The Cape Breton Piano Style
by Paul M. MacDonald

Not much is known about the accompaniment of traditional Scottish music during the 'Golden Era' of Scottish Fiddle Music (1740-1800). We do know that many early collections reveal simple bass lines arranged for harpsichord or cello.

When fiddle music first came to Cape Breton, it remained unaccompanied until the late 19th century, when the pump organ was introduced. By the time of the arrival of upright pianos at the turn of the century, a Cape Breton style of accompaniment had already been developed, with a lift and syncopation that still echos in today's piano sound. Today, we enjoy a wide variety of personal and regional styles. For more history on piano accompaniment, refer to Tracey Dares' instructional video A' Chording To The Tunes, which includes an introduction on Cape Breton piano style, historic sound clips and performances by Tracey, with fiddler Carl MacKenzie and piper Paul MacNeil. Also included in this issue of The Silver Apple News are four new CDs released this year, presenting classic piano styles from four of our great piano players: Mary Jessie MacDonald, Gordon MacLean, Maybelle Chisholm and Doug MacPhee.

Dave MacIsaac's album, From The Archives, features pianist Mary Jessie MacDonald. Mary Jessie grew up in New Waterford where she began accompanying her mother Mary (Alasdair Raonuill) MacDonald on the pump organ. She chorded to all the players that visited her home, including both Winston Fitzgerald and Angus Chisholm. After she moved to Boston as a young woman, Mary Jessie became a regular accompanist for Bill Lamey and many of the great players of our own 'Golden Era' of fiddle music. Trademarks of her unique style include rich chromatic bass lines played with subtle syncopation, while alternating between playing melody and chords on the right hand. Together with her control of dynamics, Mary Jessie accompanies a fiddler in a style that I could only describe as eloquent. She can also be heard on Natalie MacMaster's album, My Roots Are Showing, and look next year for the release of a new Bill Lamey album on the Rounder Label, featuring recordings of Bill and Mary Jessie from 1956.

Brenda Stubbert's new album, Some Tasty Tunes, features Maybelle Chisholm on piano. Maybelle grew up playing accompaniment for her uncles Angus and Archie Neil Chisholm, and her brother Cameron. There are many classic home tapes of Maybelle playing, both as an accompanist and a soloist. Her first commercial recordings were made in the '50s with Angus, on some of his later 78s. In 1974, she recorded an album with Johnny Wilmot and in the late '80s, one with Howie MacDonald. Maybelle's style is highly syncopated, marked by dynamic walking bass lines, broken chords and melodic fragments, with exciting glissandos and stepdancing rhythms on the right hand. Her timing is highly suited to dance music and in recent years she has played frequently with Brenda, Howie and with Ashley MacIsaac. The melody line to one of Maybelle's popular strathspeys is included below.

On her new Rounder CD, fiddler Theresa Morrison is accompanied by Gordon MacLean. Gordon grew up at the Gillis Point lighthouse, where the pump organ was also his first instrument. A rich musical region, the Washabuck &endash; Iona area provided Gordon with plenty of fiddlers to accompany, including John Y. Gillis, Michael Anthony MacLean (Theresa's brother), and his uncles the 'Bridge' MacKenzies (Charlie, Simon, Hector and Carl MacKenzie). Gordon is a wonderful accompanist for old style Gaelic fiddle music. He provides a gentle lift, supported by traditional root&endash;five movement in the left hand. There is also a very subtle syncopation in his sound and he breaks up his left hand chording with stress notes of the melody. He can also be heard on other recordings in this catalogue, including harmonica player Tommy Basker's Tin Sandwich, Alex Francis MacKay's A Lifelong Home and Paul Cranford's The Lighthouse. Gordon's popular composition, The Mortgage Burn is included on the facing page.

John Campbell's new CD Timeless features pianist Doug MacPhee. Dougie grew up in New Waterford where he first learned from his mother Margaret. Their home has always been a magnet for great music sessions. In his formative years, Doug got to play with older traditional players such as Duncan MacQuarrie, John Archie MacIsaac and Mary MacDonald. Fluent in both Scottish and Irish Cape Breton styles, he has enjoyed a long recording career including albums with fiddlers Johnny Wilmot, Dan Joe MacInnis, Carl MacKenzie (five albums), John Campbell (four albums), Sandy MacIntyre and Dwayne Coté. He is also on several anthologies and in addition, has four solo albums to his credit. His piano style is rooted in that of his mother, featuring traditional left hand movement, with rich block chords and melodic fragments. He took it further by incorporating complex harmonies, walking bass lines and stunning breaks of melody playing. Doug continues to be one of the most sought after accompanists and soloists in Cape Breton music. Next year he plans a new solo album and will be featured on a CD by fiddler David Greenberg. 

Paul MacDonald is a guitar and piano accompanist.

Specializing in digital recording, editing and restoration,
he has produced many of the albums we carry.

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last upddate 11/14/99