The Sugar Camp Presents:

  The Great Canadian Liner Notes

Go Directly To The Canadian Fiddlers!

Copyright © Steve Fruitman, 2004. Reprinted with permission

Welcome to the Great Canadian Fiddle Album Liner Notes

Please feel free to browse around - that's what this place exists for. Feel free to email me if you have any questions about what is contained in here but please don't ask me for recorded copies of tunes or LPs. I just don't provide this service - so don't bother asking.

Why This Site Exists?

I have been collecting Canadian folk-oriented recordings for many years now. One of the things I love is reading the liner notes that accompany them, especially on the backs of vinyl recordings. After a while you get a sense of perspective about who was on what label, who played with whom, who produced these recordings, roughly what year they were made, etc. The vinyl albums also have interesting photos of the fiddlers which I've taken the liberty to use (although I haven't gotten around to giving the photographers their due credit). This will be mostly a text guide through some very interesting Canadiana.
Canadian Fiddlers come from every part of this country with an incredible diversity of backgrounds. From the earliest of times, Europeans took fiddles down every river system and on expeditions across this land. The earliest French fur traders took them with; the Scottish, Orkney and Shetland men stationed in the icey confines of Hudson Bay had them; Native peoples traded for them and they were regarded as most prized possessions in thousands of homesteads. Clearly, the fiddle was a cherished instrument for many reasons: it was compact, easy to fix and tune, and always brought a smile when played. Indeed, it could be argued that the fiddle was the reason for parties and not the other way around!

In Canada there are many regional styles of fiddling which survived mainly due to the isolation of many communities. The most popular was the down-home style as characterized by the playing of the late Don Messer. More recently the Cape Breton style has been in vogue. But there are many other regional styles: The Red River style popularized by Andy De Jarlis; the Quebecois styles of Joseph Allard, Joe Bouchard, and 'Pitou' Louis Boudreault; the Ottawa Valley style of Brian Hebert and Reg Hill; the Acadian style (Eloi LeBlanc); the Native and Metis styles; the Western swing style of the prairies; and styles that originated in various parts of Europe, like the Ukraine, modified to conform to the 4/4 beat of traditional Celtic reels (Jim Gregrash and Al Cherney).

What made the fiddle so prominent was the dance. People across this land partied and danced whenever opportunity allowed, to break the tedium of hard working lives, and to add to their sense of community spirit. The square and Contra dances of France, Germany and the British Isles became standard fare, along with the Polkas of Eastern Europe. When communities got together for dances, it wasn't uncommon to get a melange of styles since people were eager to try out the different kinds of dances. The Schottische, the jig, the various contra, squares and line dances that were always popular. And of course there was always the dependable waltz and couple dances.

Fiddlers were highly regarded in their communities, especially if they were good ones. They would be expected to play for long periods of time, to keep a good even tempo, and have a wide variety of tunes to choose from. It wasn't surprising therefore that some of them got so good that recording companies became interested in putting them down on wax. Early recording pioneers included Colin Boyd, Jim Magill, George Wade, Joseph Allard and Don Messer.

In the post-war years another phenominon called 'The Fiddle Contest' was born. The Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto hosted a very prestiegeous annual contest; in 1951 the Shelburne Fiddle Contest hosted the Canadian Open Championships for the first time. Others, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Sherbrooke, Quebec, and Pembroke and Nepean, Ontario, drew fiddlers from across the nation competing in coveted competitions for the chance to strike gold - and quite possibly a recording contract. It wasn't uncommon for winners to be asked to perform on radio and television programs like Don Messer's Jubilee.

One of the best of them all was Graham Townsend (1941 - 1998). His ascent to the top of the heap is a case study all its own. Fortunately, among his dozens of albums, are some amazing liner notes that highlight and document his historic career. Not only that: they also make mention of his fiddling teachers like Billy Crawford (who was never professionally recorded) and Tommy McQueston (who just passed away in 2002).

Unfortunately, many albums recorded in the 1950s, and even more recently, especially in Québec, have virtually no information about the artists other than the tunes they recorded. (Instead they listed the other great albums you can buy on the xyz Records label). I have listed these albums anyway.

Today, thanks to our strong rural links, the continuation of this lineage is assured. Youngsters learn to play fiddle at tender ages and many of them enter smaller contests in their own communities. Along with clogging, or step dancing, these competitions have spawned some incredible fiddlers like The Schryer Triplets, Scott Woods, Cindy Thompson and April Verch, just to name a few. However I'd like to point out that for every fiddler with an album to his/her credit, there were dozens of other great ones who never recorded. The repertoires of fiddlers like Tommy Anderson (d. 1997, Nobleton, Ontario) and Tommy Sharbot (d. 1995, Calabogie, Ontario) died with them. Others, like the recordings of George Wade and His Cornhuskers are so obscure they have faded into distant memories. Yet sometimes miracles of modern technology occur whereas a CD can be issued from kitchen tapes after a fiddler has passed into Fiddler's Green (Aime Gagnon).

This is then dedicated to them: The pioneer fiddlers of Canada.

*** About the Liner Notes Contents ***
The information on the following pages are from my own private collection of Canadian fiddle albums. This is certainly not an attempt to provide the complete picture of Canadian fiddlers and/or their recordings, but rather to share the information that I have at hand. However, as you will shortly see, the list is quite amazing! As I stated above, I have listed all the albums and any pertinent information that is on them, including serial numbers, labels, producers, engineers, and other players where listed. Of course, the tunes are listed as well. I have made every attempt to portray exactly what is listed on the album liner-notes and have added as little editorial commentary as possible. There is much more information on a lot of these fiddlers available in various books, web sites and video documents.

Many of these albums, especially the vinyl, are quite rare. However, a good snoop through second hand bins of record shops, a dedicated crawl through flea markets and yard sales, will occasionally turn up a few gems. A few of the albums listed are not in my collection but were listed on the backs of other fiddle albums. However, I would feel safe to say that about 95% of them are in my collection.

The first major labels to record Canadian fiddle music were Apex Records, who recorded Don Messer and His Backwoods Trio in the 1930s, and RCA Victor, which also recorded fiddlers like George Wade, but most recording was stopped during the depression and well into the war years. The lone exception was Don Messer who recorded radio program discs for Canadian Armed Forces radio.

After the war years RCA continued to record artists like Ned Landry (in their Montreal studios). It wasn't until the late 1940s that Canadian recording pioneer George I. Taylor of Nova Scotia began recording Scottish fiddlers on his Celtic Records label, distributed across Canada by London Records. Taylor later purchased the catalogues of Rodeo Records, which included the Banff subsidiary which went on to record dozens of Canadian fiddlers well into the 1970s. ARC Records also got into recording Canadian country and folk music in the late 1950s and also continued to release Canadian fiddle music into the 1970s. Western based labels like Al Reusch's Aragon label out of Vancouver, and Point Records (later purchased by MCA) were quite active in the late 50's and early 60's. Smaller labels like Sparton Records had Ward Allen on their roster.

Many veteran Canadian fiddlers like Graham Townsend recorded on many of these labels. In the 1970's the Marathon/Condor/Paragon group released a number of Canadian fiddle albums (many of dubious production quality). Audat in Nova Scotia was quite active in that decade as well. Smaller labels enticed fiddle players into their studios with the promise of making them 'stars' but without radio airplay most albums were either purchased directly from the artist or at truck stops, fiddle contests, drug stores and local record shops.

Others, like Rudy Meeks and Ed Gyurki, released their albums on their own labels.

Recording studios were complicated places until the advent of newer technology in the 1980s. Getting a good recording engineer and a good studio together were more easily said than done. Many records that were released were of sub-standard quality, poorly equalized and mixed; mastering was almost unheard of. This resulted in harsh tones from lovely violins. As newer technology came into vogue, drum machines and bass synth took over many recordings forcing fiddle players to rely on staying on the beat instead of being able to push it a bit.

Recording studios can be very intimidating places at the best of times. With a hefty price per hour nagging away, most albums were recorded in an evening session or two. Due to the demands of record companies to keep things simple, keep the tracks short, fiddlers, especially Cape Bretoners who like to bridge long medleys together, were not allowed to do so in the studio. Therefore, while we can now put a record on and listen to some of the pillars of the Canadian fiddle world, we are not getting a proper representation of 'live' fiddle music.

There were exceptions though. Rounder, Shanachie and Philo Records, in the US, recorded and released wonderful albums by Graham Townsend, Jerry Holland, The Beaton Family and Jean Carignan. It wasn't until the mid-1970s when artists started taking more control of the recording process that better fiddle albums started to appear. And even then, mostly due to financial constraints, these albums were tame, controlled, and sometimes harshly recorded.

In the 1980s home-studios started to appear as the technological breakthroughs of the day broke old barriers. Cape Breton fiddlers like Buddy MacMaster, could now record near his Island home, in a good environment, with a production team who knew and understood his kind of  music. The sound quality was state of the art. However, albums began to appear on cassette format only as vinyl faded at the beginning of the 90's. (Most fiddlers could not afford to put out CDs, especially since most of their fans relied on tape decks.) This also contributed to poor sound quality. As computerization and technology prices fell and became more user-friendly, better albums started being produced, just the way they were intended to be in the minds of the fiddlers of the past.

This same production quality had another story to tell as well, for it allowed older recordings to be cleaned up and remastered, and re-released on Compact Disks. We can now actually hear music that was recorded in the 1920s that sounds better than it ever did before!

Note: an * beside a fiddle tune listed means that it was composed by the fiddler who's album is being reviewed.

I hope you find the information useful and would love to hear from you. Hey, you can even use this form:

Fiddle-back to Steve.

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