Challenges encountered putting together a book of Canadian Fiddle tunes – Iain Fraser


In 2014 I was invited by the Music Publisher, Schott Music to produce a book and CD of Canadian fiddle tunes as part of their world music series. One major caveat was that the tunes should no longer be in copyright. It was quite a challenge, no less because I hadn’t fully realised how many hundreds of fantastic Canadian tunes were still protected and therefore not available for the collection. Secondly, although I’m aware Canada is a huge country, I hadn’t fully grasped just how varied the styles and the influences – from European source material through to local dance traditions were. From Newfoundland to British Columbia and from down East to The Northern Territories I needed to find sixty traditional tunes that would attempt to represent the National fiddling tradition. The next challenge was to record all the tunes for the accompanying CD while displaying at least some indicators of the styles represented. Not possible but I tried anyway!

The methodology I devised was to first find tunes that were composed or made up in Canada, with archive recordings or printed versions available. Secondly search for tunes that had become known as Canadian Fiddle tunes even if their origin were elsewhere. For both these possibilities I researched eight cultural traditions or regional styles and then finally set the tunes in order according to what seemed like a natural flow from East to West across the country.

Searching for suitable tunes involved looking on line on YouTube, visiting “The Virtual Gramophone” ( and other online archives, my own field and commercial recordings of players and browsing through collections in music stores in Toronto and Vancouver. Here’s a sample pile of some of the books now in my collection!


I had previously compiled a book of Scottish Fiddle tunes for the same publisher and naively thought that doing something similar would be straight forward. This wasn’t going to be an academic publication – just a book of 60 fiddle tunes from Canada that had been written in the early 20th century or before. How wrong could I be!

I had huge difficulty finding tunes that could be said unequivocally to have been composed in Canada but it was much easier to find tunes that had been taken there, changed, amended, adapted and otherwise made relevant for the people the places and dances in each province.  In the final collection, just under half of the tunes are native and the rest have roots that can be traced back to the British Isles and eastern Europe and a few from the USA. Some versions of the tunes are written out as they were played at the turn of the 20th Century and not as they are played now.

In the end, it’s not so much where they are from but how they are played that is of interest and I do have plans, as a separate project, to offer an online resource linked to performances, sources and alternative versions of the tunes. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some examples of tunes that made it into the collection and some thoughts about and links to the sources used.


Home-grown Canadian

1/Newfoundland/Sam’s Jig

In the 1980’s Rufus Guinchard and Kelly Russell came over to London for a festival and we ended up one Sunday morning playing tunes in a session in an Irish Pub in North London. I was captivated by this man, his playing and his stories and I have a copy of Kelly’s book “Rufus Guinchard – The man and his Music”.  Looking online I found this video of Rufus on the Tommy Hunter Show when he received the Order of Canada aged 89.

The first tune in the video is known as Sam’s Jig and is attributed to Sam Sinnicks from River of Ponds.


Scottish Roots

2/Cape Breton/The Old-Time Wedding Reels

 I first heard this signature Cape Breton Fiddle set played by Buddy MacMaster. I met Buddy at my brother Alasdair’s Valley of the Moon fiddle camp in California and on a couple of occasions I invited him over to Scotland to perform and teach. I was intrigued by these tunes since I had not ever heard them in Scotland although they are probably related to tunes which appear in the Skye Collection. For the purposes of the book I used a classic recording by A.A. Gillis & Dan J. Campbell as my reference performance. Here is that recording…

It was made in the 1930’s and released by the Celtic Music Company Ltd. Antigonish, N.S. Although these tunes have their roots in Scotland, they are unmistakably Cape Breton in style.


Polish Roots

3/Old Time/The Clarinet Polka

The only time I met Graham Townsend was on the boat from Aberdeen up to Shetland where he and piano player Bobby Brown (originally from Dundee but based in Ontario) were appearing at the Shetland Folk Festival. We played tunes all night as is the custom on that route.

Perhaps it’s no surprise to anyone but me to find that the Clarinet Polka which I had heard Graham play many times is just that! A polka for clarinet by polish composer Karol Namyslowski (1856-1925). Here’s a performance of the original.

…and here is Graham Townsend playing (Clarinet Polka starts at 2mins 20sec)…

it is regarded as a standard fiddle tune in competitions. Graham name checked Frankie Yankovic in the video who was known as America’s Polka King and who’s family was originally from Slovenia.


U.S.A. import

4/Quebec/Reel de Pointe-au-Pic

I knew about Jean Carrignan from an old Folkways album we had. Here he is playing the popular French Canadian Reel de Point-au-Pic.

The tune was possibly first recorded as a fiddle tune in Montreal by Joseph Bouchard in the 1930’s but when you dig further back you find that the melody was actually composed in 1907 by Lawrence B. O’Connor under the title “Four Little Blackberries”.

Here’s an archive recording from the American Library of Congress, played on banjo by Vess L. Ossman in 1910.


Finally, back to Homegrown Canadian

5/Western Music/Cabri Waltz

This Waltz was named after a small town in Saskatchewan. Western fiddle player Joe Pancerzewski heard it played in 1913 by Bill Smith. Smith was a Saskatchewan cattleman and rancher who was also as a popular dance fiddler. Here is the tune as played by Pancerzewski…

access musical notation here

… and to put my neck on the line, here is my recording of the tune…

I struggled at times between digging in to the detail whether pondering how complete the transcriptions should be, questioning sources and origin of tunes, or, providing easily playable melodies which could be accessed by players who may know nothing of Canadian fiddle music. I suspect that what emerged in the end was a bit of both – a general introduction and play through book with occasional dips into ethnomusicology!

Comments and questions and general feedback welcome.

Iain Fraser-25.jpg

Iain Fraser is a Scottish performer and teacher. He’s fascinated by the fiddle’s rhythmic and emotional capabilities and draws upon the extensive repertoire of traditional music ranging from 18th Century Scottish tunes to new self-penned compositions and from the multiple regional music styles of the British Isles to those of North America and Europe. His teaching includes group workshops, helping people young and old pursue their musical dreams as well as making music a fun social experience available to all.  Between 1990-1995 he took on and developed the Glasgow Fiddle Workshop from a small group meeting in his house to a broad range of classes operating in central Glasgow. He’s been actively involved and supportive of the Feisean movement for almost 30 years – primarily with Feis Rois. He was principal fiddle teacher in the Scottish Music Department of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland between 1995-2005 before being appointed Head of Instrumental Music for the Scottish Borders Education Authority until 2011. He is now freelance as well as being Music Director at the Merlin Academy of Traditional Music in Melrose, Scotland.  He released “Touchwood” in 2002, he wrote ‘Scottish Fiddle Tunes – 60 Traditional Pieces for Violin” for the Schott World Music Series in 2006 and “Canadian Fiddle Tunes – 60 Traditional Pieces” by the same publisher was released in 2015.  He won the Chorus Community “Passing it on – Educator’s” award in June 2017.

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One thought on “Challenges encountered putting together a book of Canadian Fiddle tunes – Iain Fraser

  1. I am from Michigan and have been somewhat familiar with Ontario fiddling for 45 years. One thing impossible to notice is that Don Messer first, then many other radio and contest fiddlers wrote and popularized tunes to the point that it is a bit difficult to determine what was the common Ontario (or, let’s say, Anglo-Canadian) fiddling repertoire from 1930 or earlier. There is definitely a strong overlap of that with Michigan fiddling, especially in the regions settled mainly by Canadians. Recently I have been digitizing and cataloging a large collections of fiddling from Michigan’s Thumb, made mostly in the ’50s. There was a lot of Don Messer influence there, but there was still much pre-Messer styler too, and it linked pretty well with central/western Michigan fiddling. One of the problems you must have faced was just finding that pre-Messer (and pre-copyright) repertoire.


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