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There is an assumption in sociolinguistics that "language
and culture are often seen to go together" (Adegbija l994:25).
The belief that language affects culture, which of course includes
music, is so ingrained that it is rarely articulated explicitly.
The question is, how do language and culture go together? This
paper examines the impact language attitudes have on musical choice
and valuation in Cape Breton Gaelic culture.
A popular song genre on commercial Gaelic recordings and in classrooms is "puirt-a-beul," or "mouth music". While these songs are popular with tourists and Gaelic learners, native Gaelic-speaking consultants tend to have a low opinion of them. I argue that this disparity in estimation may be attributable to differing attitudes towards the Gaelic language. For language learners, who are part of the current Gaelic revival, puirt-a-beul are an important entry point to the culture. Puirt-a-beul are accessible to the non-Gael due to their repetitive nature and upbeat tempo. Language learners enjoy their basic vocabulary, simple grammar, and humorous lyrics. In the past, however, Gaelic was perceived to be an impediment to social advancement and economic opportunity in both Scotland and in Canada. Native Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton, for many of whom Gaelic was forbidden at both school and home, may fear that puirt-a-beul misrepresent Gaelic culture to outsiders, contributing to the devaluation of the culture.
Through the use of ethnographic interviews, musical examples, and sociolinguistic analysis, this paper will indicate that language attitudes directly affect the value and use of puirt-a-beul within Cape Breton Gaelic culture.
"In New Orleans They Mardi Gras, In Cape Breton We Ceilidh"
reads an ad targeted at visitors to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
"Ceilidh" is a Gaelic word, originally connoting a neighborly
gathering for good talk, but it is now also the official name
of Route 19the Ceilidh Trail, that iswhich hugs the
western side of the island. Along the Ceilidh Trail, "ceilidh"
is shifting its meaning to describe a music session, and "ceilidh"
is on its way to becoming a verb in Cape Breton. What Cape Bretoners
call "Cape Breton Scottish violin music" is thriving,
and especially during the summer, people are ceilidhing at a nearly
Why is this music burgeoning at a time when many other regional musics of the same vintage have largely vanished or radically transformed themselves? Cape Bretoners tell a story about thisa story asserting that music is "in the genes," speaking of isolation from other musical influences, gradual decline, and a 1970s television documentary that revived the music. But that doesn't fully address the question of what cultural and economic circumstances "enable" the music. How can we understand what it is that supports and encourages people to keep on ceilidhing in this economically marginalized place? My paper will examine the ways in which Cape Breton musicians have made an accommodation: thriving in the interstices between locality, tourism, and mass markets, representing an idealized identity to local people and visitors, and playing remarkably vital music.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Scottish fiddlers such as Niel and Nathaniel Gow, Daniel Dow, William Marshall, Alexander McGlashan, and many others wrote, collected, and published many hundred reels, strathspeys, jigs, and hornpipes. Tunes from this era form a cornerstone of traditional fiddle repertoires in North America. "Lord MacDonald's Reel," "Mason's Apron," "My Love She's But a Lassie Yet," "Miller of Drone," "Soldier's Joy," and "Braes of Aucthertyre" are among the tunes with 200-year-old Scottish pedigrees that are known to fiddlers throughout much of the United States and Canada. These tunes have fared differently in different regions of North America in terms of constancy of title, melodic stability, and relative popularity. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for instance, where many fiddlers are musically literate and have access to and respect for the old Scottish tunebooks, there is a high level of retention of both title and melody, and performance style still bears a close relationship to that of Scotland. In the northern United States English adjustments of Scottish tunes are a factor. In the southern U.S. there has been much more transformation. "Miller of Drone" has become "Grey Eagle" and is popular among contest players as a vehicle on which to demonstrate their ability to improvise new strains and variations. The first strain of "Mason's Apron" has acquired numerous second strains and many new names, such as "Wake Up Susan," "Redbird," and "Jack of Diamonds."
Fiddling was a central feature of the antebellum Southern musical
world among lower-class whites and blacks. This paper presents
new evidence on the nature of fiddling in the South garnered from
a study of the era's newspapers and travel accounts. It provides
details on the contexts in which fiddling flourished.
This is also, necessarily, a study of historiography and what "evidence" tells us about social relations. To give example, I focus on fiddling/violin-playing in Natchez, Mississippi. Natchez was a divided town with a rowdy riverfront landing ("Natchez-under-the-Hill") that supported a social and musical life quite different from that found "on-the-Bluff," where respectable society lived. There are even fiddle tune titles that draw attention to the "under/on" dichotomy. In brief, the citizens of the Bluff who left records and who loved or played music--newspaper editors, music store operators, music teachers, among others-made it clear that their bowed instrument of choice was the violin. References to "under-the-Hill" music are almost without exception to the role taken by the fiddle. The complicating role that race played in many aspects of antebellum Southern musical life-including fiddling and violin-playing in Natchez-cannot easily be extrapolated from a straightforward reading of the historical records left us, mainly, by those "on-the-Bluff." For somewhat self-serving reasons, historiography would have it that antebellum Southern music-and life!-is at heart a function of race; in fact, it appears that it is essentially a function of class.
Song collector Edith Fowke first went to Peterborough County,
Ontario in l956. There she uncovered an abundance of folk songs
that had remained relatively invisible until that time. Edith
realized the significance of her discovery and compared it to
finding gold. "Luck was with me," she said, "the
first area I tried was Peterborough...it soon became clear that
I had struck a very rich lode."
In spite of major urban growth in the area, many parts of Peterborough County remain untouched from the time Edith did her fieldwork there. The folk music tradition is still very much in evidence. In my paper, I will discuss the music and musicians of the county, past and present, and the influence of Edith Fowke. She encouraged musicians to nurture their music and pass it on. Current Peterborough area musicians, including some of the descendants of her informants, have been the recipients of this heritage. Traditional Ontario folk music reveals much of the province's rural history and way of life. Edith ensured that folk songs and singers from Ontario would receive recognition through her publications and the recordings released by Folkways Records.
Devastated by Cecil Sharp's death in 1924, Maud Karpeles stopped
collecting traditional songs for five years, a period that coincided
with a significant reduction in the quality of the Journal
of the Folk Song Society. By the end of the 1920s the English
folk music revival was in severe decline, and little was being
done to address the crisis. The movement, it appeared, had probably
died with Sharp.
In 1929 Karpeles suddenly made a field trip to Newfoundland, followed by another in 1930. Some of the fruits of her collecting were subsequently published in Folk Songs from Newfoundland. One of the most vocal advocates of the controversial merger between the Folk Song Society and the English Folk Dance Society, she was subsequently a founding member, secretary, and driving force behind the International Folk Music Council. She organised the first International Folk Dance Festival, held in London, England, on July 14-20th, 1935.
Why did Karpeles go to Newfoundland, and how did her experience there impact her subsequent life and work? Was there a connection between her field trips and her decision to devote the rest of her life to the international folk music movement? Drawing upon evidence provided by her Newfoundland notebooks and diaries and by her unpublished autobiography, this paper will attempt to answer these questions.
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