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Buddy MacMaster

Way to Judique
Teviot Bridge
Stool of Repentance

Deep in the mountainous foothills around Colorado Springs is a town called Decker. Two hours from Denver, Decker goes by in a flash if youíre not careful; itís the casual intersection of two twisty two-lane highways. If you turn off the main highway across from the wide building that serves as Deckerís store, bar, and who knows what else, you bump up a wide dirt road that leads to the Shady Brook YMCA camp, site of the Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp, now in its third year and growing larger with each annual outing.

The RMFC was started by Mark Luther when he and his family couldnít get into Alasdair Fraserís popular Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling SchoolĖVOM has gotten so huge that they now run a lottery for entries into the camp, and many donít get to go. Luther looked at his disappointed children and decided that if Mohammed couldnít go to the mountain, heíd build his own mountain instead.

The camp is not just for fiddlers, but for all kinds of traditional musicians and dancers as well. With past lineups including James Kelly, Bruce Molsky, Catriona MacDonald, Seamus Connelly, Ken Perlman, Laurie Riley, Grey Larson, Paddy League, Iain Frasier, Doug Greenberg, Liz Carroll, Maureen Brennan, and many, many more, RMFC has been attracting some of the best names in traditional music to teach students from places like New Zealand, Europe, Canada, and all over the USA.

This year, one of those names was Buddy MacMaster.

For many around the world, the name MacMaster means Natalie MacMaster, the stunningly talented Cape Breton fiddler. But for Natalie MacMaster, along with those "who know," that name also means her uncle, Hugh Allen "Buddy" MacMaster. She credits Buddy MacMaster with being one of her earliest influences, and has said that sheíll sometimes listen to one of his recordings when she needs to play well and feels her playing wants rejuvenating.

MacMaster is the acknowledged Dean of Cape Breton music. Cape Breton guitarist Dave MacIsaac says that "heís got it all - tone, timing, phrasing, expression, dynamics, choice of tunes. Heís almost the perfect fiddler." Heís highly regarded as a master by most of the top names of the traditional Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton genres. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2000. Celtic Colours wrote that "Buddy is a revered figure in Cape Breton music. His humble bearing, selfless dedication to the tradition along with his brilliant and energetic playing are the trademarks of this legend."

Almost every written and spoken description of Buddy MacMaster includes the almost obligatory mention that he is quiet, unfailingly gracious, and a very modest person. This one isnít going to be much different.

Sitting at a table in the middle of the quiet Shady Brook camp, the occasional passing car, nearby conversations, and even a brisk breeze were enough to cause your ears to strain to hear his measured, thoughtful words. He carefully listened to every question and considered his answers. Discussing what subjects weíd cover, he smiled gently and said, "Iíll do the best I canóIím not too knowledgeable, but Iíll do my best."

Born on October 18, 1924 in Timmins, Ontario to John Duncan MacMaster and his wife Sarah MacDonald MacMaster, the family moved back to Cape Breton when MacMaster was five years old, settling in Judique. From an early age, he remembers both his grandmother and mother singing the tunes as they worked, as well as his fatherís playing.

"My motherís mother, she was great at jigging or liltingówhatever you want to call itóor mouth music we call it sometimes," MacMaster remembers in his own gentle lilt.

"She used to jig tunes for her kids, she enjoyed that, watching kids dancing. She was a very joyful person, she was very musical, though she didnít play any instrument. The music was in her, you know."

Of course, anyone growing up in Cape Breton, even today, will be surrounded by the music. Music in Cape Breton is part of everyday life. Itís there for dances, picnics, even the workday.

"Thereís a lot of talent in Cape Breton, more than in any other part of the world, I think," says MacMaster. "I think it has to be in the genes. Most of Cape Breton was settled by Scottish, the Highlands Scottish, who seem to be very musical people; they sang and danced. The music survived in Cape Breton as it arrived, more than in any part of in the world, even more so than in Scotland."

"Cape Breton is a lot like a miniature Scotland. A lot of high hilly areas, and the people are friendly," he continued. "Cape Breton is a rural area, farmers, fisherman. A lot of Cape Breton is industrial area. Thereís a steel mill there, coal mining. A lot of the country people, the rural people, moved into the industrial area for the work. These people are very much like the ones that stayed in the countryófriendly, you know. I think rural people are generally more friendly than in the citiesóthere you donít know whoís next door."

The early part of the century was a time of great change in Cape Breton, which had been settled partly by large numbers of Scottish emigrants fleeing from the Highland Clearances through 1850. Emigration to "the Boston states", which had begun before the turn of the century, was alarmingly common. The first commercial recordings of Cape Breton fiddle music were released and radios began to appear. The horse and wagon was being replaced by the automobile. The isolation of Cape Breton communities was ending, and would lead to the decline of regional styles in music and language.

Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton could once be identified by region through their accent, the lilt of their speaking. But now, "the Gaelic isnít spoken as much as when I was a boy. I have a Gaelic accent in speaking English, my mother spoke it, my father did but wasnít as comfortable in the speaking of it, you know," MacMaster says. "They didnít speak it at home. But around the community, at the stores, you know, youíd hear a lot of Gaelic."

"Itís considered old fashioned, to speak Gaelic. It may come back some, but the government doesnít support it too much. I think one or two schools do teach it, they brought in three or four girls from Scotland, from the islands, the Hebrides, you know. A couple of them got married and stayed. They teach a little Gaelic, Iím not sure how much."

The regional accent was also true of the musicians of the area. According to Paul MacDonald, Judique fiddlers played with Ďa sharp, robust tone and a rich brogue.í People could easily identify fiddlers and pipers from the more isolated communities of the Creignish Hills simply by their musical style.

The young MacMaster played his first dance in 1938 in Troy, Inverness County with Vincent MacMaster from Port Hastings (no relation) for the sum of $4.00. This covered his travelling expenses going by bus and returning by train, leaving him $3.00 profit. ("On the way home, I met Dan R. MacDonald and Kitchener MacDonald. Dan R. told me [regarding my pay], ĎYou did well!í")

The train was The Judique Flyer, a steam driven passenger train that had replaced the old stagecoach line. MacMasterís developing career followed the line of The Judique Flyer (indeed, he is sometimes nicknamed The Judique Flyer himself). He traveled up and down Nova Scotia playing for dances, weddings, and concerts.

MacMaster began working as a telegrapher and station agent for the Canadian National Railroad in 1943. His first station was at the Valley depot near Truro, and he often worked the late shift. When the tracks were clear for the day, the dispatcher and station agents would phone in a "good night" over the lines, and the dispatcher began asking MacMaster, who often had his fiddle with him, to play a tune. The other agents would listen in and soon agents as far away as Halifax and Moncton were asking to be patched into the nightly tunes.

He played often between trains. Waiting passengers would enjoy his playing, and fiddlers such as Dan R. MacDonald and Dan Hughie MacEachern would often visit and play with him in the CNR stations, which were acoustically wonderful places to play.

"I was 45 years with the railroad, a telegrapher and station agent," smiles MacMaster. "I was satisfied with the job I had. I used to play a lot."

The years passed, and MacMaster became well-known as one of the best of the Cape Breton players. He was in high demand for every occasion that Cape Bretoners wanted music for, which is basically all of them. (Itís still well known around Cape Breton that MacMaster will not turn down a request that he play at a wedding if he can possibly help it.)

But Cape Breton was quickly changing as the years of isolation ended. MacMaster talked about the influences now entering Cape Breton (and by extension, the music) through television and radio.

"We didnít have a particular influence from the outside world, I think thatís why the music survived so well, didnít change," he says thoughtfully. "Now thereís more musicians then ever, more dancers, singers, but a lot are influenced by the Irish, the Old Time Canadian, Cajun, whateveróeven rock and roll sounds, the young people like that. It would be too bad to lose the old sound."

"Some of the younger players, they like to have different sounds, a little bit of the sound that a rock and roll band would have, they donít realize that theyíre taking away from the music rather than improving on it," he says. "Thatís my feeling on it anyway."

"So they try to get all these different sounds to attract somebody, but theyíre getting away from it. After a while, thereíd be no Cape Breton style. I think what they prefer is the old music that they were brought up with. They do a lot of this other stuff for, well, how should I say it, for commercial reasons, and people throughout the US and Canada, well, they donít really know the difference, but itís nice to listen to."

"I would like to see the music remain close to the original."

The conversation turned to how someone not born and living in Cape Breton can learn to play the music authentically and well. MacMaster thinks that anyone who wasnít born in the Maritimes wanting to play Cape Breton music is going to have a tough time of it.

"There are some of the young players that lean towards the old stuff. Like David Greenberg whoís here [at RMFC], heís an American, young man, and itís amazing how he took to the Cape Breton music. Apparently thatís what he likes to play now more than anything else," MacMasters said. "Heís very authentic, he likes the old style. David listened to many old recordings. He listened to Mrs. McDonaldóher maiden name was Beaton, Mary, her name was, she married McDonaldóshe had kind of her own style, she must have acquired that from some of the old players."

"Thereís another player that he likes, Donald McClelland. Donaldíd be 83 now, and his father, he was considered one of the greatest Cape Breton players, they called him Big Ronald McClelland, they were big people. Donald, he plays a lot of this old way of playing." He paused for thought. "Itís hard to explain, just when you hear it, you can recognize that itís not a modern way to play."

MacMaster shakes his head slightly. "David Greenberg is an exception."

David Greenberg has gained the reputation over the last decade in Cape Breton music circles as being one of the few people from outside Nova Scotia to have achieved a fluent command of the Cape Breton idiom. After finding out why I was at RMFC, at least five of the campers told me that, after talking to Mr. MacMaster, I simply had to talk to Greenberg. One student finally told me why.

"When David is in the tent assisting Buddy," she explained, "Buddy will play something for us, and weíll be stumped. David will explain what heís doing, heís doing this, heíll say, and Buddy will look at his fingers and say, I am? I guess I am! He can play it, wow, can he play it, but he canít always explain it because itís so much a part of him, like breathing."

After Iíd trotted up through the trees to where Greenberg was teaching, he explained how heíd gained his hard-won skills. "Basically, itís an attitude thing and you have to be a certain personality type," Greenberg said thoughtfully, as he packed up from his class. "Completely obsessive. If youíre coming at it from age 30 from Mississippi or where ever, youíve missed thirty of the most important years, especially that first ten, not listening and being immersed, in a natural way, to this music. So itís not part of your first language."

"Somebody like Buddy MacMaster," explained Greenberg, "part of his upbringing was the music as well as how to learn to speak and walk and talk. Itís part of how he breathes and walks and relates to people."

"You canít just say, ĎIím going to listen to recordings and Iím going to figure out how theyíre doing the rhythms.í First you have to say, ĎIím at a huge disadvantage here because Iím learning something like Sanskritíóyou just canít say this is all fiddle tunes and itís all basically the same. Youíre never going to get it that way, thatís why I say you have to be obsessive about it."

"You have to be so focused on the person you want to learn from, you have to try to be that person in a much more unnatural way than having grown up there. Thatís why most people do believe you have to have it in the blood and be brought up thereóbecause thatís the only natural way of doing it."

MacMaster now plays whenever possible, having retired from the CNR in 1988. He still plays his regular "circuit" of dances around Cape Breton. They call him the Ambassador of Cape Breton music. Heís traveled all over the world, playing to appreciative audiences everywhere, always returning home to Cape Breton and his wife Marie (nee Beaton). The people of Cape Breton feel that MacMaster represents the island and his music with pride of family, place and culture.

A question to MacMaster if thereís anything heíd still like to do in his life gets a surprised laugh. "Iím an old man now, Iím 77. What do I want to do," he says, still laughing, "I donít feel like doing too much!"

Chuckling a little, he goes on, "I suppose Iíd want to play as long as I can, I donít have to work at making a living. My daughter [Mary Elizabeth] is 29, same age as Natalie, theyíre first cousins, thereís just a week between them, same grade in school, they were pals in school, she plays a little piano, more fiddle now. I feel Iíve passed the music on to her. Some to Natalie too, she heard me play a lot, more than anyone. She has talent, sheís went off to do her own thing, her own style of playing now."

MacMaster teaches often, remembering the kindness and encouragement of the players who taught him, and passing it on in his own turn. His students at RMFC speak of his kindness and amazing playing, his patience and his virtuosity.

In an RMFC open tent, I watched MacMaster play a tune through for the students, and then he started them playing with him. After one, another, and then another student faltered to a stop, he stopped them all and gently said, "letís play that again more slowly. Some of you are beginners, and youíll find you need to play more slowly at first," and he began the tune again, at a much slower tempo.

His students, and many people around the world, claim that thereís absolutely no one out there like him.

I had asked Greenberg what made Buddy MacMaster so special in an area of the world known for excellent musicians, crunching down the steep gravel path from his last class.

"Thereís just nobody who can put more feeling into so many notes in a tune," Greenberg replied. "Something thatís always made me feel in awe of Buddy is that no matter how tired he is or how many miles heís traveled, you can feel the juices flowing and the feeling streaming from every note that he plays."

We crested a small rise and heard the music of a solitary fiddle floating up from the tent where MacMaster was teaching. Greenberg interrupted himself, stopping short, and lifted a finger. "Thatís him there," he said. "Just listen to that, youíll see what I mean, thereís never a waver, solid beautiful timing, never rushed, every noteÖ"

Looking down the hill across to the brook, the sun just beginning to set over the mountains, we stood silently and listened to the pure, timeless sound of MacMasterís fiddle rising to meet us through the trees. There was something almost eternal about the sound, or perhaps I was just wishing that it could be.

It reminded me of MacMasterís final words as we finished up: "I think the music will be here for a while. I think itís good for another hundred years. I think so."

Visit Buddy MacMaster's website Visit The Nova Scotia Kitchen Party website—with all the great socializing and music of a Nova Scotia party coming from your radio!

© 2001, Zina Lee