Ceilidh: It’s All About the Fiddle

Roy Johnstone, in blue and looking away, at the Old Triangle in Charlottetown, PEI on August 19, 2018.

Pronounce it “kaylee” or “keylee,” it’s all the same. The heart of the Ceilidh is the fiddle–at least, or so we learned last week, that’s so on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Maritime.

There are other instruments involved, of course, including guitars, mandolins, basses, and even keyboards… and the bodhrán, but the fiddle is the heart of the PEI music as much as the banjo is to Appalachian bluegrass.

We stayed on PEI for a week or so this month, a getaway before teaching starts again. By chance, we ended up staying in a wonderful B&B near North Rustico on the north shore of the central part of the island. It’s called the Barachois Inn and it is run by the marvelous, unsinkable Judy MacDonald. Judy, it turns out, has been a force on the island for some time, helping protect the island’s past and making tourism there more than comfortable. She directs those of us who ‘come from away’ with aplomb and considerable knowledge.

Barachois Inn
One of the two buildings, this newer one built in the same style as the older, of the Barachois Inn.

Directly across from the Barachois is the oldest Catholic church on the island. Next to it is a museum (which Judy is partially responsible for founding) housed in an old cooperative bank that was built by the community a hundred-and-fifty years ago and that stands next to an even older Acadian house moved there a couple of decades ago, also with Judy’s involvement. Across from there is a Lion’s Club hall which hosts a ceilidh every Sunday Night.

That, though, wouldn’t be our first ceilidh–which we didn’t even know what was or how to pronounce (it’s a community musical performance). First,  we would see the popular Ross Family who perform in a converted  barn not too far away and the fiddler par excellance Roy Johnstone twice in Charlottetown, the island’s one city.

The Ross Family, once a quartet and now a trio (with mom joining in for a bit of step dancing), is the most commercial of the acts we saw. Two sisters, Stephanie and Danielle, play guitar and fiddle respectively (and sing), with brother Johnny anchoring the group through his keyboard and banter. They focus as much on entertainment as on music–with good reason: the charismatic Stephanie and enthusiastic Johnny are quintessential show people.

They play well, show notwithstanding. And the dancing is superb. At one point during the show, they did a version of a favorite of mine, “Like a Fox on the Run,” a song I know from an old bluegrass recording by the Country Gentlemen but that originally was a pop tune by Manfred Mann.

When I asked Johnny Ross if he knew that the song was a bluegrass standard, he seemed surprised but told me he had learned it from a recording by the Zac Brown band.

Keeping with the ceilidh tradition, the Ross Family interacts constantly with the audience, sometimes going off the stage and encouraging people to get up and dance. We enjoyed their show and their musicianship, but I had been expecting something a little less slick, something a bit more focused on the music than the show.

That came two nights later at an Irish cultural center in Charlottetown where Roy Johnstone was performing with a guitarist and a vocalist/mandolin/bodhrán/accordian player. These two were good, but it was Johnstone whose sheer skill controlled the show.

Understated almost to the point of seeming shy, Johnstone is lanky and a bit stooped and somewhat poker-faced–the perfect image for a fiddler. And a perfect fiddler he is, too. For him, the music is everything–and it shows. Though, from what I understand, Johnstone was classically trained as a violinist, he does not fall into the traps classical violinists encounter when they try to fiddle. His bow, for example, is overtight to classical standards but perfect for fiddling–and he holds the bow up from the end in a manner that would have horrified my viola teacher. Also, he rarely plays full strokes, using about half of the bow even for a sustained note.

Johnstone was all that I had hoped to find, and listening to him was a good first lesson in PEI Irish, Scottish and Acadian influenced fiddle music. We watched him again a day or two later, again in Charlottetown, and the Old Triangle Irish Alehouse. He had students around him, invited up a singer whose a capella performance was delightful, and gave the floor to as many other performers as he could while couples danced hornpipes just beyond.

On Sunday night, we finally got to see the show across the street, featuring the group Fiddlers Sons which now includes two daughters, one of whom, fiddler Courtney Hogan-Chandler, is a veterinarian. Led by Eddy Quinn, who describes himself as a garbageman, with longtime partner John Webster, the band now also includes multi-instrumentalist Keelin Wedge who, with Hogan-Chandler, provided the heart of the performance. Quinn and Webster are perceptive enough to know that they have added two special musicians to their lineup.

Wedge is one of those remarkable musicians who seem to be able to play any instrument they pick up, and play it well. While we were watching, she played bass, guitar, fiddle and (if I remember correctly) mandolin. She also sang–and has one hell of a voice. One of her numbers was the old Kris Kristofferson song “Me and Bobby McGee,” which she performed in the manner of Janis Joplin–and she did it well.

Wedge and Johnstone provided the musical gems of our trip, but all of the musicians we saw were fine and enjoyable to hear. We had not gone to PEI to see music but were intrigued by the proliferation of signs advertising ceilidhs and had to explore.

We are glad we did.

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