UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Cape Breton fiddling narrative : innovation, preservation, dancing Herdman, Jessica


With the fear of decline of the Cape Breton fiddling tradition after the airing of The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler by the CBC in 1971, both the Cape Breton community and ethnographers clamored to preserve and maintain the extant practices and discourse. While this allowed for performance contexts and practices to burgeon, it also solidified certain perspectives about the “diasporic preservation” and resultant “authenticity.” This work aims to trace the seeds and developments of the beliefs surrounding the Cape Breton fiddling tradition, from the idealizations of Enlightenment Scotland to the manipulation and commercialization of the folklore and Celticism of twentieth-century Nova Scotia. These contexts romanticized older practices as “authentic,” a construct that deeply impacted the narrative about the Cape Breton fiddling tradition. One of the most rooted and complex concepts in this narrative is that of “old style,” a term that came to represent the idealized performance practice in post-1971 Cape Breton fiddling. As models were sought for younger players to emulate, pre-1971 “master” fiddlers with innovative stylistic approaches began to be identified as “old style” players. The interstices of the tradition allowed more extreme stylistic experimentation to be accepted as “traditional,” while the symbiotic social practice of dancing necessitated relative conservatism. Analysis will show that “listening” tunes fell into the interstices of allowable innovation, while dance (particularly step-dance) tunes demanded certain “old style” techniques. A more holistic view of the complexities of the Cape Breton fiddling tradition follows from a perspective not only of the socio-musical elements that shaped the historical narrative, but also of the musical elements of this dance-oriented “old style.”

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