In Search of Folk Music: Cape Breton

A three-fiddler concert in The Barn. Image source: Tourism Nova Scotia www.novascotia.com

So you attend a traditional music concert in the heart of Cape Breton. It’s three fiddlers. First, Fiddler A plays a solo set. Then Fiddler B. Then Fiddler C. Next, A and B play a set together, then A and C, and finally B and C. Then—you guessed it—they all play a set together. What you have here is a two-hour concert of nothing but fiddle tunes. Vocals? Nada. Other instruments to break the fiddling monopoly? Nary a one. This makes some people happy as a Bluenoser in a dinghy full of cod. Others, not so much.

Let’s just say that Cape Breton and fiddle music are pretty much an old married couple, finishing each other’s sentences and smiling down benignly at the young whipper-snappers like guitars and songs with words. I asked a weathered-looking local if everyone on Cape Breton plays fiddle. After a moment’s serious thought—as if he was mentally toting up how many people he knew who didn’t bow the strings—he said, “Pretty much.”

The world’s largest fiddle, Sydney, NS.

My first clue that Cape Breton takes its fiddling seriously should have been the world’s largest fiddle that looms up 60 feet in the middle of Sydney. My second hint could have been my visit to the Celtic Music Centre in Judique, I was keen to take in the free noon-time “Celtic music” performance over a bite to eat. I settled in at a table and was treated to a half hour of…fiddle music.

Really good fiddle music, I hasten to add, because the calibre of playing is astonishing, which I guess is due in part to the fact that island babies seem to tuck fiddles under their chins about the same time they tuck thumbs in their mouths. When they start to walk, they add step-dancing to their skill set, which leads to an entire population that can play complex tunes while dancing around, tapping out rhythms with their feet. By the time a Cape Bretoner hits his or her teens, the bar has been raised so high that even the slouches by local standards are top-class by any other measure.

In addition, every fiddler on the island is related in some degree to a world-famous performer such as Natalie McMaster or Ashley MacIsaac, which means they are genetically programmed to make those strings sing.

Back to the three fiddlers: the best part of the evening for me was after the concert ended and they cleared the chairs away to make a dance floor. By now, it’s about 10:00 pm in The Barn (okay, it’s a barn purpose-built for shows—but it feels like a real barn—at the Normaway Inn in Margaree) on a bright, clear autumn night with a big moon outside. Those same three talented fiddlers sit down with a piano player and start playing for the ceilidh. Wow. Now those fiddle tunes start to make sense as they drive the dancing along with irresistible rhythms.

Despite all this wonderful instrumental music, being kind of a vocals person, what I really wanted to hear was songs, so two nights later, I headed off to the Doryman Pub in Cheticamp. The weather had turned to pissing rain and I arrived at the pub soaked from a hike in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Hot food & drink served up with Le Groupe Lelievre was just what I needed to warm up and dry off. Playing a range of traditional and popular music in both French and English with strong harmonies and excellent backing, Le Groupe had couples out on the dance floor and audience members singing along. They even threw in a few instrumental tunes. The party atmosphere easily drew in locals and tourists alike. And I was relieved to see that the band included a variety of instruments with not one fiddle in sight.

Still, I’d be willing to bet that they all play fiddle as well.

Have you visited Cape Breton? I’d love to hear about the music you enjoyed there or on another trip.

Nova Scotia Snapshot

Okay, let’s just get the quintessential Peggy’s Cove lighthouse shot done and dusted straight away, shall we?

This blog features my 25 favourite photos from a trip to Nova Scotia in September, 2016. This is not an attempt to represent the entire trip or the entire province in a few shots, just a selection of what I felt were the most interesting, photographically.

My grateful acknowledgement goes out to Geordie at Picture Perfect Tours for sharing some of the more interesting and out-of-the-way locations during our full-day tour with him.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

Awaiting their moment in the spotlight.

There’s just something about giant pumpkins.

You may rhapsodize about your royal-size rutabagas, you may hail the humungous Hubbard squash, or commend the colossal cabbage. All are worthy, but all bow before the immenseness of the Great Orange One.

Nova Scotia’s Hants County is a hotbed of oversize vegetable growing, thanks to a man named Howard Dill, who developed the Atlantic Giant variety of pumpkin back in the 1980s. Today, his namesake farm sells wanna-be growers enough seed annually to sprout around 2.4 million pumpkin plants.

Let us be clear. These are not the pumpkins you see in your grocery store at Halloween, the ones you carve and set out as Jack-o-lanterns. They’re not even the same ones your angelic child chooses as “the biggest pumpkin in the field” and poses beside for the family Facebook snappie.

These pumpkins are really, really big. To put this in perspective, I point out that Windsor, Nova Scotia, hosts an annual pumpkin regatta, in which jolly yachties hollow out examples of said squash, sit in them, and race along an 800-metre watery course. And those are the babies, the ones not big enough to compete at weigh-offs. The world record pumpkin last year tipped the scales at nearly 1,200 kilos.

Last September, I found myself in Nova Scotia, right on the border of Giant Pumpkin Country, just at the time when the big ‘uns were being harvested and trucked into local weigh-offs. There was no question of resisting the siren call of the splendid squash, despite the strange look the BnB proprietor gave me when I asked for help finding the off-the-beaten-track event.

I drove through endless orchards of picture-perfect Annapolis Valley apples before finally spotting the farm market that was hosting the event. As I puttered through to the overflow parking in an adjacent field, I had a great view of the line-up of titans waiting to be judged, each reclining regally on its own pallet board. The pumpkins ranged in colour from chalky white through greenish-yellow to deep orange. They brought to mind a ring of rotund sultans at ease after a particularly palatial repast, their bodies bulging out in unique, sometimes grotesque, forms.

I joined the crowd of giant-vegetable fanciers in dungarees, plaid jackets, and baseball hats. Forty or fifty people stood around patiently, chatting and commenting on each entry as it was weighed. There was good-natured ribbing of some of the growers, obviously well-known figures in the area. Hot dogs and hot chocolate took the nip out of the autumn air. Someone was filming the entire contest, which took a couple of hours to complete. A reporter from a farming magazine was on hand to take notes and photos. There was no hurry. It had the comfortable feel of a local event where hard-working folks took a well-deserved day off to connect with neighbors and display the fruits of their labors.

As the assistants worked a sling under and around the next competitor so it could be lifted by a frontloader, the crowd would begin guessing its weight. Due to the eccentric shapes and varying densities, this was no easy task; a pumpkin that appeared larger might actually turn out to be lighter in weight. This uncertainty merely compounded the tense atmosphere of cut-throat competition.

Before an entry was lowered onto the scale, a judge checked it underneath and occasionally used a whisk broom to clean the bottom, I suppose in case the extra half gram of dirt was the deciding factor in this battle of the heavyweights.

Each grower—young and old, man or woman—was encouraged to pose for a photo beside their entry as it rested on the scales with the weight clearly showing in the background. I imagined a farmhouse wall covered with these snapshots stretching back years, perhaps with an occasional ribbon tacked alongside.

Top prize that day went to a 1202-lb behemoth; not exactly world-record class, but certainly the biggest darn vegetable I’d ever seen. As they loaded the Great Pumpkin onto its owner’s truck for the triumphal journey home, I toasted it with my hot chocolate and wished it and its mates all the best. The winners would move up to compete in the county fair and perhaps to even greater glory at the provincial level. The losers might still contribute to someone’s closely guarded pumpkin breeding scheme.

I carried back from Hants County my own sample single-seed packet of Atlantic Giant. Someday, I may find the perfect spot—the most sincere pumpkin patch—to nurture that seed. It may look just like any other pumpkin seed, but I know it has the potential to bring forth a champion.

What have you discovered by exploring rural backroads on your travels? Share your story in a comment.