‘That MacInnis feller in Halifax’ has his say

December 22, 2023

In the early days of my work with private radio station CHER in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I became intrigued by the fact that a vital musical thread of the traditional, ancient Scottish culture of Cape Breton was beginning to unravel, as the allure of modern music and an increasing exposure to modern television was beginning to take its toll.

Traditional Cape Breton fiddlers themselves were getting older and were beginning to die off and there were few young people to take their place, as the familiar echoes of the Saturday night dance halls slipped away into the evening mists.

Frank MacInnis, right, presents a plaque to Ron MacInnis during the opening of this year’s Glendale Scottish Concert, bestowing on him lifetime membership in the Cape Breton Fiddlers Association for his role in helping to save Cape Breton fiddle music with his 1971 documentary, The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler. Photo by Dave MacNeil

Being a Cape Bretoner who felt moved by all this, I wrote and recorded, for CBC radio in Halifax, a story I called The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler. To my everlasting surprise, the program caught fire, and caused a minor upheaval in Cape Breton. I was unpopular in some circles but lauded in others.

Immediately, in reaction to the program, there was much chaos and concern: many did not believe what was being said, and they expressed their annoyance or concern about the whole idea. Radio station CJFX of Antigonish created a weekly program called Scottish Strings where Frank MacInnis of Creignish and one Gus MacKinnon of Antigonish fielded phone calls and letters about the apparent “disappearance.” Later, noting the reaction, the CBC produced a television program that was aired across the country.

The program, which I wrote and narrated, was shot in Cape Breton with a whole host of crew and trucks and heavy cameras and sound gear. It was really my and the crews’ first intimate entry into rural Cape Breton society. And we were all charmed.

Those were the old days. Compared to today, filming was a clumsy business. The members of the crew, I recall, were fascinated by the character, the hospitality, and the musical ability of the people they met who were in the show. Dan Rory MacDonald was one of those, as were the members of the Rankin family, small (but very musical) children at the time.

I remember that adventure very fondly. The kids, as their parents called them, grew to be very fine musicians. And fine people as well. Their parents were charmed by and proud of them all. And this program sparked another, hosted by CBC’s popular Peter Gzowski. The electricity and appeal of the Cape Breton culture spread across the land.

In the end, when the smoke cleared, the half hour national television programs did their job; the controversy continued to rage and a number of people were sparked into action. Two of them were Fr Eugene Morris and Frank MacInnis, fiddle enthusiasts both. Frank vented his frustration on CJFX radio and made it widely known in Cape Breton that there were still fiddlers around and that it might be a good idea if those fiddlers gathered and presented a concert on the island to prove their point. And that the MacInnis feller in Halifax might just be wrong.

And so, with the temperature rising, Frank and Father Gene piled into a little Volkswagen and the rubber hit the road. For the better part of the summer, they scoured the countryside knocking on doors and chasing down fiddlers. There were many funny stories as one might imagine. After many months’ work, and with the cooperation of the Glendale parish priest, Fr John Angus Rankin (a fiddle aficionado himself), Frank, Fr Gene and a number of volunteers were pleased to present, with fingers crossed, the first Cape Breton Concert of a Hundred Fiddlers.

(Editor’s note: The Summer 2023 edition of The Participaper featured the story of The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, a CBC documentary produced by filmmaker Ron MacInnis that shook Celtic fiddle enthusiasts on the Island to the core. Reaction to the film resulted in the staging of the Concert of 100 Fiddlers in Glendale, sparked the organization of the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association and the revival of Celtic fiddle music in Cape Breton. In July, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary concert in Glendale, the association paid tribute to MacInnis, honouring him with a lifetime membership and thanking him for his role in saving what people now realize was a dying art. This article is composed of excerpts MacInnis prepared as he contemplated the initial documentary, reaction to it and the role he played in all of it.)

Fiddlers await their turn to take the stage at this year’s Glendale Scottish Concert. The concert was kicked off by a presentation to filmmaker Ron MacInnis, who is credited with helping to save Cape Breton fiddle music with his 1971 documentary, The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler. Photo by Dave MacNeil

A massive crowd attended, overflowing parking space and benches, thus underlining the enthusiasm of the local people. Traffic was stopped for miles and the whole show was a resounding success, with cheering and enthusiastic crowds underlining the passion of the people for the beloved music that was their history and their sustenance. There was only one problem: there were very few young people there.

Now as people looked around them, a wave of concern swept Cape Breton Island. Here and there an old hand picked up a bow and struck up an old tune. Teachers emerged here and there, groups of young people formed, and older fiddlers offered their services. A Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association was formed to prove the program wrong or to foil the fates if the program was right. In either case, it was time to take action, whatever that may be. In the end, the association gave birth to not only the encouragement of the art in Cape Breton, but an ongoing series of fiddling concerts that has lasted to this day.

Sobering to me as it may be, five generations after my ancestors landed on Cape Breton Island and 50 years older than I was when all this fiddle business started, and still with a deep and abiding affection for Cape Breton fiddle music, I have left this document for, as they say, “posterity.”

While I am roundly regarded as “the guy who brought the fiddle music back to Cape Breton,” I am pleased and grateful to accept a part of that honour, but I am, in terms I hope you understand, at the same time honour-bound to confess that the whole revival came to me as a total surprise.

So I take comfort in saying that I wish to share the credit for all this with those devoted souls who did all the hard work required to gather fiddlers from the island’s remote corners, to pull them all together on a given day to have the first massive outdoor concert, and to start a movement that would bring music teachers and fiddlers, old and young and yet unborn, into the fold so the culture could become the unique, vibrant and life-giving force that it is today, which in many ways, is the life blood of the island.

Hurrah for all of you who played a part! To you I say, in gratitude: yes, I was the one who lit the fire, but those of you who worked so very hard were the ones who brought in all the wood! I hereby happily share the award that you kindly gave to me with all of you who made the effort to make this revival happen. Blessings be.