This is a sampling of fiddle and folk trivia from almost 400 years of Canadian life. I will be adding to it continuously. Please contact Anne if you have a good story to share.
Fiddle: from Old English fithele ‘violin’, from Latin vitula ‘stringed instrument,’ (Vitula was a Roman goddess of joy and victory), and vitulari ‘celebrate a festival’. Also related to Old Norse fidla,, Middle Dutch vedele, German fiedel (Oxford Dictionary)
1880/81: Eight Inuit went to Europe from Labrador and died of smallpox, including Abraham, the best violin player. They had been taught by Moravian missionaries and converted to Christianity.
- from Abraham’s Diary, www.batteryradio.com
Nov. 27th, 1645: At a wedding, “there were two violins, for the first time.”
Christmas, 1645: “Martin Boutet played the violin.”
- from Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610 – 1791. Online at: http://puffin.creighton.edu/jesuit/relations
1851: “’On danser; on jouait; c’etait un grand plaisir fou. . . le père jouait du violon, et un petit gars assis dur la table.’”
1880: “‘J’avais dansé toute la veillee le cotillon, la cardeuse, le brandy, le quadrille, la belle Catherine, etc. Le joueur du violon etait Eloi Claveau, mon parrain. Il n‘y a jamais eu de jouer compare a lui pour faire danser.’”
- from Lisa Orenstein, 1985 Master's Thesis, A Life of Music: History and Repertoire of Louis Boudreault, Traditional Fiddler from Chicoutimi, Quebec
Moose Factory, 1749: In the Hudson's Bay records it is noted, 'having three Fidlers [sic] in the Factory, viz. Geo. Millar, Willm. Murray and James Short, our people celebrated the Evening with Dancing and Singing, and all were very merry.'”
- from Harvey Bassett’s “Christmas in the Fur Trade”, The Beaver, Outfit 272 (December), 1941.
Moose Factory, 2011: The connection with Scotland can be seen not only in the music, but also possibly in some of the language used. Older people say “boy” here a lot, in a similar way to Shetland, and “give us a tune” used to be a common expression here. This is a phrase that I hear constantly in music sessions back home in Aberdeen!
Wemendji, 2011: “The fiddler played a small selection of tunes (perhaps only around eight or ten in total), and the favourite was most definitely “The Soldier's Joy”, which was played regularly during the night and I’m told is the definitive wedding tune here. Other tunes included “St. Anne's Reel”,“Boil ’em Cabbage Down”, and “Orange Blossom Special”. For each dance, just one tune is played repeatedly, which is very different from Scotland, where playing the same tune more than three times in a row is normally considered a breach of etiquette. It also appears that there are certain tunes linked to particular dances, and this is something I’m hoping to find out more about during my time here. The dancers combine square dancing with step dancing, and this combination is a constant form of entertainment to the onlookers.”
“I asked Bobby about how the fiddle might have first taken root in the area, and he believed that the instrument was introduced when the ships of the Hudson's Bay Company would stop off at Old Factory Island and deliver supplies to the fur trading post there. He didn't know any names of any of the people who might have brought the fiddle over, but spoke about some of the older fiddlers who he would see playing in Old Factory. He also mentioned an old New Year’s custom very similar to the custom of “first-footing” or “guizing” found in Scotland and Shetland. This is when a fiddler visited every home in his neighbourhood playing a tune in each house to welcome in the New Year.”
- from Frances Wilkins, “Notes From the Field: The Cree Fiddlers of James Bay,” in Canadian Folk Music 45/4, 2011, online at: http://www.canfolkmusic.ca/index.php/cfmb/issue/view/43/showToc
Grey County, Ontario, 1880s
- mentions dance tunes: Fisher’s Hornpipe, Arkansas Travellor, Jenny Lind polka on jaw harp, round dances (her father doesn’t approve) “reels and Square dances” (older, father likes better), also step-dancing.
- from Nellie McCLung, Clearing in the West.
1880s, Lucan, Biddulph Township
- Will Donnelly played “Boney Crossing the Alps” to scare away vigilante neighbours who looked to do him harm.
– from Ray Fazakas, The Donnelly Album
Great Lakes, late 1800s: “Captain Berry began sailing on the lakes in the middle 1860s at the age of fifteen… He said that most of his sailing on the Great Lakes was in the grain trade, Chicago to Buffalo and that they usually had about ten men aboard… About the only way the sailors had of entertaining themselves…was by singing, “and some of them damn sailors was pretty good”.
He recalled two men who were with him a couple of seasons and who were “great musicians”. One played a violin and the other a banjo and both were good singers. Whenever the vessel tied up in port these two would play and sing and a crowd would gather to listen. When they went ashore they got all the free drinks they wanted in shore saloons and were and were often called on to take part in the “variety shows” the big saloons provided to entertain sailors.
He remembers one up-trip (Buffalo to Chicago) when they ran into a bad blow in the Straits of Mackinac. It became worse when they got into Lake Michigan so they pulled into the lee of some islands there and dropped anchor with twenty-five or thirty other vessels to wait it out and they didn’t get away until the next morning.
In the early evening some men on another vessel began singing and the nearby crews called for more and then another group took over and finally “my men” joined in. Then the crews around in every direction really shouted for more and “made a hell of a racket”. The singing continued until after midnight. “It sounded pretty damn good there in the night, when all you could see was other ships’ lights weavin’ about.”
When they arrived at Chicago and tied up some sailors were awaiting them and they “about kidnapped” these two men and took them to a saloon that provided a variety show. They played and sang and had all the drinks they wanted on the house until they got too drunk to continue.
- recollections of Captain Mark Berry, born 1851, collected by Ivan Walton at Port Stanley, Ontario, July 26, 1933. From Songquest – The Journals of Great Lakes Folklorist Ivan H. Walton
Winnipeg, 1940, on “Red River Jig”: “Mr. Genthon learned this tune from his father, who, in turn, learned it about the year 1842, from a man named Latourelle, newly arrived in Red River from Quebec. Mr. Genthon’s father said that this was the first time, to his knowledge, that the jig was heard in Red River and he had been informed by Mr. Latourelle that it was known in Quebec as ‘La gigue du Bas-Canada.’”
- an announcer on CJRC radio, reading from notes prepared by Manitoba historian Margaret Arnett MacLeod, track 1 of Drops of Brandy, CD collection available from The Gabrielle Dumont Institute, www.gdins.org