|Prince Edward Island Fiddlers Society|
THE FIDDLE MUSIC OF
PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
THE ISLAND FIDDLER
The Great Fiddling Contests of 1926
by Jim Hornby
photo of Neil Cheverie
after winning the Charlottetown contest
The news spread rapidly across the Island: the best fiddlers and stepdancers were invited to a provincial championship in Charlottetown. The prize for the top fiddler would be a trip to Boston to represent the Island in an international fiddling contest. In response, fiddlers rosined their bows and warmed up their "big tunes," and some areas held local contests as a tune-up. Special excursion trains were scheduled from Tignish and Souris; a few men later boarded them carrying fiddle cases, just so they could get in to see the contest. In Charlottetown, the Guardian noticed the excitement and observed: "It is the talk of the Island and nothing in recent years has stirred such enthusiastic interest." Yet the fuss created by the contest did not stem solely from the thrills of competition and the partisan interests thus aroused, nor the fact that it was by far the biggest contest staged up to that time.
Nineteen twenty-six was also the time of a small revival movement for traditional Island culture. Although fiddling and dancing had been integral parts of social life and entertainment for a century or more, they were displaced in popularity after World War I by jazz, radio, and motion pictures. The big 1926 contests focused opposition to these modern influences, and helped preserve fiddle music until it hit a second postwar slump Even today, the echoes of these contests still resound in the memories of many old-timers. Attesting to the enthusiasm for them in 1926 are a number of songs and poems, created to celebrate the contests and the successful Island competitors in Boston, fiddler Neil Cheverie and stepdancer/fiddler Robert Weeks. One of them, "Fiddlers' Contest," I have found in fragmentary form in oral circulation a half-dozen times. It and two others seem to merit being in this article, and brief quotes will be taken from a further two contest ballads that I have found. Together, they give a picture of Island fiddling at the time, and of these unique and widely-publicized contests.
The Charlottetown contest, held March 29-31, 1926, was sparked by an event on the mainland. The Intercolonial Club of Boston, an organization largely of Maritime expatriates that included some Islanders on its executive, had held a local contest, and its success prompted the promotion of an open competition for fiddlers from both the United States and Canada. Most of the competitors who entered were from New England, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces. The Intercolonial Club had very good contacts throughout the Maritimes, as it was involved in fund-raising for church and other groups here. The Prince Edward Island Tourist and Publicity Association was contacted, and agreed to sponsor a contest to select a provincial representative. The Association's motive was expressed in a lead editorial in the March 8 Guardian: "This competition offers an excellent means of publicity for this province." This publicity was also seen to be beneficial in helping to revive traditional music and dance on the Island.
A similar revival seemed to be making headway in the United States, where Henry Ford's campaign for old-time music, particularly his promotion of the Maine fiddler, Mellie Dunham, had received wide publicity in late 1925. Like Ford, many Islanders were explicitly against jazz, which was felt to be turning people away from old-time music. The spirit of revival, which perhaps comes as a surprise to those who have seen it only as a 1970s phenomenon in the Maritimes, was articulated with great fervor in an unsigned page one article in the Guardian of March 4, 1926. "In the spirit of the age," it stated, "there has awakened a reverence for old things." However, the author observed, "with the advent of radio and gasoline" and "through lack of proper appreciation," the art of fiddling had been ignored. The article then spiritedly asserted the cultural importance of fiddling, and of "the sturdy knights of the bow, the old time Fiddlers." It was noted that: The fiddlers entering the contest must be genuine old timers, and at least 50 years of age. Centenarians will be especially welcomed. They may play quadrilles, schottisches, polkas, jigs, reels, hornpipes, or what they please - but it must be genuine "old stuff'; none of these new fangled fox trots and bear gallops will be tolerated. Anticipation was further heightened by reports that a former Islander from Hunter River, Malcolm Beaton, had recently won a big fiddling contest in Moose Jaw at age 78. In the Canadian Press story it was stated that Beaton "sang to the fiddle," and his antique vocalling doubtless contributed to the impression made by the white-haired musician. Beaton's victory received national publicity and was mentioned locally a number of times in the build-up to the contest in Charlottetown.
The Charlottetown event was billed as "Prince Edward Island's First Fiddlers Contest." This description was accurate only in the sense that it was the first contest of province-vade scope. Small, local contests were then common all over the Island in such centres as Montague, Lake Verde, Hope River, and Tignish, and were often used for fund-raising by church groups, the Young Men's Literary Society, and the Anchors and Stars baseball clubs of Charlottetown. They were held year round and were often the occasion of winter sleigh rides to community halls. Like other fiddling contests, this one included a step-dancing competition, and ended with old-time sets of lancers or quadrilles. Although dancing has usually been considered a secondary art to fiddling, it is in the combination that each achieves its greatest glory. Indeed, the years of stagnation in Island fiddling may be traced to the displacement of old-time dancing by the newer ballroom steps, which were performed to "popular" music. It has been suggested that the popularity of contests stemmed mostly from the chance they afforded people to meet socially and hear a number of fiddlers, at a time when the exigencies of travel made this a rare treat. However, one respected older fiddler and former contest participant told me that they frequently led to animosity over judges' decisions and encouraged fiddlers to hide favorite tunes and techniques, thus, in fact, contributing to the decline of fiddling. My informant recalled also that often 25 fiddlers would show up for a contest; the top three would win five or ten dollars (often in merchandize) and the rest got nothing for expenses. It was "a racket for promoters." But there is no denying that many fiddlers were eager to participate.
The Charlottetown Contest
There were 41 fiddlers on the fist of entries published two days before the contest started. This great turnout when there were only "at least 15 expected" - caused the organizers to schedule Monday the 29th in addition to the 30th. Then, when a large contingent from Eastern Kings was snowbound several days on the train from Souris, they added a third night. The eventual winner, Elmira's Neil Cheverie, was on this delayed train, as were a number of other finalists; they may even have benefitted from the extra practice they had on the train.
The winter of '26 produced great falls of snow. George Cheverie recalls that tunnels had to be dug across Main Street in Souris for much of that winter because the snow was too deep to be cleared. Abbie Weeks, son of Robert, remembers that his father and a number of local farmers had to do a lot of hard shoveling to dear the tracks from Winsloe But the weather and the disruption of schedule did not dampen public enthusiasm.
The Strand Theatre, upstairs in Market Hall, was filled to capacity every night even though CFCY radio, then in its infancy, carried live broadcasts. On Tuesday, the originally scheduled closing night, the Prince Edward Theatre on Grafton Street was also filled, due to the overflow crowd. This meant that each fiddler and stepdancer had to perform twice - once in each theatre. Even at that, the Guardian reported that "hundreds were turned away." On the final night, over 1200 people jammed into the Strand.
On Monday, the first night, a special medal was awarded to Noel Sapphere, a blind Micmac fiddler from St. Andrews who was nearly 80. On Wednesday night, the winners were declared. From among eight fiddling finalists, Neil Cheverie was first, William Harvey of Ellerslie second, and Robert Weeks of Highfield third. Cheverie won a medal and his trip to Boston; Harvey won ten dollars in gold, and Weeks five dollars. Among dancers, Priscilla Martin, South Rustico, was the top woman and highest point-getter; Martin Power, Mermaid, won the men's title, with Weeks second and Bill Weatherbie of Charlottetown third.
The winner, Cheverie (1876-1963), was known for the lift and precision of his fiddling, and for his ability to put cuts, slurs, time and grace notes into his tunes for greater variety and drive. Like many others in Eastern Kings, he was both a farmer and fisherman, and he drove a rural mail route. The versatile Weeks (1882-1954) was born in Alma in West Prince, lived most of his adult life in Highfield (near Winsloe), and was a butter and cheese maker as well as a farmer. At that time some contests had a separate category for "stepdancing fiddlers," but Weeks did not combine his performing talents, reportedly because he felt this to be gimmicky.
It is an interesting sidelight that Weeks, who placed third among the fiddlers, was only 44 at the time, although it was advertised that the Charlottetown contest was for fiddlers 50 and over. Cheverie himself qualified by only a few months, and it is quite possible that some others were really "underage." But the age requirement seems silly considering that revival was one of the objectives, and it cannot have done much for the image of fiddling among the younger set to present it solely as the recreation of older men. Whether the age requirement was an attempt to secure the most authentic tradition-bearers, or whether older fiddlers were considered more picturesque for publicity purposes, is not known It was not long before an account of the big event appeared in verse.
The song "Fiddlers' Contest" appeared in the April 6 Guardian - after the Charlottetown contest and before the ones in Boston. It was almost certainly written by William Joseph Cheverie of Souris, a customs agent who was transferred to Charlottetown later that year and is remembered by relatives as "having done that sort of thing" (i.e., writing). The use of a popular tune, "Bonnie Dundee," doubtless aided in its transmission in Eastern Kings, home of the author and all the fiddlers named except Weeks and, as ever, a stronghold of Scottish fiddling. I have heard only fragments of it in oral circulation, but many people have heard of it, and a few possess written copies. Allan Rankin of the Eptek Centre in Summerside has a manuscript copy on customs paper that may be the original The fiddle tunes named in the second stanza are, not surprisingly, from the Scottish tradition: a strathspey ("Tullochgorum"), a march ("Johnnie Cope"), a hornpipe that is usually played as a reel ("Soldiers Joy"), and two popular reels. The fiddlers named, all from Eastern Kings, were: Joe Angie John MacDonald (South Lake), Aeneas Bailey (North Lake), Frank Bell MacDonald (Hermanville), the Cheverie twins, Neil and Eddie (Elmira), Phoebe Deagle (Clear Spring), and Jim Simmons McCormack (St. Charles). Among this group, Neil Cheverie, Deagle, and the two MacDonalds qualified for the finals along with P.J. Bolger of Charlottetown, Parnell Cosgrove of Wellington, Harvey, and Weeks. The part of the song that is best remembered is the two verses beginning, "There was Joe Angie John . . . . " Neil Cheverie, thus chosen to joust with other "knights of the bow," did indeed show the Boston audience, which undoubtedly included not a few former Islanders, that "we're all living yet."
The Boston Contests
Details of the Boston contests, as gathered from the local press of the time, are sketchy. Cheverie fiddled his way down on the train to Boston then sometimes known as "Canada's third largest city" - and entered the scheduled contest of April 7. He placed third, with first place going to Dan MacDonald of Boston (formerly of Antigonish).
Immediately thereafter, the winner was challenged to defend his victory, and a number of fiddlers played in a second Boston contest on April 11. As soon as this second contest was announced, the president of the Intercolonial Club vared Judge A. E. Arsenault of the Publicity Association to send Weeks down at their expense to enter the fray, so down Weeks went. On Friday, the night before this contest, Island publicist W. R. Tinney arranged for Cheverie to play at City Auditorium before nearly 2000 members of the Advertising Club of Boston. In the next night's competition Cheverie improved his standing to second, as a MacEachern from Boston took first, and a MacInnis from Cape Breton was third. Weeks, who inexplicably did not fiddle, took top honors in stepdancing, followed by a MacIntosh from Cape Breton and a MacPhee from Boston. Both Islanders won gold medals and silver trophy cups. The Cheverie mementos are now in the possession of his son Pius of Elmira; Weeks' trophies are kept by his son Robert in Whitehorse, Yukon.
On their return, the pair were treated to a reception by the Benevolent Irish Society in Charlottetown on April 15, followed by other celebrations for Cheverie at the BIS Hall in Souris and a party in Elmira; the lightfooted Weeks was feted by his neighbors in Highfield. Three days later, at Central Christian Church in Charlottetown, the Reverend Neil Herman gave what was advertised as his "second and last" sermon on "Fiddlers and Fiddling."
Fabled in Story and Song, a sprightly account of the whole story is given in the poem "Some More About the Fiddlers" by P.N.McIntyre, Charlottetown Royalty, about whom I know nothing. It was printed on May 15, in the same Guardian issue as another contest ballad, which probably accounts for the title. McIntyre deals with the contests in five verses, then writes three more on the virtues of the Island. He mentions two people not found in other versions, top stepdancer Priscilla Martin, and Reagh Tinney, Secretary-Treasurer of the Publicity Association, the representative who accompanied Cheverie to Boston. McIntyre gives us some interesting details. His mention of the Scottish reel "Caber Feidh," along with the reference by WJC, confirms the popularity of this tune (whose title means "The Deer's Antlers" in Gaelic), a popularity that persists undiminished today. McIntyre represents Boston by a downtown landmark (Copley Square), and the Island by the metaphor of a then thriving industry (the Black Fox Trail). Old Home Week was then held earlier in the summer. Two other contest ballads printed in the Guardian, while not as noteworthy as those reproduced here in full, do have interesting sections. "To the Fiddlers and Dancers (An Appreciation)," a supplementary statement by WJC, is notable mainly for its comparison of the successes of Cheverie and Weeks with those which other Islanders had achieved in "the Boston states" politicians Jacob Gould Schurman and Franklin K. Lane, and authors Basil King and Lucy Maud Montgomery. It ends nicely: And here's to wee Weeks of the twinkling toes, Far famed through the Island as everyone knows, Long life may you have and joints keep free, To dance to the tunes of Neil Cheverie. The other contest ballad printed on May 15 was "The Fiddlers Contest" by the unknown "F." of Bristol, Rhode Island. Judging by his boosterism, he was likely an expatriate Islander. After making a veiled reference to the "flivver-maker king" (Henry Ford), "F." Writes:
Now give us more Fiddlers Contests
On with the old time dance.
Down with Jazz and the Charleston
Its racket and knock-kneed prance.
A more generally memorable summary is "The Old-Time Fiddling Contest," the only contest ballad that I haven't found printed in the Guardian, and the only one that is completely anonymous, appearing without even an initial. A manuscript copy, formerly in the possession of Robert Weeks, was given to me by Abbie Weeks. As in the others, more details are provided about the contest in Charlottetown than about the ones in Boston. The fiddling MacDonald may have been one of the two mentioned by WJC or John W. MacDonald of Grand Tracadie. The only MacEachern entered was David MacEachern of Canoe Cove. William Harvey, Ellerslie, was a highly-regarded fiddler who took second in Charlottetown and later won the Prince County contest in Summerside. The statement that Weeks fiddled in the Boston contest is contradicted by several other reports, including that of P. N. McIntyre. The appreciative tone here is consistent with the other ballads.
Fiddling contests didn't end there, of course. The Publicity Association stayed on the bandwagon for a while, putting on the Prince County championship that April at the Capitol and Happyland theatres in Summerside, then producing another one at the Strand in July, at which Cheverie and Weeks were victorious. In the next several decades a number of big contests were held in the uninspiring atmosphere of the Charlottetown Forum, often in connection with the fall Potato Festival.
At present, contests are held each summer in Tyne Valley, Montague, and Summerside, but none of them is of such scope that it can legitimately claim the status of a provincial championship. It is long since the days when fiddling contests were an entertainment staple and a popular feature of community life year- round, and it is very doubtful that a contest will ever again capture public attention like the ones in 1926 when Neil Cheverie "played classy" against stiff competition, and Bob Weeks fiddled and "danced like the devil." For a lot of the people then present, "the music they played" was "hard to forget."
My thanks are due to a number of people for putting me on the trail. I first heard about a fiddlers'-contest poem from George McIntyre (of Souris, since moved to Charlottetown) in the early summer of 1978. A year later Joseph P. Chaisson, Bear River, mentioned and recited part of WJC's "Fiddlers' Contest." Their memories got me started. Pius Cheverie, Elmira, and Abbie Weeks, Highfield Heights, contributed recollections and pictures of their fathers; Abbie Weeks also gave me my copy of "The Old-Time Fiddling Contest." George Cheverie, Parkdale, gave me a copy of WJC's second ballad. All of them, along with too many others to list, were helpful and-informative.