Revisiting the Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, many people from all over the world have come to learn about and appreciate the traditional music of Cape Breton Island.

Visitors from over twenty-five countries, including most American States and all Canadian Provinces and Territories, travel to Cape Breton every fall to experience the Celtic Colours International Festival.

Some of these visitors can be forgiven for thinking this cultural vibrancy and deep reservoir of talent always existed in Cape Breton. How could it be otherwise? This is a place where the fiddlers, like Elvis Presley, are widely known by their first name; Buddy, Winston, Natalie & Ashley.

This is also a place where it is not unusual for musical siblings to travel around the world together performing Cape Breton traditional music; the Rankins, the Barra MacNeils.

However, if one was to do a little exploration online,  they would find evidence of a television documentary from 1972 titled, the Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler. What the heck was that about?  Why would there be a film with that title regarding this culturally rich environment?

Let’s go back in time in Cape Breton where the 60s happened in the 70s. This was a time of change, even in remote areas like Cape Breton. Radio, television and music recordings were introducing American & British popular culture and the younger generation embraced it.

It was in this context that the CBC produced the Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler.  The premise of the film, as the title suggests, was that younger people were no longer playing traditional fiddle music and that this would inevitably lead to the decline & death of the tradition.

Well, if you get Cape Bretoners’ backs up there will surely be action to follow. In this case, the call went out to gather 100 fiddlers to perform in a public setting. “We’ll show those CBC people,” seemed to be the general sentiment of the day as expressed by a small core of dedicated volunteer supporters.

Never tell a Cape Breton that he or she can’t do something. A few months after the broadcast of the film, over 100 fiddlers and several thousand audience members gathered for the first of many Glendale concerts in 1973. What followed over the next several decades was a general resurgence in traditional Cape Breton music.

Who knows where we would be today without that film? I’m sure that writer/host Ron MacInnis never imagined the wheels this television program would put in motion.

But can we assume that traditional Cape Breton music continues to thrive? I believe so but perhaps it’s time for Ron to have another look. Who knows what he might find?


Written for by Max MacDonald

Revisiting the Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler

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