Quebecois Fiddling

By Carr, Kevin | Strings, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Quebecois Fiddling


Carr, Kevin, Strings


French-Canadian "crooked" tunes meld rhythm and grace

THE FIDDLING OF FRENCH CANADA-by which I mean Quebec and Acadia, including parts of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia-is a rich blend of the various streams of musical culture that have intermingled in Eastern Canada over the last four centuries. French settlers brought their violons with them, as well as their haunting balllads, heartrending complaints, and stirring call-and-response songs. The first ball in Quebec city was recorded by a disapproving clergyman in 1647. Later waves of Irish and Scots immigrants brought their own vibrant traditions of dance fiddling. Quebec was a major destination for Irish fleeing the potato famine, and some estimates say 40 percent of all Quebecois have some Irish ancestry. Add to the mix some English dance tunes and some cross-pollination from the Scots-Irish tradition as it evolved further south in America, and you have a music with a wild Celtic soul, at times majestic, at times rhythmic and swinging, full of quirky syncopations and imaginative melodic and structural twists.

Fiddle music is primarily dance music, and in French Canada the reel (in cut time), the march, and the six-huit (a tune in 6/8) are predominant. Waltzes are played, but they are recent additions; according to Lisa Ornstein, a leading scholar of the music, respected elders in the rural tradition, such as Louis "Pitou" Boudreault, played no waltzes.

The term jig needs a bit of explanation in the context of Quebecois music. In the Anglo-Celtic tradition a jig is always in triple meter, whereas in French Canada the gigue is a tune used for step dancing, invariably in duple meter. I was once playing fiddle in a restaurant and was asked by a Native American man to play a jig. When I began playing an Irish jig, he frowned. I asked where he was from and when he responded, "A reservation in northern Minnesota," I tried "St. Anne's Reel," a French-- Canadian standard. Excitedly, he clapped and told me that that was the kind of music he had heard as a boy, from old fiddlers with "a lot of French in them." He told me that the native and mixed--or Metis-people learned a lot of their music from French Canadians who trapped in their lands and intermarried with their ancestors. He described the tradition of house dances where each week someone would "bake the cake," meaning take out the furniture and host the dancing, which would often last all night long.

French-Canadian music is wonderfully danceable. Because in general the people danced to the beat, not the phrase, tunes evolved away from the Anglo-- Irish standard of AABB repeated eight-bar phrases and 32-bar length. Thus the tunes have unique numbers of bars, or an extra beat or two to suit the melody, or a change of meter for a few bars. These irregularly structured pieces are called "crooked" tunes or airs tordus. It has been suggested that this structural fluidity is like that found in the old French songs, which makes sense as the song and dance traditions are so strongly linked in social practice. What it means to modern enthusiasts is that the tunes are quirky, surprising, and great fun to play.

The music has an emphasis on the first beat of the measure, and though syncopation features heavily, it is not a music that relies on a repetitive backbeat. Rhythm is enhanced by the ubiquitous practice of fiddlers clogging with both feet while they play. …

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