John Campbell
Cape Breton Violin Music
Rounder CD 7003
Jerry Holland
Parlor Music
Rounder CD 7057

John Campbell: Glasgow Caledonian Strathspey and Reel Society/Mrs Greig's/Pottinger's/A Winston Tune in F/Inverness Lasses; The Miller O'Drone/Pretty Marion/Cape Breton Rigs/Dan J Campbell's Reel; A Mabou Strathspey on D/Donald MacDugan's Rant/Loch Madey/Lady Harriet's; Wilfred's Fiddle Jig/The Harbourview Jig; Miss Stewart/The Duke of Gordon's Birthday/Lord Seaforth/The Primrose Lass; Highland Dress and Armour/Rothiemurchus Rant/The Fife Hunt/The Tin Wedding 05; Cooley's/Sweet Molly/Glenora; The Honorable Miss Elspeth Campbell/The Golden Anniversary Strathspey/MacLain of Loch Buie/The Yetts of Muckart; Sheriff Muldoon/The Maid on the Green/Happy to Meet/Sorry to Part; Nathaniel Gow/Mrs Henry Lumsden of Tillwhilly's/Miss Watt/Whiddon's Hornpipe; The Haughs of Cromdale/Sandy MacIntyre's Trip to Boston/Carleen's; Allowa Kirk/Traditional Strathspey in G/Brendan's/West Mabou; Sir Harry's Welcome Home/Stumpie/Oh/Gang with Me to Yon Town/The Night We Had the Goats; O'er the Muir/Amang the Heather/Traditional Strathspey from Duncan MacQuarrie/Traditional Strathspey from Dan J Campbell/Whycocomagh Bay/Wedderburn House; Neil Gow's Fiddle/Compliments to My Wife Bea/Compliments to Margaret MacPhee/The Snappy; Silver Star Hornpipe/The Gerard Heintzman/Walker Street; New Waterford Coal Mines/A Dan J Campbell Specialty/John Campbell/Jr; The Shetland Fiddlers Society/Evening Tide/Miss Susan Cooper; The Stage Hornpipe/Compliments to My Mother/Cutty Sark/The Four Figure Set; Phone's Lodge Strathspey/Four Traditional Reels.

Jerry Holland: MacKenzie Hay/Kirrie Kebbuck/The Spey in Spate; Mary Claire/Clear the Track/Napoleon Hornpipe/Tom Marsh; Mrs MacDouwal Grant/Dr Keith Aberdeen/Highlands of Banffshire/Mrs Gordon of Knockspoch/Reel du Vťtťrinaire/Dan Galbey's; Mrs Norman MacKeigan/Tom Steele/The Boys of the Loch; Pretty Maggie Morrissey/Dunphy's Hornpipe/Sally Gardens/King of the Clans; All My Friends/Joey Beaton's Reel/Golden Locks; The Pattern Day/The Panelmine Jig/The Wedding Jig/Teviot Bridge/The Stool of Repentance; Tom Dey/Old Style Strathspey as played by Mary MacDonald/Sandy Cameron/The Marchioness of Tullybardine; Niel Gow's Lamentation for James Moray of Abercairny/Mary Grey/Dave Normaway MacDonald's Wedding/Arthur Muise; The Waking of the Fauld/The Devil in the Kitchen/The Grey Old Lady of Raasay/Miss Charlotte Alston Stewart's/Sandy Cameron's/Put Me in the Big Chest; Pipe Major Donald MacLean of Lewis/I Won't Do the Work; Mrs Crawford/O'er the Moor Among the Heather/Sir Archibald Dunbar/Kiss the Lass You Love Best/The Darling of the Uist Lasses/Sir David Davidson of Cantry/Celtic Ceilidh; Kathleen's Jig/The Royal Circus/Miss Carmichael.

One of our fascinations with North American music is in tracing in it survivals of the old world, and in particular the thought that we might detect long lost aspects of our own traditions that have somehow endured on the other side of the Atlantic.  Thankfully, the days have passed when even respectable and knowledgeable commentators would talk of how Appalachian ballad singers treasured songs and singing styles unchanged Ďsince the days of good queen Bessí, and similar nonsense, but sometimes weíre made to sit up by some startling piece of evidence - a ballad never recorded in the British Isles, springing from the mouth of a singer in the Kentucky mountains, or an obscure Gaelic air suddenly surfacing in a medley of tunes by a Missisippi blues harmonica player (one day Iíll get round to writing that article).  The two albums under review here come from a tradition, that of Cape Breton in Canada, often said to represent a throwback to the music brought across the Atlantic two hundred years ago.

For most of the last two centuries, Cape Breton Island, on the remote Atlantic edge of Canada, has been culturally dominated by the Scots who arrived there in large numbers in the first half of the 19th century, as a direct result of the highland clearances.  The fact that there have remained native Gaelic speakers on the island ever since (although, as everywhere else, declining) is an indication of the extent to which the islandís Scottish culture has endured, and Scottish traditional music has never lost its popularity.  And while other influences have been present - that of the native Americans, or Miíkmaq, as well as that of earlier French and Irish settlers - Cape Bretonís music seems to show much less of a mix of such factors than is in evidence elsewhere in Canada.  Cover pictureFor example, the pair of CDs issued a decade ago, of fiddlers from Prince Edward Island (Rounder 7014 and 7015, representing the Western and Eastern sides of the island, respectively), geographically not that far away, but demographically much more varied, offer some wonderful examples of a much more hybrid music.  In Cape Breton, a very strongly Scottish tradition remains in what appears to be a much more unmodified form (see various other reviews on this site, for further reflections on this).  More so perhaps than anything else to be found in the Americas, it seems entirely reasonable to describe the music pretty much unequivocally in terms of its origins - this is Scottish music.

So, is this how it would have sounded 200 years ago? Almost certainly not; even in isolation, there seems no reason to doubt that the tradition continued to develop in its new home.  For one thing, we should bear in mind that at that time, there was most likely a wide range of stylistic variation across Scotland.  Some of John Campbellís ancestors can be traced back to Lochaber in Argyllshire, arriving in Cape Breton in the early 19th century, but other ancestors came from other parts, and Scottish regional styles would have mixed in this new environment in ways they might not have done back in the old (as Irish regional and local styles did in New York and Boston, and, come to that, in London).  And while geography played an important part, Cape Bretonís isolation would never have been watertight - some family connections to the old world might have remained, and new Scots settlers would have continued to be attracted to an area that showed familiar cultural characteristics.  New tunes and new stylistic approaches, some older and regional, others reflecting developments of the day back in Scotland, would have come into the communities in this way.  And in other ways, too: Johnís father insisted that he learn tunes from standard books, like Kerrís (Scottish), OíNeillís (Irish) and Coleís (American).  In more recent years, mass media would have had an influence, too.

More specifically, John Campbell himself is clear that he doesnít play in the Ďold-fashionedí way that his father did, and the booklet notes (of which more later) are full of his recollections of different styles of playing, both from inside and outside of his community, that influenced him.  For example, thereís a good story of hearing Winston Fitzgerald at a dance in the late 1940s:

I remember I was dancing with this girl, and Winston launched into the jig, ĎThe Canty Old Man'.  Four hundred dancing people got sent into the next level.  He kept playing it over and over, seemed like something new each time.  I just left the girl on the dance floor and went up to the front of the stage and stared.
But, while it seems we can forget the notion of the preservation of an older, more Ďpureí Scottish style, there might yet be ways in which John Campbellís playing would be a lot closer to an older sound than that which youíd hear today from native Scottish players.  To justify that suggestion requires a bit of a digression.

Of course, we donít and canít know what the Scottish traditional music of 200 years ago sounded like, but in some respects we can take a view on what it didnít sound like, because we know some of the ways in which it changed during that period, influenced by all sorts of factors that could be said to be external to the tradition.  Gaelic revival movements, such as The Royal National Mod, inaugurated in 1892, promoted (some might say manufactured) a version of the tradition that could be presented on stage, one that favoured trained voices in singers, and technical brilliance in instrumentalists.  The emphasis on technique and flamboyance was also a strong factor in the influence of Scottish musicís first superstar, James Scott Skinner, whose first collection of tunes was published in 1868, but whose most significant influence probably stemmed from his stage appearances and in particular his recordings, over 80 of them between the 1899 cylinders and his death in 1927.  The huge appeal of his tunes seems to have been matched only by the sheer force of his personality.  Under Skinnerís influence, and othersí, Scottish music developed as a concert spectacle, and in this context, fiddle-playing in particular also appears to have been affected by factors that were developing in the wider world.  It might seem a bit distant, but Iíd suggest that one such factor was the way in which, in the early 20th century, violin practice was changing with the innovations of classical violinist Fritz Kreisler, whose extraordinary vibrato technique and love of effects such as glissando changed approaches to the instrument everywhere and forever.  The sheer reach of Kreislerís influence (again, thanks to recordings) was unprecedented, and it was certainly felt in Scotland.

Formalising, standardising and competitive influences also gripped the world of highland bagpiping and ruled it with a rod of iron, as other cultural aspects were codified and whipped into line through the Highland Games.  The Music Hall and Variety stage fostered artificial notions of Scottish music, which were taken up enthusiastically by those peddling nostalgia, nationalism, etc.  whether for commercial or political ends.  In the post-war years, the huge popularity of Scottish Dance Bands, in the wake of Jimmy Shandís, fostered a very particular take on Scottish music, again heavily nostalgic, highly stylised both aurally and visually.  It would be unfair to suggest that none of this activity served to preserve aspects of traditional music that might otherwise have been lost, or that the ways it developed were entirely without merit, but the effects of standardisation and cultural manipulation were to have a smothering effect on the tradition and to obscure to a great extent the regional distinctiveness that gives so much great traditional music its character.  (For geographical and cultural reasons, Shetland escaped much of this, at least until later, but thatís another story).  Reg Hallís booklet notes to the Topic collection Round The House and Mind The Dresser (Topic TSCD606) give an account of the influence of certain similar forces in Ireland, but the fact that he could compile that particular collection at all shows the extent to which Irish musicians themselves were able to resist or ignore those forces.  A similar collection of Scottish recordings might be much more difficult, though surely not impossible, to compile.

One of the things that makes it difficult to take a view on the extent to which there are similarities and differences between old and new world musicians in this context is that, in fact, the number of great albums by individual Scottish traditional musicians (as distinct from singers) has always been comparatively small - although the exceptions, by such as Tom Hughes, Angus Grant and Iain McLachlan, are honourable - and there are few, if any, by musicians uninfluenced by those factors outlined above.  Youíll look far to find recordings of a rugged old country fiddler from Scotland, in the manner of Stephen Baldwin from rural England.  The two tracks by John Grant, on Topicís long out-of-print anthology The Caledonian Companion (12TS266) might be the closest I can think of, but even in his case, the albumís notes tell us that he was inspired as a child by seeing Scott Skinner perform.  In the early days of the English country music revival, some enthusiasts bemoaned the fact that southern England lacked the heritage of instrumental music that Scotland had - but who would be the Scottish counterpart of a Scan Tester, or an Oscar Woods?

But thatís perhaps a digression too far.  The point is that John Campbell seems to show few of the influences outlined above - there isnít much of the Scott Skinner about him, and nothing of the Kreisler.  His music is imbued with that full-bodied rhythm that speaks of a lifetime of playing for dancers rather than the concert audience, and thereís none of the ersatz taint of the Variety stage or the bouncy self-satisfaction of the Dance Bands.  Thereís a satisfying grittiness to the fiddleís tone which (lacking the expertise to analyse fiddle styles) Iíd suggest comes from a robust approach to bowing, and a fingering technique quite free of the sweet vibrato so many Scots fiddlers love.  Campbellís sound is irresistible - the rhythmic drive and the sheer power of it as compelling as that of any fiddle player Iíve ever heard.

But if that sound places him outside of a Scottish mainstream, his eclectic approach to repertoire - within the idiom - is perhaps more typical.  There may not be any Scott Skinner tunes included on this particular CD collection (I have no idea whether Campbellís repertoire includes them, but Iíd be surprised if it didnít), but the first track includes tunes from Simon Fraser, active in the early 19th century, as well Angus Fitchet (the Scottish fiddler who played in dance bands from the 1930s to the 1980s, including Shandís) and Tom Anderson (the celebrated Shetland fiddler, roughly contemporary with Fitchet).  Elsewhere, there are old compositions, by the likes of 18th century-born Nathaniel Gow; common traditional tunes like The Haughs of Cromdale, always in distinctive versions; and Campbellís own tunes, like the excellent Glenora, which blends perfectly into a set of reels that starts with the Irish session standard Cooleyís.  But some of the most gripping moments come in tunes whose aurally-acquired origins are manifest in the vague titles they have been accorded, like A Winston Tune in F, or Four Traditional Reels.  The latter provides a brilliant conclusion to the album, and in this track especially Iím prepared to believe that Iím hearing something with some essential qualities that go way back, and that you might never find from a contemporary Scottish musician.

Cape Breton Violin Music includes the whole of the original 1976 LP of that title (Rounder LP 7003), along with an additional eight tracks selected from four self-released albums (Heritage Remembered JC-123, Cape Breton Violin JC-124, The Sound of Cape Breton JC-125, The Gathering Of The Clans JC-127).  Also included as a PDF file on the disc (or downloadable from Rounderís website) is large-format 21-page booklet, including the original LPís notes, along with additional historical background, photographs and other images, and detailed tune title information (some of which has been researched and added by producer Mark Wilson).  Accompaniment on most tracks is by the extraordinary pianist Doug MacPhee, one of those rare accompanists who not only Ďknows the tunesí, but knows how to enhance them.  The last two tracks feature Johnís brother Margaret - who is no slouch either - on piano, and a few additionally feature Edmond Boudreau on guitar or bass.


Cover picture Jerry Holland is a very different kind of fiddle player to John Campbell.  His ancestry is quite distinct, French and Irish rather than Scottish, and he was born in Boston of Canadian parents, and grew up there, only moving to Cape Breton as an adult.  He learnt initially from his father, who - if Iím understanding the notes correctly - came to Cape Breton Scottish music as an outsider, rather than as a native, attracted by recording artists such as Angus Chisholm.  Jerry himself was to learn directly from Chisholm and other heroes of Cape Breton music such as Wilfred Gillis and Winston Fitzgerald.  He learned to play fiddle, and to dance (sometimes at the same time) from a very early age, and was flying up to Halifax, Nova Scotia to appear in regular TV broadcasts while still in his teens.  Although much of the music included here is Scottish, there is certainly no point in looking for some long lost historical retentions.  Mark Wilson describes Holland as Ďone of the great innovators in modern Cape Breton musicÖ as responsible as anyone for fashioning its popular contoursí, although he emphasises that this particular recording Parlor Music was not intended to document his innovations, but an attempt to capture in an informal context (it is, indeed, recorded in someoneís parlour) the music he grew up with.

Right out of the traps, weíre in Scott Skinner territory, with track one a tune selection that includes two of the old masterís strathspeys and one of his best known reels, The Spey In Spate.  The influence of aspects of the Scottish mainstream was evidently an important factor in Jerry Hollandís development - he specifically mentions that the tune he associates most with his father is Tom Dey, another Scott Skinner strathspey.  But in his rendering of these tunes, he manages to avoid any of the flash that tempts so many of those drawn to Skinnerís work and concentrates on bringing out the beauty of the tunes, with a delicacy and lightness of touch that are an unadulterated pleasure to listen to.  Hollandís playing sounds to me (again, Iíd emphasise that I make these comments without the expertise to attempt a technical analysis) to sit more in a mainstream lineage than that of John Campbell.  At times I could believe that I was listening to a modern Scottish fiddle player, although much of the rest of time itís clear that Holland is certainly not.  Either way, the levels of skill are extraordinary, and one thing he certainly has in common with John Campbell is that sense of a man whose abilities have been forged to precision in the hot fires of long, long dances.

Holland contributes a few of his own tunes, including the fine reels All My Friends and Joey Beatonís; thereís one of John Campbellís and a couple by Dan Rory MacDonald, another Cape Breton fiddle player of an older generation who made a reputation through broadcasts and records; thereís plenty of older traditional tunes, like The Stool Of Repentance, and composed tunes by the likes of Neil Gow (Nathanielís father); and thereís a set of Irish hornpipes and reels, which - as he refers to in the booklet - he plays in Cape Breton style, without the familiar Irish rolls and other decorations.  And as with John Campbell, Jerry Hollandís repertoire also includes apparent evidence of the aurally-acquired, in the tune entitled Old Style Strathspey as played by Mary MacDonald.  If the producerís intention was to capture an outstanding musicians enjoying himself playing with a friend in an informal setting, the results are something to be very proud of.  Iím not familiar with Jerry Hollandís previous albums, including the one referred to here as having been particularly significant in making his reputation as an innovator, the 1982 Master Cape Breton Fiddler, but after hearing this one, I certainly want to be.

Again, there is a large-format PDF booklet to be read from the disc or downloaded.  When I first paged quickly through it, I wondered why there were so many photographs of a long-haired and bearded young guy in denims, until I realised they were, in fact, earlier versions of the middle-aged chap on the front (itís always nice to be reminded that youíre not the only one).  This is not insignificant, as Holland relates how he has been told that potential young players could identify with him, because of how he looked, in a way that they couldnít with older players, and that this was a factor in encouraging a revival of interest in the music.  Holland expresses his doubts about this, but it makes sense to me.  By contrast, Doug MacPhee, who also features here, lending outstanding and perfectly empathetic piano accompaniments (the way he follows the lead instrument in his accompaniment to the beautiful strathspey The Waking Of The Fauld is a real treat), seems to look much the same as he did 30 years ago.  The notes consist of an interview with Jerry Holland, packed with reminiscences, observations about the music and tales of playing at dances in the rural areas, along with a short note by Mark Wilson and detailed breakdowns of the tune sets.

Other than recommending both albums, are there any conclusions to be drawn from all this? Listeners desperate for some hints at a special connection with a remote and lost past for the music may come away disappointed.  If I fancy there might be a glimpse of something of the sort in John Campbellís music, itís probably entirely subjective.  Others might not hear it, while still others might be able to prove me wrong.  Either way, those with fewer illusions can rejoice in hearing two great - and very different - musicians playing the music they love, which ought to be enough for anybody.

Ray Templeton - 28.4.07

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