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Couldn't Have a Wedding without the Fiddler: The Story of Traditional Fiddling on Prince Edward Island.

Couldn't Have a Wedding without the Fiddler: The Story of Traditional Fiddling on Prince Edward Island

Ken Perlman. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2015. xviii + 463 pp. Illus. Bibliog. Index. ISBN978-1-62190097-9 (pbk). $39.95.

Prince Edward Island, one of the Maritime Provinces of Canada, is home to a population of mixed ancestry, predominantly Scottish, English, Irish, and French, roughly evenly divided between two religions, Protestant and Catholic, and supporting two main occupations, farmers and fishermen. One important unifying factor, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, was fiddle music and the associated dancing. Perlman's dense, painstaking study of the traditional fiddlers of Prince Edward Island and their lives and music is based on decades-long participation and study. Rather than presenting each fiddler as a separate entry, as is common in other publications on regional styles, Perlman has distilled the many hours of interviews from roughly 150 musicians and other locals into topical chapters where he addresses a particular aspect of fiddle playing and its social context. He frequently quotes his informants as support for his analysis, adding life and colour to the text.

Perlman manages to summarize succinctly concepts to which his informants only make allusions. The fiddle players' reputation for being lazy drunks, for instance, is illustrated with many stories of musicians being dragged out of bed after a hard day's work (for they were farmers and fishermen, too) to play for a dance with often no other compensation than free liquor. Perlman points out the local belief that being able to fiddle was a God-given gift and therefore it was the duty of the musicians to share their talents freely. They were expected to perform over and above their day jobs, for little or no pay. After playing late into the night while being plied with alcohol, they were often tired, and possibly hungover, and had difficulty working the next day. Expectations led to consequences that reinforced stereotypes.

Perlman delves into how the musicians learned their tunes, and how they tried to balance between developing a unique playing style and yet staying within certain boundaries of taste that formed the regional style. There was some level of personal interpretation allowed, though changing a tune beyond recognition was frowned upon. Importing new tunes, and making new tunes, sometimes a side effect of misremembering a tune heard elsewhere, were not only accepted but also encouraged. Most of the tune transmission and even composition was done aurally, through repetition, and it is remarkable the lengths some fiddlers would go to in order to learn a tune or to memorize one that they had made up.

The central importance of fiddlers to the society as a whole is a constant theme of the book. One would think, perhaps correctly, that the residents of Prince Edward Island in the first half of the twentieth century were completely mad for fiddle music. Church, civic, and social events of nearly every kind, not just dances, involved fiddle music in some fashion. House parties, with music-making and step-dancing, were common. If a dance or a house party wasn't already organized, folks would sometimes appear at the home of a musician, expecting to hear some tunes. Even weathering a blizzard became an opportunity for music-making. It was considered a lucky thing to be snowed in at a house with a fiddler. Of course, much of this changed with the waning of the century, when there were other forms of entertainment to be found. Happily, Perlman was able to capture so much of this fascinating milieu and present it in such depth.

The appendices include a list of tunes found on the island, a discography, and a glossary. There are some musical examples, but for a selection of the tunes Perlman encountered on the island the reader should refer to his Fiddle Music of Prince Edward Island. (1) This is an excellent book, highly recommended, for anyone interested in a thorough ethnographic study of an island's fiddle players.

Elaine Bradtke

Vaughan Williams Memorial Library

(1) Ken Perlman, The Fiddle Music of Prince Edward Island: Celtic and Acadian Tunes in Living Tradition (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 1996).
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Author:Bradtke, Elaine
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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