Throughout the world of Celtic-based fiddle music there are many similarities between fiddlers of one background or another. Although fiddlers may speak or play with different accents, there is a common thread related to fiddling that exists throughout all the styles. We call it fiddle technique. Cross-tunings, octave doubling (with two fiddlers), fingering techniques, grace notes, and various bowing techniques are common to all fiddle traditions. This is also true to some extent of the repertoires, as we know of so many traditional tunes that exist in one form or another within the various traditions. It is really the "accent" that makes the traditions different. It's just like speaking a language.
Although "folk" and "classical" music crossovers are nothing new, in our generation there emerged a select group of fiddlers that went a step further with their fiddling technique. They borrowed complex violin techniques from the playing of the great classical violin masters and incorporated this influence in their traditional playing. These fiddlers elevated their status as fiddlers to violinists and eventually even won the praise of some of the classical masters they admired so much.
Three of these fiddlers are Winston Fitzgerald, Sean McGuire, and Jean Carignan. They all at an early age developed a strong love for classical violin music. Violinists Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler were common heroes to these distinct and individual players. All three often said that if they could have had proper training, then they too could have been among the great violinists of the world. Cape Breton fiddler Winston Fitzgerald was shy about his classical abilities and incorporated little, if any, classical technique into his "traditional" playing. He reserved his classical technique for his renderings of Irish songs and slow airs, performed for small select audiences at private house sessions. Irish fiddler Sean McGuire is definitely not shy about his abilities and prefers to call himself a "folk violinist." This is a good way to describe his style. His renditions of traditional Irish tunes are filled with rich arpeggios and 16th note runs, fancy bowing and intricate high position variations. "The Mason's Apron," his showpiece to this day, is a fine example of his outstanding abilities.
Jean Carignan was the ultimate "folk violinist." He incorporated the classical violin technique seamlessly into his renditions of French Canadian, Irish or Scottish music. He walked the fine line between violin and fiddle music and succeeded in retaining the best of both worlds within the limits of a single fiddle tune. For the most part, Jean stayed away from the higher positions, in an effort to retain the folk quality of the tune. But he was fearless in his use of complex and staccato bowing; intricate pizzicato; flawless 16th note runs and dramatic variations in dynamics. All of these techniques he learned as a determined young man, and throughout his long career as a fiddler these techniques remained the central elements of his style.
"Ti-Jean" Carignan was born in 1916 at Lévis, Québec. His father learned from an Indian fiddler, and he played at house parties and dances throughout the Eastern Townships. Jean quickly learned his father's regional style but through early 78RPM recordings he came under the influence of Joseph Allard, Michael Coleman, James Morrison, J. Scott Skinner and eventually Jascha Heifetz. In spite of his father's strong skepticism, Jean strived to learn their techniques and styles. Before the age of fifteen, Jean had already achieved his goals and as we know, this humble taxi driver went on to become one of the greatest folk fiddlers of the 20th century.
Proud of his ability to interpret classical repertoire and technique, Jean also took great pride in his ability to fiddle in three languages: "Irish, Scottish and French Canadian." For Jean it was just different accents. The Québécois political movement of the '60s and '70s coincided with the revival of folk traditions throughout the province. Jean was highly criticized for his repertoire and style throughout these days of political turmoil, but he defended his right to play whatever kind of music he chose. He insisted that most French Canadian music came from Ireland and Scotland anyway. Jean lost some close friends over this issue, those who chose to only play French Canadian music, and this must have been difficult for him. But he defended his repertoire through to the end of his life, ultimately developing a style that rose far above any of these regional or political boundaries. In essence he created his own musical language and he spoke it with great fluency. He could rap with anybody!
[This article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue, which is now sold out.]
[Paul MacDonald is a guitar accompanist, a recording engineer, and a writer based in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.]