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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
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Proceedings of the Conference ~ Cape Breton in Transition: Economic Diversification and Prospects for Tourism

edited by William A. O'Shea ,
Carol Corbin and Eric Krause
(October 20-21, 1998)


Living Tradition

David Mahalik

I'd like to start with a discussion of "tradition". We are all familiar with the word, which has become the defining feature of Cape Breton's Music, but what is a tradition? Think of the traditions you follow in your lives, as part of a family, part of a community. Why are such repeated acts considered to be part of a "tradition"?

Dr. Richard MacKinnon argues that it comes down to a kind of sharing. As part of a specific group one does something that is shared by the group in a "face-to-face" relationship. A creative act of passing on what is meaningful to the community.

Singing songs at a party, for example.

At a going-away party held in a garage/barn/shed/workshop type place in Big Pond, heated by a big old barrel-shaped wood stove attended by two generations of family and neighbours and friends, a song was sung about Rita MacNeil. The song was a focal point of the evening in that it told of the relationship of Rita to the community, on a personal level, as well as in the context of her status as a famous singer. People knew the words and sang along, in fact there had been many calls, from both generations, for the song to be performed.

Those in attendance represented many groups of people. The party was organized to say goodbye to the son of the family, who had been home for Christmas from British Columbia after having been gone for a few months to work. There were basically three groups of people there: friends of the children, friends of the family, and neighbours. These groups all overlap to such an extent that it is virtually impossible to distinguish one from another. Food was served, and there was music played by family, friends, and neighbours until very early the next day. Songs were exchanged as part of what is done at a party in Big Pond.

In contrast, I've lived in other parts of Canada where the traditional thing to do at a party, in respect to music, is to invite someone who has a great stereo and selection of music. Different traditions.

Father Paul Abbass talks about tradition in the context of a story which needs to be told. The story of who you are, have been, and are going to be is the central theme in all tradition.

Music in Cape Breton originated in the home where mothers sang their children to sleep and people of the community gathered to help out with seasonal chores, the completion of which would inevitably lead to a party. These informal parties, or "kitchen rackets", during which there would be much music (this was before the days of the nation's music station) and dancing, would give way to more organized ceilidhs and dances in community halls. As the communities grew, each one had at least one fiddle and sometimes a piper, who became a fixture at local gatherings. The key here is that local gatherings don't mean paying gigs, they mean any time the locals gathered. Playing music has become a tradition in Cape Breton.

For the Scottish settlers of Cape Breton, music was simply a way of life and the tradition of music the Scottish settlers brought with them has become the cornerstone of music in Cape Breton. Not because all Cape Breton music is derived from traditional Scottish tunes, played on traditional Scottish instruments, or sung in a language that most Scots no longer understand, but because the Scot's love of music has become manifest in the performance. This is the tradition of Cape Breton music.

Because the music is played in such a way that it embodies the spirit of past influences, but has grown to incorporate these and other influences, it will continue to grow in the future. Past, present and future are used here in reference to place as opposed to time, in telling the story of where we belong.

Tradition is the story whispered around a group of children that comes back to where it started as a new story. Though it may be unrecognizable in its new form it contains the contributions of the group.

All traditions must start somewhere. The music of Cape Breton that has gained the most attention, to this point, is that which is recognized as having a Celtic history. In this passage from "The Scottish Touch: Cape Breton", Hugh MacLennan makes note of tradition:

When the natural water dries up, it is human for people to try to drink at the mirage. Today there's a Gaelic College at Saint Ann's which teaches the old language, the bagpipes, and some of the old crafts. Every summer (since the war) there is a Highland Mod with Highland games, and chiefs are invited from the other side, most of them arriving with Oxford accents and not a word of Gaelic. Now there is a trade in tartans, and you occasionally see, as you never did thirty years ago, Cape Breton boys and girls wearing kilts. An older generation would have known, I think, that the romance about the kilt as a distinctive uniform of the clan was largely a Victorian invention, accepted among the Old Country Scots as a compensation for their near-annihilation in the mid-eighteenth-century wars, after which the kilt was proscribed for years. I record it as a plain fact that the kilt was never worn in Cape Breton before the tourists came. (Hugh MacLennan, "The Scottish Touch: Cape Breton", The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan, Elspeth Cameron, ed., pp. 221-22, Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1978).

Kilts and bagpipes may not be directly descended from the Highlands of Scotland but they could be descended from the Highlands of Cape Breton. Or from the tourist traps along the Cabot Trail.

Do we have to play it up for the tourists? Why does CBC replace Talk Back with "The Music of Atlantic Canada" during the summer tourism season? If it's to support the local music scene, why don't they play all Cape Breton music, one hour every day all year long?

If there is a musical genre which can be defined as Cape Breton's music, and I don't think that we are still arguing that there is, let's support our own.

When I first heard the promo for CHER's "Wake up to Cape Breton" I thought "right on, wake up Cape Breton. Wake up to Cape Breton's music". Two hours every Sunday morning Rick Matheson played whatever he could get his hands on. You're as likely to hear Sunfish as Charlie MacKinnon. This is important as they both represent very important times in Cape Breton. "Let's Save Our Industry". When Wally MacAulay completed some demos and was included on a compilation, these tunes were played on the air despite the fact that there was no commercial recording on the market. In MacAulay's case, three of his songs showed up in the Top 20 listings printed in What's Goin' On. "Damn Fine Shame" moved steadily up the chart from #17 in June to #6 in September. This chart is compiled based on requests making it an accurate representation of what people who listen to the show on Sunday morning want to hear.

Is this Island of ours is to have a future, we must look to our strengths, one of which is music. Entertainment/tourism is an environmentally friendly industry that can take Cape Breton into the future if we continue to develop it locally. Music is as renewable a resource as there is, as long as people play and pass it on. With Rita hosting a National TV show, Natalie hosting a regional radio show, Ashley, The Barra's, The Rankins, The Sons of Membertou playing all over the world, Sunfish getting rave reviews in Australia, and Bruce Guthro and John Gracie writing down in Nashville, this music has an international profile.

But I have already seen the best minds of my generation leave, to teach in the north, to work in the west, and even to make music in Toronto. We really have to stop exporting our natural resources to import products.

The music lives here, as much a part of the community as any person or building. It will survive no matter what happens around it because it always has. Through religious opposition, mass migration, and now, a new generation's interpretation, the music has grown stronger.

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Published by the Louisbourg Heritage Society
ISBN 1-896218--07-5
© Louisbourg Institute
Extracted from the Proceedings of the Cape Breton
in Transition Conference, October 20-21, 1995