breton) - like the aforementioned members of the Chaisson family - play a distinctly Scottish repertoire, are prone to moderate tempos, and use quite a bit of ornamentation. Fiddlers from Western Prince County (across the water from a heavily Francophone portion of New Brunswick) - like Dennis Pitre - play more of an Acadian and general North-American repertoire, use faster tempos and decorate their tunes with bow-driven syncopations.
Interestingly, these regional traits hold regardless of ethnic background. When West-Prince fiddler Sydney Bagole (whose background is Cornish and Scottish) plays some older reels like "The Twin Sisters" (this recording), his approach is not unlike that of his Acadian-French neighbors. Similarly, the strongest exponents of Scottish-oriented Cape Breton-style fiddling in the Northeast Kings region are the Chaissons, whose origin in primarily Acadian-French.
According to old-timers, these East-West stylistic differences were in place long before the first Cape Breton recordings began to appear in the mid-1930s. today, the fiddler whose playing probably most reflects the sound of Northeast Kings fiddling before the days of Cape Breton influence is George MacPhee (Eastern PEI recording). Alternatively, Carl & Jackie Webster - whose father Jack was once the best known player in central Kings Co. - have a sound that is probably more or less in the same range.
One player who has successfully blended the modern Cape Breton style with the West Prince fiddling style is Eddy Arsenault (West PEI recording). The resulting sound - which has the lyric ornateness of the East and the syncopated drive of the West - has been so influential in his home region of Prince County (known as the Evangeline Coast) that a distinctive repertoire and "sub-style" of playing has evolved there in recent years.
Coexisting with this Scottish / Acadian axis is a style - known sometimes as Old Island Style - which I consider a survival from the "pan-North American" fiddling culture alluded to above. To me ear, it is reminiscent of Southern US fiddling from the earliest recording era, before the recording industry had begun to transform it. One area where this style is particularly entrenched is Southern Kings County. Two exponents from that area - both of whom appear on the Eastern PEI recording - are Attwood O'Connor and Archie Stewart. On this recording, the style crops up in some of the slower selections played by Sid Baglole, and to some degree in the playing of Harry Lecky.
Some notice here should be taken of the Irish influence on PEI fiddling. Because the pattern of Irish settlement was scattered, no distinctly regional Irish style survived into the twentieth century. There are plenty of nineteenth century Irish tunes in circulation here, however, and players of Irish descent have certainly left an indelible mark on each of the Island's various regional styles.
Instrumental accompaniment was fairly rare at house parties and district dances until the 1930s. In a practice which continues to this day (as can be heard on many of these selections), most popular accompaniment instrument prior to the 1930s was the pump organ. Although this instrument has gone out of fashion, we wished for reasons of historical interest to resurrect the sound here. Margaret Ross MacKinnon graciously agreed to dust off her pump-organ skills, resulting in several lovely cuts on both albums, such as the Princess Reel (Western PEI) and The Watermelon (Eastern).
When the piano became popular here, pump organists merely transferred their accompaniment approach as best they could to the new instrument. this organ-based piano style can be heard on this recording on cuts such as Island Boy, (pianist: Irene Gallant), and Farmer's Reel (pianist: Margaret MacKinnon). There are two other more recent keyboard styles that can be heard on these recordings. First, there's a bass-line and counter-melody rich approach descended from the one used by Don Messer's band (see Blue Mountain Hornpipe on the Eastern PEI recording, pianist: Judy Lowe). Then, there's the powerful, highly active style patterned on the newer approaches to the instrument coming out of Cape Breton (see The Prince Edward Island Wedding Reel on the Eastern PEI recording with pianist Kevin Chaisson, and The Bear River Jig medley on the Western recording with pianist Megan Bergeron).
Guitar was not considered of much account as an accompaniment on PEI until the 1950s. From that time until a few years ago, its portability made it the accompaniment instrument of choice in many parts of the Island. since equally portable electronic keyboards have become available, however, the guitar is once more beginning to recede into the background.
Decline, Resurgence and Survival
The mid-1950s through the early 1970s saw great changes come to the Island - rural electrification, mass communications, improved roads, widespread automobile usage, mechanized agriculture, and school consolidation. the community was no longer the center of each Islander's universe, and local fiddle music and dance were suddenly just one of several entertainment options.
By the mid 1970s, community fiddle-dance events had virtually disappeared. As the importance and visibility of fiddling declined, the art no longer drew youngsters to its fold. It seemed inevitable that old-time fiddling would pass from the scene.
By the late 1970s some fiddlers became sufficiently alarmed by this state of affairs to do something about it. Several county-based branches of a Prince Edward Island Fiddlers' Association were formed, and each organized a series of annual fiddle concerts and fiddle festivals. Proceeds from these events were often used to support group fiddle lessons aimed primarily at youngsters.
Nostalgia for a rapidly receding past has been an ally of the PEI Fiddlers' Association since the early days of its inception. This has led to a revival of fiddle-dances in many Island communities, and to the development of events called ceilidhs (pronounced KAY-leys - Gaelic for "musical evenings") which mimic to some degree the atmosphere of the old house parties. Another aspect of this phenomenon has been the development of a widespread demand for formal step-dance instruction.
Until the last couple of years, I was convinced that the return of fiddling to PEI would be a long, slow process. Happily, I was wrong. Suddenly all the hard work put in by the Fiddlers' Associations and its many sympathizers began to bear fruit, and young fiddlers of distinction are now cropping up nearly everywhere.
Although there is reason for optimism, the survival of old-time fiddling on PEI is far from assured. As noted above, many young players at the moment seem to be in the process of emulating Cape Breton players. One can only hope that some of these youngsters will eventually begin to explore the treasure trove that is their own musical heritage.
The Rounder Recordings
Sound engineer Paul MacDonald and I had just eight days to record this project. We logged a couple of thousand miles of driving, conducted over twenty recording sessions in fiddlers' kitchens and parlors, and amassed about twenty-five hours of raw tape.
As I called around to set up the project, it became quite clear that this was not going to merely be a re-enactment of an earlier set of sessions I had conducted in the early 90s. For one thing, a number of important players had - sadly - passed away in the intervening years. Others had developed physical conditions that hampered their playing.
Another factor at work here was the formality of the recordings. In the earlier sessions music was recorded in a festive, non-pressured atmosphere with no end product in mind. There was no mistaking, however, the "serious" nature of what MacDonald and I were up to this time.
Along these lines, it must be stressed that most of these fiddlers are not professional musicians. They are comfortable playing for dancing, or for the listening pleasure of their friends and neighbors. Most are not "performers," nor are they conversant with the pressures and demands of modern recording. Such studio values as sharp beginnings and endings, thought-out arrangements, and multiple takes are quite foreign to them.
Considering this state of affairs, most of the fiddlers performed brilliantly. There was no denying however, that some were ill at ease under these pressured conditions.
What made this undertaking gratifying to me was listening to all these fiddlers as the sessions went on, knowing that their strong, lively, and intensely personal music will now - in some form at least - always be with us.
Ken Perlman, Arlington, Massachusetts
About Ken Perlman
Ken Perlman is a well-known American banjo and guitar player, who has spent several years studying the music and customs of traditional fiddlers on PEI. His tune-book, The Fiddle Music of Prince Edward Island: Celtic and Acadian Tunes in Living Tradition (Mel Bay, 1966) won a 1997 Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation award n publishing for helping to "preserve, interpret, and disseminate our province's fiddling heritage." His latest album Island Boy (Wizmak Recordings), features settings of Prince Edward Island fiddle tunes for 5-string banjo and guitar.
Fiddlers: Eddie Arsenault; Peter Arsenault; Sidney Baglole; Anastasia DesRoches; Peter Doiron; Adam Driscoll; Zelie-Anne Arsenault Gaudet; Warren Leard; Harry Lecky; Leonard McDonald; Dennis Pitre; Alton Siliker
Produced by Ken Perlman; Engineered by Paul MacDonald
Tracks: Island Boy; Acadian Reel; The Brae Reel; Princess Reel; Denny Pitre's Reel*; The Dragger's Reel; Bear River Jig / Mary Hughes Jig; Shandon Bells; The Miramichi Fire; Beautiful Sunday; Farmer's Reel; Twin Sisters; Herring Reel; Sugar in the Gourd; Heather's Breakdown; The House of MacDonald; Old Timer's Reel; Great George Street Waltz; Ottawa Valley Reel; Zella's Harmonica Reel; Tavern in the Town; St. Anne's Reel
The Fiddlers on the West RecordingEastern Prince Edward Island, Rounder CD 7014
- Eddy Arsenault: Born 1921; resides St. Chrysostom, Prince Co; occupation: retired lobster fisherman
- Peter Arsenault: born 1960; occupation: house painter
- Sidney Baglole: born 1912; resides Freetown, Prince Co.; occupation: retired farmer
- Anastasia DesRoches: born 1973; resides: Summerside, Prince Co; occupation: professional musician
- Peter Doiron: born 1924; resides Summerside, Prince Co; occupation: retired Canadian Air Force chef
- Adam Driscoll: born 1983; resides: Summerside, Prince Co
- Zélie-Anne Arsenault-Guadet; former married name Poirier; born 1922; resides: Wellington; occupation: house wife, handicrafts
- Warren Leard: born 1925; resides: Coleman, Prince Co; occupation: operated flour mill
- Harry Lecky: born 1929; resides: Millburn, Prince Co; occupation: farmer
- Leonard McDonald: born 1933; resides: Emyvale; occupation: retired farmer, carpenter, potato inspector
- Dennis Pitre; born 1941; resides: St. Felix; occupation: merchant, farmer, fisherman
- Alton Silliker: born 1954; resides: O'Leary, Prince Co
Island Boy (Dennis Pitre, fiddle; Vincent Doucette, guitar; Irene Gallant, piano) - This cut shows the quintessential Western PEI Acadian fiddle style - fast tempo, singing fiddle, infectious rhythm, and quite a bit of syncopation. The tune is a variant of the Irish jig Larry O'Gaff that has been converted into a reel, and it is also known as Larry O'Gaff Reel.
Acadian Reel by Edward P Arsenault (Eddy & Peter Arsenault, fiddles; Hélène Arsenault Bergeron, electric keyboard; Grady Poe, guitar) - To sort out the various Arsenaults: fiddler Eddy Arsenault from St. Chrysostom, Prince Co. is playing on this recording along with his son Peter (fiddle) and his daughter Hélène Arsenault Bergeron (piano). On some other cuts, Eddy is accompanied on guitar by his brother Armand. The tune - which has become a standard in western PEI - was written by another fiddler from nearby Wellington named Edward P Arsenault. Double fiddle work is rare on PEI so this is a special treat.
The Brae Reel (Eddy Arsenault, fiddle; Armand Arsenault, guitar; Hélène Arsenault Bergeron, electronic keyboard) - this tune has been in circulation in western PEI for at least a few generations, and local lore holds that it was composed by a fiddle player named Preston MacKinnon. By the way, Eddy now has his own cassette, called Piling on the Bois Sec (for copies: Eddy Arsenault, St. Chrysostom, PEI, Canada).
Princess Reel (Sid Baglole, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, pump organ) - This is one of the most widely played tunes on PEI. It originated in New Brunswick, probably reached western PEI in the 1920s, and started to spread toward the eastern end of the Island perhaps a decade later. You can hear very clearly on this cut the gentle interplay between fiddle and pump organ that was the hallmark of ensemble playing on PEI before the Second World War.
Denny Pitre's Reel (Dennis Pitre, fiddle; Vincent Doucette, guitar; Irene Gallant, piano) - This is a truly rousing version of what appears to be a distinctly western-PEI tune. There is no local title, so I have named it for the player from whom it was collected.
The Dragger's Reel by Eddy Arsenault (Eddy Arsenault, fiddle; Armand Arsenault, guitar; Hélène Arsenault Bergeron, electronic keyboard) - Fiddle-music aficionados will note this tune's similarity to the by now quite familiar Hughie Shortie's Reel by Cape Breton fiddler Johnny Wiilmot. Whether this is a case of "convergent evolution" or inadvertent emulation is hard to say.
Bear River Jig by Kevin Chaisson / Mary Hughes Jig by Kevin Chaisson / Shandon Bells (Anastasia DesRoches, fiddle; Megan Bergeron, electronic keyboard) - This is a fine example of playing by a member of the new generation of Island fiddlers. The first two tunes are by piano player Kevin Chaisson, whose accompaniment is featured on the Eastern PEI recording. The last tune is of Irish origin, and is named for a bell tower in the city of Cork.
The Miramichi Fire (Dennis Pitre, fiddle; Vincent Doucette, guitar; Irene Gallant, piano) - This tune commemorates an 1825 forest fire in the Miramichi River valley of New Brunswick. The blaze is said to have been so powerful that it was visible from Western PEI. For the basis of stylistic comparison, I have also included a version of this tune on the Eastern PEI recording.
Beautiful Sunday (Harry Lecky, fiddle; Bernice Leard, piano; Eugene Gallant, guitar) - Lecky recalls first hearing the tune on Country and Western music broadcasts during the '50s. Fans of American old-time music will especially appreciate the wonderful ensemble sound these old friends are able to generate.
Farmer's Reel (Leonard McDonald, fiddle; Margaret MacKinnon, electronic keyboard; Paul Mark McDonald, guitar) - Also known as Golden Wedding Reel this is one of the most widely played tunes on the Island. It seems to have a very special kick when played by fiddlers from McDonald's central PEI region.
The Twin Sisters (Sid Baglole, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, piano) - Also known as Pigeon on the Gate, or Pigeon on the Gatepost, this is also one of the Island's standards. In this version, an Acadian-influenced style of bowing is clearly evident.
Herring Reel (Eddy Arsenault, fiddle; Armand Arsenault, guitar; Hélène Arsenault Bergeron, electronic keyboard) - This key-of-F tune is in general circulation throughout the Canadian Maritimes. As this cut indicates, many Island fiddlers have developed fingering shortcuts that allow them to function quite well in some of the "flat keys".
Sugar In The Gourd (Sid Baglole, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, piano) - This tune is usually associated with the Southern US, but Baglole claims to have learned it from fiddlers in his community before the days of broadcasting.
Heather's Breakdown by Peter Doiron (Peter Doiron, fiddle; George Brothers, guitar) - Doiron named this tune for a friend. As noted in the general introduction, his playing style reflects the Don Messer legacy.
The House of MacDonald (Warren Leard, fiddle; Bernice Leard, piano; Eugene Gallant, guitar) - There was little waltzing - or waltz-playing - on the Island prior to the 1940s. Even after it became established, there were few appropriate tunes in circulation and fiddlers had to adapt songs - like this one - to the purpose. Also known as The Massacre at Glen Coe, the melody has long been associated with a set of lyrics commemorating the near annihilation of the rebellious MacDonald Clan of Glen Coe, Scotland by the pro-British Campbell Clan c 1690.
Homeward Bound / Jerome's Farewell to Gibraltar (Leonard McDonald, fiddle; Margaret MacKinnon, electronic keyboard; Paul Mark McDonald, guitar) - These two tunes are played together as a medley throughout eastern and central PEI. Homeward Bound is a Canadian Maritimes tune which seems to be a variant of a nineteenth century reel called Gem of Ireland (see 1000 Fiddle Tunes, now available under its original title Ryan's Mammoth Collection). Jerome's Farewell... is related to the Irish tune, Boys of the Lough.
Carlton County Breakdown by Earl Mitton (Dennis Pitre, fiddle; Vincent Doucette, guitar; Irene Gallant, piano) - Mitton was a prominent New Brunswick fiddler and recording artist. This tune is now quite widespread throughout PEI but also seems to particularly suit the western-PEI style of playing.
Sidney Baglole's Reel (Sid Baglole, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, piano) - On surface this seems to be a fairly rare tune, but it could be a hybrid of Grand Valley Reel (by Cec MacEachern, an Islander who played with Don Messer) and Western Gem Reel (see 1000 Fiddle Tunes).
Rippling Water Jig (Leonard McDonald, fiddle; Margaret MacKinnon, electronic keyboard; Paul Mark McDonald, guitar) - This tune is usually associated with the playing of Don Messer.
Money Musk (Zélie-Anne Arsenault Gaudet, harmonica; Jacques Arsenault, guitar) - In the old days, when no fiddle player could be obtained people would sometimes dance to the mouth organ. Money Musk is a very well known tune of Scottish origin.
Joe MacKinnon's Reel (Leonard McDonald, fiddle; Margaret MacKinnon, electronic keyboard; Paul Mark McDonald, guitar) - This tune was named for a local fiddler. According to engineer Paul MacDonald, it is also played in Cape Breton under the name Douglas Hornpipe.
High Level Hornpipe (Alton Silliker, fiddle; Florence Young, piano; Eugene Gallant, guitar) - This tune was written by nineteenth century Scottish composer James Hill, and was named after the High Level Bridge over the River Tyne in Newcastle, England. There seem to be both Acadian and Messer-like influences at work in Silliker's up-tempo version.
White River Stomp (Harry Lecky, fiddle; Bernice Leard, piano; Eugene Gallant, guitar) - Lecky got this tune from radio in the 1940s, probably from the playing of Don Messer. As remarked to me by more than one southern music enthusiast, if you recorded the sound of scratches over this cut, it would not seem out of place on an anthology of Southern US string band music from the late '20s. Incidentally, Lecky learned his style of fiddling from an uncle named Alton MacIsaac (b about 1910).
Latex Jig by Peter Arsenault (Peter Arsenault, fiddle; Grady Poe, guitar; Hélène Arsenault Bergeron, electronic keyboard) - Peter Arsenault's playing style puts him more or less in the camp of younger Island fiddlers. He has become a fairly prolific tune-smith in the last few years. This plaintive jig was named for a kind of house-paint.
St. Anne's Reel (Dennis Pitre, fiddle; Vincent Doucette, guitar; Irene Gallant, piano) - The process by which this tune was originally picked up from Québec broadcasts and transformed on the Island to suit the needs of local step-dancers has already been noted.
Old Timer's Reel (Sid Baglole, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, pump organ) - This tune seems to be a hybrid - the first or "A-part" appears on some other recordings with an entirely different second or "B-part". Old Timer's was first recorded and broadcast by Don Messer in the 1940s, but the tune could very well have been in circulation long before its first recorded appearance.
Great George Street Waltz by George Brothers (Peter Doiron & Adam Driscoll, fiddles; George Brothers, guitar) - Brothers named this tune for a street in the provincial capital of Charlottetown. Doiron is joined for a duet on this cut by his grandson and favorite fiddle-student Adam Driscoll (aged 14). The overall sound and harmonies here are far more typical of central Canadian and western-swing fiddling than they are of Island fiddling. The result is so compelling, however, that I just had to include it here. Doiron and Driscoll have their own cassette, Adam & Grandpa (for copies: Peter Doiron, 368 Duke St., Summerside, PEI, Canada)
Ottawa Valley Reel (Eddy Arsenault, fiddle; Armand Arsenault, guitar; Hélène Arsenault Bergeron, electronic keyboard) - Named for a part of Ontario province that has its own strong fiddling tradition, this is another very widely played PEI tune. It has been attributed to a variety of recent fiddle composers from New Brunswick - such as Ned Landry (who wrote another tune with the same title), Earl Mitton (whose widow denies his authorship), and Don Messer - but the tune probably dates back to the 1920s or even earlier.
Zélie's Harmonica Reel by Z. Gaudet (Zélie-Anne Arsenault Gaudet, harmonica; Jacques Arsenault, guitar) - This tune was composed on the spot some years ago during a radio broadcast.
Tavern In The Town (Sid Baglole, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, pump organ) - This cut takes us back to the early part of the twentieth century - both in terms of the tune being played (which is indeed the old "Gay '90s" campfire favorite), and the style of performance, which combines the delicate interplay of fiddle and pump organ.
St. Anne's Reel (Armand Arsenault, unaccompanied vocal) - This "parting shot" is a short example of jigging or tuning. As can be heard here, the tuner generally "taps" his feet in the same manner as fiddlers. In the old days, tuners would sometimes be called upon to provide music for a dance if no fiddler was available.
Fiddlers: JJ Chaisson; Peter Chaisson Jr; Peter Chaisson Sr; George MacPhee; Angus McPhee; Attwood O'Connor; Archie Stewart; Carl Webster; Jackie Webster; Elliot Wight
Produced by Ken Perlman; Engineered by Paul MacDonald
Tracks: The PEI Wedding Reel /Big John MacNeil; Fiddlin' Phil; Blue Mountain Hornpipe; The Watermelon; Lord MacDonald's Reel / The Chaisson Reel; Green Fields of America (PEI setting); Pride of the Ball / The Drunken Piper; Maid on the Green / Kenmure's Awa'; MacSwain's Reel; North ?Side Tune; Souris Breakwater; Miss Lyall Strathspey / The Clumsy Lover / Sleeping Maggie / Black Mill; Stan's Jig; The Walk on Water Reel; Jay's Reel; The East Newk of Fife; Isle of my Birth; The Milltown Cross Fire; Tarbolton Lodge / The Burnt Leg; Liberty Two-Step; MacKinnon's Rant / Johnny's Reel; The Miramichi Fire; The Haggis / The Bird's Nest; The Rose in the Garden; Paddy on the Turnpike; Mr Murray / The Miller o' Drone / The Dusky Meadow / The Yetts of Muckart / Miss Lyall Reel / Picnic Reel / Little Donald in the Pigpen; Nelly Grey
The Fiddlers on the West Recording
*Peter Chaisson, Sr (locally known as "Old Peter") is uncle to Peter Chaisson Jr (locally known as "Young Peter"), who in turn is uncle to JJ Chaisson.
- JJ Chaisson: born 1982; resides: Bear River, Kings Co*
- Peter Chaisson Jr: born 1941; resides: Bear River, Kings Co; occupation: iron worker*
- Peter Chaisson Sr: born 1929; resides: Bear River, Kings Co; occupation: farmer, laborer*
- George MacPhee: born 1941; resides: Monticello; occupation: fisherman, carpenter, laborer
- Angus McPhee: born 1929; resides: Mt. Stewart; occupation: lobster fisherman
- Attwood O'Connor: born 1925; resides: Milltown Cross; occupation: retired fisherman, lumberman, heavy equipment operator
- Archie Stewart: born 1917; resides: Milltown Cross; occupation: retired carpenter, plant forman
- Carl Webster: born 1938; resides: Cardigan; occupation, farmer, postman
- Jackie Webster: born 1932; resides: Cardigan; occupation: retired ferry worker
- Elliot Wight: born 1935; resides: North river; occupation: electrician
The PEI Wedding Reel /Big John MacNeil (Peter Chaisson Sr, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, electronic keyboard) - Prince Edward Island Wedding reel was used to accompany a special step-dance among bride, groom, best man, and bridesmaid at the opening of old Island wedding festivities. big John MacNeil, a tune by Scottish fiddle-composer Peter Milne (1824-1908), is very widely played in both the Scottish and Canadian traditions.
Fiddlin' Phil (Peter Chaisson Jr, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, piano) - This tune appeared as Phiddlin' Phil in nineteenth century North American tune books. while it is certainly related to the Southern US tune Dubuque, this Kings County variant is sufficiently distinctive to be considered more or less a separate entity. By the way, Chaisson Jr's playing can also be heard on a CD / Cassette called The road to Rollo Bay (for copies: Peter Chaisson, Jr, Bear River, PEI, Canada)
Blue Mountain Hornpipe by Cec MacEachern (Elliot Wight, fiddle; Judy Lowe, electronic keyboard; Ed Drover, guitar) - MacEachern wrote this tune when he was playing fiddle and guitar in Don Messer's band. It has since become quite widespread on the Island. Incidentally, Wight and Lowe have played a weekly square dance together for years.
The Watermelon (Attwood O'Connor, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, pump organ; Stanley Bruce, guitar) - It's not clear where this tune came from (O'Connor recalls learning it in the 1930s or 40s from other community fiddlers), but I wouldn't be surprised if there was some kind of southern US connection. Note how the gentle wall of sound provided by the pump organ is a perfect offset for guitar and fiddle.
Lord MacDonald's Reel / The Chaisson Reel (Peter Chaisson Sr, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, electronic keyboard) - Although its popularity is beginning to wane, Lord MacDonald's Reel has been for generations the most widely played tune on the Island. The Southern US variant of the tune is known as Leather Britches. The Chaisson Reel - sometimes called Kennedy's Reel - has long been associated in northeastern PEI with the playing of the Chaisson family.
Green Fields of America (PEI Setting) (Jackie Webster, fiddle; Paul MacDonald, guitar) - This is an entirely different tune from the common Irish melody that carries the same name. According to tradition it was first brought to the Island by the whistling of a Newfoundland sailor.
Pride of the Ball / The Drunken Piper (George MacPhee, fiddle; Daisy McAllan*, guitar) - These two tunes have been played along the north shore of Kings Co. for generations. Pride of the Ball was a favorite of MacPhee's grandfather, for whom it is still known locally as Roddy Joe's Reel. It resembles to some degree both the Irish tune Swallowtail Reel, and the A-modal setting of Twin Sisters / Pigeon on the Gatepost (See the Western PEI recording). The Drunken Piper is a Scottish pipe-tune, here converted to reel (fast dance-tune) form.
*McPhee's accompanist is using a pseudonym
Maid on the Green / Kenmure's Awa' (Peter Chaisson Sr, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, electronic keyboard) - Chaisson Sr has a very powerful style of jig-playing. Note his usual practice of using a broken chord across all four strings as an accent in the Irish tune Made on the Green. Kenmure's Awa' is a Scottish tune, most likely from the late eighteenth century.
MacSwain's Reel (Archie Stewart, fiddle; Chester MacSwain, guitar; Monroe Wheeler, electric piano) - MacSwain's father learned this tune during a sojourn in the woods of Nova Scotia. No fiddler himself, he whistled it to a local player named Harper Leeco, who in turn taught it to Stewart and others.
North Side Tune (Elliot Wight, fiddle; Judy Lowe, electronic keyboard; Ed Drover, guitar) - As its local name implies, this tune was frequently played along the north shore of Kings County. Originally, this melody was associated with an old British or Irish song called Sexton Ring the Bell.
Souris Breakwater (Jackie & Carl Webster, fiddles; Paul MacDonald, guitar) - For years I had heard Kings County fiddlers talk about this tune, but I was unable to find anyone who could still play it. Obviously, I had neglected to consult the Webster brothers. I have come across a close variant of this tune in the Irish music magazine Creoir called Paddy Finley's Fancy, which is traced to County Donegal.
Miss Lyall Strathspey / The Clumsy Lover / Sleeping Maggie / the Black Mill (JJ Chaisson, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, piano) - An excellent example of fiddling by the "new wave" of hot young Island players. All four tunes in this Cape Breton style medley are of Scottish origin. Miss Lyall Strathspey was called Panmure House in early collections; Sleeping Maggie has an Irish variant called Jenny's Chickens; The Black Mill (Gaelic name Muilean Dubb) is here played in B-modal instead of its usual key of A-modal. JJ has just come out with his own cassette called In The Genes (for copies: JJ Chaisson, Bear River, PEI, Canada)
Stan's Jig (Elliot Wight, fiddle; Judy Lowe, electronic keyboard; Ed Drover, guitar) - This is a modern tune by Cape Bretoner Stan Chapman. This selection shows the distinctive approach to jig playing displayed by fiddlers from Queens County.
The Walk on Water Reel (Attwood O'Connor, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, pump organ; Stanley Bruce, guitar) - O'Connor has no idea where this tune originated, but it has been on the go in his area since well before he appeared on the scene.
Jay's Reel (Jackie & Carl Webster, fiddles; Paul MacDonald, guitar) - This tune was often played on radio by fiddler Lem Jay of Mt Stewart, Queens County. Jay had a regular radio show on CFCY (Charlottetown) from 1923-31, and continued to appear annually on that station around the Christmas / New Year holiday until 1958.
The East Newk of Fife (A Kings Co. Version) (George MacPhee, fiddle; Daisy McAllen, guitar; Ken Perlman, 5 string banjo) - A Newk is a district. this is a nineteenth century Scottish reel, usually associated with the playing of fiddle virtuoso James Scott Skinner. The version played in northeastern Kings Co takes the tune, alters a few phrases, and turns it into a square dance number that absolutely rocks! By the way, this cut includes a cameo appearance on banjo by producer Ken Perlman.
Isle of My Birth by Lillian Frizzel (Elliot Wight, fiddle; Judy Lowe, electronic keyboard; Ed Drover, guitar) - Waltzes did not appear much in the repertoire of rural PEI fiddlers until the 1940s. consequently, there are very few locally composed waltzes in circulation. This one was written recently by a neighbor of Wight's.
The Milltown Cross Fire by Archie Stewart (Archie Stewart, fiddle; Chester MacSwain, guitar; Monroe Wheeler, electric piano) - Stewart wrote this one in response to a local conflagration that occurred near his home district of Milltown Cross in the summer of 1996.
Tarbolton Lodge / The Burnt Leg (Peter Chaisson Sr, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, electronic keyboard) - These are two nineteenth century tunes from the Scottish tradition. Tarbolton Lodge is known as Hatton Burn in the Skye Collection, and it has at least two local names on PEI - Calum Bridge and Paddy in the Cornfield. the Burnt Leg also appears in the Skye Collection, where it is said to have originated on the Isle of Skye.
Liberty Two-Step (Attwood O'Connor, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, pump organ; Stanley Bruce, guitar) - also locally known as Spanish Polka, this is the same Liberty tune played throughout the United States.
MacKinnon's Rant / Johnny Cope Reel (George MacPhee, fiddle; Daisy McAllen, guitar) - MacKinnon's Rant is a Cape Breton tune. Johnny Cope is an old Scottish tune that has been converted into a reel (Cope was an English general defeated by the Scots at the Battle of Prestonpans in the late seventeenth century).
Cock of the North / Uncle Jim (Elliot Wight, fiddle; Judy Lowe, electronic keyboard; Ed Drover, guitar) - These are two jigs in A-major. cock of the North is Scottish in origin, while Uncle Jim (also known as Steamboat March) is a North American tune.
Johnny's Reel by Archie Stewart (Archie Stewart, fiddle; Chester MacSwain, guitar; Monroe Wheeler, electric piano) - Archie wrote this one for his son.
The Miramichi Fire (Angus McPhee, fiddle; Murial Jay, piano) - This tune commemorates an 1825 forest fire on the Miramichi river valley of New Brunswick. the blaze is said to have been so powerful that it was visible from Western PEI. For the basis of stylistic comparison, I have included a version of this tune on both this and the Western PEI recording.
The Haggis / The Bird's Nest (Peter Chaisson Sr, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, electronic keyboard) - These two tunes of Scottish origin often associated with the playing of famed Cape Breton fiddler Angus Chisholm, although both tunes were almost certainly in circulation on PEI before he recorded them. Chaisson Sr was one of the first fiddlers in northeastern PEI to adopt the Cape Breton style and repertoire.
The Rose In The Garden (Attwood O'Connor, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, pump organ; Stanley Bruce, guitar) - This tune was apparently quite popular in Southern Kings Co some years ago, but it has since fallen out of favor. Its quirky melody seems tailor-made for present day players of Southern US "old-timey music."
Paddy On The Turnpike (Archie Stewart, fiddle; Chester MacSwain, guitar; Monroe Wheeler, electric piano) - There are several distinct variants of this tune in circulation on the Island. In this one, which appears to be only a couple of generations old, many of the modal aspects of the tune are changed to major.
Mr Murray / The Miller o' Drone / The Dusky Meadow / The Yetts of Muckart / Miss Lyall Reel / Picnic Reel / Little Donald in the Pigpen (Peter Chaisson Jr, fiddle; Kevin Chaisson, piano) - This Cape Breton style medley consists of two strathspeys (moderate tempo tunes associated with the Scottish tradition), a fast strathspey (which serves as a transition to reels), followed by four reels (fast dance tunes). Mr Murray is attributed in the Skye Collection to William Martin; The Miller o' Drone was written by famous Scottish composer Niel Gow (1721 - 1807); The dusky Meadow - the fast strathspey - is from Cape Breton. As for the reels, both The Yetts of Muckart and Miss Lyall are nineteenth century Scottish tunes. Picnic Reel is a Cape Breton tune, and Little donald in the Pigpen is a local tune named during a 1930s radio broadcast by fiddler Hector MacDonald of Bangor, Kings Co.
Nelly Gray (Attwood O'Connor, fiddle; Margaret Ross MacKinnon, pump organ; Stanley Bruce, guitar) - This is the well-known nineteenth century US tune by Benjamin Russel Hanby. Song melodies like this were often played at dance tempo and used for dance accompaniment. I chose to end on this tune because of its obvious connection with times gone by, both on the Island and in other parts of North America.
Produced and Annotated by Ken Perlman
Engineered by Paul MacDonald
Mastered by Laurie Flannery at Northeastern Digital, Southborough, Mass.
Dedicated to the memories of PEI fiddlers Jimmy Banks, Wilfred Bernard, Joe Kearney, Joe Macdonald, Stewart MacIntyre, Dan McPhee, Johnny Morrissey, Wilf Silliker, Ervan Sonier and Stephen Toole.
Special thanks to: All the accompanists, who as unsung heroes and heroines, gamely put up with our requests for longer sessions and multiple takes. And in particular to Margaret Ross MacKinnon and Kevin Chaisson, who went far out of their way to ensure that we'd never lack for backup. Attwood O'Connor for spending several days getting his old pump organ back in shape for use on this recording.
A Note To Musicians: Musicians should note
that standard music notation for version of almost all the tunes on this
recording appears in Ken Perlman's book, The Fiddle Music of Prince Edward
Island: Celtic & Acadian Tunes in Living Tradition (Mel Bay Publications).