Fiddling in Lanark County by David Ennis





Photo- The Bowes Brothers at Beckwith Pioneer Days



This was on a PDF and hard to read so I transcribed it here.. and the link is above.

Lanark County, Ontario, is situated approximately forty kilometres west of Ottawa. Part of the Ottawa Valley, it is between the Rideau Lakes district to the south and the Ottawa River to the north. The Mississippi River system contributed significantly to the development of the county, being its major waterway for the transportation of timber and produce. Settlement took place in the nineteenth century because of Britain’s desire to increase security against American invasion and to solve domestic problems created by overpopulation. Scottish settlers arrived beginning in 1816 and Irish settlers, victims of the potato famine, arrived beginning in 1823. Both groups brought a rich folk music culture with them.


Not surprisingly, these cultures overlapped, particularly during a timber boom with Britain during the last half of the century. Social life in the lumber camps was colourful with singing, fiddling and dancing taking place during the winter nights. As the Ottawa Valley borders on both Quebec and Ontario, French-Canadian lumbermen influenced the Scottish and Irish music with their own style. The county has not been immune to the influences of artists made famous by the media. In particular, Don Messer has influenced old-time fiddle playing, as well as step dancing and square dancing. The commercialization of what is essentially a regional art form has resulted in warnings from ethnomusicologists that folk music is becoming an endangered genre. The influence of the media, combined with the increased mobility of the masses, has resulted in the conclusion that the folk music environment is being destroyed. However, the conclusions in this article concur with the observations of current research which suggest that music passed on by the aural tradition is a vibrant art form that remains resilient despite acculturative and technological pressures. Folk music must be examined as a functional art form which is subject to change depending on sociological and historical events.


Its function has been to serve the daily needs of its creators, those composersperformers whose strong aural instincts produced music for singing and dancing, grieving and celebration. It is a regional art form and although surprisingly insular to outside forces is capable of absorbing new ideas without losing its identify. It is the “aural” tradition that has protected folk music from being assimilated into other genres, a fact that our printoriented mindset has difficulty accepting. Because folk music is primarily an aural medium, variation of the original tune or dance is the norm. The end result is that regional variations continuously change and develop within a national style. Fiddle music, as a utilitarian art form, was invariably used to accompany dances.


Although many traditional tunes were influenced by the idiosyncracies of the bagpipe (range, ornamentation, drones), the fiddle gradually evolved as the ideal instrument for cheap and versatile accompaniment. Traditional dances were group dances but the concept of a solo dancer accompanied by a single fiddle is a naval tradition. In the sociological sense, there are few instances where men and women are forced to entertain themselves separately. In the navy, however, partnerless men were in need of exercise and entertainment. Jigs (especially the spritely Irish tunes) were part of the on-board routine. In Lanark County, the navy-styled format evolved naturally when men were isolated from their wives or girl friends every winter during the timber boom which took place throughout most of the nineteenth century. Throughout the Ottawa valley, regional and national styles were cast together at an accelerated rate.


On cold winter nights, one might sing and dance in the lumber shanties to fiddle music which reflected Irish, Scottish, or French-Canadian characteristics.. The music that has evolved can be allocated” to one of four general categories which, for the purposes of this article, are identified as traditional tunes, old-time tunes, commercial old-time tunes, and new compositions. The determination of these categories is the result of analysis techniques gleaned from two sources. Using strategies from John D. White’s The Analysis of Music, each tune is analysed on a micro, middle, and macro format. Tomas O Canainn, in his book, The Traditional Music of Ireland, uses a point system for each note of the tune. This becomes the basis for the microanalysis of the tunes. Points are given if the note is on a strong beat, is the highest or lowest note, is preceded by a leap of a fifth or more, is the first stressed note of the tune, is of significant length, or is ornamented.


All of these factors play a role in determining the characteristics of the tune. Observations regarding the “strongest” note are then determined by adding the total number of points. The Interval Frequency column indicates the number of times each interval is present. This means the distance between melodic intervals (seconds, thirds, fourths) will be indicated without including the qualifiers (minor, major, Perfect). Repeated notes are categorized as ‘1’. This category is further subdivided into ascending and descending intervals. In all tunes, notes and intervals are counted without repeats. The middle analysis section is labelled “Observations” and outlines patterns in harmony, rhythm, variation, ornamentation and form. A graph of the harmony and form is included. From this data, the macroanalysis process takes place.


This means that general observations and conclusions are drawn from the evidence given in the micro and middle analysis stages. Each tune is analysed on fiddle tune data sheets. These three-paged compilations are set in an appendix at the end of this paper. Each set of data sheets is accompanied by a transcription of the tune. Any variations by the fiddlers are included at the bottom of the transcription, marked in order of appearance, by number. Each eight-bar period is indicated on the transcript as PI and P2. For easy reference, all bars in the transcriptions are numbered. A well known tune in many parts of Canada is “Little Burnt Potato.”


A lesson in the process of the aural tradition can be learned by interpreting the performances by three Lanark County fiddlers. Colin J. Boyd, an Irish fiddler, composed the tune for Don Messer. It is a lilting Irish jig and is considered an old-time tune. However, because Messer broadcasted on radio, his performance of the tune is considered to be in the commercial old-time style. The lesson starts here! Dawson Girdwood, a long-time resident of Perth, grew up and performed with local fiddlers. However, as an adult, he received a Canada Council grant to study with Jean Carignan. Although he could play “Little Burnt Potato,” he claimed he had to relearn the tune in order to play it in the “proper” style. As it observed in the analysis of his performance, the tune has become “Irish” again, through the use of lighter bowing, ornamentation, passing tones, and inverse drones. Although not evident without hearing the recording, his accompanist, Glenn Paul, uses a ii chord in the second period (other pianists rely on the V chord), a factor that enhances the Irish flavour. The combination of subtle changes has returned the tune to its original style.


On the other hand, Lloyd Brunton, a Carleton Place resident, gained his experience by listening to the radio. Although he had also listened to Don Messer’s performance of “Little Burnt Potato,” Brunton interpreted the tune according to his own aural and utilitarian experience. His style is heavy-handed and rhythmically strong, quite suitable for the step dance accompaniment which is his forte. Paul Gemmill’s aural experience has a Western flavour and step dance accompaniment is rarely required when he performs. As a result, the French-Canadian styled anticipated rhythms and Western-like use of double-stopped sixths have become part of his style. True to the folk music tradition, the purpose of the performance ultimately determines the style! Although only one of the styles found in Lanark County has been reviewed in this article, the most valuable lesson from analysing fiddlers’ interpretation of tunes is that regardless of the source of the tune, the local fiddler will still perform it in his or her own style.


Typical of the folk music tradition, when a tune has infiltrated the region, local musicians will work at giving it their own flavour. The biggest change in the last one hundred years is that the media has greatly expanded the parameters of “regionality.” However, it has not significantly altered the process of the aural tradition. What was once introduced by travelling dance masters or perhaps a broadside is now delivered by radio or television. Twentieth-century technology has given musicians a chance to put regional styles on a national stage. However, rather than causing a “whitewashing” effect on regional styles, “nationalized” fiddle tunes, typical of the aural tradition, ultimately are returned to the idiosyncratic styles of regional fiddlers.


About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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