By Pat Moran
Wendy MacIsaac was 12 years old when she found the fiddle. It was under her grandmother’s bed and had not been played for years. “My grandmother’s brother sold ice in Boston, and he took two fiddles as payment instead of cash,” says MacIsaac, now 45. “They landed in my grandmother’s home in Glencoe Mills, Cape Breton. When I showed interest in the fiddles, she gave them to me. I played one of them for 13 years. It was my first fiddle.”
Today MacIsaac is recognized as a leading player and proponent of a style of fiddling rooted in her native Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Cape Breton fiddling came to this picturesque part of Maritime Canada in the early 19th century when Gaelic-speaking Scots, displaced by the Highland Clearances, flooded the island. The immigrants were impoverished, but rich in culture. They clung to their language and music, particularly step dancing and fiddling.
Back in Scotland, fiddle playing evolved, blending with English and European styles. In America, an Irish diaspora even greater than the Highland Scots’ migration overwhelmed Celtic music so much that Irish fiddling came to dominate the market. Meanwhile, on Cape Breton, the traditional fiddling style thrived in isolation, passed down from generation to generation through ceilidhs—or house parties—and dances.
“Since the day I was born, I was immersed in this music,” says MacIsaac, who studied with celebrated fiddler Stanley Chapman. “He also taught Natalie MacMaster and my cousin Ashley MacIsaac,” she adds. But Wendy MacIsaac mostly learned by ear, listening to tunes recorded at local dances. After two years of study, she started playing three-hour-long dances herself. “In a single dance, we’d play about 160 tunes.”
The dances did more than provide a venue for fiddle players. They supplied the highly percussive beat particular to Cape Breton fiddling. “We play with a down-bow on the beat,” MacIsaac explains. The rhythm mimics the step-shuffle of a jig, with the emphasis on the first step. “When you hear 150 people doing that in a dance hall, you have an entire percussion section right in frontof you.”
MacIsaac is so grounded in the island’s traditions, she didn’t even realize that there was such a thing as Cape Breton fiddling until she started touring with her roots band Beòlach in the early 2000s, and audiences started asking for the style by name. That said, she challenges the widely held notion that Cape Breton fiddling is unsullied by outside influences, a magnificently old-fashioned music trapped in 19th-century amber. She cites Acadian towns on the island, where French language and Quebecois cadences influence the fiddling style. The Mi’kmaq, Cape Breton’s indigenous people, add their rhythmic influences to Cape Breton’s fiddling as well, she says.
It’s also no accident that MacIsaac’s first fiddle came from Boston. As early as the mid 1800s, Cape Bretoners streamed down to America looking for work. Boston proved such a popular point of entry for the islanders that they started referring to New England as the Boston States. As before, the Cape Bretoners brought their culture and music with them. Dance halls sprang up in their new hometown—the Canadian-American Club, the French Victory Club, and the Greenville Café—where fiddlers played their traditional music.
The Boston States is also the title of the latest album by the Katie McNally Trio, made up of McNally on fiddle, pianist Neil Pearlman, and Shauncey Ali on viola. Fiddler McNally, 26, is Boston born and raised, but her family traces their roots back to Maritime Canada. In large part, her album is a love letter to Cape Breton fiddling, featuring tunes made famous by Boston-based and Cape Breton–bred practitioners of the style like Bill Lamey and Joe Cormier. The Boston States is produced by none other than Wendy MacIsaac, who also provides traditional step dancing on the album.
The Celtic Arts Foundation Winter School in Seabeck, Washington, brought MacIsaac and McNally together in 2015.
“They have a fiddling and piping program out there, and we both happened to be on staff,” McNally says. “Wendy is one of my biggest heroes. We met, hit it off, and we started playing (fiddle) together.”
“Katie asked me to produce her album,” MacIsaac recalls. “It’s been a great honor.”
Like MacIsaac, McNally trained in the traditional style.
“I was eight when I started playing fiddle,” McNally recalls. “I was initially taking Irish fiddle lessons, but I went to a program at Boston College called Gaelic Roots where I heard Cape Breton fiddling for the first time. I played hooky from my Irish classes and immersed myself in Scottish and Cape Breton music.”
“You have to know the steps to understand why the music is the way it is. Our music wouldn’t exist without the dancers.”
McNally learned to play by ear—“I think it’s still the best way to pass on the nuances of the tradition”—and she honed her chops playing dances at halls like the Canadian-American Club. Like MacIsaac, she believes that you can’t separate Cape Breton step dancing from its fiddling. “You have to know the steps to understand why the music is the way it is. Our music wouldn’t exist without the dancers.”
Both McNally and MacIsaac agree that the nature of Cape Breton fiddling is best explained by comparing it to its Irish variant. You can hear the musical differences in the language, McNally says. “If you compare an Irish accent to a Scottish accent, that comes into their music as well. Irish has a smooth lilt as opposed to the harsher burr of a Scottish or a Maritime accent.”
The lilt vs. burr contrast can be extended to fiddling, she adds. While an Irish fiddler would play a “roll,” a Cape Bretoner would play a “cut.” A roll is a left-hand ornament whereas a cut is a right-hand ornament, but the main difference is in the sound.
“A roll is sweet sounding. It’s comprised of five notes and you can hear different pitches from each note. It all happens in one smooth bow stroke,” McNally explains. “A cut is a more percussive sound of three separate bow strokes, but it’s all the same note. It’s explosive.”
“Crunching” also accentuates the percussive quality of Cape Breton playing. When islanders play, they keep their bow hair strung loose, so they can get the harsh sound of the bow’s wood scraping the strings, McNally says.
“A lot of us don’t hold the bow at the bottom, like a classical player would,” MacIsaac says. That’s because fiddlers need to shift their balance to pull off a “lift,” a Cape Breton variant of a slur.
“A slur is when you play two or three notes together. There are loads of slurs in the Irish style. We also slur, but we lift the bow up to do it, which adds a more pronounced separation of the notes,” she says.
All these techniques add “dirt” to the island’s style of playing, a hard rhythmic drive that’s a key element of Cape Breton tradition. It’s a tradition that both MacIsaac and McNally want to preserve, even as stylistic purity is threatened by the music’s increasing popularity. Since the 1980s, Cape Breton fiddlers have toured Scotland, helping to revive traditional step dancing and fiddling in the islanders’ historic homeland. But dissemination of traditional fiddling, accelerated by the spread of Celtic music festivals, also brings in outside influences as musicians exchange ideas and techniques.
Every fall, MacIsaac’s birthplace hosts one of the largest of these musical gatherings. The population of Cape Breton explodes as tourists flock to the island for the International Celtic Colours Festival. “The festival takes place over nine days, with concerts from one end of the island to the other,” MacIsaac says. With four or five concerts a day, workshops, and community dinners, “the island is alive and buzzing.”
It’s a shot in the arm to Cape Breton’s economy, but the festival also encourages the experimentation that makes regional styles blend into one another. MacIsaac notes that Cape Breton fiddling is already changing, as the accompanying piano style grows jazzier and more syncopated.
“My piano player Neil Pearlman grew up in the Scottish tradition,” McNally says, “but he also loves Latin jazz, so that’s made its way into his playing.”
While McNally celebrates her band’s deep love of Cape Breton music on The Boston States, she notes that they’re “Americans playing an American version of Cape Breton music. The album is an exploration of that idea. We’re balancing being true to the Cape Breton music that we love so much, while also being true to ourselves as modern Bostonians.”
“I don’t have issues with people experimenting if they can take the music to a new audience,” MacIsaac says. “But we’re not a big island, and even though it might seem like there are loads of us playing Cape Breton style, there really aren’t. I think it’s important that all our players continue to be able to play completely and purely in the traditional style.”
What They Play
Wendy MacIsaac plays a custom Handorff fiddle from Toronto-based Geo Heinl & Co. Limited.
Katie McNally plays a 2007 Bob Childs fiddle.