(Judique Flyer)

Keepers of the Tradition
(Cape Breton fiddling)

Buddy MacMaster and his great CD Judique Flyer
Updated: December 20, 2009 Back to main Cape Breton Page

A noticeable feature of Cape Breton music is the respect and love the younger generation of musicians has for the previous generation who were so generous in teaching and encouraging. Listen to this music and Cape Breton music as a living tradition carefully passed from one generation to the next becomes clear.

Collections of Musicians

  • Mabou Coal Mines (Gregory Campbell, Alex Francis MacKay, Rannie MacClellan, Johnny MacLeod, Fr. Angus Morris)
  • The Rover's Return (Kenloch area - John A. Gillis, Willie Kennedy, Allan MacDonald, Francis MacDonald, John MacDougall, Gordon MacLean, Morgan Macquarrie)
  • Cape Breton Fiddlers on Early LPs ( Dan R. MacDonald, Donald MacLellan, Theresa MacLellan, Dan Joe MacInnis and Johnny Wilmot)

 Solo Albums

Before eveyone had their own CD players, musicians played for themselves, their friends, and in Cape Breton their friends the dancers! What is striking to me about these recordings of the older musicians is the enormous variety in their sound. Today we think of a "Cape Breton sound", where previously, due in part to the isolation of many of the small communities, there were very distinct local traditions. Listen to the "Gaelic" sound of Alex Francis MacKay and compare it to the Irish sound of Johnny Wilmot. And then there are the best known of the masters - Buddy MacMaster and Winston "Scotty" Fitzgerald. I guess I think of listening to these musicians as sipping a single malt whiskey after the having drunk the blended sound of some of the younger fiddlers.

(Doryman Beverage Room) 

The Doryman in Cheticamp, Cape Breton.
"Sat Violin 2-6" has to be one of the softest sells imaginable since it is often the likes of Buddy (or Natalie) MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, Donny LeBlanc, or any of the great fiddlers on the island.


(Early Cape Breton Fiddlers) Cape Breton Fiddlers on Early LPs (Breton Books & Tapes) This tape contains records of Cape Breton legends Dan R. MacDonald, Donald MacLellan, Theresa MacLellan, Dan Joe MacInnis and Johnny Wilmot. The five medleys from Dan R. MacDonald in particular are worth the price of his tape since his recordings are otherwise very hard to come by. 

(Mabou Coal Mines CD)

Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton, Volume 1 Mabou Coal Mines  - (Rounder Records 2002) "I try to put the old Scots feel - the Gaelic - into my music," one of our artists once remarked, but his words might speak equally for all of the cherished performers found on this four volume compilation of recently recorded "old-style" Cape Breton violin music. Each CD features a different group of fiddlers from various parts of the island. The present collection centers upon Inverness County, especially the little villages around Mabou. Featuring fiddlers Gregory Campbell, Alex Francis MacKay, Rannie MacLellan, Johnny MacLeod, Fr. Angus Morris Produced by Morgan MacQuarrie and Mark Wilson (Gregory Campbell, Alex Francis MacKay, Rannie MacClellan, Johnny MacLeod, Fr. Angus Morris) (samples available at the above link)

(The Rover's Return)

Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton, Volume 2 The Rover's Return ((Rounder 2002, ROUN7038). The present collection focuses upon the region around Kenloch, north of Lake Ainslie. Featuring fiddlers Willie Kennedy, John A. Gillis, John MacDougall, Allan MacDonald, Francis MacDonald, Gordon MacLean and Morgan MacQuarrie Produced by Morgan MacQuarrie and Mark Wilson (samples available at the above link)

Solo Albums:

(Classic Cuts album cover))
(Traditionally Yours)

Winston "Scotty" Fitzgerald - Classic Cuts The late Scotty Fitzgerald is one of the recent legends of the traditional Cape Breton music and a mentor and inspiration for many of the traditional musicans playing today. Definitely a classic Cape Breton sound. 
Traditionally Yours part of the Canadian Country Classics series (Rodeo International, 1996). Contains 50 tunes in 24 sets. [more coming]


John Morris Rankin was a key member of the group The Rankin Family. However, John Morris let his sisters and brothers front the group. This quiet, generous man, who generally played the piano with the group, was so humble that many outside of Cape Breton may not realize how great a fiddler and tune writer he was. Listen carefully to the fiddle solos on the Rankin Family albums and you can get a feel for how special he was as a fiddler. Look for a special memorial tribute CD to John Morris coming out soon.

(Informal Sessions cover)

(Joseph Cormier and Friends)

Joseph Cormier - Cormier grew up in Chéticamp, a French-speaking town in Cape Breton, but learned to play music from Scottish fiddlers in nearby towns. The result is Scottish tunes played with a style that reminds me slightly of Cajun music. I have an enjoy two of his CDs, including Informal Sessions (Rounder Records CD 7017, 1998). This is a wonderful recording made in Joe's basement with fellow Cheticamp player Edmond Boudreau on guitar and bass and Eddie Irwin on piano. This album has a great, no compromise, old-fashioned style with modern acoustics. Rounder again has produced superb liner notes. For fans of Joe's Acadian/Scottish/Cape Breton fiddling style (and you should be a fan), this is a must-have album. 

I also have Joseph Cormier and Friends (Rounder Records CD 7013, 1992) This is a wonderful and interesting album with excellent Cape Breton-style piano accompaniment by Connie Morrison MacGillivray. Cormier has played everywhere from his usual venue at the Franco-American Victory Club in Waltham, Massachusetts to Carnegie Hall. This is his fifth recording, and is great fun. 

Jerry Holland - It's very hard to know where to begin describing one of my favorite fiddler's music. I have long been a huge fan of Jerry's lyrical playing and tunewriting, and his light and sweet touch on the fiddle. All his CDs are wonderful, and surprisingly diverse. A very good place to start is with A Session with Jerry Holland. (w/ Dave MacIsaac & John Morris Rankin)  (self-published 2005). This gem of a collection has thankfully been re-issued. Digitally recorded in 1990 this classic album was originally issued as cassette. Three of the twelve cuts appeared on the now out of print Fiddlesticks compilation. Here is teamed with two of the finest musicians ever to grace Cape Breton (or elsewhere), and the result is pure bliss. There are far, far too few recordings of John Morris Rankin (to whose memory this CD is dedicated), and this CD again shows why he was such a treasure.  The recording quality on the CD is very nice indeed for 1990.  (Essential purchase)). My mni-reviews of some of Jerry's other CD's can be found here.

(A Lifelong Home)

Alex Francis MacKay - A Lifelong Home (An Dachaidh Dha Mo Shaoghal)(Rounder Records CD 7020, 1997). This is the real stuff, harmonies unfamiliar to modern concert-oriented music, no synthesizers, just fiddle and piano, and a raw driving energy. This is music played (and recorded) in MacKay's home between 1989-92. MacKay's style extends to playing the fiddle with the instrument pointing almost straight forward and the bow arm moving up and down. Not my recommended first album to buy, but when you thirst for this music, then you know your hooked on Cape Breton. The liner notes for this CD are lengthy and superb and give a great idea of what Cape Breton was like. Kudos to recording engineer Paul MacDonald and Rounder Records.

Alex Francis is also featured with four tracks on Mabou Coal Mines (Rounder 2002).

(Joe MacLean)

Joe MacLean - Old Time Scottish Fiddle Music from Cape Breton Island (Rounder Records CD 7024, 1998). These recordings, mainly from 1977, are far removed from classically- influenced Scottish music, and all the better for it. The tunes reflect all the energy and passion of Cape Breton music at its best. Plus the 21 pages of liner notes, mainly by his son Vince, are superb at putting this music in its social and historical context. 

Joe Peter MacLean - Back of Boisdale  (Rounder Records 2005).  Congratulations to Rounder for continuing their superb North American Tradition series. Those looking "The Pure Drop" authentic Gaelic style fiddling from way down the dirt road, not created by a focus group, this CD is for you. MacLean's playing is very heavily influeced by Gaelic, his first language, and fully reflects the different modes one hears in old traditional fiddling, starting out with some tunes that may sound quite sour or out of tune to those used to the more symphonic sound of fiddlers like Alasdair Fraser or even Natalie MacMaster. Cape Breton music is mainly about dancing, and as the CD progresses (all 76 minutes of it!), MacLean shows that he has plenty of drive and lift in his playing. By the end, you'll probably be up and stepping around the room. He is ably assisted on this CD by Janet Cameron on piano, Paul Wukitsch on fiddle, and Gordon MacLean on piano and parlor organ. In his excellent liner notes (included as a pdf file with the album or downloadable here (along with sample),  Mark Wilson writes: " [MacLean's fiddlint  differs somewhat from the more frequently recorded Inverness County styles from the other side of the island...[and also is notable for] the unusual groups of tunes that he learned from his father, Charlie. These provide an interesting glimpse, I believe, of a traditional fiddler’s repertory before the island-wide readjustments and standardization that occurred in the post-World War II period. (Highly recommended)

(Threresa Morrison CD)

Theresa Morrison - Laments and Merry Melodies from Cape Breton Island (Rounder Records 7026) This album is wonderful. Theresa is the sister of Joe MacLean. The album is just Theresa on "violin" and Gordon MacLean, a neighbor, on piano. All are from McKay's point, and play in the "Washabuck" style. Theresa's playing has a lovely, gracious majesty to it, emanating from an obviously humble person. Definitely an older, "more traditional" sound; there is terrific soul to this music. The album has superb liner notes by Mark Wilson. This is part of Rounder's "North American Traditions" series and they should be commended for doing a fine job.

Full Circle

Bill Lamey-- Full Circle: From Cape Breton to Boston and Back -- Classic House Sessions of Traditional Cape Breton Music 1956-1977 (Rounder). In 1953 Cape Breton fiddler Bill Lamey emigrated from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Boston, Massachusetts, where for the next 30 years he was the primary force in the promotion of Cape Breton music in the Boston area. Newly remastered and released commercially for the first time are those classic Boston house sessions. Cape Breton music is usually played not in concerts but for friends in their houses. The warmth and informality of the setting unleashes the best playing. Given the fact that many of these tunes were recorded on primitive home tape recorders with a friend holding the single mike, Paul Macdonald has done a masterful job of remastering them. Reel-to-reel copies of these tracks have been treasured in Cape Breton for decades. Forty pages of liner notes give a superb view of the times and the man.

(It's A Corker)


(Highland Fiddle & Dance)

(Cape Breton Fiddle Medleys)

Carl MacKenzie - It's a Corker! (Mackenzie Music, 2003). Carl is another one of the fiddlers from the Washabuck area of Cape Breton now living in Sydney Forks. Carl MacKenzie was one of the fiddlers that took Cape Breton music outside the island to audiences in Scotland and the U.S. Carl is also a gifted tune writer.  His playing has a more of a sweet,classical tone than many fiddlers. This is my favorite of Carl's CD. It has the best sound quality and a nice relaxed swing to it. He is ably assisted by Pat Chafe on piano and Lyndon MacKenzie (his son) on acoustic guitar. 77 minutes of music here - a bargain!
Carl also has two earlier CDs out -- Highland Fiddle & Dance (MacKenzie Music, 1997) that consists of tunes from four previous CDs remastered plus 4 great live tracks to a whooping, dancing crowd at Iona, Cape Breton. Accompanied by Dough MacPhee, Dave MacIsaac, Hilda Chiasson, Marie MacLellan and Blanche Sophocles
Another CD to consider is Cape Breton Fiddle Medleys (Paul MacDonald and Carl MacKenzie, 1996) MacKenzie is very ably assisted on this CD by Pat Chafe on piano (and tune-writing) and J.P. Cormier on acoustic guitar.

(Another Side of Cape Breton)

Johnny Wilmot - Another Side of Cape Bretona (Breton Books and Music) Wilmot comes from an Irish community in Cape Breton, and his music is an unusual mix of Irish and Scottish tunes and fiddling with Cape Breton piano. 

(Donny LeBlanc)

Donny LeBlanc - Roisining Up the Bow (self-published) with Hilda Chiasson on piano and Paul M. MAcDonald on guitar. LeBlanc, of Petit Etang Cape Breton, is widely loved in Cape Breton for his20 yearrs Saturday afternoon concerts at the Doryman Beverage Room in Cheticamp starting in 1977 during a time when traditional Cape Breton fiddling wasn't "cool". In those days, regular Saturday afternoon matinees were unheard of. As the word spread, the tavern filled with people traveling from as far away as Halifax, Cape North, and Sydney on a regular basis to listen to Donny's music. His playing has influenced much of the younger generation of players.

(A Taste of Scottish Fiddle)

John A. MacDonald & "The Five MacDonald Fiddlers" - A Taste of Scottish Fiddle, part of the Canadian Country Classics series (Rodeo International). This is a collection of 22 sets of tunes - the first 12 by John A. MacDonald, the other 10 by "The Five MacDonald Fiddlers" consisting of John, Hugh, Bernie, Allan, Dan and Joan (on piano) (with only one family relationship in the group!). Dan R. MacDonald is one of the best loved and prolific tune writers in Cape Breton history. Many of these tunes came off 78 rpm discs so the sound quality is not up to current standards. Unfortunately the liner notes tell virtually nothing about the music other than that the Five MacDonalds were part of the ex-patriot Cape Breton community in Detroit, Michigan.

(Cape Breton Fiddle)

Cape Breton Fiddle part of the Canadian Country Classics series (Rodeo International, 1997). This is a collection of 12 tunes from Elmer Briand and 12 from the Cape Breton Violins. Briand was born in 1922 of Acadian parents and came to the attention of Cape Bretoners by writing tunes for Don Messer in the 1950s. The Cape BretonViolons consisted of Little Jack MacDonald, Dan R. MacDonald, Winston "Scotty" Fitzgerald, Donald MacLellan, Jimmy MacLellan, and the MacLellan Trio of Donald, Teresa, and Marie from Princeville, Cape Breton.

(The MacLellan Trio)

The MacLellan Trio (Breton Books & Music) Theresa, Donald, and Marie MacLellan (piano) have been playing traditional music for friends and dancers for more than 50 years. I don't think any of them had any formal training, and their pitch is not what you may be used to. But they certainly know how to get the dancers to their feet with rythmically tight playing--a lot of energy generated from these players when they get going. Favorites in Cape Breton.

(Pure Celtic Hearts)

Cameron Chisholm is a name one is likely to hear of, but rarely hear his playing itself. Luckily, this dilemna has been fixed through the inspiration of his sister, pianist Maybelle Chisholm McQueen who has included some excellent tracks of Cameron's wonderful playing on her 2001 CD, Pure Celtic Hearts (self-published). The CD is worth it just to hear Cameron's playing, but Maybelle's piano and her son Brian Doyle's guitar work is exquisite as well.

What am I missing? Send me an e-mail: jim@sfcelticmusic.com

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