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Crossing Over: Fiddle and Dance Studies from around the North Atlantic 3.

Ed. by Ian Russell and Anna Kearney Guigne. Aberdeen: Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, in association with the Department of Folklore, MMaP, and the School of Music, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2010. Illus. Music. Bibliog. Index. 317 pp. [pounds sterling]15.00 + p&p. (

This impressive and stimulating collection of twenty-one conference papers from the 2008 North Atlantic Fiddle Convention presents a wide range of authors, many of them fiddle players, who describe or otherwise reflect on aspects of various fiddle and, to a lesser extent, dance traditions across Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Galicia, and elsewhere, and, in many cases, on the ever-changing cultures in which the traditions are embedded and evolve. It also features topics as remote from the North Atlantic as Texas contest fiddling, Harry Choates as a Cajun folk hero, and James Madison Carpenter's 1928-35 cylinder recordings of fiddlers from the English Midlands. Elaine Bradtke's paper on 'extracting music' from the latter and then transcribing it deals with such nitty-gritty issues as the 'auditory hallucinations' that bedevil the undertaking, 'especially working with familiar material'. Paul Anderson's close analysis of the 'musical fingerprints of the North-East Scotland fiddle style' moves in the opposite direction, revealing how post-Skinner notation of bowing and left-hand ornamentation is interpreted in practice.


The perception of what constitutes a regional style may itself, of course, be problematic, with Liz Doherty suggesting that Cairdeas na bhFidileiri's success in the past quarter-century in promoting Co. Donegal fiddle music entailed a 'foregrounding' of the specific style and repertoire of the south-west of the county at the expense of that of other areas such as Inishowen, of which she goes on to give an interesting account. Such attention to detail is the beauty of this collection, the increased pixel count permitting a higher, and sometimes surprising, resolution of our image of the music. The notion, for example, that Irish tunes are, and have been, almost entirely aurally transmitted is qualified by Colette Moloney's examination of the work of fiddler and farmer John 'Boss' Murphy (1875-1955) of Churchtown, Co. Cork, 'just one of a number of early twentieth-century Irish traditional musicians who decided to commit their repertory to manuscript' - admittedly, in his case, only after abandoning hope of any of his children learning to play. His facility in musical notation arose partly from interaction with British military band musicians at the local barracks, and the 312 items he wrote down provide a true impression' of a rich local house-dance and summer 'stage' repertoire in the years before - as elsewhere in the country too - the music's 'amateur, communal, informal performance setting' gave way under pressure of the clergy and the market economy to the post-1935 dance hall.

A market economy might, in contrast, have improved the lot of the Prince Edward Island musicians in Ken Perlman's moving study, "The devil's instrument revisited'. In the 'heyday of community dance-fiddling' up to the mid-twentieth century, only the roles of minister and schoolteacher were regarded as more crucial in the life of the district, yet the unpaid fiddler, worn out by the community's endless demands, was despised as a lazy, drunken, good-for-nothing - perhaps not unlike a Roma musician in central Europe--and his exploitation was compounded by clerical hostility 'to dance playing in general and fiddling in particular'.

Given the location of the 2008 convention in St John's, Newfoundland, it is no surprise that Canadian themes are extensively explored. Evelyn Osborne examines Island to Island: Traditional Music from Newfoundland and Ireland, a CD that Cork musician Seam us Creagh (1946--2009) played on and co-produced with Marie-Annick Desplanques. Osborne notes that nine of the tunes contributed by the Newfoundlanders are 'crooked': that is, they have an extra, or dropped, number of bars or beats, a feature perhaps arising from their historical use to accompany dances of French or Breton origin. Even wilder structural divergence from the 32-bar norm of Scottish and mainstream 'down east' fiddling is common in the music of the Metis of western Canada, the mixed-race descendants of trappers, fur-traders, and native inhabitants. Sarah Quick cites Anne Lederman's seminal research into aboriginal influences in this syncretic tradition, such as Ojibwa singing, before going on to discuss the important Metis fiddle composers Andy Dejarlis and John Arcand. Lederman herself writes about both Metis and First Nations, especially Gwitchin, traditions, with generous helpings of musical quotation in her report on fiddling and dance practice in Old Crow, Yukon.

A range of theoretical tools from anthropology and other disciplines are sometimes deployed, to revealing effect. Back east, Jessica Herdman brings such heavy theoretical artillery, however, into her analytic assault on what constitutes 'old style' Cape Breton fiddling that eventually I found myself in sympathy with Kinnon Beaton, whose remark on the Mabou Coal Mines style--'You can get all the PhDs that you want, I think, and you're not going to identify what that sound is' - she claims to find 'humbling'. This year's prize for spectacular incomprehensibility, though, goes to Gregory J. Dorchak for the following sentence in his 'hermeneutic study of the meaning of Cape Breton fiddle music outside Cape Breton': 'A being "understands itself" - and that means also its being in the world - ontologically in terms of chose being and their being, which it itself is not, but which it encounters within its world.' (Greg, will you please just play the tune?) All in all, though - and I haven't left space to do more than mention Juniper Hill's brilliant piece on the unlikely subject of 'Finnish and Swedish diddling' or Andy Hillhouse on the late lamented Oliver Schroer (1956-2008) - this 317-page volume makes for a great read.

PETE COOPER London Fiddle School
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Author:Cooper, Pete
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 20, 2011
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