Music Collection

Celtic and Anglo-Canadian Music

“Celtic music” is one of the more problematic labels in the world music industry, as it groups together many disparate cultures into one rather vague term. Celtic music is usually considered to be defined as the music of countries and cultures that claim Celtic heritage. These Celtic countries are generally said to include Ireland, Scotland, Brittany in Western France, the Shetland and Orkney Islands, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Gaelicia in Spain, and occasionally Northern Italy. In most of these cases, a native linguistic form of Gaelic is the main connection between cultures. Of course, the traditional music of these places is not homogenous and there are so many differences between musical styles that they are often unintelligible from one another. However, there are some similarities that seem to travel well between Celtic countries. For one, a specific binary structure for instrumental tunes is common to Celtic music. This binary structure consists of tunes that have two parts, A and B, that repeat in this fashion: AABB. Another similarity can be found in the rhythms, which are usually in variations of duple and triple time. Stepdancing is shared across a wide number of Celtic countries as is “mouth music”, the tradition of sung instrumental tunes for dancing. Of course, these similarities are not universal, and it has been argued that Celtic music as a definition has little real meaning. [Note: Cape Breton’s amazing wealth of Scottish music deserves its own category, so I will not be covering it in this section]

In Canada, Celtic music refers to a wide variety of musical genres that range from the Celtic rock of Western Canada to the traditional dance tunes of Newfoundland. Nearly all of these styles are Anglo-Canadian in origin, or are performed by English speakers, the major exception being the Francophone music of Newfoundland and the Ottawa Valley. The Celtic music scenes in Canada are often based on traditions that came from Ireland and Scotland primarily. The well-loved family group Leahy is an excellent example of this influence. On their eponymous album, Leahy, they play tunes from Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton as well as some American old-time tunes, some Down East tunes and a set of French-Canadian flavored tunes. The fiddle is at the forefront of this recording, as Donnell Leahy is one of the premier fiddlers in Canada and Natalie MacMaster’s husband. Of course, the fiddle is paramount in most of the Celtic traditions of Canada, though the accordion often plays a close second. Another group incorporating a wide spread of Celtic styles is The Duhks. Born from the ashes of an early group, Scruj MacDuhk, The Dukhs are taking North American by storm, as evidenced by their grueling touring schedule and many national festival appearances, including a great set at Seattle’s Bumbershoot in 2005. Formed by eclectic banjoist Leonard Podolak, the Duhks includes Vancouver Island’s own fiddle prodigy Tania Elizabeth and the sultry blues vocals of Jessica Havey. Podolak founded the group as a way to create a new folk sound based on a huge variety of traditional roots, but the Celtic influence in the Duhks’ music always comes shining through. Their new CD, Migrations, garnered a Grammy nomination, but it’s their eponymous CD, The Duhks, that has the more compelling vision of a modern Canadian folk music.

Canadian folk rock often has a strong Celtic influence. Many bands have come out of Western Canada playing this blend of amplified folk music with Celtic ideas. Spirit of the West was one of the founders of this style and The Paperboys are one of the best known practitioners. The Paperboys hail from Vancouver, British Columbia and have been playing their particular blend of Canadian Celtic music for many years at festivals and clubs up and down the West Coast and throughout the US and Canada. Having recently added wunderkind fiddler Kendel Carson (also of fabulous alt-old-time band Outlaw Social), they still have founding member Tom Landa and they still rock! Over the years, The Paperboys have had quite an influence on the Celtic music scene of the Pacific Northwest, from the flute playing of Northwest native and Portland resident Hanz Araki to the fiddling of original member Shona le Mottee, who’s just released a new CD, Destination Grouville. Also in the vein of The Paperboys, but with a more radically innovative sound, is The Bills. Their CD, Let ‘Em Run, features a dizzying array of musical styles, from Balkan fiddle tunes to historical songs of BC history, all melded together with wildly innovative arrangements.

As Canada has seen large numbers of Irish emigrants dating back from the Irish Famine, it stands to reason that there should be a well-developed scene for Irish traditional music. Galway accordionist Ena O’Brien, now living in Toronto, is ample proof of this thriving scene, as recorded on her CD, The Galway Rambler.

The main site of Celtic music in Canada, however, must surely be Newfoundland. Home to generations of Irish immigrants as well as a fair number of Acadians and Francophones, Newfoundland has a particular repertoire of song and dance traditions. The province is famous for its maritime heritage and it should come as no surprise that maritime songs have played a large part in defining Newfoundland’s musical traditions. Some songs focus on the swilin, or the tradition of seal hunting. To hear a sampling of the songs traditions of Newfoundland, listen to the CD Songs of the Newfoundland Outports & Labrador.

The dance music of Newfoundland is founded as much on the accordion as it is on the fiddle, a rare departure from other genres of Canadian traditional music. The accordion is actually quite popular in the North of Canada, and is found in many Inuit communities. Inuit accordion styles sound somewhat similar to Newfoundland accordion styles, a possible connection through traveling whaling fleets. Newfoundland accordion draws from Irish traditions, but also has its own unique sound. Vince Collins, a traditional accordionist from Placentia Bay, embodies this uniqueness. His CD, Lifting Out the Stove, is a masterwork of subtle guitar accompaniment and driving accordion dance tunes, many of which were passed down to him by his father and his neighbors. Fiddlers are still plentiful in Newfoundland and some of the more famous of them have been a big influence on the next generation. The two big names to know are Rufus Guinchard and Emile Benoit, both from Acadian families. Rufus Guinchard is a well-known dance fiddler, and his new CD, Humouring the Tunes, shows off his rhythmic bowing and his impressive array of tunes. Emile Benoit, another Acadian fiddler, was well-known as a tune composer. His CD, Vive la Rose, does not do his playing justice, as his fiddling is often drowned out by annoying accompaniment. An earlier LP, Emile’s Dream, it’s well worth the search and contains a wealth of wonderful compositions. Traditional tune composers rarely get their due, and it’s a credit to Emile’s ability that Colin Quigley, an eminent ethnomusicologist teaching at UCLA, devoted a doctoral dissertation and an excellent book, Music from the Heart: Compositions of a Folk Fiddler, to Emile’s tune composition.

Anglo-Canadian Music in Canada

There is a very large and influential repertoire of instrumental music in Western Canada that ultimately derives from the down east fiddling style of New Brunswicker Don Messer. This style incorporates tunes from a wide variety of Celtic sources along with traditional American fiddle showpiece tunes like “Orange Blossom Special” and “Draggin’ the Bow”. It’s the main style used in the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddle Championships and can be found in every province in Canada. Though it’s often thought of as Anglo-Canadian music, one of the principal architects of this style, Andy DeJarlis, was of Metis origin and was known for adapting traditional Metis tunes to the down east style. Though down east fiddling can often sound derivative, there is actually a large repertoire of Anglo-Canadian tunes from the Canadian midwest. Grant Lamb was a fiddler from Manitoba with just such a repertoire of tunes. Myllie Baron was also from Manitoba and was recorded like Grant Lamb by Northwest fiddle aficianados Phil and Vivian Williams in the 1970s. Down east fiddling has had an influence on the fiddling of the Pacific Northwest, through British Columbian fiddle contests and Canadians who have migrated to Washington state. Joe Pancerzewski, who grew up playing fiddle in North Dakota before playing in bands in Saskatchewan, influenced other fiddlers in the Northwest when he was rediscovered in Bellingham, WA. He’d put the fiddle away for years, but after taking it out he went straight into contest fiddling. Much of his repertoire has been preserved by Phil and Vivian Williams at Voyager Recordings in the CDs Legendary Northwest Fiddler and The Fiddling Engineer, as well as in their tune book, Pleasures of Home: Rare Fiddle Tunes. For a look at the repertoire of British Columbian dance music, fiddler Daniel Lapp is the acknowledged authority, having studied with many fiddlers throughout the province. His CD, Reunion, exhibits some of the tunes he found as well as his own eclectic tastes in accompaniment.

Top Five Celtic/Anglo-Canadian Recordings

The Duhks: “The Duhks”
The Duhks pioneer their own fusion of 21st-century roots music, drawing from a vast knowledge of traditional sources but defined by their genre-bending fusion of these sources. Their choice of songs and tunes are impeccable and they love to resurrect old gems that have been long forgotten. Singer Jessica Havey’s voice is lush and gorgeous and Tania Elizabeth’s fiddle playing sets off sparks. It’s pretty exciting to hear a trad group rock this hard!

The Bills: “Let ‘Em Run”
Where The Duhks have a drive and energy that could easily result in mosh pits in front of the stage, The Bills have a much more intellectual approach to the music. Though they too make their name through the fusion of musical traditions, their music has a dense layer of intricacy born of their heady arrangements. Great stuff to be sure, and definitely in a different vein.

Vince Collins: “Lifting Out the Stove”
This CD is a testament to a great regional musician and a wonderful vision of how music travels within a family. Featuring old tunes from Vince’s father and stellar guitar accompaniment by his son, Glen, this CD features three generations worth of music. The accordion tunes are quite simple and clearly intended for dancing, but combining these simple tunes with complex and varied guitar accompaniment makes for a compelling sound. This CD reminds me of the recent CD released by Quebecois fiddler Edouard Richard. Both CDs feature wonderfully obscure tunes born out of the isolation of their environment.

Joe Pancerzewski: “The Legendary Northwest Fiddler”
A virtual compendium of Northwest and Canadian fiddle styles, this CD features a huge array of tunes from the Bellingham fiddler. Joe clearly had excellent taste in tunes and knew quite a few. With solid accompaniment to back up the fiddling, one can almost hear the calls of the square dance in Joe’s playing.

Daniel Lapp: “Reunion”
While we’re waiting for Dan Lapp to release his promised book on BC fiddle styles, this CD will help us while away the time. Featuring amazing English musicians like Kathyrn Tickell and Simon Thoumire, and a number of great BC fiddle tunes, Dan Lapp holds court on fiddle and trumpet. The trumpet is a bit strange for instrumental dance music, but both Lapp and La Bottine Souriante can easily show how well it works. Great arrangements and great energy, all in all a great intro to BC fiddling.

Artist Title of Item Type Province Culture Library Call #
Barron, Myllie Riding on a Handcar CD Manitoba Anglo-Canadian MLLC In Process
Be Good Tanyas Blue Horse CD British Columbia Anglo-Canadian Odegaard Cd NETT 002
Charlie Ewing Cowboy Ways CD Alberta Anglo-Canadian Odegaard CD EWING 001
Collins, Vince Lifting Out The Stove CD Newfoundland Anglo-Canadian Odegaard Cd SINGS 002
Duhks, The The Duhks CD Manitoba Celtic Odegaard Cd SUGAR 010
Lamb, Grant Manitoba Fiddler CD Manitoba Anglo-Canadian MLLC In Process
Lapp, Daniel Reunion CD British Columbia Anglo-Canadian Odegaard CD DIVR 01
Leahy Leahy CD W. Canada Anglo-Canadian Odegaard Cd NARA 005
Loreena McKennitt The Book of Secrets CD Nova Scotia Celtic Odegaard CD WAR 094
Messer, Don Best of Don Messer CD W. Canada Anglo-Canadian Odegaard In Process
Messer, Don Don Messer CD W. Canada Anglo-Canadian Odegaard Ordered
Messer, Don Tribute to Don Messer CD W. Canada Anglo-Canadian Odegaard In Process
ski, Joe
Legendary Northwest Fiddler CD Saskatchewan Anglo-Canadian Odegaard CD VOYR 002
ski, Joe
The Fiddling Engineer LP Saskatchewan Anglo-Canadian MLLC Phonodisc NR 1 .16
ski, Joe & Vivian
Pleasures of home : rare fiddle tunes 1882-1939 Book Saskatchewan Anglo-Canadian Music Library M1629.6.N7 P6 1988
Paperboys, The Postcards CD British Columbia Celtic Odegaard Cd RHR 005
Paperboys, The The Road to Ellenside CD British Columbia Celtic Odegaard CD TNR 001
Shona le Mottée Destination Grouville CD British Columbia Celtic Odegaard In Process
Snotty Var Snotty Var CD Newfoundland Anglo-Canadian Odegaard CD SINGS 004
The Bills Let Em Run CD British Columbia Anglo-Canadian Odegaard Cd RHR 004
Tickle Harbour Battery Included CD Newfoundland Anglo-Canadian Odegaard Cd SINGS 003
Various Folk Songs of Ontario LP Ontario Anglo-Canadian MLLC Phonodisc NG 1 .2
Various. East Coast Breakdown Video Maritime Provinces Anglo-Canadian Odegaard DVD HITM 001
Various. Songs of the Newfoundland Outports & Labrador CD Newfoundland/
Anglo-Canadian Odegaard Ordered