Thirty years ago, fiddler John MacDougall thought he was going crazy. Onstage at a concert in Broad Cove, N.S., strange music suddenly drowned out his own fiddle playing.
Yet no one else was visible onstage, nor could anyone hear the mysterious tunes. Frustrated and confused, MacDougall packed up his fiddle and exited stage left. Still, the music followed him home. He couldn't see those musical apparitions, but he could clearly hear the notes wafting from the ceiling of his cramped trailer that night.
Perched on the edge of his bed, he resolved to document them for all time. That feverish night, he scored 65 tunes before finally collapsing.
"They started coming so fast I could hardly write them down," MacDougall now muses as he sits among his collection of eight fiddles that are strategically place around the room for easy access. One is on his living-room couch, and his favourite, a "sweet" 300-year-old instrument with a repaired bullet hole, occupies pride of place on the kitchen table.
All these years later, the white-haired, but still energetic musician continues to entertain those ghostly visitations, but the pace has slowed.
Holed up in his trailer in Inverness, Cape Breton, the 81-year-old master fiddler pens 10 to 15 tunes a day, often hunched over his kitchen table. By his own count - and he keeps a daily tally on small sheets of paper - he has produced 33,300 compositions, but he still balks at publishing them, saying he hasn't yet reached his personal goal of 35,000.
Yet MacDougall insists he's not creating art; he's simply recording history.
"It's from the people who lived here before ... they could make [songs] but they couldn't write them," he says.
Whether you believe he is reproducing the tunes of his ancestors, or merely inspired by their memory, MacDougall's growing catalogue of traditional Cape Breton fiddle music is a historical treasure. And it has come to light just in time to provide support for a cultural renaissance in search of its roots.
The revival of Celtic music in Cape Breton has left young musicians handicapped as they struggle to expand their playlists. Although there are Scottish playbooks, many traditional Cape Breton jigs, reels and strathspeys (a slow Scottish folk dance with gliding steps) were never written down. In the past, most fiddlers learned by ear. Musical repertoires were memorized and reinterpreted with each generation.
Only a handful of local composers such as Gordon MacQuarrie and Dan R. MacDonald have published sheet music. Songs or "tunes" were considered a gift to be passed from one fiddler to another at the music parties known as ceilidhs. But memories are fickle and countless tunes disappeared. Now, MacDougall wants to reverse that trend.
"These are the lost songs," he says. "The dead want to get the music back."
Never has the timing been better. "There are [fiddlers]all over the place ... and they are crying for new music," he says. His work is laying a cornerstone for Gaelic tradition, to "give the culture a big boost."
For the old-time fiddlers, music is not so much a profession as a passion. MacDougall worked in sawmills. Contemporaries such as Buddy MacMaster and Kenneth Joseph MacDonald worked on the rail lines and trapped lobsters to make ends meet. Somehow they always managed to find the energy to play at night.
But it wasn't enough. By the early 1970s, there was a lull in professional recordings and the number of known master fiddlers had shrunk to a handful. The situation had deteriorated so much that in 1972, the CBC aired a documentary entitled The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler.
It was a requiem, a lament for a dying way of life. And it became a turning point in Cape Breton's musical history. Rev. John Angus Rankin organized a massive revival festival in Glendale, N.S., in 1973. "He got his dander up and wanted to prove that it wasn't dying," says musician and musicologist Dave MacIsaac. He flushed out dozens of closet fiddlers into the public eye, and more ceilidhs and other musical events sprouted.
MacDougall took up teaching with new fervour. His first student in Mabou, N.S., was John Morris Rankin (of Rankin family fame), but soon he was invited to teach at the new Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts at St. Ann's Bay. A new generation had found a mentor.
Ian MacDougall, 25, attributes his success to the years spent studying under John MacDougall - a distant family relative. Every Sunday, from the age of 8 to 17, Ian's father would faithfully drive him up to John's trailer at the outskirts of town where he practised the fiddle. "I don't think I missed two weeks," he says. "I never had to pay a nickel." With two albums of traditional music under his belt, and a full play schedule, Ian MacDougall is now considered one of Cape Breton's best traditional fiddlers.
But finding and playing traditional tunes is still a struggle for the younger generation. Ian MacDougall built his repertoire partly through unearthing amateur recordings of old fiddlers. He is also in discussions to record some of John MacDougall's compositions. "It's different from all the other stuff [written today]... it sounds like the old tunes played long ago," he adds.
Max MacDonald, director of Cape Breton's largest music festival, Celtic Colours, says attitudes toward local traditions changed over the past decade. "Celtic music was once something people were embarrassed to listen to," he says. "You put on your headphones and went into your bedroom.. Now, it's cool."
Since its inception in 1997, Celtic Colours attendance has doubled, and the number of foreign visitors has increased tenfold.
The comeback of the fiddler is also reflected by the growing number of independently produced music CDs. Almost every serious artist has an album, and indie discs are sold everywhere - from grocery stores to coffee shops. It is estimated that more than 150 albums have been produced locally - not bad for a region with a population of less than 150,000 souls. While only a few have the cachet of Grammy-award-winning fiddler Natalie MacMaster or Ashley MacIsaac, many are now making a living wage on the pub and ceilidh circuit.
The octogenarian MacDougall still plays every Saturday and Sunday night at the Glenora Inn & Distillery in Glenville. They would have him play more dates, but MacDougall likes to give students a chance in the limelight, Glenora manager Sandra Scott says. His generosity toward young players and his prolific songwriting have made him a legend in these parts - quite a feat in a region known for its eccentric players.
"People are amazed that he's still playing so lively ... and they are fascinated with his story," Scott says.
MacDougall is descended from a long line of bagpipers, but it was the fiddle that engrossed him as a wee lad. He spent hours practising his bowing technique, using wood kindling before graduating to a cheap tin fiddle.
"It was a craving I always had," he says. "I could see a fiddle in front of me even then."
MacDougall, who worked in a sawmill for $2 a day in his early 20s, eventually saved enough money to buy a $35 book on how to read and write music. Later, he learned how to fix broken violins.
Although a long-time fixture at local barn dances, it wasn't until his 50s that MacDougall felt compelled to write tunes. He explains his compulsion in metaphysical terms: "I think that someone wants to send the music over from the other side. People have asked me if I'm scared about that. Why should I be scared? If it's not the devil, then let it happen. Let them send all that they feel like."
But with compulsion comes obsession. MacDougall is fiercely private, and until now has refused to publish until he hits his magic benchmark of 35,000 tunes. The sheets of music, neatly transcribed in 155 notebooks, are kept in two small safes in the back of his trailer. He plays some of his originals over at the distillery and for family, but worries that they might be stolen before he has copyrighted them.
"I don't know what's holding me back [from publishing]" he says.
"I better smarten up and forget about these things and take whatever time I have left to get them published."
Those who have heard his music are convinced of his genius and believe his work may one day be viewed as the most important collection of Cape Breton tunes. Whatever the case, MacDougall is sure of one thing: "These songs will be played a hundred years from now."
Special to The Globe and Mail