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By Michael Henningsen

Various Artists The Fiddlers of Eastern Prince Edward Island/Various Artists The Fiddlers of Western Prince Edward Island (Rounder)

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  Although these two volumes are available and sold as separate collections, it's important to listen to each within the context of and juxtaposition against the other. Prince Edward Island is Canada's smallest province, occupying just 2,000 square miles off the Atlantic coast between the neighboring provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. But for such a small island, the eastern and western portions couldn't be more different when it comes to the old-time fiddling that has been a major pastime and cultural document--keeping alive the spirit and heritage of the Acadian-French, Scottish and Irish immigrants who originally settled on Prince Edward Island--for the province's population of about 130,000.

These Rounder recordings are a spectacularly successful attempt at presenting island fiddling as it has been performed on Prince Edward since the early-18th century with the arrival of the first Acadian-French settlers. By the late-18th century, Scottish immigrants had arrived on the eastern part of the island, melding their own music, which was greatly influenced by the Highland and Uilean pipes of their homeland, with the unique rhythmic pulse of Acadian-French folk tunes. And what is now referred to as "old-time" fiddling was born. Several generations later, Irish immigrants began to occupy the western potion of the island, allowing the Acadian-French rhythmic influence to become central to their traditional reels, stomps and jigs. It is this--the fiddling style of western Prince Edward Island--that most closely resembles the fiddling found in America, in communities nestled quietly in the Ozarks, Appalachians and in the deep South. For just as Irish settlers looked west toward Canada, so, too, did they immigrate to the United States, bringing their music with them.

Both the eastern and western variations share several distinctive qualities, not the least of which is the driving rhythmic style and predominance of uplifting, twirling melodies. Old-time fiddling was, after all, central to social interaction and gatherings on both sides of Prince Edward Island. Life on the island was rural until the early 1950s and residents, often without the benefits of electricity, running water and other North American amenities, relied upon family and community traditions to hold them together. Island fiddlers, for instance, were vital to the success of any wedding, holiday, festival and other community events. Fiddlers were often employed for fundraising duties as well, giving dances and providing music for the smaller, more private house parties.

The major difference between the two volumes of wonderful fiddle music on this set of recordings is that the Scottish-influenced The Fiddlers of Eastern Prince Edward Island is slightly more subtle, thriving on the vibrance and mystery of traditional Scottish pipe music, while the western-concentrated volume reveals the gaiety and joyousness of the instrument and of the folk communities to whom it was a vital source of entertainment and an important historical testament. It's quite surprising, really, in listening to both volumes consecutively, that there are such noticeable stylistic differences. In some instances, the crossover between eastern and western styles is fairly obvious. But, for the most part, the music that makes up each volume of this stunning collection sounds as though it comes from lands thousands, rather than hundreds, of miles apart. And because old-time fiddling is quickly becoming a lost art--the median age of most old-time players on Prince Edward Island is now about 70--this collection of 60 tunes contains music that may well never be heard quite this way again. The fiddling tradition is one passed like folklore, from the old to the young, from the voice to the ear. With few exceptions, the fiddle music of Prince Edward Island is unwritten and, therefore, changing slightly down through the generations. These recordings preserve some of the very old while documenting some of the new: an admirable feat and one that is truly a pleasure to listen to. !!!!!

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