FolkWorld article by Michael Moll: (first published July, 1999)

Music Traditions in Cape Breton

John Allan Cameron - "Godfather of Celtic Music in Cape Breton"

John Allan Cameron; photo by The Mollis Cape Breton Music has become during the last couple of years hugely popular. One of the people responsible for the revival of Celtic Music in Cape Breton is John Allan Cameron, often referred to as the Godfather of Celtic Music in Cape Breton, and a person who will become, without doubt, a legend of the Celtic scene. John Allan is a great source for the history of the Cape Breton revival, and talking with him about Cape Breton traditions is like having a personal Cape Breton chronicle in front of you . . .

His music, says John Allan Cameron, certainly has its Gaelic roots, and it is his interpretation of his forefather's music who came from Scotland. It is rooted in the Ceilidh tradition. He was one of the first - certainly the first in Canada - to start forming pipe tunes and fiddle tunes on the guitar, having done this long before the likes of Dick Gaughan and Tony McManus. John Allan has toured with his music for over 30 years now, and, amazingly enough, his performance has still an absolutely fresh, young and even wild approach.

Let's start with the differences between Cape Breton music and today's Scottish music. "There are certainly differences in the fiddling. Cape Breton fiddling certainly has its roots in Scotland, but I think we have borrowed a little bit from the Irish way of fiddling; it's a bit of a blend. Now Buddy MacMaster has already been over teaching the Cape Breton style to the people in Scotland, because Scottish music took on I think a sort of a classical paint to it, from the days of James Scott Skinner. There is more flow in the Cape Breton style. But we certainly borrow from the Scottish people and their culture.”

John Allan Cameron & Margaret Bennet; photo by The Mollis John Allan has a traditional music family background. His mother played the fiddle, and she taught her seven children. "Virtually everybody in the family has the music in them. It is a musical family. You are a product from your environment. If you come from a musical family it's in your blood. I was the only one who made the decision to make a life for my playing.”

Maybe most famous and most original of his relatives was his uncle, Dan Rory MacDonald. Dan R was probably the most prolific writer of Cape Breton fiddle tunes in the world. He has written about 3000 compositions being played today all over the Celtic world, from Canada and the United States over Brittany to Ireland and Scotland - tunes like 'Trip to Windsor' or 'Heather Hill'. John Allan narrates of 'Heather Hill'. "'Heather Hill' was written about 1940, during World War II. My Uncle Dan R was working as lumberjack up on the hills somewhere in Scotland. They were helping to build bridges and all that stuff. Tunes were always ripping through his head, and one day he was just sawing a tree down and he started jigging this tune, he sawed the tree down, and then he took a pencil out and he wrote some notes down on the stem of this tree, so he wouldn't forget it. The next day he came with his saw and his axe, he went back to the same stem, and he brought his fiddle and played it. He didn't have a title for it, so he looked around and there was a big field of heather, and he called it 'Heather Hill'. It became popularly known in Canada and Cape Breton as 'Heather on the Hill'. Many fiddlers play it.”

Dan R was always a single man and he would sometimes go from place to place and stay with people for a few weeks. As gift for his hosts he would write tunes for them. "He would be at the kitchen table composing tunes, and he wrote many tunes for the people he stayed with.” One of the things that John Allan most respected about his uncle was that he wanted to share his music with other fiddlers, that he never wanted to make any money from his music and encouraged young performers coming up.

Dan R was one of the most important figures in the Cape Breton folk music history. John Allan recalls, "In the early Seventies in Cape Breton there was a documentary called 'The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler'. There was a very important part of that documentary at the very end of it featuring Dan R. And I think it was really the initial wake up call for the people of Cape Breton to respect the tradition: Hey, don't lose this stuff, it is valuable, it's part of our culture. It showed a picture of John Morris Rankin who was just 13 or 14 years old and Dan R walking down the little road, the camera catches the two of them, and Dan R's hand is on his shoulder. I think it was very powerful because this hand is saying you are passing the torch and you say keep going."

John Allan Cameron; photo by The Mollis At the time of this documentary, a lot of the people in Cape Breton were not that much after their culture. "They were almost losing the edge for loving the stuff, because they didn't want to play it outside. I was one of the guys who said listen you can play this stuff anywhere, anywhere in the world.” During the life of John Allan, a lot has already happened to Cape Breton Music and Gaelic Culture.

"My father and my mother spoke Gaelic in the house all the time when I was a kid. Gaelic was my mother's first language; my mother couldn't speak English until she was six years old, until she went to school. There was a bit of suppression of the Gaelic language in the Cape Breton society. I think one of the reasons that it died out is because kids are cruel to kids, and Gaelic speaking kids, when they started speaking Gaelic they were made fun of. And as they grow up they would say I am not going to let my children go through what I went through, the teasing and all of that stuff. So Gaelic was suppressed.” John Allan had respect for the Gaelic culture; he had learned to respect the cultures of others, and also the traditions of his parents.

"When I was going to university in Nova Scotia, I would get up on stage and play my bagpipe music on the guitar. There were some of the kids from Cape Breton who were ashamed of it, because they said that's not Led Zeppellin, that's not the Beatles, it's just Cape Breton stuff. It didn't bother me at all, because I know that the essence of the music is good, and I totally respected my culture.”

During his life John Allan tried to stay true to his musical heritage. He moved full time into the music business, presenting his culture, wearing a kilt, playing his Celtic tunes, telling stories and jokes, entertaining people. "I did it with pride. Some people loved to see me as a gimmick. And they would say that.”

"One of things that changes everything is if the kids start to like it and it's cool to do it. Then it's fine.” And this is what happened to Cape Breton Music during the last few years. Ashley MacIsaac with his grunge Celtic bribed a whole new scene to listen to Celtic music. A lot of them would like the grunge, but occasionally seeped in would be Ashley playing an authentic reel, from his Scottish ancestors, presented to an audience of our day's kids who hear it for the very first time.

John Allan Cameron Band in Session with Slainte Mhath; photo by The Mollis Also, what John Allan likes to see happen is that older established performers pay attention of the young kids who are giving the same roots of music a new treatment. "That's important. That brings it to a whole generation of young people, they have to interpret it, as long as they keep to the truth of the essence and the soul of the music.”

"We are all interlinked. I am a small portion in a link of a chain that pulls along, tries to help the culture along to be accepted by new people. It's younger people that attract other younger people, and when they quit listening to John Allan Cameron they listen to Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster, blablabla, and that's fine, but we all still can learn from each other. And that's part of what happens.” Traditional music in Cape Breton today is very much alive, and very much respected. Square Dances are hugely popular, and the traditional get-togethers of young and old at Ceilidhs also get stronger and stronger again.

The Gaelic language still has to struggle. "A friend of mine from Scotland, Rosemary Hutchinson, had a Gaelic programme in Cape Breton on the CBC, it was on for 15 minutes or half an hour, once per week. And CBC Radio who are sponsored by the federal government - the mandate came down, it was cancelled, because it wasn't the second official language of Canada. Now when people ask me if I am bilingual I say yes because I speak a little bit of the Gaelic. I respect the French, but I don't think it's fair to yank a Gaelic programme. Because there are a lot of Gaelic speaking people there who like that type of a programme. A lot of people listen to it. And children could listen to it and say that's interesting - I mean it would certainly be good to teach how to speak a little Gaelic.”

John Allan Cameron; photo by The Mollis John Allan's next planned project is close to his heart, being in his opinion important for the future of traditional Celtic music. During the next three or four years, he hopes to compile a video library of the history of Celtic Music, and the history of the Celtic people, which would include people from Cape Breton, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, England, Brittany, "Wherever else that process would take you. And it would be a solid work which has to be done - a documentary with the truth. I think it would be important not only for the Celtic community but also for the world just to see it. And I would hope that BBC would play it, and CBC in Canada, ANE in the United States. In Australia, in New Zealand, wherever.” And for the "whereever” there are still enough possibilities; John Allan: "Incidentally, one time, I was in a plane with a guy who just came from somewhere at the Persian Golf. And he told me, he was just lying back in the bed and put on the TV, and on the TV was one of my own shows, one of the John Allan Cameron Shows - they probably brought a whole bunch of shows back, but they had no idea what was going on,. But it was a foreign show. That guy said he watched it, he had a lot of joy, being in the middle of the Persian Gulf watching this thing.”

With all those changes in the world of Cape Breton Music that John Allan watched during his life, what kind of an outlook would Cape Breton's "Godfather of Celtic Music” give for the next 20 years of Celtic music in Cape Breton? - "God knows what's gonna happen. I think the music and the culture is too strong to go into extinction, it is too strong. It's been around for thousands of years, and I think 20 years time is just a short time. I think there will be younger people who will find a new expression and take it to another level. It will be to satisfy the people of that particular time, in 20 years or 50 years or 100 years. But still, if I get this documentary done, a lot of these people can look at the roots and the essence of what it was in the year 2000. And that is important for the Celtic countries.”

Photo Credit: All photos by The Mollis: (2) John Allan Cameron with Margret Bennett; (4) John Allan Cameron Band in session with Slainte Mhath

© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 7/99

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