Eddie Poirier and I met in the 1970s through a mutual friendship with Johnny Wilmot. We were both taken with Johnny’s old-style Irish fiddling which was flavoured with a lively Cape Breton swing. At the time Eddie was already an accomplished musician, adept at many instruments and styles of music, but ever eager to learn more. Today, with dozens of recordings behind him, he is one of the Maritimes’ finest musicians –– equally at home playing and composing tunes for bluegrass, Acadian, Irish, or Maritime audiences.
Tell us a little about yourself, Eddie. Where were you born, where are you from, and when did you start learning music?
I was born in Rogersville, New Brunswick, in 1943. My father came from a musical family –– in those days he played tin whistles and sang old songs. I guess they came from France because they were Meuniers and Poiriers. My musical talent I guess came from the Meunier side, as far as I know. I don’t know how many of the Poirier side were musicians –– I know there’s some that play music now… But I know that my grandmother on my father’s side, her family was where the music was coming from.
And your father was a player?
My father learned the fiddle; in fact, he made his first fiddle –– he was only sixteen or seventeen years old. He went to a house somewhere and he saw a fiddle and saw how somebody was playing it, so he examined it and he went home and made himself one. He was kind of a Jack of all trades cowboy –– he’d do anything, try anything. So anyway, he made a fiddle and he borrowed some old Michael Coleman records and some Joseph Allard records, and he learned off those old records, and an old gramophone he had there. By the time I came along –– he was in his thirties when I came along –– he was quite a fiddle player. He played good and he was agile and he was rigid and he played lively. Steam was coming out of the fiddle when he picked it up. Of course hearing that when I was a kid, well, I just liked the fiddle, I guess. I remember I always tried to make myself a fiddle. I’ve never made one in my life, but I always tried –– I’d take a shingle or a slab of wood and I’d carve and put thread for strings… It never worked, of course. But by the time I turned about seven, then he started letting me use his, a fiddle that he had bought in 1932. Bought it at Eaton’s for $2.95, a copy of a Strad made in Czechoslovakia. Anyways, it was good enough to learn…
[We used to] take two knitting needles and tap on the strings while he was playing –– he let us do that. That got me interested enough that when I turned seven, he let me use his fiddle and I started to learn a little bit. He told me one thing when I started out. I never forgot that. He looked at me right straight in the eyes and he said, “If you’re going to play the fiddle, you’ve got four fingers –– figure out a way to use them,” he said. That was the end of the teaching. [laughter] And I went from there. I started playing Don Messer stuff…
One night of the week there was “Scottish Strings” in Antigonish. We had an old battery-operated radio, and my father never missed that –– he liked the Cape Breton stuff, too. So we listened to that, and by the time I got to ten, twelve, thirteen years old, I was beginning to be able to play quite a bit. I played for my first square dance when I was twelve. My sister got married and they let me play for the square dance –– one dance, but I was some happy there, I’ll tell you. Anyway, that’s where it all started.
I guess you must have enjoyed performing. What did you do as your teenage years progressed to develop your music?
Well, after I got that square dance in there, that kind of gave me a little incentive to move further, you know? And there was another thing, when I was a young fellow there, we used to take a bus to go to school… I picked up this old fiddle and I was walking around waiting for that bus –– I did that every morning pretty well. And then all of a sudden… I started playing this tune just out of nowhere, out of my head, you know, so that was the first tune I ever made, composed. Every morning I’d play it. I always made a joke about it, that tune I had to go to the barn to play, because I drove everybody crazy –– my mother, my father. I was always strumming on the fiddle. I’d get home from school and throw my bags in the corner –– never mind the homework. Anyway, I wrote that tune, I called it “La Grange Reel” –– the barn. I still play it today, and I was thirteen years old when I wrote that one. It went on for a long time after that that I never wrote any tunes…
I was about eleven years old when I got a guitar, but I played more on the fiddle. I didn’t know any chords for that guitar. A fellow came over home and knew three chords –– he showed me that, and once I got the drift of that I started hunting for more chords. I figured out all the chords on the guitar on my own. But that wasn’t enough –– I was tune-oriented, I guess. I had to play tunes on it. By then I could play “Saint Ann’s Reel” and a few others. I started playing with that and by the time I hit sixteen, seventeen, I was able to play a pile of tunes on the guitar and on the fiddle. Played for dances, played guitar for the guys that could play the fiddle… Did a lot of playing, every weekend, every night almost. There was a bootlegger, we used to go to his house every night almost –– sit there and sing and play the guitar. We made an awful racket. No wonder I can’t spell. [laughter]
So you started playing guitar and became a versatile musician –– you play a lot of instruments today.
Well, I liked all kinds of music, and for some reason, when I heard Bill Monroe and Mac Wiseman, that was my road. So I learned to play that bluegrass stuff, but I wasn’t very successful at all of it –– all I could do was play it on the guitar. And I tried to play like a banjo on the guitar –– cross-picking and stuff –– I can still do some of that a little bit, but I’m not good at it anymore. After I got a banjo, I learned to do it the right way, you know? But I just had to learn that. So I was about nineteen or twenty years old when I got a banjo and I set out to learn that. I’m kind of a determined kind of person –– a stubborn mule, you know? You’ve got to be determined if you’re going to win. So I sat there and I tinkered with that. I’d hide myself for four days with that. I didn’t know how to tune it, but I had the banjo –– that’s all. I sat there and I figured out how to tune it so I could play something with three fingers. I came out of there playing “Home Sweet Home” –– not very fast, but I could play it a little bit. And I kept on from there. I learned to play the banjo and then the mandolin, of course, is the same as the fiddle, tuning-wise. So I could play tunes on the guitar, tunes on the mandolin… I learned to play bass, I learned to play chording on the piano a little bit, I play the accordion a bit –– I’m not the greatest, but I can get a tune out… Dobro, I play some of that…
I wonder –– with all of these different things, it must take an awful lot of practicing. What advice can you give someone who’s trying to learn the fiddle? If they followed your road and played all the instruments, would that make it difficult for an aspiring fiddle player? Or do you think it’s good to try all the different instruments?
Well, it can’t be that bad. I went through it and I survived. I’m not trying to blow my own whistle here, but I think I can play any of the instruments as good as –– I should say better, but as good as the average bear. But I would have probably become better if I’d stayed with one –– I would have been better at the one. But I don’t know, it’s the satisfaction that you have to get for yourself… I can go and play with anybody, whatever style they are in –– bluegrass, old time, country, Irish, the odd Scottish tune –– maybe not as good as a Cape Bretoner would, but I can do my own version of it. Same as the Irish –– I do my own version, I don’t try to copy nobody, because when you start copying people, you’d better start trying to look like them, too, you know? [laughter] It might have taken me longer to learn [the different styles and instruments] because I’m practicing this one and then I’m practicing this one –– there’s only so much room in the head, you know? But I think they’re all in different little compartments. It’s like a folder on your computer, I think.
So you try to keep the styles separate –– you feel you have distinct different styles. Difficult to do. I know lots of people who play multiple styles, and the accent comes through in each style.
You’ve listened to some of my stuff, and you can tell when I’m playing a Don Messer tune –– I don’t put the same thing in it as if I was playing an Irish reel, say, because the bowing is different. But that’s the first one that I learned, this kind of bowing –- I just added the other ones on later. It’s like building a house and then [adding on] a little room –– it’s part of the house but it’s different. Different color, different siding on it. It’s the same as the mandolin. I can play old time tunes on the mandolin, or I can do bluegrass mandolin, which is different. Or guitar –– when I pick up a guitar, I have to think guitar. If I think fiddle when I’ve got a guitar in my hand, I’m in trouble… You’ve got to think whatever instrument you’ve got in your hand at the time. It’s the same as when you talk. If you talk French you have to think in French, and if you talk English, you have to think in English –– those are two separate boxes.
[Eddie’s recordings can be purchased directly from Eddie. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
[Paul Stewart Cranford is a fiddler, composer, publisher, and retired lighthouse keeper living in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. For information on his “Cape Breton Musical Heritage” series, visit his website at www.cranfordpub.com. The website also includes of hundreds of tunes, both as sound clips and on-screen music notation.]
For the full text of this interview, as well as transcriptions of three of Eddie’s tunes (“Angus LeFort’s Favourite Waltz,” “The Old Mill Jig,” and “Across the Sea”), purchase the Fall 2011 issue.
Please see our “Free Video Lessons” link to see Eddie playing the above-mentioned tunes.