Hugh "Buddy" MacMaster of Judique is held in very high regard by all players and fans of Cape Breton music. It seems impossible to portray his style and technique without using superlatives such as "finest" and "greatest." Indeed, he receives the highest of praise from everyone who hears him play, whether they are dancers, listeners, or other fiddlers. Born in 1924, Buddy has released two recordings, Judique on the Floor and Glencoe Hall, and contributed tracks to various others, notably Traditional Music from Cape Breton Island. He is also active in teaching, and has figured prominently for years in the summer courses offered by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic College on the Isle of Skye, where this interview took place in July 1998.
Let's start from the beginning. How did you get interested in fiddling?
Well, I was born in Timmons, Ontario, and I was four years old when my parents moved back to Cape Breton. They lived in Ontario for a few years; my father was a hard-rock miner at the time. Just about as far back as I can remember, I enjoyed music, and I guess I heard some music before we left Timmons. I can just remember one fellow playing a little bit, but I must have heard others as well. I can't remember that, but I learned some tunes somehow. I'd be doing mouth music, you know, jigging the tunes, and I'd have two little sticks, playing the violin by the way, and imagining that I was a great fiddle player. So then we moved down to Judique, Inverness County, in Nova Scotia, and apparently I was still doing this with the little sticks, and my grandfather, my mother's father, saw me doing this and he whittled out a piece of wood shaped like a fiddle, you know, so it looked a little more like a fiddle.
I suppose I didn't carry on that way for too long, but then I maybe got away from playing with sticks, you know. But I enjoyed music, and there'd be picnics, sort of a field day, and they'd have a piper there, and I remember following the piper around, you know, listening to the music, and then afterwards I rigged up an old kind of make-believe bagpipes, and I'd be marching around [laughs].
But they didn't buy you a set of pipes?
No, but it was just a love I had for the music that was making me do these things. When I was eleven, I went upstairs and I discovered my father's violin in the trunk. He was away at the time, so I took it down to the kitchen. I got part of a tune on the violin that day. I'm sure it wasn't in tune and there was one broken string on it, but I got part of a tune: "The Rock Valley Jig." I was playing it on G, I didn't know the difference. There was a fiddler, a cousin of mine, came to the house; he could play, and he said I should play that tune on the key of C, so I switched to C. Of course, I wouldn't have known C from G then, anyways. I could tell by the sound -- it sounded better on C.
Do you still play that one?
Occasionally, yeah. It reminds me of that day, you know, when I play that tune. So, I've been playing ever since that day. My mother gave me some money to go up to the store and buy a string, and I got that in the violin someway and I learned to tune the violin pretty quick.
Who did you look up to when you were learning to play, after you'd gotten started?
There was a man living in Judique, Alexander MacDonnell, and I used to enjoy his playing. Of course, there weren't many fiddle players around my area-right in Judique-but this Alexander MacDonnell, he used to come to the house, to my parents' home, and he was quite a good player. He played by ear, but he learned these tunes from other players that used to visit him, who read music, so he always had his tunes quite correct. He always stressed that to me, that I should try to pick up the tunes, to play them, as correct as possible.
There was another fella used to come to our place, Angus MacMaster, but he's no relation of mine; he played. And then a little later, other musicians used to come to the house. Bill Lamey, he was a good player. He read music and he used to play on the radio, and he was quite popular. I really enjoyed his playing. My sister played piano, so he used to like to come to my house and my sister would accompany him.
And Dan Hughie MacEachern, that'd be Jackie Dunn's grand-uncle, her grandfather's brother, he used to come to our place a lot. And of course, Dan R. MacDonald, and Gordon MacQuarrie, he would have a book of tunes called The Cape Breton Collection [by Gordon MacQuarrie], around 1939 to '41, something around that time. So, my parents enjoyed the music and all these musicians used to come to our house.
Later on, while I was growing up and working for a few years, Winston Fitzgerald used to come the house then, so we always had a lot of music around the home.
When did you learn to read music?
Well, I was about 23.
So you were going for quite a few years before you learned to read...
Yeah, I used to play by ear. I could pick the tunes up pretty quick, I guess quicker than I can now by ear. You know, I guess when you're younger it's easier to pick up tunes. I depend on the music more now. I was working in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and a fella that was rooming with me took me to this lady's house, Mrs. Mildred Leadbeater. She was a pianist and she told me I should learn to read the music. She just drew up the five lines and marked the notes, things like that, and that seemed to get me more interested in learning to read, so I got an instruction book and I picked it up myself.
Was there any kind of attitude against reading music? Were there a lot of people around who could read music?
Well, not too many, except these fellas that I used to hear. But a few years after I started to play, you know, there was more fiddlers coming to the house, and most of these fellas could read music. They were pretty well advanced [at it.] Of course, Dan Hughie MacEachern, and Dan R., they were good composers and they used to write their tunes [down].
How do you feel your repertoire has changed over the years?
Well, I still play quite a few of the older tunes that I've played for years, because a lot of the old tunes that came from Scotland here, they're really old standards that are always popular, and they're good for square dancing and step-dancing, so I think most of the Cape Bretoners still fall back on these old tunes. But a lot of the newer tunes, they don't seem to survive like the old ones, you know? You play them for a while and then you kind of lose interest in them, but some of these older tunes, they'll never die. I hear them over here, like "Miss Drummond of Perth" and "King George IV" and "Miss Lyle" and all those tunes, the "Duke of Gordon's Birthday," there's many tunes. I hear they're popular here, and they were brought to Cape Breton 175 years ago and they're still popular, you know?
[For the full text of this interview, as well as the Dan R. MacDonald tunes "Alex MacDonnell's Favourite" and "Queensville Jig" as played by Buddy MacMaster, purchase the Cape Breton 2000 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Peter Martin works as a translator and teacher in Helsinki, Finland. His main interests are Celtic, French-Canadian and Finnish fiddling.]