Wilfred Prosper was born in 1927 at Barra Head, Richmond County, Cape Breton. Barra Head is situated at the southern mouth of the Bras d'Or lakes, near St. Peters. Close by is the community of Chapel Island, an Indian reserve. Several miles across the lake to the north is the community of Eskasoni, Cape Breton's largest reserve. Several miles across the lake to the west are the communities known as Malagawatch, Whycocomagh and Nyanza, all Micmac (Mi'kmaq) reserves. The Micmac communities were encompassed by French, Irish and later Scottish immigrants, a rich cultural mosaic. Surrounding communities include St. Peters, Arichat, Irish Cove, West Bay, Castle Bay, Iona, Christmas Island, East Bay, River Denys and Glencoe. Although these communities would seem isolated from each other, they were easily accessible by boat in summer and over the ice in winter. All of these communities were known for their music. Here the Micmac were faced with the challenge of learning three languages: French, English, and then Gaelic. It must have been like starting over each time.
There was a fourth language to learn: the fiddle. As in other North American native cultures from Peru to Alaska, the fiddle and its music was adopted by the native Micmac culture in Cape Breton. By the turn of the 20th century, the fiddle was a popular instrument on all the reserves. What is unique about the Micmac fiddlers is that they learned the various regional tunes and styles -- French, Irish and Scottish. A snapshot of the repertoire of a Micmac fiddler early in the last century would certainly illustrate that. Various regional styles coexisted at one time in Cape Breton and the Micmac fiddlers, itinerant by nature, picked up tunes all over the island. Although there was no actual Micmac fiddle music, the Micmac fiddlers bring a unique rhythm to Cape Breton fiddle music, a rhythm adopted from the rhythm of the Micmac language. In fact, a childhood game was to make up Micmac words for the first four bars of a tune that mimicked the rhythm of the phrase. A practice also common in English and Gaelic, mouth music helped in remembering the tunes -- a primitive melodic index.
Wilfred Prosper started out on the guitar and switched to the fiddle at age sixteen. Wilfred's mother Clara Young could jig a few tunes. She came from the Antigonish area and had heard Hugh A. MacDonald and other Lanark County players.
Wilfred recalls, "My great grandfather on my mother's side was a fiddler. His name was William Nevins. They were from Whycocomagh originally but they were living in Dartmouth. His wife was killed in the 1917 Halifax explosion there. He played mostly clogs and one of his sons, Richard, was a clog dancer. He was in the Boer war, that fellow. My grandfather was a penny whistle player; he was also living in Dartmouth. There is a Nevins Avenue named after them. I used to go visit them there during the war, 1943."
Among the first fiddlers that Wilfred heard was Simon Cremo (1900-1964). Simon was an itinerant fiddler and he sold baskets. His territories included all the reserves and communities surrounding the Bras d'Or lakes. He would come to the house and play the fiddle for two hours for one dollar. He was reputed to have played in every house in Richmond county. His repertoire was a generous mixture of French, Irish and Scotch tunes. He was an influential player. Fiddler Johnny Wilmot credited Simon as the source for the then-popular pipe tune "Miss Scott." For years it went by the title of "The Indian Reel." This occurred in Qubec as well -- Jean Carignan's father learned from an Indian fiddler in the Rimouski area. Later, Jean Carignan recorded a different reel going by the same title. Simon's son Lee Cremo, who passed away last fall, went on to become one of North America's most famous Native fiddlers. Lee was often referred to as "the Electric Indian" when he played in a band called Eastern Variation. Wilfred and Lee were good friends and played together for many years.
"Lee was a nice boy, I really miss him. A big chew of tobacco and a big smile on his face! I miss Lee. His father Simon was pretty much the same -- happy-go-lucky! The greatest people on earth, boy. Simon could go without a bite to eat for a week as long as he had that chew of tobacco and a big smile on! Ah, God almighty I don't think there was a bad bone in his body! He was reputed to have had a third language, Scottish (Gaelic). I heard him speak a few words of it. Some of those fellows spoke French, too. This old fellow from over here, Micky Paul, they claim he spoke French. He used to get by selling baskets, too. He used to go to the Magdalen Islands and Rimouski to sell them. But the best I ever heard Simon play the fiddle was in Barra Head, 1944. He had lived in Eskasoni for two years. When he came to Barra Headby cripes he opened up, boy Matty Lewis (Eskasoni) had the guitar But he couldn't use the finger-work, he had a slide. There was another guy who used to come around Chapel Island there, his name was MacKenzie. He was quite the musician. He had The Scottish Violinist (Scott Skinner's Book). Now who in the name of God would believe that an Indian could play out of that book in them days."
Wilfred often performs at various festivals and concerts, including Eskasoni's own Scottish concert. Each year, Wilfred is host to a session in his home following the concert. These sessions have become as popular as the concert itself. Wilfred has appeared playing the fiddle, along with Lee Cremo, in the films "Down Home" by Aly Bain and the Irish film entitled "The Magic Fiddle." Wilfred, a respected elder and translator in his own community, is a long-standing member of the Cape Breton Fiddlers' Association. He told me once that he can't explain why he loves Scottish music so much. He said, "Maybe I'm just a Scotchman in Indian garb!"
[For the full text of this article, as well as the tunes "The Periwig" (Scottish pipe tune) and "Bessie's Reel" (by Wilfred Prosper), purchase the Cape Breton 2000 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Paul MacDonald is a guitar accompanist, a recording engineer, and a writer based in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.]