A review of the Cape Breton Musical Heritage Series

by Tom Knapp at Rambles (spring 2000)

I'm always on the lookout for new fiddle tunes. My shelves bulge with various collections, but finding new music to play can sometimes be frustrating -- chances are good that any volumes you find will be packed with traditional tunes you already know, tunes available in any number of other sources. If you're lucky, you'll find one or two gems to expand your repertoire.

I found a veritable treasure trove when Paul Cranford, a lighthouse keeper from Nova Scotia, sent me a packet of three tunebooks from his Cape Breton Musical Heritage Series: Jerry Holland's Collection of Fiddle Tunes, Brenda Stubbert's Collection of Fiddle Tunes and The Lighthouse Collection of Newly Composed Fiddle Tunes. As one might expect, Holland's book is dominated by tunes written by Holland, Stubbert's is filled with her own music, and The Lighthouse Collection is mostly of Cranford's own composition. Each also has a sprinkling of traditionals as well as tunes by other composers.

Each is also overflowing with gems. Cape Breton is the scene for a lot of the world's best fiddling, and yet the music publishing industry continues to churn out mostly Scottish and Irish charts. Cranford's Cape Breton series helps to rectify that gap.

Sheet music doesn't make for good casual reading, and yet one evening I found myself paging through these books and scanning the charts. My fiddle was unfortunately not at hand, but I thought I'd get a general idea of the music within. Soon, I realized my left hand had curled around an imaginary fingerboard and was running through the tunes -- which I could almost hear in my head. I couldn't wait to try them out and it wasn't long after I had a fiddle in my hands that I started arranging sets.

Most of these tunes I'd never heard before, but some quickly became favorites to play. I shared them with John, the other half of my Irish duo Fire in the Glen, and he also was delighted by the variety. The first to be added to our performance list was a Cranford set: "Fionnuala's Fancy," "The Five Dollar Fiddle," "The Jovial Journalist" and "The Puffins Return." More sets -- from all three composers -- are sure to follow.

There is certainly plenty to choose from. Cranford provides 294 tunes in The Lighthouse Collection; Holland shares 282 and Stubbert, 131. The books are thin enough that they're easy to prop open on a music stand without damaging the binding. The arrangement is clever -- tunes are sorted by music style (jig, reel, etc.) first, and then organized by key. The notation is large and easy to follow, and some tunes include brief paragraphs explaining their origins.

The only real failing here is the lack of chords for accompaniment (note: The fifth volume Jerry Holland: The Second Collection, includes chords). When John and I first jammed on these tunes, we had to delay the experience while he devised a guitar part. (Fortunately, it didn't take long!)

Anyone looking for new fiddle tunes in the Celtic tradition should check out this series of books. They're a welcome addition to my collection of music resources -- Cranford should be congratulated for taking the initiative to bring this music to light.


Tom Knapp writes for Rambles (an on-line, Cultural magazine)

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