Dan MacDonald: Organically Grown Music
Born in Ironville, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Dan MacDonald grew up with the sounds of his parents and a few of his 11 siblings making music. It wasn’t long before Dan joined in, learning traditional fiddle music at home and also taking classical lessons. The family formed a band, Scumalash (more on the name later), which toured in Europe and North America and recorded an album. Dan’s father Lloyd played fiddle (he released a CD, Aires in Bloom, at age 80); his mother Winnie played piano; brother Martin (Marty) plays cello and is a conductor; brother Shawn plays fiddle/violin; and brother Paul plays guitar and is a producer of traditional music.
For the past 15 years, Dan has made his home in Toronto, where his fiddling has taken flight. Learning many Irish tunes from the late Prince Edward Island fiddler Kim Vincent, who lived in Toronto, Dan made his way into the local session scene and has earned the respect and admiration of musicians and listeners near and far. Kevin Carr, in a Fiddler Magazine review of Dan’s album Rural/Urban, described his playing as “always clear, always passionate, always true to its roots, always playful, and always powerful.”
We talked in late August, toward the end of a very busy summer for Dan – one that included music festivals, fiddle camps, sessions, teaching, and a trip home to Cape Breton.
How old were you when you started playing music? Did you start with fiddle?
I was probably 5 or 6, I can’t really remember when I very first started, but it was definitely about that age. I started with fiddle. Well, to tell you the truth, apparently I started with spoons. Way back when I was like 5, my dad and my brother were playing at the Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival and somebody caught footage of me playing spoons at the end of the stage with a little red hat on – that was actually part of the ad for the fiddle festival the next year. But I did start formally on the fiddle for sure.
We started with Dad’s teacher, Professor Jimmy MacDonald. He came from a musical family in North Sydney, where Dad grew up. He taught us right out of the gate – he was our first teacher. Although he was pretty crippled up with arthritis, he was still a really good teacher and director of what you were doing, so he would be the one to start off with – using the bow and reading music and stuff like that. Then I think I went to Kyle MacNeil after that. Then we had a series of teachers because my mom was really adamant about us getting formal classical lessons along with what we were doing with Dad and Shawn and the Cape Breton Fiddlers Association. She would take us all the way to Halifax [more than four hours each way], and Shawn, too, to take lessons from different teachers up there. One I remember, Peter Dunn, was really a great teacher. He taught me how to get the sound out of the fiddle. … So we went up to Halifax for lessons from different people right through our teens.
You had a family band…
Yes, Scumalash. It was my great-grandfather’s nickname, my mom’s father. He drove a delivery wagon up and down Charlotte Street in Sydney and the kids used to jump on the wagon and he used to shout that at them to get them off of the wagon. Apparently it’s some kind of Gaelic slang that means “get off” or “be careful” or something like that.
How old were you when the band was going on?
Right from age 8 or 9. I remember the first tours we did oversees were ’89 and ’90, and ’91. We went over to Scotland and England a little of France – played at festivals over there, folk clubs. We also played at highland games down in the States and mainland Nova Scotia. We used to play a lot with dance troupes, too.
I assume there was lots of music going on in the house just with your family – did you have house parties, too?
Yes, my dad used to put on lots of parties. People like Aly Bain would be there, and lots of people playing until the wee hours, with my mom trying to kick everybody out at 3 in the morning. Some of my oldest memories – all good ones. There was one year where the Calgary Fiddlers came and we had a great time – it lasted like half the night, playing tunes with all those people. I still remember that. I was just a little fella.
Was your grandfather also a fiddler?
He did play the fiddle. I never met him. My dad was 47 when I was born; my mom was 42, so (my grandparents) were kind of long gone by the time I came around. Actually, Dad’s father was killed in a coalmine when he was 31, and my dad was 6 months old. So apparently he did play the fiddle, but we have no idea about it. It was Dad’s uncle Jack who brought him up as a result of the death – Jack and his wife Lizzie. … He was the guy who really encouraged Dad to play music. He would take him on a sled behind him and walk to every ceilidh. And he also got him a fiddle and, because they didn’t have very much money, he hand-wrote out, copied out the Skye Collection. He had no idea how to read music, but he just kind of drew it as he saw it, so that Dad would have music to practice. So he was the big driver there. It was apparently because he wanted to play the fiddle as a little fella but his father wouldn’t let him because there was too much to do on the farm. There’s a terrible story about him ordering a fiddle with money he’d saved up and the old fella smashing it over his knee and putting it in the fire. So apparently that’s why [Jack] put so much into Dad’s playing.
What were some early influences outside of your family?
In terms of who I used to listen to and try to play like – definitely Jerry Holland would be up there. Also Winston (Fitzgerald) – he would be a big figure – his sound and his intonation and his bowing would be big in our house. We used to try to play a lot of the same material that he used to play, too. I still play a bit of him when I get a chance – I don’t get a chance near as much here in Ontario. But we used to have a crack at all that B flat and C and F kind of stuff. Also we listened to a lot of Irish music in our house. A little bit of Michael Coleman, but also Paddy Glackin was a big name in our house, Frankie Gavin, and of course Sean McGuire. My brother Shawn was a big admirer of Jean Carignan as well.
When I moved to Toronto … Toronto is mostly Irish in terms of playing tunes, so my influences changed after that. Plus, I’ve been to Ireland about seven or eight times, and I got a lot of influence that way as well.
What took you to Toronto?
My wife Jennifer plays the tuba – she’s a classical musician. Toronto is really the only place where a classical tubist can be a freelancer. She’s very busy – she plays with all kinds of orchestras in the area and the surrounding area. So we’ve been here 15 years as a result. She did her master’s degree in Bowling Green, Ohio, and I was dabbling with the fiddle. I took about 10 years off from playing the fiddle when I was 18 or 19, because I was a drummer for a long time. …When we moved to Ohio, I had a lot of time on my hands and I started to play the fiddle again. When she finished her master’s there, we had to move back to Canada, so we chose Toronto. I think I’m starting to get used to it!
Is Toronto mostly session playing?
I play a lot of sessions, but not so much now that I have the kids. My boy is 9 and my girl is 5. Between me and my wife, we have a really busy lifestyle playing all over the place. So I try to get to Patrick Ourceau’s session on Sunday afternoons, here in Toronto at Dora Keogh’s. That’s a great one. I love trying to play his music. I sometimes go to the one on Thursday, and I have one myself that I do with my band, North Atlantic Drift. … I also play with my friend Eno O’Brien – she has a session here, too. … She’s a great accordion player from Galway. So when I first moved to town, I quickly discovered that there was way more Irish here than Cape Breton. I did used to go to Sandy MacIntyre’s get-together that he did every Sunday at the Bow and Arrow. It was really fun to go there, but people weren’t really playing tunes together – it was more listening to people play on their own. I would get up and play as well – it was great fun. But in terms of playing tunes, Irish is really the thing going on here, so I used to go to every session I could to try to learn as much of the music as I could.
One of my main influences, who I played with constantly, was Kim Vincent. He was a really good friend of mine. We used to go busking at the St. Lawrence market every Saturday. We played so many gigs together – I hung around him constantly. He used to write music out for me. He used to come over on Wednesday nights to my place. We’d read tunes and write out tunes and learn tunes and talk about how to play them and how to get them to sound like whoever or whatever. So he was a real big influence in my playing. And his biggest influence would have been Manus McGuire. He went through the same experience with Manus back in the ’70s when he lived in Toronto and Manus was here doing his [medical] residency. Kim was a great guy to have around here – we sure miss him. [Kim Vincent died in 2009, at age 55.]
For the rest of this interview, as well as the tune “The Caucus at Secaucus,” by Jean Duval; transcribed by Kim Vincent, purchase the Winter 2019/20 issue of Fiddler Magazine.
For information on Dan’s Rural/Urban CD, his teaching and touring schedule, and his new online fiddle school, “The Fiddle Class with Dan MacDonald,” visit danmacdonald.org.
Photo: Will Henry