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NAT series Cape Breton CDs

Introduction to Booklet Notes

From time to time I have published the biographical statements that my colleagues and I have prepared for inclusion in various North American Tradition CD issues concurrently in Musical Traditions.  Part of my hope, of course, has been that interested readers might buy the relevant CD so that the performers in question might realize a bit of income from their endeavors.  Traditional records rarely sell well in the best of times and we are scarcely in such an epoch now, for the vanishing of the independent record store in the United States makes it hard to find any product except by revivalists, or tawdry collections of out-of-copyright material.  A basic reason for this is that the big chains typically demand a $5,000 kickback 'for advertizing' before they will stock a selection at all.  In consequence, Rounder no longer attempts to sell the issues in our little NAT series to stores at all, listing them only on their own Rounder Archive website (even there, they are hard to find: the relevant URL is  To further save expense, they no longer print our booklets on paper and merely embed our copy on the audio disc as a PDF file (which they also post on the website I mentioned).  All of these changes make it unlikely that these projects will find an audience of measurable dimension at all (except in Cape Breton where a few of our performers are able to sell copies at personal appearances).  To help our efforts along, Musical Traditions has agreed to publish some of our background materials as articles here - a generosity for which my collaborators and I are grateful.  For more information on the general purposes of the NAT series per se, please visit (its catalog listings should be soon updated to accommodate the most recent issues).

In any case, at present we offer three new autobiographies from Cape Bretoners whose music reflects different stages in the evolution of the island's Scottish music.  The oldest, Alex Francis MacKay, represents a performance style that it is as antique as any registered on recorded disc, completely congruent with the playing to be heard on the early 78s issued by Celtic or the scattered wire home recordings made just after World War II.  True, Alex Francis often plays strains extracted from J Scott Skinner's collections and other 'book' sources, but his manner of melodic decoration is vastly different than those that Skinner and allied artists would have supplied (Alex Francis' CD is titled Gaelic in the Bow, for that is how his playing is commonly described locally).  Like piobaireachd, his playing can take getting used to, for his sense of pitch and pace are quite different than one hears in the canonical Cape Breton music of today, but the dignity and melancholy of his playing are fully worth the acclimitisation required.

Turning to the 'canonical Cape Breton music of today' (by which I mean the playing of Natalie MacMaster and others), our second artist, Jerry Holland, is as responsible as anyone for its creation (a fact that MacMaster and others readily acknowledge).  Now about fifty, living near Sydney, but raised in a downeast household in Boston, Jerry is possessed of a truly rare musical talent, both as a technician and a composer.  Drawing upon the performance manner perfected (and here the term 'perfection' truly applies) by Winston Fitzgerald in the late 1940s, Jerry and his cohorts created in the 1980s a swift and fluid form of ensemble Scottish music that reveals an evolution comparable to those that occurred within Irish circles during this same time frame.  Jerry describes his role in this development ably in his autobiographical comments.  The present CD, however, is a bit different, in that we have set Jerry in a more traditional setting with simply a pianist (the incomparable Doug MacPhee), so that the classical finesse of Jerry's playing can be more neatly compared with that of Hector MacAndrew, Buddy MacMaster or Winston Fitzgerald himself.

Finally, Joe Peter MacLean's music represents an interesting interpolation between those provided by Alex Francis and Jerry.  Raised in an isolated community (MacAdam's Lake) on the east side of Cape Breton island, Joe Peter is a member of the last generation of musicians to enjoy Gaelic as their first language (Alex Francis is a native speaker as well, but he is about twenty years older than Joe Peter).  Joe Peter's repertory represents an intriguing mixture of old and new, for he plays both the currently popular repertory (including several melodies composed by Jerry Holland) and a more unusual set of old-fashioned tunes that he acquired from his father Charlie.  From a historical point of view, these latter melodies are potentially significant because they seem to be of a vintage comparable with any we know from the island.  As readers familiar with Paul Roberts' reviews on this website are aware, Cape Breton performance models are commonly cited by modern performers as exemplars of what "the true Highland music must have sounded like."  Such claims invariably rely upon fairly modern performances from the west side of the island (Inverness County) and so the rather different brace of airs that Joe Peter learned from his father offer interesting perspectives upon (and potential correctives to) these assumptions.  I am also intrigued by the fact that I have run across variants of a few of Charlie MacLean's tunes within Kentucky as well.  Joe Peter's primary accompanist is Janet Cameron, who provides a delightful form of piano backing that has largely disappeared from the modern Cape Breton scene.  There are also several medleys that feature parlor organ as accompaniment, which represented the norm before pianos became imported into Nova Scotia in the 1930s.

These three CDs are also available by mail from , the best all-around source for Cape Breton music.

Mark Wilson - 11.10.05

Alex Francis MacKay Jerry Holland Joe Peter MacLean

Articles MT169 to 171

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