I do not mean to restrict the term Cape Breton traditional music to Cape Breton Island alone, as this rich music is the common heritage of the Maritime Gàidhealtachd (see the map at the bottom of the page here), brought from Scotland with the Gaelic-speakers who settled in Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick (a large number of émigrés from these provinces subsequently settled in the “Boston States”, where the music can also be heard, and smaller groups settled in Toronto and Windsor, where the music is still played), but the greatest concentration of active musicians in this style now lives in Cape Breton, hence my choice of term, following a common shorthand.
This music is primarily pipe music, fiddle music (usually accompanied by piano, guitar, or both), and Gaelic song, much of it traceable directly back to Scotland. It has been a vibrant, thriving tradition ever since the colonists arrived in the New World, with new tunes and songs in the style being regularly composed by many fine local composers and picked up and passed on by the local musicians (many of whom in former days did not read music) and those who listened to them. Its preservation is intimately tied to the importance dance retains in this culture, both individual step-dancing and group dancing in square sets; the dance is impossible without the music but the music would have long since died out but for the dance.
I have been learning about Cape Breton’s traditional music for the past seventeen years now and am still not ready to write about it at length, for I have much more to assimilate. However, I needed a place to post the jig Kinnon Beaton made for me, so, in 2011, I created this page, which was shown as “missing” before then; I have since added two more tunes, for whose creation I played a rôle. Some day, I hope to fill out this area of my web site with more information. In the meantime, let me direct you to the following existing web sites for an introduction to this wonderful music:
The article The Myth of the Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler: The Role of a CBC Film in the Cape Breton Fiddle Revival by Marie Thompson, published in Acadiensis (Vol. XXXV, No. 2 Spring/Printemps 2006), a fine brief introduction to Cape Breton fiddle music and culture, describes the reäction that the CBC documentary The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, aired in 1971, triggered in the communities of Cape Breton and its lasting consequences. [I am indebted to Beth MacGillivray for this reference.]
Liz Doherty’s The Cape Breton Fiddle Companion [Cape Breton University Press, Sydney, Cape Breton, 2015; ISBN-13: 978-1-77206-024-9; ISBN-10: 1-77206-024-0] is a fantastic encyclopædia of Cape Breton traditional music: alphabetically organized, it contains articles on all aspects of this music as it exists in 2015, focussing on “three overarching themes: ‘people’ (primarily musicians but also other key stakeholders), ‘music’ (instruments, techniques, resources), and ‘other’ (various topics such as festivals, events, venues[,] and support agencies.” [p. xxvii] You will therefore find biographies of current performers and significant past performers, descriptions of venues where the music is played, cultural institutions important to keeping the music alive, and general topics, e.g., “audiences”, “ceilidh”, “ear players”, “ornament”. The extensive cross references between related articles turn a simple browse into a broad and deep coverage of a topic of interest. It is a book to which I return repeatedly.
The following books (all in paperback editions) are also very useful introductions to this music and its practitioners, as well as to the culture in which it is embedded (if you can read only one, choose Glenn’s):
- The Cape Breton Fiddle: Making and Maintaining Tradition by Glenn Graham, Cape Breton University Press, Sydney, Cape Breton, 2006 [ISBN-13: 978-1-897009-09-3; ISBN-10: 1-897009-09-07]; includes CD.
- A Journey in Celtic Music — Cape Breton Style by Sheldon MacInnes, UCCB Press, Sydney, Cape Breton, 1997 [ISBN: 0-920336-55-8].
- One With the Music: Cape Breton Step Dance Tradition and Transmission by Mats Melin, Cape Breton University Press, Sydney, Cape Breton, 2015 [ISBN-13: 978-1-77206-028-7; ISBN-10: 1-77206-028-3].
- Dance to the Piper: The Highland Bagpipe in Nova Scotia by Barry W. Shears, Cape Breton University Press, Sydney, Cape Breton, 2008 [ISBN-13 978-1-897009-33-8; ISBN-10: 1-897009-33-X]; includes CD.
- Right to the Helm: Cape Breton Square Dances, a collection of square sets edited by Jørn Borggreen, [publisher not given], Jyllinge [Denmark], 2015, fourth edition [ISBN 978-87-988872-4-9].
- Buddy MacMaster: The Judique Fiddler by Sheldon MacInnes, Pottersfield Press, Lawrencetown Beach, Nova Scotia, 2007 [ISBN-13: 978-1-895900-90-3; ISBN-10: 1-895900-90-5].
- Fiddling with Disaster (Clearing the Past) by Ashley MacIsaac with Francis Condron, Warwick Publishing, Toronto, Ontario, 2003 [ISBN: 1-894622-33-2].
- Talking Cape Breton Music: Conversations with People Who Love and Make the Music by Ronald Caplan, Breton Books, Wreck Cove, Cape Breton, 2006 [ISBN 1-895415-67-5].
- As A’ Bhràighe / Beyond the Braes: The Gaelic Songs of Allan the Ridge MacDonald, 1794-1868 by Effie Rankin, University College of Cape Breton Press, Sydney, Cape Breton, 2004 [ISBN 1-897009-01-1].
- The East Coast Ceilidh: A Look at Atlantic Canada’s Music Scene by John R. Zinck, Vanmarkin Publications, Dominion, Cape Breton, 1996, 1998 [ISBN not given].
- The Original “The Cape Breton Fiddler” by Allister MacGillivray, City Printers, Ltd., Sydney, Cape Breton, 1997 [ISBN 0-920336-12-4].