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, Montréal, 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 [End Page 401] 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.
The Musical Island: Geography and Culture
Singer Mary Jane Lamond titled her first album Bho Thìr 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 Chéticamp 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...