They say the music is a gift. In those days people often used lilting to calm a crying child, to distract the child from fears or just to help pass the time while walking down the road or working. As a small boy, Buddy started making music using two sticks of kindling and, like his mother, would mimic the fiddle tunes using mouth music (jigging the tunes). A gift of music! Innocent oral transmissions become powerful musical impressions. For the young Buddy MacMaster, this gift was the foundation of his future style and repertoire.
When Buddy turned four, his family returned to Cape Breton, settling on a farm in Judique. It was 1928 and this small community was nearing the end of an era. A steam-driven train, The Judique Flyer, had replaced the old stagecoach line and emigration to "the Boston states", which had begun before the turn of the century, continued in frightening numbers. The first commercial recordings of Cape Breton fiddle music began to appear and radios were common. The horse and wagon was being replaced by the automobile. These innovations in communications and transportation were breaking down the isolation of Cape Breton communities and would lead to the ultimate decline of regional styles in music and language.
Until this time, Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton could be identified by region through their accent, the lilt of their speaking. The same was true of the pipers and fiddlers who spoke the music with their own regional slang. This sound is a common thread through the generations: the accent, a way of speaking the Gaelic with the fiddle and, in the case of lilting, speaking the fiddle with the Gaelic. A Judique fiddler spoke the music with a sharp, robust tone and a rich brogue.
"In Cape Breton, a fiddler from Mabou, you could detect a player from Mabou if you heard him. And somebody from the Iona area, Victoria County, well, you could detect their playing. That was in the horse and buggy days you know. I am from Judique, and I know that my style is somewhat different from Mabou. I guess I have my own style."
For Buddy MacMaster's parents, music was a part of everyday life. Along with the sounds of blacksmiths, horse-drawn wagons, coopers and carpenters, the strains of the fiddle and drones of the pipes blended naturally with the fabric of community sounds. Judique and Port Hood were important crossroads and fiddlers and pipers from the more isolated communities of the Creignish Hills would frequently pass through these villages on their way to Inverness or Mabou. This tradition of itinerant musicians would sustain traditional music in Cape Breton during the latter part of the 20th century.
Popular settings for music in Judique were the old-time parish picnics and dances and these were exceptional events with fiddlers and pipers showing up from the surrounding hills to play together. The domain of the fiddlers and pipers was the dance floor. "Judique on the Floor," an expression coined back in those days, aptly describes the competitive spirit of the Judique stepdancers.
From the time he arrived in Judique, Buddy was exposed to many of the old-time fiddlers. In Port Hood, there was the Big Fiddler and Johnny Batherson (Matt Minglewood's grandfather). In Judique, there was Alexander MacDonnell and Angus MacMaster. It was fiddlers visiting in his home that made the strongest impressions on Buddy. Dan Hughie MacEachern (Glenora), Dan R. MacDonald, Gordon MacQuarrie, Dan Hughie MacEachern (Queensville), Bill Lamey, Winston Fitzgerald and Alexander MacDonnell, all were regular visitors to the MacMaster household.
By the time Buddy began to play the fiddle all these early influences had left their mark. He could have been a piper or a lilter, but he chose the fiddle and quickly struck on his trademark sound: a balance between the gentle sounds heard from his mother, Sarah, and the sounds of the powerful dance fiddlers he heard in the dusty halls of Judique and Port Hood.
"The first dance I got paid for was in the Troy schoolhouse; I was about 15. There was no accompaniment and I played with Vincent MacMaster, a nephew to Angus the Piper. I got four dollars and paid my own way up on the bus and back on the train the next day, which left me three dollars clear. On the way home, I met Dan R. MacDonald and Kitchener MacDonald on the old Judique Flyer. Dan R. told me (regarding my pay), 'You did well!'"
Buddy's reputation as an up-and-coming fiddler would soon spread along the Judique line from Troy through to Inverness. The older players quickly recognized the old-time values in his playing, his unique tone and sound, and his generous nature with the music. He began with a handful of local fiddle and pipe tunes and, after being encouraged by Dan Hughie MacEachern and pianist Mildred Leadbeater to learn to read music, eventually built a vast repertoire, spanning nearly three centuries of Scottish fiddle music.
His association with the railway would continue for much of his life. In 1943, Buddy began as a telegrapher and station agent for the Canadian National Railroad where he worked, in a variety of positions, until his retirement in 1988. At the time the railway was the main mode of transportation for those traveling across the Strait of Canso and beyond. Buddy's duties began in Pictou and eventually he would travel a circuit from Truro to Inverness. All along the line, through his kind, generous nature, Buddy's reputation preceded him.
Early in his railroad career, Buddy was stationed at the Valley depot, near Truro, and often worked the late shift. The train dispatcher, Allan MacGregor, was based in New Glasgow and communicated with Buddy and the other station agents on the CNR's dedicated lines, phoning in their "good-nights" when the tracks were clear. Sometimes he asked Buddy to play him a tune and the other agents up and down the line would listen in on their headsets. Soon the Halifax and Moncton divisions were asking to be patched in and Buddy's nightly serenades were eagerly anticipated at depots throughout the Maritimes.
He would often practice his fiddle at work, finding time to play between trains. The CNR stations built in the early part of the century were wonderful places to play the fiddle. The traditional plaster and lath combined with generous Douglas Fir paneling made for exceptional acoustics. The smaller office rooms were great for the dance music and the large waiting halls, with their rich wooden ceilings, complemented the slow airs. Buddy sometimes played for waiting passengers and fiddlers such as Dan R. MacDonald and Dan Hughie MacEachern would often visit and play with him.
Having built up a strong reputation for playing dances, Buddy went on to develop a regular circuit, which he plays to this day. Communities like Glendale, Dunvegan, Scotsville, Strathlorne, Southwest Margaree and West Mabou have dance halls Buddy packs on any night of the year. He has also built a strong career as a concert fiddler and continues the tradition of community fiddler. He has never turned down a request to play for community, parish or benefit concerts.
In 1970, along with Father John Angus Rankin, Buddy made his first trip to Scotland and was asked to perform at the Gaelic Mod in Oban. Throughout the 70's he performed as part of the "John Allan Cameron" and the "Ceilidh" television shows and eventually he toured and recorded with The Cape Breton Symphony. A solo 1983 performance at the Fiddle Tunes Festival in Port Townsend, Washington made his name on the west coast of America and, in 1987, a performance with Maybelle Chisholm in Philadelphia introduced his talent to Irish American audiences. All this without the benefit of his own commercial recording! By 1989, when he recorded his first album, Buddy's reputation was already firmly established worldwide and based mainly on word of mouth.
Today, after releasing just two albums previous to "The Judique Flyer" ("Judique On The Floor" and "Glencoe Hall"), Buddy MacMaster is indeed a household name in the world of fiddle music. He has performed at hundreds of concerts and festivals across Canada, the United States and the UK and has conducted as many workshops and classes in Cape Breton fiddle. In Scotland, Buddy is respected as a keeper of the old Scottish traditions and throughout the world Buddy is renowned for his correctness in playing. In spite of this international recognition, it is the community dance that is at the heart of his music.
"In Cape Breton, stepdancing and square dancing, I think, has a lot to do with the way we play, to make it lively for the dancers, and playing the strathspey for stepdancing. You have to give it a lift or a lively feel to make the dancer feel like dancing or perform better, you know. Then when you see a dancer responding to your music, that sort of puts you in a better mood to play. And the same at the square dances, dancing square sets. If you see the people enjoying themselves, it sure puts you in the mood to play!"
It is this love of playing for dances that shines through in Buddy's music. The tiny Glencoe Mills parish hall has become a mecca for Celtic music and dance enthusiasts from around the world. His unadvertised weekly dances are a virtual United Nations at the peak of the summer. Older, local listeners will sit along the front of the stage, eyes closed, soaking up the music as if it were medicine. The dance floor is never empty and Buddy will sometimes play all night without a break. He simply loves to play for dancers. His music is imbued with the same kind and generous spirit instilled in him so many years ago by his mother, Sarah Agnes. Today, Buddy is as encouraging to the younger players and dancers as Dan R. MacDonald was to him on that night he rode home on the Judique Flyer after his first dance.
Many of the old ways are now gone. Most of the early homesteads are represented only by a few rock piles, overgrown foundations and, sometimes, an old apple orchard. The traditional trades have given way to the modern. Many fragments of the old world remain only in museums. However, in Buddy MacMaster's music we have the living tradition. While his world and his repertoire have changed throughout his career, he has sustained the same sound, a unique connection to the world left behind. Today, after almost seventy years of playing the fiddle, his delicate Gaelic phrasing, learned at his mother's knee, remains as the central element of his complex style. His playing is a living and breathing tribute to centuries of tradition.
From the CD liner notes written by
Buddy MacMaster died on August 20, 2014, just two months before his 90th birthday.