Known by most as a lighthousekeeper / fiddler, Paul Cranford's accomplishments and contribution to Celtic music have long gone unrecognized by many. Paul's love and respect for the Cape Breton music traditions have been his "guiding light" for many years now. Paul's publishing of historical and contemporary music books, his own composing, and his incredible knowledge of music combine to make him a unique resource in this genre. His efforts at preserving this music -- collecting it and making it available to current and future generations -- are a gift to anyone interested in this culture. Paul is a dear and kind friend who stands in the background and gives without expecting anything in return. I have tremendous respect for the man's energy, intelligence, and generosity.
Why don't you start off by telling us where you were born and things like that?
I was born in Toronto, Ontario.
You came to Cape Breton when?
1975. I was twenty-one. I was just traveling. It was a summer where I was free. I'd been going to school the year before and decided I wanted to do a bit of traveling before my next move. I'd been interested in music for many, many years and was looking for a place to practice music, so I just went off traveling....
Was Cape Breton the last stint of that tour, as far as your vacationing?
I didn't get any further. When I left, I figured I'd go around the world [laughter]. I made it to Cape Breton and I was only here for about three days when I landed a job as a lighthousekeeper.
That's been the talk of North America -- the character that's the lighthousekeeper, fiddler, banjo player, as well as composer and all-around folklorist. Music-wise, what did your job as lighthouse keeper do for you?
Well, the first year I was out there, I could have been on the North Pole. Although the island [St. Paul Island] was adjacent to Cape Breton, I was totally isolated -- other than the mailman I didn't have contact with Cape Breton people. I was just practicing technique -- and everything from Bach, to ragtime, to fiddle tunes. It wasn't until the next year, when I transferred to Cape Breton -- that I met many different musicians and started my apprenticeship here.
Where did your interest in books come from? What drove you to acquire your first book here?
I can remember one time I went to a pub with Dougie MacPhee and was listening to Buddy MacMaster. Every tune that would go by, I'd ask, "What tune is that, Dougie? What tune's that?" He'd be naming them and I'd be taking notes, writing down all the tune titles. Well you go and listen to Buddy for a couple of hours, there are an awful lot of tunes on the list! [laughter] Dougie would be laughing at me, I'd be writing the stuff down so much. I was like that with everybody. Wherever I'd go, I'd be asking, "What's that tune?" So people would say, "Go to this book, go to that book," or "It's in The Skye Collection." Well at the time, The Skye was only available in the archives [The Beaton Institute] -- so I thought, "If I want this book so badly, there must be other people who want it, too." So that was how I started publishing books.
The Skye Collection was your first effort, What took place between The Skye and your second project, being The Simon Fraser Collection, to put that drive on -- what stirred the interest?
When I put The Skye out, I thought that this was the kingpin of books, but the more I got to know, the more I realized that the repertoire was huge and so I started accumulating photocopies of older books -- visiting people like Joe MacLean, who had a huge library of old books, Alex Francis MacKay, who inherited a lot of Dan R. [MacDonald]'s old books, Danny Fraser, who has a large collection of photocopies of books from the National Library of Scotland... So I had a network of people who were helping me find older books. And then once I found them, I had to make head or tail of what music had already been accepted by the tradition and what music could be accepted by the tradition. So I'd take photocopies of books to people like Winston Fitzgerald, Mildred Leadbeater or Dan Joe MacInnis -- people who liked to read through old books -- and lend my copies to them for awhile and they'd mark the tunes that they thought I should check out.
And the reason you chose The Simon Fraser Collection?
It was just a gut feeling that it was different from other books. A lot of the settings of tunes are from Gaelic songs and also there was a lot of history in the book -- it was a little deeper than your average tune book because it had a mixture of the dance music as well as the slower music. So I guess that was really a publishing decision, that this was something that would be interesting to the public. It's not mainstream to the Cape Breton tradition, as a book like The Skye would be, or some of the things I've done since. But I just thought it was a rich part of Scotland's heritage that was unavailable.
So, I put those two books, The Skye and Fraser, out in the marketplace, and then, in the mid-'80s, I took a sabbatical from publishing. It wasn't until the late '80s, when you and I did our book [Jerry Holland's Collection of Fiddle Tunes] that I started into the business of publishing books again.
[For the rest of this interview, along with Paul's tunes "Lisa's Welcome Home," "Boreal Owl," and "Angus Ranald MacIsaac," purchase the Cape Breton 2000 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]