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Gaelic music of Cape Breton Island: the last fifteen years.

In the liner notes to a recent Smithsonian Folkways recording of Cape Breton fiddle and piano music, folklorist Burt Feintuch describes the scene at a dance held in Mabou, Nova Scotia:
 It's a hot, muggy July 2003 night in Mabou. I pay my five dollars
 cover and walk into the Red Shoe Pub ... I step through the door;
 within moments, my shirt is stuck to my back. Kinnon [Beaton] is
 playing the fiddle, joined by [daughter] Andrea. Betty's on the
 electric piano. Feet are pounding the wooden stage and the floor of
 the pub. Kinnon and Andrea look as if they're possessed. People are
 shouting, whooping, and even screaming in appreciation. The music is
 loud. It wails. It's beautiful. (1)

The Celtic revival of the mid-1990s exposed new audiences to recordings of singers, instrumentalists, and bands from Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, France, and other nations. The most famous product of this revival was Michael Flatley's 1995 dance show Riverdance (followed by The Lord of the Dance). The popularity of this stage show helped to inspire interest in acts that retained essential rhythms, melodies, and stylistic performance elements inherent in traditional folk music. It also helped to promote the idea of Pan-Celtic music, infused by elements of dance, storytelling, and daily customs. Lesser-known Celtic artists benefited from this exposure as well, especially those from areas with descendants rich in its heritage, such as Cape Breton Island in eastern Nova Scotia.

Cape Breton Island has been especially prolific in the number of master fiddlers and pianists it has produced. Its relative isolation from the more cosmopolitan regions of Halifax, Montreal, and Toronto has ensured a more rural lifestyle for its residents, who have historically worked as miners, fishermen, and farmers. In recent times many artists steeped in the region's Celtic-Canadian heritage have become international stars in the folk and country music industries, including fiddlers Natalie MacMaster (1973-) and Ashley MacIsaac (1975-), vocalist Mary Jane Lamond (1960-), and ensembles the Cottars and the Rankins. Many of its veteran artists, such as Angus Chisholm (1908-1979), Winston Fitzgerald (1914-1987), Jerry Holland (1955-), Hugh Allan "Buddy" MacMaster (1924-), William "Bill" H. Lamey (1914-), and Brenda Stubbert (1959-) have been celebrated in releases of field and historic recordings. Much less known outside of Cape Breton are recordings of the younger generation of native artists who increasingly record and promote their music locally (and, via the Internet, globally). This essay will touch upon all of these artists and their recordings and place them within a social, geographical, and musical context.


Singer Mary Jane Lamond titled her first album Bho Thir Nan Craobh, which translates from Gaelic as "from the land of the trees." In her introduction she wrote that her ancestors were surprised by the lush green forests of this new world, especially after coming from the "almost treeless Hebridean islands." (2) The name of the island probably derives from Cap Breton, an area near Bayonne, France. (3) In Scottish Gaelic, its name is Eilean Cheap Breatuinn. It was settled originally by the French, whose Acadian musical heritage continues in villages such as Cheticamp on the northwest side of the island. After the forced migration of Acadians southward, Cape Breton was settled by English loyalists and a wave of Scottish immigrants who worked in coal mines, fisheries, and steel and paper mills.

Both the music and the Gaelic language of the Celts were and continue to be a part of everyday life. Today tourism is one of Cape Breton's largest industries, and musical performance and recordings play a major role in attracting Canadian and international visitors. There was a time in the 1970s when the future of this traditional music looked bleak. Musicians were exploring other varieties of fiddling, and ignoring much of the musical culture which had been a part of daily life since the Scots had settled in Canada. In 1971 Ron MacInnis produced a documentary for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) called The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, which suggested that Cape Breton's long tradition of fiddling was in danger of extinction. (4) Local musicians heeded the warning, and began to organize associations and festivals to reenergize the art form. Fiddler Winnie Chafe (who was featured in the documentary playing in her Glace Bay home) notes that the Cape Breton Fiddlers' Association was formed in 1973 as a result. It brought together "a dedicated group of people led by Father John Angus Rankin, including Frank MacInnis, Father Eugene Morris, Burton MacIntyre, Archie Neil Chisholm, Rod Chisholm, Judge Hugh J. MacPherson, Anne Marie MacDonald, Jeannette Beaton, Joey Beaton, and Ray MacDonald to organize the First Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling in Glendale in 1973." (5) Today, there are many festivals of traditional music on the Island throughout the year, and interest among younger performers continues to grow. (6) Even the Gaelic language is seeing a revival, in Canada as well as in the United States and the United Kingdom.

It now seems highly unlikely that the prediction at the heart of The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler could come true. It would be nearly impossible to name a town on Cape Breton Island that could be characterized as "unmusical." A large number of native artists grow up in households where fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and cousins make music together on a regular basis. These gatherings are social events that bond not only the community, but the entire island. Still, there are some towns and regions which are particularly well known for their musical families.

To understand the makeup of musical activity on Cape Breton Island, it is very helpful to know its geography. Cape Breton's western coast overlooking the Northumberland Strait is often cited as an important area of musical activity, from Port Hawkesbury northward, following Route 19 through the villages of Troy, Creignish, Judique, Mabou, and Inverness before heading southwest to Bras d'Or Lake:
 Along the west coast of Cape Breton is probably the most predominantly
 Scottish area on the island. Not surprisingly, the centre of it all is
 a place called Inverness County named after the homeland of the
 original settlers. It's in the villages along Route 19 that you feel
 the culture the most, and it's from these villages that much of Cape
 Breton's musical heritage has sprung over the years. (7)

Many of these towns are centers of culture populated by arts councils, music schools, weekly dances, and stores that cater to Celtic culture. Mabou is known for its coal mines, but also for the musical Beaton and Rankin families; Judique is the home of Buddy MacMaster and the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre; Troy is the home of Mac Morin and Natalie MacMaster; Ashley and Lisa MacIsaac live in Creignish; and the weekly newspaper Oran, which contains more coverage of "local music than sports" in the summer, (8) is published in Inverness. These and many other towns host weekly concerts, ceilidhs, and dances throughout the year, especially in the summer. North of Inverness are the historic Acadian fishing villages of Cheticamp and St. Joseph du Moine, which bring a French flair to the Cape Breton musical experience. One of the most popular music stores on the island is in Cheticamp, Charlie's DownHome Music, which has been owned and operated by Charlie Larade for over thirty years. Several artists reside around the city of Sydney and its satellite communities New Waterford, Glace Bay, and Sydney Mines. North of Sydney is referred to as the "Northside" or the "North Shore" of the island. Fiddlers from this area, such as Johnny Wilmot, incorporate more Irish (than Scottish) elements in their playing. The annual summer Gaelic College is located in St. Ann's, and hosts ceilidhs throughout the season. Although Antigonish County is not located on the island, it plays an important role in Cape Breton music culture, being the location of St. Francis Xavier University and the home of the MacGillivrays and Hugh MacDonald (who is referred to locally as "Hughie No. 11").


Recordings of Cape Breton artists can be as traditional as sets of dance tunes played by fiddle and piano or guitar; or as elaborate and innovative as cleverly arranged pop songs, which incorporate the original tunes beneath a veil of electronics. Social dance music tends to be the predominant type of traditional music performed, probably because of the large number of dances and ceilidhs held in the summer and because it comprises the repertoire learned by all local fiddlers. There has also been, in recent years, a vibrant resurgence in the bagpipe tradition; pipers Ryan MacNeil, Jamie MacInnis, and Barry Shears have all emerged recently as important exponents of this tradition.

A typical dance will feature one fiddler and one pianist (or guitarist), with occasional guest musicians, all playing jigs, reels, strathspeys, clogs, marches, hornpipes, and airs. Burt Feintuch explains what goes on inside a dance hall:
 Typically, musicians play tunes in groups, staying on the same tonal
 center ... Twice through the tune, then on to the next is the norm.
 The music's core values include a premium on a musician's ability to
 "drive 'er," to play hard-driving dance music with remarkable focus,
 energy, and ... drive." (10)

Many of the recordings reviewed in this article, even those that are self-released, include very detailed liner notes. Typically, all of the tunes in a set are identified by name, composer, and lineage, while the notes often explain the personal relationship between the performer and the piece. If a tune was learned from a collection, the volume is usually identified. Many musicians from around Cape Breton Island appear on others's recordings, a practice that generally persists even after an artist becomes internationally known.

This reviewer identified four topical and genre divisions under which to group the CDs: Veteran Musicians, International Artists, Young Traditionalists, and Folkways and Lost Sounds. Under each heading is a review of albums selected to exemplify the best of each type. The first section will review selected solo recordings by Cape Breton fiddlers. The second group includes artists and bands that have gained wide exposure to international audiences by performing abroad and recording internationally-distributed albums. The third category includes recordings by local performers, who have not yet obtained--or are on the cusp of receiving--national attention, but are widely respected as musicians in their communities. In the final section, live and historic recordings are considered. These include field recordings, live concerts, and compilations where the focus is on the musical event and not necessarily the documentation of individual performers. Due to space constraints, many excellent artists, including singer-songwriters, are not included. This list is but a taste of the rich variety of recordings of traditional music from Cape Breton Island available today. (11)


Hugh Allan MacMaster, more familiarly known as Buddy, has had a long tenure of playing and mentoring young fiddlers. His recent independent release, Judique Flyer (Stephen MacDonald Productions, SMPCD 1012, 2000) celebrates his long career and partnership with diverse accompanists (both guitarists and pianists) from around the island. MacMaster recorded each track with a different accompanist; these include Joey Beaton, Betty Lou Beaton, Tracey Dares (MacNeil), Maybelle Chisholm McQueen, Dave MacIsaac, Howie MacDonald, Mac Morin, Joel Chiasson, Jackie Dunn (MacIsaac), and MacMaster's daughter, Mary Elizabeth MacInnis. Paul MacDonald's notes discuss MacMaster's background as a railroad man, and how accompaniment has changed since the days when pump organs were used instead of pianos. (12)

In 2003, the Rounder label released Cape Breton Tradition (82161-70522), an album of Buddy MacMaster's recordings made in 2002. Cape Breton Tradition contains an informative biographical essay on MacMaster's life and career, taken from interviews by Burt Feintuch and Mark Wilson. The program includes both traditional and recently composed airs and dance tunes by Brenda Stubbert, Jerry Holland, Dan R. MacDonald, John Morris Rankin, and Dan Hugh MacEachern.

Some of the greatest Cape Breton fiddlers lived off of the island, especially in Boston. In celebration of its thirtieth anniversary, Rounder included in its Heritage series a rerelease of several out-of-print recordings by Joseph Cormier, a Boston-area fiddler born in the French-Acadian village of Cheticamp. Its 2001 reissue of The Dances Down Home (Rounder Heritage Series 1166-11593-2, 2001, originally issued on LP as Rounder 7004, 1977) includes the totality of the original program, along with "eight medleys from recording sessions scattered over twenty-five years," continuing through a 1996 recording session. In Cormier's recordings, one can hear a milder Acadian lilt, and a playing style similar to that of many older fiddlers, including Winston Fitzgerald, Angus Allan Gillis, and the Quebec-influenced Placide Odo, also known as "Petit Placide." (13) The Rounder Heritage Series also includes recordings by old-time Cape Breton fiddlers Joe MacLean and Willie Kennedy, as well as several other releases by Cormier.

William "Bill" Lamey was another Cape Bretoner who emigrated south. This Sydney native recorded several double-sided 78 rpm discs in the early 1940s, and hosted a radio program from Sydney's CJCB. After moving to Boston in 1953, he hosted house sessions each Saturday night at his home, and performed at several of his friend's house parties. He also hosted his own radio program on Boston's WYOM, and was a charter member of the Cape Breton Island Gaelic Foundation (and later its Boston Branch). (14) These house sessions are chronicled on a 2000 release by Rounder, on which he is joined by pianists Mary Jessie MacDonald (Lamey's wife), Eddie Irwin, Mary (Gacie) Muise, Lila Hashem, and fiddler Joe MacLean. The notes to this album contain a wide variety of perspectives on Lamey offered by contemporaries, younger artists and members of Boston's expatriate Cape Breton music scene, as well as Kate Dunlay's detailed discussion of Lamey's and the various pianists' styles and of the medleys recorded. Lamey is quoted from a 1984 interview on the unrelenting and tedious process of recording in the days before magnetic tape:
 I wasn't allowed to play but the tune I was going to record. Now if
 you play the same tune for three hours, wouldn't you be pretty sour,
 eh! And make no mistakes! Watching the clock! Couldn't go back. (The
 disc recordings were one-offs with no re-recording). They were tough
 days at making recordings--and it's amazing how well they came out--
 some of them. (15)

Brenda Stubbert is known not only as a master fiddler, but as a prolific composer of fiddle tunes. She published many of her compositions in Brenda Stubbert's Collection of Fiddle Tunes: A Compilation of Traditional and Original Melodies (Englishtown, N.S.: Cranford Publications, 1994). The second volume in Paul Cranford's Cape Breton Musical Heritage Series, the book is currently out of print, because it is being revised for future publication with the addition of chords. (16) Stubbert has recorded five albums, four of which are available in CD format. (Others have had initial cassette releases, before subsequent remastering.) Fiddler Carl MacKenzie notes in the insert booklet to Stubbert's 1998 reissue of House Sessions that "many studio albums don't sound half as good as the great old house-party tapes." When they were recording in 1992, Stubbert, guitarist Paul MacDonald, and pianist Joey Beaton played in various houses to find the best room. They settled on Beaton's house, and were extremely satisfied by both the room acoustics and the digital audio tape technology they employed in the recording of this album. Many of Stubbert's compositions are featured on House Sessions, as well as "The Picnic Reel," a tune which served as Winston Fitzgerald's theme for his "long-running, Sydney-based, live radio show." (17)


While Nova Scotia has produced a number of internationally known country music stars, such as Anne Murray, Hank Snow, and Don Messer, it was not until Creignish-born Ashley MacIsaac's single "Sleepy Maggie" (recorded with vocalist Mary Jane Lamond) achieved international airplay and a spot on the Billboard charts that Cape Breton fiddle music began to receive widespread exposure. The twenty-year-old MacIsaac began to tour with the Chieftains and other popular music acts, bringing this music to diverse audiences across North America. He had already produced two albums (Close to the Floor [Ancient Music 09026-63247-2, 1992] and A Cape Breton Christmas [MAPL RT 19, 1993; reissued as Linus Entertainment 2 70051, 2004]) by the time A & M Records released his Juno-winning, genre-defying Hi[TM] How Are You Today? (A & M Records 31454 0522 2, 1995). Over the next five years, MacIsaac maintained a rigorous tour schedule before running aground on the kinds of problems that many rock stars face, namely drugs and bankruptcy. The follow-up to this major hit was Fine, Thank You Very Much (RCA 63248, 1998; reissued as Linus Canada 70053, 2004). Helter's Celtic (Loggerhead Records 76974 2192-2, 1999) continued his fusion of traditional melodies with hip-hop, garage rock, and ambient elements.

Between 2000 and 2003, MacIsaac continued to release traditional Cape Breton albums on a limited basis with smaller distribution, including Fiddle Music 101 (MacIsaac & MacIsaac, 775020155329, 2000) and Cape Breton Fiddle Music Not Calm (self-produced, 2001 [out of print]). He subsequently signed with Decca Records in an attempt to revive his popularity. His subsequent self-titled album (Decca B0000224-02, 2002) tried to recreate the magic of Hi[TM] How Are You Today? by including several cover versions of Nick Drake and Paul McCartney songs and reprising Lamond's role on "To America We Go." He has recently signed with the Canadian independent label Linus Entertainment, which has reissued many of his earlier releases, as well as one new traditional album, Live at the Savoy (with pianist May Belle Chisholm McQueen) (Linus 2 70054, 2004) and another experimental album titled Pride (270065, 2006), on which he sets aside his fiddle to perform his own songs. MacIsaac is currently exploring a political run as leader of Canada's Liberal Party.

Fiddler Natalie MacMaster began playing her first dances in the early 1980s. During her career she has charted a middle course between the traditionalism of her uncle and the experimentation of her cousin, Ashley MacIsaac. Unlike her cousin, she has the advantage of never having been discredited by the Canadian press, and continues to enjoy favorable media coverage in both the United States and Canada. Together, MacIsaac and MacMaster have brought more international recognition to the art of Cape Breton fiddle playing than anyone else to date. Feintuch remarks that "many people will tell you that [MacIsaac and MacMaster] have inspired a generation of young musicians to take up the fiddle." (18)

MacMaster has released seven albums to date, not counting her first two cassette-only releases, which were issued by Rounder in 1998. (19) Her first major-label album, No Boundaries (Warner Music Canada WEA CD 15697, 1996, reissued as Rounder 7023, 1997) explored other genres, such as bluegrass, polka, Western swing, and even funk. That album's "Drunken Piper" set features vocalist Cookie Rankin (of the Rankin Family) singing "Far Am Bi Fhin" ("Where I Will Be") in an arrangement that synthesizes versions by Kay MacDonald (a member of Cape Breton's Gaelic Choir) and Mabou singer Effie Rankin. Like MacIsaac, MacMaster retains the essential Cape Breton fiddle style in her arrangements, even while adding electric guitar, keyboard, and drum backup to her band.

MacMaster's two-disc album Live (Rounder 11661-7048-2, 2002) showcases her musical virtuosity in an onstage setting. The first disc was recorded during a taping of My Roots are Showing at the Living Arts Center for later distribution on CBC television. One can hear a troupe of guest stepdancers tapping the stage, as well as musical backing from pianist Allan Dewar, guitarist Brad Davidge, and bassist John Chiasson. She performs a medley called "Tullochgorum," which includes a popular reel of the same name. The second disc features a live event of a much less controlled nature, in which MacMaster, Dave MacIsaac, and Joel Chiasson perform at a square dance at the popular Glencoe Mills Hall in Glencoe Mills. Recordings such as this one remind us that Cape Breton fiddle music can never be fully divorced from the dance. (20) Tunes by local artists Carl MacKenzie, Finbar Dwyer, Stubbert, Holland, J. P. Cormier, and Sandy MacIntyre are included, as well as a quick warm-up by MacMaster and a jovial hello to a fellow dancer.

Although Mary Jane Lamond (also known as Mairi Sine) was raised in Ontario, her family comes from the North Shore. She studied at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia (just east of Cape Breton Island, where the Gaelic Folklore Project is housed) before recording her first album, Bho Thir Nan Craobh ("From the Land of Trees," Iona IRCD 045, 1994) and performing with Ashley Maclsaac on his breakaway hit "Sleepy Maggie" in 1995. (21) Lamond brought a passion to Cape Breton's Gaelic songs that had previously been thought of primarily as the province of its fiddlers. Like MacIsaac, she became interested in incorporating contemporary pop elements into her arrangements. The result was her two albums of the late 1990s: Suas E! (Turtlemusik/A & M 63246, 1997) and Lan Duil (Turtlemusik 26884, 1999). She returned to the purity of her first album with a less electronically-altered sound on Orain Ghaidhlig ("Gaelic Songs of Cape Breton," Turtlemusik 50889, 2000) and Storas (Turtlemusik 06363, 2005). Her albums incorporate both the simpler puirt-a-beul (or "mouth music"), and longer love songs, laments, and milling (waulking) songs.

No survey of Cape Breton musicians who have impacted the Canadian musical scene can ignore the Rankins. The Mabou-born Rankin family performed and recorded between 1989 and 1999, issuing four albums, two compilations, and several singles for EMI Canada, Guardian, and Rounder. Their approach blended traditional fiddle tunes with songs by guitarist John Morris Rankin (1959-2000), producing a Cape Breton album with something of a "Nashville sound." All-Music Guide reviewer Roch Parisien notes that "you can always count on the Rankins for at least one exquisite, stand-out pop melody per recording." (22) For an overview of their output, the 1999 Collection (Rounder 11661-7028-2) includes tracks from their 1990s albums Fare Thee Well Love (Capitol 99996, 1990), North Country (Capitol 55369, 1993, reissued as EMI 780683, 2003), and Endless Seasons (Capitol 32348, 1996).


Andrea Beaton was a late bloomer when it came to the fiddle. According to an interview with Burt Feintuch, she began after her cousins and continued lessons throughout school, but did not develop a strong personal interest in the music until she attended Celtic Society dances at St. Francis Xavier College in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Raymond Beaton has declared that "Andrea owns strathspeys." (23) She has released two solo albums, License to Drive 'Er (Andrea Beaton Andie 01, 2001) and Cuts (Andrea Beaton Andie 02, 2004). Various family members appear on the former, as well as members of the Chaisson family, along with guitarist (and prolific producer) Gordie Sampson. Two tracks pay homage to the Red Shoe Pub in Inverness. The back of the album has an amusing photo of her with a "Cape Breton Fiddler's License."

There are two ensembles of young Cape Breton musicians that are worth noting. One has received significant media attention, while the other has not yet been noticed by much of the world music media. The more well-known band is the Cottars, two pairs of teenage siblings: Ciaran and Fiona MacGillivray and Roseanne and Jimmy MacKenzie. (24) Like the Rankins, they blend traditional Scottish fiddle tunes with contemporary ballads and songs by such singer-songwriters as Tom Waits, Karine Polwart, and Newfoundland-based Ron Hynes. This group of teenagers has already won Best New Artist honors at the East Coast Music Awards in 2003. Their most recent album, Forerunner (Rounder 1161-7064-2, 2006), aims for a larger audience than their previous releases, On Fire (Sea-Cape Music 41716, 2004) and Made in Cape Breton (Cottars COT-CD1, 2002), and was boosted by a recent feature in the folk music periodical Dirty Linen. Forerunner includes a number of Irish jigs and polkas, a repertoire not in great evidence on other discs by Cape Breton musicians. (25)

The band Beolach (which means "lively youth" in Gaelic) includes Ryan J. MacNeil, Mattie Foulds, Mairi Rankin (formerly of the Rankins), Wendy MacIsaac (cousin of Ashley MacIsaac), Patrick Gillis, and Mac Morin. They released their eponymous debut album (Beolach Music BM001) in 2002, which was followed by Variations (Beolach Music WS-05-22-04) in 2004. MacNeil, Rankin, MacIsaac, and Morin have all recorded solo albums, and perform frequently on other musician's projects.

It is not only fiddlers that get star billing on recordings of traditional Cape Breton music. Pianist Mac Morin released his own self-titled album in 2003 (Muileann Dubh Music Morin-03), showcasing his rhythmic crispness and musical leadership, as well as a tender melodic style on the slow airs. Morin's album includes arrangements with bass, drums, accordion, and electronic keyboards that are all deployed with taste and subtlety, and without detracting from the melodies or rhythms of the tunes. He is backed by guitarists Gordie Sampson, Pius MacIsaac, Patrick Gillis, and Sandy MacDonald, and plays several duets with pianist Betty Lou Beaton. There are many other pianists who have been featured on their own albums including Tracey Dares MacNeil, Maybelle Chisholm MacQueen, and Troy MacGillivray.

Also a fiddler, MacGillivray belongs to another musical family, albeit one that lives slightly off of the island in Antigonish County. He is the grandson of the highly respected fiddler Hugh A. MacDonald, known locally as "Hughie No. 11" and a member of the Nova Scotia Country Music Hall of Fame; MacDonald's nickname provided the inspiration for MacGillivray's third release, Eleven (Trolleymac Music, Trolley-03, 2005). Here he performs with other family members, including his father Tony MacGillivray and his sisters Kendra (fiddler) and Sabra (percussion). Eleven was recorded in Cape Breton, New York, and in Glasgow, Scotland with the noted folk cellist, Natalie Haas. One delightful oddity on the album is the inclusion of a tune written by Andrea Beaton, called "The Eternal Rig," in response to a challenge by MacGillivray to write two different pieces in one. (26)


Folklorists Burt Feintuch (on behalf of Smithsonian Folkways) and Mark Wilson (on behalf of Rounder) have together produced and annotated several excellent snapshots of traditional Cape Breton music as performed at concerts, dances, and ceilidhs, and have also produced studio recordings (with minimal alteration of sound). A musical portrait of the Beaton Family ca. 2004, Cape Breton Fiddle and Piano Music (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40507) brings two generations of Beatons together (grandmother Elizabeth as well as Kinnon and Betty Beaton, the parents of Andrea and Allison) along with a broadcast recording of Kinnon's father, fiddler Donald Angus Beaton (1912-1982).

Beaton's nephews, Glenn Graham and Rodney MacDonald (a provincial premier) were also featured on the 2004 Smithsonian collection, and each has released albums of his own. On the 2004 album, one can hear some fine step dancing by Allison Beaton and MacDonald. Continuing the tradition of composing dances for people in the community, included are the tunes "Francis Beaton's Reel" (D. A. Beaton), "Joey Beaton's Reel" (D. A. Beaton), "Sandy MacIntyre's March" (D. A. Beaton), "Joan Beaton's Reel" (Kinnon Beaton), "Glenn Graham's Jig" (Rodney MacDonald), "Michael Rankin's Reel" (John Morris Rankin), "Donald Angus Beaton's Strathspey" (Sandy MacInnis), "Andrea Beaton's March" (Kinnon Beaton), and even one for the folklorist Burt Feintuch (Kinnon Beaton).

A wider perspective of musical activity on the island is offered by the Smithsonian Folkways collection Heart of Cape Breton: Fiddle Music Recorded Live Along the Ceilidh Trail (SFW CD 40491, 2002). This release focuses on capturing the live feeling of dances and concerts typical of a summer evening in Cape Breton. The album compiles clips from sets played at the Ceilidh Trail School (Inverness), Port Hood Arena, Mabou Hall, Broad Cove, Glencoe Mills, and Brook Village. It includes performances by fiddlers Brenda Stubbert, Wendy and Jackie Dunn MacIsaac, Kinnon and Betty Beaton, and Buddy MacMaster, with all of the foot-stomping and excitement one might experience at a dance. Stubbert pays homage to the late John Morris Rankin in her composition "My Great Friend John Morris Rankin."

Mark Wilson's series Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton for Rounder Records includes two titles that explore playing styles from around the island. Kate Dunlay, Mark Wilson, and Morgan MacQuarrie all contribute to the excellent ethnomusicological essays that accompany these recordings. The introductory volume, Mabou Coal Mines (7037, 2002), focuses on the coastal town of Mabou. Fiddlers Gregory Campbell, Alex Francis MacKay, Rannie MacLellan, Johnny MacLeod, and Friar Angus Morris were recorded at the home of Morgan MacQuarrie, and all pay homage to the region and families in their selection of repertoire. Morris plays his own air "A Tribute to Elizabeth Beaton," while MacLeod plays "A Trip to Mabou Ridge" by composer Dan Hugh MacEachern. (27) Volume 2, The Rover's Return (Rounder 7038, 2002), chronicles the playing of fiddlers from the town of Inverness and the Lake Ainslie countryside. Wilson's notes include a considerable amount of discussion of the styles employed by older players versus younger players.


In the last twenty years, there has been a blossoming of interest in Gaelic music of Cape Breton Island artists both in Canada and abroad. Families continue to make music, both for themselves and for the tourists who visit the island each year. Performances and recordings continue, not only among the veteran fiddlers of the area, but also among those of the next generation. Regional playing styles are still distinguishable by the perceptive ear. Some albums are produced independently or for limited distribution, while the playing of master musicians is being documented by such internationally-known folk and world music labels as Rounder and Smithsonian Folkways. The Internet continues to be a useful tool in the selection and acquisition of in-print and out-of-print recordings. Although commercial pressures often force some homogenization and assimilation of musical styles into the mainstream, it is encouraging to hear what fiddler Glenn Graham has to say:
 We just go and we do what we're doing, and we do what we've learned
 from watching other players. If tourists want to come and see us play,
 all the more of them, you know--it's just going to help our economy.
 But I don't think it's going to change the way that we've continually
 passed on our music around here ... It's only going to bring more of
 an awareness to our music, which I don't think will hurt us, because
 we've survived this long. If the music can survive this long, I don't
 think anything is going to change. Nothing will make our music go
 wrong. (28)


(All entries are CDs)

Veteran Musicians

Beaton Family of Mabou. Cape Breton Fiddle and Piano Music. Includes fiddlers Andrea, Donald Angus, and Kinnon Beaton, Glenn Graham, and Rodney MacDonald; pianists Betty and Elizabeth Beaton, and Mary Graham. Smithsonian Folkways SFWCD 40507, 2004.

Cormier, Joseph. The Dances Down Home. Includes pianist Eddie Irwin, and bassist/guitarist Edmond Boudreau. North American Traditions Series. Originally issued in 1977 on LP as Rounder 7004; CD includes additional content. Rounder 1166-11593-2. 2001.

Lamey, Bill. Full Circle: From Cape Breton to Boston and Back, Classic House Sessions of Traditional Cape Breton Music, 1956-1977. Rounder 7032, 2000.

MacMaster, Buddy. Cape Breton Tradition. Includes pianist Mary Elizabeth MacMaster MacInnis. North American Tradition Series. Rounder 82161-7052-2, 2003.

______. The Judique Flyer. With fourteen different pianists on each track. Stephen MacDonald Productions SMPCD1012, 2000.

Stubbert, Brenda. House Sessions. Accompanied by Paul MacDonald, guitar and Joey Beaton, piano. Originally issued on cassette. Cranford Publications CP-198-CD, 1998.

International Artists

Chieftains (with various Canadian artists). Fire in the Kitchen. Includes the Barra MacNeils and the Rankins; singers Mary Jane Lamond and Rita MacNeil, fiddlers Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaser. RCA, 63133, 1998.

Lamond, Mary Jane, Gaelic vocals. Bho Thir Nan Craobh (From the Land of Trees). With fiddler and pianist Ashley MacIsaac; pianist Allan Dewar, and guitarist Al Bennett. B & R Heritage Enterprises BR0001, ca. 1994; reissued on Iona Records (U.K.) IRCD045, 1996.

______. Gaelic vocals. Orain Ghaidhlig (Gaelic Songs of Cape Breton). Turtlemusik 02 50889, 2000.

MacIsaac, Ashley. Hi[TM] How Are You Today? With singer Mary Jane Lamond, and MacIsaac's band, the Kitchen Devils. A & M 31454 0522 2. 1995; reissue, Linus Entertainment 70052, 2005.

______. Live at the Savoy. With pianist May Belle Chisholm McQueen. Linus Entertainment 2 70054, 2004.

MacMaster, Natalie. My Roots are Showing: Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton Island. Includes fiddler Buddy MacMaster; pianists Joel Chiasson, Mary Jessie MacDonald, Howie MacDonald, Tracey Dares; guitarists Dave MacIsaac, Paul Mills, and Gordie Sampson, and percussionist Matthew Foulds. Rounder 11661-7033-2, 2000.

______. Live. Includes pianists Allan Dewar and Joel Chiasson; guitarists Dave MacIsaac and Brad Davidge. Rounder 1161-7048-2, 2002 (2 CDs). Rankins. Collection. Rounder 11661-7028-2, 1999.

Young Traditionalists

Beaton, Andrea. License to Drive 'Er. With fiddler Kinnon Beaton, pianists Betty Lou Beaton, Brent Chaisson, Kevin Chaisson, Mac Morin; guitarists Brent Chaisson, Pat Gillis, Gordie Sampson. Andrea Beaton Andie-01, 2001.

Beolach. Beolach. Includes Ryan G. MacNeil, border pipes and whistles; Mattie Foulds, drums/percussion; Mairi Rankin, fiddle/feet; Wendy MacIsaac, fiddle; Patrick Gillis, guitar; and Mac Morin, keyboards/feet. Beolach Music BM001, 2001.

Cottars. Forerunner. Includes Ciaran and Fiona MacGillivray, and Roseanne and Jimmy MacKenzie. Rounder 11661-7064-2, 2006.

MacGillivray, Troy. Eleven. Includes cellist Natalie Haas, fiddler Kendry MacGillivray; guitarists Brent Chaisson, Tim Edey, Tony MacGillivray, Dave MacIsaac, Anna Massie, and Jason Murdock. Trolleymac Music Trolley-03, 2005.

Morin, Mac, pianist. Mac Morin. Includes guitarists Patrick Gillis, Sandy MacDonald, Pius MacIsaac, and Gordie Sampson; pianist Betty Lou Beaton; fiddler Rannie MacLellan. Muileann Dubh Music Morin-01, 2003.

Folkways and Lost Sounds

The Heart of Cape Breton: Fiddle Music Recorded Live Along the Ceilidh Trail. Includes fiddlers Kinnon Beaton, Jerry Holland, Jackie Dunn MacIsaac (also on piano), Wendy MacIsaac; Buddy MacMaster, Brenda Stubbert; pianists Betty and Joey Beaton, Allan Dewar, Wendy MacIsaac, and Richard Wood; and guitarist Brian Doyle. Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40491, 2002.

North Shore Gaelic Singers. A Tribute to the North Shore Gaelic Singers. Originally issued as LP, 1986; reissued by B & R Heritage Enterprises BRCD 0005, 1996.

Traditional Music from Cape Breton Island: Recorded Live at the 1993 Cork University Traditional Music Festival. Includes fiddlers Buddy MacMaster, Natalie MacMaster, Jerry Holland, Dougie MacDonald, Howie MacDonald and Dave MacIsaac (both also on guitar), Carl MacKenzie, John Morris Rankin (also on piano), Brenda Stubbert; pianists Tracey Dares and Hilda Chiasson; pipers Paul MacNeil and Jamie MacInnis. Nimbus NI 5383, 1993.

Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton, Vol. 1: Mabou Coal Mines. Includes fiddlers Gregory Campbell, Alex Francis MacKay, Rannie MacLellan, Johnny MacLeod, and Friar Angus Morris. Rounder 82161-7037-2, 2002.

Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton, Vol. 2: The Rover's Return. Includes fiddlers John A. Gillis, Willie Kennedy, Allan and Francis MacDonald, John MacDougall, Gordon MacLean, and Morgan MacQuarrie. Rounder 821261-7038-2, 2002.


1. Burt Feintuch, program notes to Cape Breton Fiddle and Piano Music, performed by the Beaton Family of Mabou (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW CD 40507, 2004), 6.

2. Mary Jane Lamond, program notes to Bho Thir Nan Craobh (Glasgow, Scotland: Iona Records, 1996).

3. D. A. Muise, "Cape Breton Island," in The Canadian Encylcopedia, (accessed 23 August 2006).

4. Mark Wilson, in his program notes to Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton, Vol. 2: The Rover's Return (Rounder 82161-7038-2, 2002), states that "a reasonable number of dances were still being held," but that "younger players were not taking up the fiddle much and this was the fact that alarmed MacInnis."

5. Laurel Munroe, "Taking a Second Look, 30 Years Later," Cape Breton Post, 24 January 2001. Reposted at (accessed 23 August 2006).

6. The Celtic Colours International Festival is one of the most important, if not the preeminent, of many festivals around the island. It is held each October, and is now in its tenth year. The festival issues recordings which contain tracks of each artist or ensemble who performs in that year. They provide an excellent entry point into the recordings of musicians who are new to the scene. More information can be found on the festival's Web site at (accessed 23 August 2006).

7. Ashley MacIsaac, Fiddling with Disaster: Clearing the Past (Toronto: Warwick, 2003), 29.

8. Feintuch, program notes to The Heart of Cape Breton: Fiddle Music Recorded Live Along the Ceilidh Trail (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW CD 40491, 2002), 4.

9. Map of Nova Scotia,, available at (accessed 23 August 2006). The map was digitally converted to grayscale and edited to remove the western portions of Nova Scotia and a few obfuscating lines and place names, which confuse more than they clarify.

10. Ibid., 7.

11. For a comprehensive survey of Cape Breton fiddle recordings prior to 1989, see Jan Francis McKinnon's master's thesis, "Fiddling to Fortune: The Role of Commercial Recordings made by Cape Breton Fiddlers in the Fiddle Music Tradition of Cape Breton Island" (M.A. thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1989).

12. Paul MacDonald, program notes to The Judique Flyer, performed by Buddy MacMaster and various accompanists (Stephen MacDonald Productions SMPCD1012, 2000).

13. Mark Wilson, program notes to The Dances Down Home, performed by Joseph Cormier (Rounder Heritage Series 1166-11593-2, 2001). His nephew, J. P. Cormier, is a singer-songwriter who lived in Nashville before moving back to Cheticamp.

14. Patricia Lamey Hart, biographical notes to Full Circle: From Cape Breton to Boston and Back: Classic House Sessions of Traditional Cape Breton Music 1956-1977 (Rounder 82161-7032-02, 2000).

15. Bill Lamey, program notes to Full Circle (Rounder 82161-7032-02, 2000).

16. The first volume (1992) was devoted to fiddler Jerry Holland's compositions. Other volumes in the series include those of Paul Cranford and Winston Fitzgerald. Cranford Publications publishes and sells a number of collections of tunes through its Web site available at (accessed 23 August 2006).

17. Paul MacDonald, program notes to House Sessions, performed by Brenda Stubbert, Paul MacDonald, and Joey Beaton (Cranford Publications, 1992 (cassette); reissued on CD as CP-198-CD, 1998).

18. Feintuch, program notes to The Heart of Cape Breton: Fiddle Music Recorded Live Along the Ceilidh Trail (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40491, 2002), 12.

19. Natalie MacMaster, Compilation (Rounder 7021, 1998); reissue of Four on the Floor (1989) and The Road to the Isle (1990).

20. Her earlier release My Roots are Showing (Rounder 11661-7033-2, 2000) includes an additional track from the Glencoe Mills Dance with a guest appearance by Buddy MacMaster.

21. Heather Sparling, review of Brigh an Orain ("A Story in Every Song"), edited by John Shaw, Canadian Journal for Traditional Music 28 (2001),; Internet (accessed 23 August 2006).

22. Roch Parisien, review of North Country (EMI, 1993; reissued as EMI 780683, 2003), All-Music Guide, (accessed 23 August 2006).

23. Feintuch, program notes to Cape Breton Fiddle and Piano Music, 19-21.

24. It was reported in the June 26 Halifax edition of the Chronicle Herald by Billboard's Canadian bureau chief, Larry LeBlanc, that the band will be dissolved after performing at a number of North American summer festivals.

25. Kelly Dexter, "Cottars: Celtic with a Twist," Dirty Linen 124 (June/July 2006).

26. Troy MacGillivray, program notes to Eleven (Trolley Mac Music, Trolley-03, 2005).

27. Dan Hugh MacEachern is one of the most prolific tune composers of the region, joining the ranks of Jerry Holland. Brenda Stubbert, Dan R. MacDonald, and Donald Angus Beaton. Ashley MacIsaac refers to his "Kennedy Street March" as a "good Dan Hughie tune."

28. Glenn Graham, program notes to Cape Breton Fiddle and Piano Music, performed by the Beaton Family of Mabou (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW CD 40507, 2004), 22.
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Author:Pease, Thomas H.
Geographic Code:1CNOV
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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