It’s Transition Time for Cape Bretoners

Music & Dance Scene Not Like It Was, But It’s Still There if You Want It
By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
It’s a cool, early spring Saturday night at Watertown’s Canadian-American Club, and the sounds of a fiddle and piano casually tearing through a set of Cape Breton reels reverberates through the sparsely populated ballroom. Small clusters of people sit on the edges of the dance floor, chatting as the music continues — a cavalcade of marches, jigs, strathspeys, and the occasional air.
At length, couples take the floor, and after a bit of organizing, a dance begins: an enduring Cape Breton favorite, the Mabou Set. For most, the figures are quite familiar – swing your partner, promenade, and eventually, join hands and step in place for several measures. After about an hour, the couples are done dancing, and opt to relax for a little while before starting home.
All in all, a pleasant night out for those who came, but at the same time it underscores some ongoing trends that have been evident to long-time local Cape Breton music and dance aficionados: the low turn-out, for instance, and the fact that it’s non-Cape Bretoners who seem to make up more of the attendance at these monthly dances.
Clearly, Greater Boston’s Cape Breton community is undergoing a transition, with the graying of the generation that played such a major role during the 1950s and 1960s in establishing this area as a legendary outpost for music and dance of the Canadian Maritimes. Subsequent generations of Cape Bretoners have simply not come down to the so-called “Boston states” on the same scale, according to the elders; what’s more, they add, the overall commitment to traditional music and dance hasn’t been as strong as in past generations.
There’s an irony here: Arguably, Cape Breton music has never been as popular as it is now, thanks to internationally known performers like Natalie MacMaster, The Rankin Family, The Barra MacNeils, Mary Jane Lamond, Ashley MacIsaac – not to leave out the late Jerry Holland, who (as folks around here are quick to note) was a Brockton native. Boston has plenty of its own Cape Breton talent, such as Joe Cormier, Kimberley Fraser and Doug Lamey, to name just a few.
Now, there is a growing realization within the local Cape Breton community (including both ex-pats and their offspring, as well as others with different, personal attachments to the island) that this proliferation of interest in their homeland’s music is a potential boon, and that greater effort should be made to reach out to the non-Cape Bretoners in Boston and involve them in their dances and other events. Doing so in this day and age, of course, involves going beyond the usual word-of-mouth or other familiar methods of communication; recently, for instance, the Canadian-American Club was given its own Facebook page.
It’s not as if the local Cape Breton community has been a solitary enclave. There has been, for example, plenty of collaboration and friendship over the years between the Boston Irish and Cape Bretoners like Holland, or Bill Lamey, renowned not only for his fiddling but also for the dances he organized in the ‘50s and ‘60s, notably at the Orange Hall in Brookline. In fact, Boston’s Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann branch uses the Canadian-American Club for its monthly ceilidh and social event.
“We love seeing new faces come to the dances,” says Peggy Morrison, president of the Canadian-American Club and a pianist and dancer as well. “It’s something everyone can enjoy, whether you have a connection to Cape Breton or you’re just starting to learn about it — or, if you just want a fun night out to perhaps make some new friends.”
Yet a kind of bittersweetness lurks among the older generation. They’re happy to see the music they grew up with has caught the fancy of the larger world, and they acknowledge that, yes, things change and perhaps all for the better. On the other hand, though, is an almost indefinable sense of loss — that while the music is in good hands, the life and times it once was part of is gone.
“We love that so many people love the music now, but somehow it’s not the same,” says Mary Lamey, granddaughter of Bill Lamey. “It’s when I go to Cape Breton, and get out to a dance, I get a sense of how it used to be — you just feel the music, and it’s very emotional. There’s just not as much of that anymore.
“I think when the music got so very popular, the old style got pushed aside,” says Lamey, adding that she nonetheless has plenty of high regard for many of today’s Cape Breton musicians, including her nephew Doug. “There’s just sort of an ebb in the tide.”
How could this have happened? After all, one of the most fondly quoted Cape Breton factoids is that the island has more fiddle players per capita than anywhere else on the planet. The answer, as explained by local Cape Bretoners, is a classic example of assimilation and adaptation.
When you walked down the street in Cape Breton, says Judy McKenzie – who lived there as a child – “you could point to one house and say, ‘That’s a fiddling family,’ or point to another and say, ‘That’s a step-dancing family.’ The music was so tied in with the dance, and both were such a big part of life there.”
Certainly, the men and women who moved down to Boston to find work brought the music and dance with them. But some of them felt that perhaps getting settled and making good in their new surroundings was ultimately a bigger priority than keeping up the family music and dance traditions with their children.
“And if you’re a kid, think about the peer pressure you faced in the US,” notes Jimmy McLeod, whose late father Herbie was a well-respected collector of Cape Breton music (and memorialized in a waltz written by Jerry Holland). “You didn’t want to say, ‘I can’t play ball, I have to go practice the fiddle.’”
“If the kids don’t pick up an instrument, they just won’t get into the music, or the dance,” says McKenzie. “It’s not so much that they don’t like it or appreciate it, but they feel more that it’s ‘Mom’s music’ or ‘Grandpa’s music’ than theirs.” McKenzie, like Mary Lamey, is quick to add her kudos for latter-day musicians like Doug Lamey and Kimberley Fraser — “They’ve got the drive,” she says.
Over time, explains McLeod, the Cape Bretoners who had emigrated – and especially their sons and daughters, when they had grown up – left behind the city, and the usual gathering places for the music and socializing, and went off to the Arlingtons and Belmonts. There were still people to carry on the traditions, he says, just not as many as there once had been.
The path from Cape Breton to Boston also became less traveled, say the Cape Bretoners, whether because of the Vietnam War (“If you got your citizenship papers, you’d wind up getting drafted,” says McLeod), changes in the US economy, or, more recently, post-9/11 restrictions on travel and immigration to the US. Young people decided to stay on the island, and if they did opt to leave, they were more likely to head to the other side of Canada.
As a result of all this, the Boston Cape Breton community – McLeod estimates that at one time the local Cape Breton population might have been as high as 100,000 – simply hasn’t been replenished in terms of numbers, and the music and dance traditions were not as strongly rooted in the generations following after the one which arrived in the 1950s and 60s. “It skipped a generation” is a commonly used phrase.
Which is not to say there haven’t been, and aren’t now, plenty of people within the Cape Breton community who work to keep the music and dance going — including the people, old or young, who support and frequent the Canadian-American Club, not only for their dances but for the informal music performances Friday nights.
Still, the future for the Cape Breton music and dance scene in Boston might be young people like Dominique Dodge, who has no familial connection to Cape Breton but fell in love with the tradition.
“I feel strongly that the tradition can stand on its own,” says Dodge, a Celtic harpist and singer from New Hampshire now living in Concord. “Whether it’s in your blood or no, when you play the music you are part of the tradition. And where that music is really expressed is at a dance like this one.”
Northborough resident Pete MacDonald and his family might represent an even brighter hope for the Cape Breton community. The grandson of a former Canadian-American Club president, “Red” Jack MacDonald, Pete and his wife Tammie have four children, none of them out of their teens, who are intensely involved in the music and dance their ancestors so loved.
“The music kind of skipped my father’s generation,” says MacDonald, who plays guitar. “He didn’t come here to the club that often, because as a first-generation American he wanted to embrace his new culture. But our kids absolutely love the Cape Breton music. They really know about their heritage and they’re not afraid to express it.”
“The music is around if you look for it,” says McLeod. “It won’t be like it was, but it’s there if you want it.”
For information about Canadian-American Club events, see the club website at