Fiddling | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Fiddling (also known as Country, Folk, Celtic or Old Time fiddling, Old Time Music, or by cultural or regional names, eg, Scottish, Cape Breton, Ukrainian-Canadian, French-Canadian, Acadian, Newfoundland, Ottawa Valley, Down-East, Aboriginal, First Nations, Inuit, or Métis fiddling, among others).


Fiddling (also known as Country, Folk, Celtic or Old Time fiddling, Old Time Music, or by cultural or regional names, eg, Scottish, Cape Breton, Ukrainian-Canadian, French-Canadian, Acadian, Newfoundland, Ottawa Valley, Down-East, Aboriginal, First Nations, Inuit, or Métis fiddling, among others).

Until about 1960, fiddling was the principal medium of dance music in rural Canada. By virtue of its continuous history, dating from the 17th century, the extent of its past and current practice, and the manner in which it has mirrored the cultural development of Canada since the beginning of European habitation, it is our premier instrumental folk tradition. Although research and comparative work between older fiddle and dance traditions in various parts of the country has been somewhat sporadic, and sources are scarce on early practices in many areas, it is clear that many Scottish, Irish, English, French and American tunes which first came to Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries are still widespread in various forms, often modified by local practice. This early repertoire formed the basis of fiddle traditions that eventually extended throughout the country, passed along almost entirely through oral tradition with little formal teaching or musical notation involved. The tune repertoire has been continually augmented up to the present day by new immigration, original composition, and, in the 20th century, by electronic media - recordings, radio, television etc. - and, increasingly in recent years, written notation. Changing performance contexts from dances to contests and concert performance have also affected many aspects of the music, as has the rise of formal instruction in recent years. However, folk fiddling, based largely on British Isles models, is still an active practice in most areas of Canada. We can safely say that there are more practitioners at present than ever before in the nation's history.

The Historical Record to 1900

The earliest written record of violins in Canada that we know of comes from the Jesuit Relations of 1645: at a wedding on 27 November in Québec "there were two violins for the first time," and, at Christmas the same year "Martin Boutet played the violin." Although reports of fiddling are rare over the next 100 years, there are many references to "veillées" and other dances and balls; it can be assumed, given the common use of the violin by the early 1600s in Europe as a folk dance instrument, that fiddlers also provided music for many of these social events in New France. The dances most often noted are minuets, but galops, branles and the Trioly (from Brittany) are also mentioned. A manuscript, ca 1767, of 59 "contredanses françaises" (held in the Archives du Séminaire de Trois-Rivières) is probably the oldest written record of dances and their tunes in Canada; as far as we know, Canadian practice does not differ from that in France at that time. (See Dancing, pre-Confederation)

In the Hudson's Bay records for Moose Factory, 1749, it is noted, "having three Fidlers [sic] in the Factory, viz. Geo. Millar, Willm. Murray and James Short, our people celebrated the Evening with Dancing and Singing, and all were very merry." Evidence suggests that Scottish and English employees of the Hudson's Bay Company brought violins, dances and a repertoire of reels, jigs, marches and hornpipes to Canada, which seems to have been adopted and adapted by French-Canadian, Aboriginal and Métis players (the latter a mixture of Aboriginal, French and, to a lesser extent, Scottish, through intermarriage). These practices were then carried throughout much of the country by traders and adventurers. The introduction of the fiddle had an especially profound effect on many First Nations communities throughout northern Ontario, the Prairies and the northern territories, where fiddling frequently became the main form of musical expression as older Aboriginal practices were discouraged, outlawed, or simply diffused through the forcible relocation of peoples onto government-created reserves in the late 1800s.

Aboriginal (including Métis) and French-Canadian cultures were predominant throughout much of rural Canada until the early 1800s. Beginning in the late 1700s, however, immigrants of Scottish, Irish, English and German background began to arrive in number. Scottish music and dance traditions were reinforced by an influx of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders to Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island and parts of Ontario (especially Glengarry County). Irish traditions took hold particularly in Newfoundland, in the Miramichi area of New Brunswick, in the Ottawa Valley, and in many parts of Québec, though the cultural influence of Irish music has been profound throughout the entire country as Irish immigrants went on to settle in many rural and urban areas. Many Irish immigrants also worked in lumbering, a somewhat migrant lifestyle, allowing the traditions to spread over vast areas much as the earlier voyageurs had carried French-Canadian music. English practices are hard to separate from their more dominant Scottish and Irish cousins, but are common in 19th-century manuscripts such as that of Allen Ash in Ontario. For some reason, perhaps lesser mobility, they seem not to have had as wide or lasting an influence. Some tunes played in Canada have also been traced to probable German origin, eg, the "Seven-Step" (or "German Schottische") popular on the prairies and the "Jessica Waltz" in the Ottawa Valley.

Our main sources of information on 18th- and 19th-century practice are from written memoirs, play-bills from performances, and a few surviving manuscripts held in various libraries, museums and archives throughout the country. For example, a settler's account from Québec in the 1880s reads: "Throughout the evening I danced the cotillon, the cardeuse, the brandy, the quadrille, the belle Catherine" - all names of dances.

Nellie McClung in Grey County, Ontario in the 1880s refers to "Fisher's Hornpipe," "Jenny Lind," and the "Arkansas Traveler," while Will Donnelly, in a transcript from court testimony, attests to having played "Boney Crossing the Alps" to scare off hostile neighbours in Lucan Township, Ontario in 1879. Tune-books compiled by Frobisher, Lagueux, Lyman, Ash and Thorne (see Manuscript books) indicate a general 19th-century repertoire of waltzes, airs (usually song tunes), jigs, reels, hornpipes, marches and "quicksteps" (6/8 marches), most originating in the British Isles. These tunes were used for popular dances which spread from Europe to North America in the mid-19th century, including quadrille sets (three to six separate dances each with their own tune), couple dances (often called "round dances"), eg, waltzes, polkas, schottisches, mazurkas and the galope, and other specialty dances, eg, the waltz-quadrille and the valse-clog. Many of these dances are still well-known throughout much of central and western Canada, while some seem to survive only in Québec and the Ottawa Valley (the galope, valse-clog and longer quadrille sets, the latter also in Newfoundland).

Many US compositions also entered the repertoire in the 19th century via sheet music, tune books or aural tradition, influenced by travelling circus, minstrel and vaudeville shows. These compositions included such tunes as "Rickett's Hornpipe," "Durang's Hornpipe," "Turkey in the Straw," "Home Sweet Home," "The Jenny Lind Polka," "Year of Jubilo," "Marching Through Georgia," "Off to Charleston," "Arkansas Traveler," "Buffalo Gals," Over the Waves" and "Redwing," to name a few of the best-known examples. The US influence is also apparent in the still-common three-part quadrille set that largely supplanted the older French five- and six-part quadrilles in most of Canada outside Québec and Newfoundland. These were "called" square dances (led by someone calling out the moves to the dancers) and, unlike the older dances, did not require a specific tune. Nor did they require continuous step-dancing throughout as had been the style with the older Scottish-based dances. Other new dances, each with their own tune, probably also entered the repertoire around this time, including "The French Minuet," "The Jersey," "The Roberts," "The Rye Waltz" and "The Butterfly," all of US or European invention.

By the late 1800s, then, five broad stylistic areas of British Isles-based fiddling can be identified, although, within these, there were many distinct local repertoires and practices: French-Canadian in Québec and Acadia, including Labrador and the west coast of Newfoundland; Aboriginal/Métis in the northwest, northern Ontario and northern Québec; Scottish in Cape Breton, PEI, parts of Newfoundland and other pockets in Ontario and the west; Anglo-Canadian - the mixture of Scottish, Irish, English, German and US tunes popular in much of English-speaking Canada; and Newfoundland. While these five traditions would continue to interact with each other and absorb new influences, each has remained somewhat distinctive until the present day.

A new wave of immigration in the 1890s established other European music and dance traditions, especially Ukrainian, on the prairies. Some Ukrainian dances and wedding traditions have been adopted at non-Ukrainian celebrations, eg, the "Presentation," a receiving line for donations, held during the wedding reception to the accompaniment of long medleys of polka-type tunes. Ukrainian tunes have also been absorbed into the general polka and two-step repertoire of the west. Similarly, though to a lesser extent, tunes of other European traditions were popular in certain areas, following immigration patterns, eg, Romanian and Hungarian tunes in parts of Saskatchewan, Polish tunes around Wilno, Ontario, and Icelandic tunes in Gimli, Man. In contrast, the folk violin traditions of groups who tended to settle in urban areas - Jews, Greeks, Italians, etc. - have remained relatively separate from rural fiddle styles.

The Recording Age: 1920 - 75

The advent of recording and radio in the early 20th century had a dramatic effect on older fiddling traditions. Wide dissemination and the appeal of the new media inspired great imitation, creating a somewhat artificial hierarchy between those fiddlers who were heard on radio and records and those who weren't. This led to a new class of "professional" fiddlers whose styles and repertoire tended to overshadow the more varied personal approaches of former times. In some areas where local traditions were not recorded (much of the west and north, for example), people often abandoned them in favour of what they were hearing through the new media.

The first fiddlers to make commercial recordings in Canada were from Québec and Cape Breton. The Berliner Gramophone Company recorded several medleys of Jean-Baptiste Roy in Montréal for its Victor label in 1917-18. Columbia and Starr followed soon after. Québécois fiddlers who recorded in the 1920s and 1930s included J.B. Roy, Romueld Gagnier, J. Alex Donato, Antonio Gauthier, José Zaffiro, Arthur-Joseph Boulay, Isidore Soucy, Willie Ringuette, Fortunat Malouin, Joseph Ovila LaMadeleine, Joseph Allard, Joseph Larocque, Albert LaMadeleine, Leon Robert Goulet, Jean Carignan (with George Wade and His Cornhuskers), Percy Scott, Dennis O'Hara, Tezraf Latour, John Lajoie, La famille Lajoie, Joe Bouchard, Sylvio Gaudreau and Bernard Morin. Some tunes recorded by these early French-Canadian fiddlers became popular in the rest of Canada under English names, eg, "Reel de Ste. Anne" ("St. Anne's Reel") and "Reel de la tuque bleu" ("Snowshoe Reel"), both recorded by Joseph Allard. In the 1940s Albert Allard, Omer Dumas, Les Frères Pigeon, Tommy Duchesne, Henri Houde, Théodore Duguay, Gérald Lajoie, Edmond Pariseau, René Alain and Gérard Joyal joined the ranks of recorded fiddlers in Québec. Many of their recordings can now be accessed online at The Virtual Gramophone, a website operated by Library and Archives Canada.

Cape Breton fiddlers also began to record in 1928, beginning with Big Dan Hughie MacEachern and his Caledonian Scotch Band (led by Dan Sullivan on piano) for Columbia's Irish series in New York, followed by Colin Boyd for Brunswick, and The Inverness Serenaders (led by Alcide Aucoin from Cheticamp) and Alick (Alex) Gillis for Decca in Boston. In 1935, Bernie MacIsaac founded the Celtic label in Antigonish, Cape Breton, recording Dan J. Campbell, Angus Chisholm, Angus Allen Gillis, Hugh A. MacDonald and Dan R. MacDonald, followed by Bill Lamey and Johnny Wilmot in the 1940s, then Wilfred Gillis, Winston "Scotty" Fitzgerald, John A. MacDonald, Little Jack MacDonald, Joe MacLean, Joe Murphy, Dan Joe MacInnes, and Donald, Jimmie and Theresa MacLellan, among others. As in the case of the early recordings of French-Canadian fiddlers, these early 78s were influential in establishing certain tunes as standards, eg, "McNabb's Hornpipe," as recorded by Fitzgerald, and "Glengarry's Dirk," as recorded by Chisholm. Several local radio shows in Cape Breton featured live fiddlers from the 1930s through to the 1960s, but gradually shifted over to playing commercial recordings.

The first group featuring fiddle music to broadcast nationally was George Wade and His Cornhuskers (based in Toronto) on CRBC and then the CBC in the 1930s, featuring a young Jean Carignan as well as several other fiddlers - Bill, Francis, and Laury Cormier, Bill Martin, Ted Steven, and Johnny Bentley. A show from Cape Breton called "Cottar's Saturday Night" also aired in the 1930s, featuring Jimmie MacLellan. This was followed in 1944 by "Don Messer and His Islanders." Originally from New Brunswick, Messer moved in 1939 to Charlottetown, PEI, from where the national radio shows were broadcast. In 1959 he made the move to CBC television with "Don Messer's Jubilee," from Halifax. The program became the 2nd most popular show in the country (next to "Hockey Night in Canada") and remained on the air until 1969 when it was abruptly cancelled, causing a storm of protest and questions in the House of Commons. Messer's influence on fiddling throughout much of the country was profound. As a result of his wide exposure on radio, records and TV, Messer's style - smoother and less ornamented than that of the older French and Scots-Irish traditions, and heavily influenced by popular swing music of the 1930s and 1940s - gradually became synonymous in much of English Canada with the idea of Canadian "old-time fiddling." It must be noted, however, that certain areas with strong local traditions remained fairly impervious to his influence, especially Cape Breton, rural Newfoundland and French-speaking areas of the country.

Messer and the Islanders recorded their first tunes for Apex in 1942, including "The Operator's Reel," "The Belfast Jig" and "Cock of the North," followed shortly by "Big John McNeill." Other fiddlers in the Messer down-east style began to record in the late 1940s, eg, Ned Landry (New Brunswick), followed in the next 20 years by Ward Allen, Al Cherny, Peter Dawson, June Eikhard, Bill Guest, Ed Gyurki, Reg Hill, Jim Magill, Rudy Meeks, Bob Ranger, Graham Townsend and Eleanor Townsend (all from Ontario); Ivan Hicks and Earl Mitton (New Brunswick); Johnny Mooring and Cye Steele (Nova Scotia); Don Randell and Ted Blanchard (Newfoundland); Victor Pasowisty (Manitoba); King Ganam (Saskatchewan, known especially for western swing); and many others up to the present day. The Banff, Rodeo, and London labels were particularly active in the field.

The down-east style was further popularized during this period by contests, clubs, and dances throughout the country which adopted it as their standard. The first contest in Canada may have been one held in Charlottetown in 1926. Over the next decades, contests came and went throughout the country, with certain areas such as Cape Breton and Newfoundland opting out for the most part. Québec has maintained a continuous practice of small regional competitions and many First Nations and Métis communities encourage local style in contests, but most others are devoted to the Don Messer model - a formalized medley of waltz, jig and reel. The most long-standing events are The Canadian Open Old Time Fiddlers' Contest in Shelburne, Ontario (started in 1949), The Maritime Old Time Fiddling Contest in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia (established in 1950), The Swift Current Old Tyme Fiddling Contest in Saskatchewan (1965), and the Bobcaygeon (1970) and Pembroke (1975) contests. Fiddle clubs also began to be established in the late 1960s, some organized provincially with several local chapters, such as the British Columbia Old Time Fiddlers' Association (founded in 1969). These clubs often held regular jam sessions, concerts and/or dances, and some organized contests.

Recording activity west of Ontario and in Newfoundland began significantly later than in the east. The influential Manitoba fiddler Andy DeJarlis began recording for Quality in 1956, eventually releasing at least 33 LPs. Employing the down-east model, DeJarlis adapted many older tunes from Métis repertoire, losing some of the highly asymmetric phrasing and establishing a smoother, "professional" and widely-imitated version of the Métis tradition, now commonly known as "Red River" style. Sunshine Records, established in Winnipeg in 1974, has been the leader in releasing recordings of other fiddlers in this style, including Reg Bouvette, Marcel Meilleur (who performed with DeJarlis for many years), Mel Bedard (the first to identify himself as Métis on a recording), and many others. Since he was the only Métis player to record for so long, DeJarlis's influence in Aboriginal communities was especially profound. In the same manner that Messer's style came to dominate the idea of old-time fiddling in the east, many in the west view DeJarlis's approach as definitive.

The first recording of a Newfoundland dance tune (not commercially released) was "The Banks of Newfoundland," commissioned in 1923 by Sir Charles Hutton from New Brunswick, and performed by the Brunswick house band. As in the west, by the time Newfoundlanders began to record on Rodeo records in the mid-1950s, the down-east music (Messer-style) was already very popular, especially in more urban areas such as near American/Canadian air and naval bases (Goose Bay, Gander, Argentia, Stephenville), in St. John's and in the larger towns in Conception Bay. Consequently the style, accompaniment and choice of recorded repertoire were influenced by that style. Commercial recordings of Newfoundland instrumental music began in the 1956 with Traditional Jigs and Reels of Newfoundland, the first LP release of accordionist Wilf Doyle and His Orchestra, on which his wife Christine plays the fiddle. Doyle's repertoire was a mixture of Newfoundland dance tunes and down-east tunes, accompanied by drum kit and guitar. Although some fiddle music was included on the recordings of accordionist Ray Johnson, the first complete album of fiddle music released in Newfoundland was The Shamrocks, in 1957, which featured fiddlers Ted Blanchard and Don Randell playing mostly Don Messer tunes, accompanied by piano. Walter MacIsaac of Corner Brook released Musical Memories of the Codroy Valley, a selection of Scottish tunes, in 1978. The first commercially released recording which featured Newfoundland traditional dance music played on the fiddle in the traditional manner was Rufus Guinchard, Newfoundland Fiddler ca 1978.

The influence of US country music and bluegrass has been felt in Canadian fiddling since the 1940s, particularly in two ways: the introduction of a fiddle style that was a smooth distillation of older US folk styles (much as Messer had blended older Canadian and US styles) and the addition of singers to what had been formerly an instrumental format, thus expanding the role of the fiddler from that of soloist to accompanist. Many Canadian fiddlers established themselves especially in country music and bluegrass, including Vic Mullen from Nova Scotia; Abbie Andrews, Al Cherny, Brian Barron, Roly LaPierre and Peter Dawson from Ontario; "Fiddling Red" (Francis) Sabiston from Manitoba; King Ganam from Saskatchewan; and Fred Lang, Alfie Myhre and Frankie Rodgers in Alberta and BC (the latter three all known for their work with Wilf Carter). National television broadcasts included CTV's "Cross Canada Barndance" which recorded in several different cities (1961-62), CBC's "Country Hoedown" (1956-65) led by King Ganam in the early years, and the "Tommy Hunter Show" (1965-92) featuring house fiddler Al Cherny. Virtually every region of the country also had local radio shows featuring fiddlers, but a history of this activity has yet to be written. The longest running of these was probably the "CKNX Barn Dance" from Wingham, Ontario, which broadcast continuously from 1937 to 1963 and attracted fiddlers and country musicians from many areas of the country with its ability to provide regular employment performing both on air and at live events in the area. Fiddlers on the "Barn Dance" included Rossie Mann (composer of "Black Velvet Waltz"), Clare Adlam, Clifford Ambeault ("Lucky Ambo"), Ward Allen and Al Cherny.

Many hybrid forms of country music developed in Canada as the US influence mixed with regional and cultural elements. French-Canadian, Inuit, Aboriginal and Ukrainian communities all developed country-style music in their own languages and incorporated their own fiddle traditions, as did Newfoundland. Especially notable was a boom in country-influenced Ukrainian material in the late 1960s and 70s as recorded by Mickey and Bunny, Victor Pasowisty, Tommy Buick, the D-Drifters-5, Jim Gregrash, Boris Nowosad, Bill Prokopchuk, The Interlake Polka Kings and even Al Cherny (who made one recording of Ukrainian material) among others, largely for the V and Sunshine labels in Winnipeg. A parallel wave of Ukrainian recording activity took place in Alberta at the initiative of Ken Huculak and his Heritage Records company, which released over 80 discs between 1976 and 1992, featuring artists such as Metro Radomsky. In both Manitoba and Alberta, material ranged from instrumental dance music and traditional folk songs to country songs (often in Ukrainian) and comic material.

Fiddling and dancing were still a major form of rural social activity throughout the first half of the 20th century in much of the country. Many rural dance bands included an assortment of melody instruments besides violin - clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, etc. - along with guitars, banjos, pianos and bass. Some of these bands leaned more to the popular music of the day, while some depended largely on fiddle repertoire. As the 1960s and 70s progressed, however, it became clear that fewer and fewer young people were taking up the fiddle, turning more to the guitar and to newer forms of popular music based around singing - folk, country and rock and roll. It seemed that, in many areas, folk fiddling might simply fade away as its remaining practitioners aged.

The Revival

The noticeable decline in interest among youth led to concerted action in many areas. Clubs, contests, jamborees, camps, classes, festivals and cultural organizations were formed throughout the country as the Saturday night dance, which had been the mainstay of the tradition, declined. In Québec in the 1970s, folk music and fiddling became associated with the sovereignist movement, bringing renewed interest and vigour. Furthermore, a general spin-off of the 1960s revolution in music and values was that many young people, both urban and rural, began to look back to earlier folk traditions for their inspiration. This brought attention to many older players, especially those who had held on to their unique regional styles. Some traditional players made recordings for the first time, or re-released older ones, and many were asked to perform at national and international festivals. Among these were Newfoundland's Émile Benoit and Rufus Guinchard; Québec's André Alain, Louis "Pitou" Boudreault, Jean Carignan, Jean-Louis Labbé, Aimé Gagnon, Henri Landry, Hermas Réhel, Yvon Mimeault, and Jules and Jean-Marie Verret; Acadians Joseph Cormier, Félix Leblanc, Gilles Losier, Arthur Muise, and Eddy Poirier; Cape Breton's Beaton Family, John Campbell, Winnie Chafe, Jerry Holland, Theresa MacLellan, and Carl Mackenzie (all recorded by US label Rounder), as well as Howie MacDonald, Hugh (Buddy) MacMaster, Scotty Fitzgerald, John Donald Cameron, Wilfred Gillis, and Sandy MacIntyre (the last five, and Jerry Holland, members of the Cape Breton Symphony, featured on CTV's nationally televised "The John Allan Cameron Show"); and Aboriginal players such as Lee Cremo from Nova Scotia, James Cheechoo of Ontario's Moose Factory, Lawrence "Teddy Boy" Houle from Manitoba, John Arcand from Saskatchewan, and Angus Beaulieu and Richard Lafferty of the Northwest Territories.

This new "folk revival" movement helped to support many musicians and ensembles devoted to older folk styles, allowing them to make a career by learning from traditional singers, fiddlers and other instrumentalists and recasting the music for the concert stage. A significant aspect of this time period was the advance in recording technology, leading to a general move away from larger recording companies towards independent production and distribution - vinyl albums in the 1970s and 80s, soon replaced by cassettes and CDs. This allowed musicians to earn significantly more from the sale of their recordings than had been the case in earlier years.

Several artist-run companies formed to produce and/or distribute larger catalogues of recordings and, often, tune books as well. These included Pigeon Inlet Productions (Newfoundland), Cranford Productions (Cape Breton), Islander Records (Prince Edward Island), Le Tamanoir, Patrimoine and Trente Sous zéro in Québec, Falcon Productions and Borealis Records in Ontario, and Festival Distribution in BC. Several US labels with a traditional music mandate also took an interest in Canadian fiddlers, eg, Folkways, Shanachie, Rounder, Philo and Green Linnet.

During the latter quarter of the 20th century up to the present day, virtually every area of the country produced ensembles rooted in their own regional traditions, some leaning more towards acoustic sounds, some towards the electronic instrumentation of rock bands, and some combining folk and classical styles. Many of these groups have included original composition as well as traditional material, and most combine vocal with instrumental repertoire. Some of the best known are: Newfoundland's Figgy Duff and The Wonderful Grand Band (fiddlers Kelly Russell and Jamie Snider); Cape Breton's The Rankin Family (including John Morris Rankin and Howie MacDonald) and The Barra MacNeils (Kyle, Sheumas, Lucy, Stewart, Ryan and Boyd MacNeill); P.E.I.'s Barachois (Albert, Hélène, Louise and Chuck Arsenault); Quebec's Barde (Chris MacRaghallaigh and Elliot Selick) and La Bottine Souriante (originally Yves Lambert, Pierre LaPorte, Martin Racine, and others); Ontario's Stringband (originally Marie-Lynn Hammond, Bob Bossin and Jerry Lewycky) and Leahy (Donnell Leahy and his 10 siblings); and BC's Pied Pumpkin (Shari Ulrich). However, a complete list of fiddlers and bands who have recorded and toured internationally would run into the hundreds.

Eastern European traditions in Canada have inspired similar "re-inventions" (perhaps a more accurate term) involving folk fiddling. Well-known klezmer bands include The Flying Bulgars (formerly The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band - fiddler Anne Lederman) and Beyond the Pale (Aleksandar Gajic and Bogdan Djukic) in Ontario, and Finjan in Manitoba (Victor Schultz). The Romaniacs in Saskatchewan (fiddler Calvin Cairns) incorporated several cultural traditions into their repertoire. Rushnychok, from Montréal, were the first of several new Ukrainian groups, and helped start a wave of Ukrainian fusion music known as "zabava" (Ukrainian for "dance party"). Other groups in this genre include Burya from Toronto, and several Alberta bands such as the Kubasonics, Milennia, Kalabai and UB. There are also several annual Ukrainian festivals throughout Canada.

A new wave of Irish traditional music has been especially influential in Canada since the 1970s, partly through the efforts of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann, a traditional Irish music society which has established branches in many parts of North America. There are many groups largely devoted to Irish style throughout the country, especially in Newfoundland, eg, The Irish Rovers, Tickle Harbour and The Irish Descendants. A particularly influential musician in Toronto, piper Chris Langan, has inspired a yearly gathering of Irish musicians, and a tune collection of his repertoire, Move Your Fingers: The Life and Music of Chris Langan (Cranford Publications, 2002).

Throughout this period, the old-time style of Don Messer also found new life in an ever-increasing number of associations and contests throughout the country which especially inspired young people to become involved again. Beginning in 1990, winners of regional fiddle contests (many of whom have led their own show bands) were invited to compete in a new event, The Grand Masters, held in Ottawa.

Bluegrass music also experienced a wave of popularity in the 1970s and 80s with many musicians and bands able to support themselves through a circuit of weekly club engagements, festivals and recordings. Popular bluegrass bands through this period featuring fiddle included The Dixie Flyers (fiddlers Gordon Stobbe, John P. Allen and Peter Robertson), The Humber River Valley Boys (Don Thurston), Whisky Jack (Graham Townsend, Conrad Kipping and Randy Morrison) and Big Redd Ford (J.P. Allen), all from Ontario; Crooked Stovepipe (originally Don Randell and Ted Blanchard) from Newfoundland; and The Bluegrass 4 (Eddy Poirier) and Ladies Choice (Gordon Stobbe) from Halifax. Gordon Stobbe also produced and hosted a weekly bluegrass-based show from Halifax called "Up Home Tonight" from 1982 to 1989, featuring many local fiddlers. Although bluegrass no longer enjoys the professional circuit it did at that time, there are still many bluegrass associations which organize jam sessions, festivals and contests throughout the country, and many new bands, both urban and rural.

In 1995, a new fiddle phenomenon came to public attention - a young Cape Bretoner named Ashley MacIsaac. His CD, Hi, How Are You Today, is the largest-selling Canadian fiddle recording of all time (over 300,000 copies). Essentially adapting traditional Cape Breton melodies backed by a band of bass, drums, electric guitar and keyboards (also featuring the Gaelic vocals of Mary Jane Lamond), Ashley MacIsaac has benefitted from the promotional cachet of collaborations with Paul Simon and contemporary composer Philip Glass. Suddenly, traditional Cape Breton fiddling was on the world map, paving the way over the next decade for artists such as Leahy and Natalie MacMaster, whose sales have also reached platinum status (100,00 copies). La Bottine Souriante of Québec has enjoyed similar national and international success with their innovative use of horn arrangements with traditional-style melodies, songs and footwork.

Theatrical stage shows focused on fiddle and step-dance traditions have also become especially popular in recent years, two of them achieving international touring success and inspiring other groups of young players: Barrage, formed in Calgary in the early 1990s, which features a rotating cast of fiddlers performing highly arranged pieces with elaborate choreography, and, more recently, Bowfire, which has featured virtuoso players in several styles of Canadian folk and country fiddling as well as jazz and classical music of various cultures.

Composition and New Directions

The first published collection of new Canadian fiddle tunes seems to have been The Cape Breton Collection of Scottish Melodies by fiddler Gordon MacQuarrie in 1940. As a corollary to recording and broadcasting success beginning in the 1930s, many groups and performers also began to publish tune collections, starting with the Cornhuskers Series released originally by Thomas Burt & Company from 1933 on, then by Harry Jarman. In the 1950s and 60s, BMI Canada Ltd. published collections by Ward Allen, Adrien Avon, King Ganam, Bob Scott, Andy DeJarlis, and later, Graham Townsend. DeJarlis, Allen and Townsend enjoyed the widest dissemination of many tunes over time and distance while certain individual compositions of other fiddlers spread widely, eg, "Black Velvet Waltz" (composed by Ontario's Rossie Mann), "Lord Alexander Reel" (Abbie Andrews), "Teardrop Waltz" (Reg Bouvette), "The Backwoodsman" (Marcel Meilleur, recorded by Don Messer), and "Whitefish in the Rapids" (René Côté), among others. More recently, tunes of Brian Hébert (Ottawa Valley) and Calvin Vollrath in Alberta have been especially influential in the "old-time style" contest network.

Each stylistic area has its best-known composers, eg, Newfoundland's Émile Benoit and Rufus Guinchard; Dan. R. MacDonald and John Campbell in Cape Breton; Louis Boudreault and Joe Bouchard in Québec; Roma MacMillan and René Côté in the Ottawa Valley; and Marcel Meilleur and Reg Bouvette in Manitoba. In more recent years, many revival musicians have become especially well-known as composers, such as Claude Methé and Pascal Gemme from Québec; Oliver Schroer and Brian Pickell in Ontario; Richard Wood in PEI; Jerry Holland, Brenda Stubbert and Paul Cranford in Cape Breton; Gordon Stobbe in Nova Scotia; Dave Panting and Christina Smith in Newfoundland; and Daniel Lapp and Zav Rokeby-Thomas in BC. Many composers follow traditional forms while creating innovative melodies and harmonic structures, while others explore new directions in composition influenced by rock, jazz or other world traditions. Many players now move freely between cultural styles and/or create their own hybrids.

A relatively recent trend is the arrangement of fiddle material for guest appearances by prominent folk fiddlers with symphony orchestras. This began with Andre Gagnon's Petit Concerto pour Carignan et Orchestre in 1975, followed by Donald Patriquin's Fête Carignan in 1981, both written to feature Québec fiddling virtuoso Jean Carignan. Nova Scotia's Scott Macmillan has been the most active composer/arranger of traditional material, not only incorporating Irish and Scottish tunes into his Celtic Mass for the Sea (1991), but arranging numerous pieces for fiddlers Buddy MacMaster, Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, J.P. Cormier and Johnny Comeau, and bands Barachois and Rawlins Cross. Jim Hiscott in Manitoba has composed pieces based on Métis tunes, featuring both fiddle and button accordion. Other fiddlers and groups who have worked with orchestras include Pierre Schryer (arrangements by Jeff Christmas and Joe Phillips), Shane Cook (arrangements by Bill Bridges and David Warrack), Haines and Leighton (arrangements by Tom Leighton) and Anne Lederman (arrangements by Martin Van de Ven).

At the dawn of the 21st century, fiddling in Canada seems to be at an interesting crossroads, with one foot on the path of the old and the other on the new. Opportunities to learn traditional styles and repertoire are more widespread than ever before with an increasingly mobile population and a large group of professional fiddlers who perform and teach widely. This has encouraged an amateur revival of traditional fiddling, supported by camps, classes and lessons, publishing and recording activity. Dancing is also undergoing a revival, with classes and social dances in both urban and rural settings helping to maintain the older fiddling that animates it. However, fiddling is also being driven in new directions by many factors: the multitude of cultural influences, the increased musical training and technical abilities of many players, and, especially, the dominant context of concert performance. Performing for listening audiences rather than dancers is encouraging highly arranged versions of traditional music, more original material (ranging from compositions written in strictly traditional style to pieces which abandon it entirely), and greatly extended forms. Which of these new directions will have the staying power to be passed on to future generations remains to be seen.

(See also Bluegrass, Broadcasting, Country Music, Dance, Ethnomusicology, Folk music-inspired composition)


Chartrand, Pierre, ed. Danse et musique traditionnelles du Quebec, vol 1. (Quebec 1999)

Copeland, Gary. Fiddling in New Brunswick: The History and Its People (Moncton 2006)

Dunlay, Kate and Greenberg, David. Traditional Celtic Violin Music of Cape Breton (Toronto 1986)

Hart, Laurie and Sandell, Greg. Danse ce soir: Fiddle and Accordion Music of Quebec (Pacific 2001)

Johnson, Sherry. " 'I Don't Want to Sound Like Just One Person': Individuality in Competitive Fiddling," Driving The Bow: Fiddle and Dance Studies from around the North Atlantic 2, ed Ian Russell, Mary Anne Alburger (Aberdeen 2008)

Lederman, Anne. "Native and Métis Fiddling: Portrait of a People," Fiddler Magazine Vol. 8, Winter 2001

Lyon, George W. Community Music in Alberta: Some Good Schoolhouse Stuff (Calgary 1999)

Mackintosh, Joe. Andy De Jarlis: The Life and Times of an Old-Time Fiddler (Winnipeg 2010)

Mishler, Craig. The Crooked Stovepipe: Athapaskan Fiddle Music and Square Dancing in Northeast Alaska and Northwest Canada (Urbana 1993)

Perlman, Ken. The Fiddle Music of Prince Edward Island: Celtic and Acadian Tunes in Living Tradition (Pacific 1996)

Quigley, Colin. Music From the Heart: Compositions of a Folk Fiddler (Athens 1995)

Smith, Christina. "Crooked as the Road to Branch: Asymmetry in Newfoundland Dance Music," Newfoundland and Labrador Studies vol. 22:1, 2007

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