University of Limerick
Doherty_1996_Paradox_.pdf (7.19 MB)

The paradox of the periphery: evolution of the Cape Breton fiddle tradition c1928 - 1995

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posted on 2022-10-07, 13:17 authored by Elizabeth Anne Doherty
The purpose of this thesis is to examine the evolution of the Cape Breton fiddle tradition, a process which I believe can be reasonably considered to have started in the early decades of this century. The Scottish element in this tradition has already been expounded by scholars such as Kate Dunlay (1986a), Earl V. Spielman (1972), and Virginia Garrison (1985). The focus here will thus be on the Cape Breton contribution to that musical tradition. Central to this will be the exploration of the idea that while Cape Breton can certainly be credited with the preservation over several generations of a distinct 18th century Highland sound, the twentieth century witnessed the beginning of the development of a new musical sound, one which by 1995 is easily identifiable as Cape Breton. Much of the information presented is based on personal fieldwork conducted in Cape Breton during 1992, 1993 and 1995 (See Appendix D). Arriving in Cape Breton with no preconceived notions about the tradition (actually with very little knowledge about the tradition, if the truth were to be told), I very quickly became aware of the current concerns among the musical community there. Predominant among these was an anxiety that the Cape Breton fiddler was changing. Not unexpectedly the finger was being pointed in the direction of the generation of fiddlers in their late teens/early twenties. As an Irish fiddler who has on occasion been labelled in that same category within my own tradition, this debate resonated strongly with me. Certainly I recognised that in the hands of a number of young Cape Breton fiddlers the music was undergoing significant experimentation. While fully aware of the dangers inherent in observing the present through the past I found it particularly interesting to note that many of the recent developments happening within the Cape Breton tradition had already been explored within the Irish tradition, particularly during the 1970s and '80s. That tension between tradition and irmovation which has been a source of energy in Irish music for decades is only now becoming a significant 15 factor within the Cape Breton situation. As I became more familiar with the Cape Breton tradition I became convinced that the changing Cape Breton fiddler is not a phenomenon of the 1990s, but instead has its genesis as far back as the 1920s. From that period onwards other concerns, such as the strength and continuity of the tradition, which caused great alarm in the early '70s for instance, took priority over fears regarding the rate of change within the music tradition. The change which is today the focus of attention is the continuation of a process which has been in operation over several generations. Already the Highland Scottish fiddler has evolved into the Cape Breton fiddler. Now the Cape Breton fiddler continues to evolve. While the focus of this thesis is that very process of evolution some brief background information is necessary in order to prove, essentially, that that sound which we now know as Cape Breton certainly does have its origins in the Scottish Highlands of the past.



  • Doctoral

First supervisor

O'Súilleabháin, Mícheál





Department or School

  • Irish World Academy of Music & Dance

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