We're happy to present another guest blog from Dr. Squeeze, our go-to guy for true blue traditional folk music. This time he's reviewing two CD releases from different ends of North America: Valcour Records' release of field recordings of Cajun fiddle master Dennis McGee, and the re-release of Québécois fiddle master André Alain's only recording (formerly available only on cassette tape). Both of these fiddlers present older styles of fiddling influenced by their roots in 19th century Québec and Louisiana. Both of these recordings are great artifacts of French musical heritage in America.
As a fiddle fanatic, born in the Acadian part of Canada and growing up in Québec, it was a great joy to discover two new CD’s that feature legendary fiddlers André Alain and Dennis McGee. I have decided to review these CDs together because these fiddlers have so much in common. They're both from French speaking cultures and they both represent a legacy from the past when fiddlers were treasured as dance masters and house party maestros. Both come from small towns in farming communities: Dennis from Eunice in Evangeline Parish and André from Saint Basile de Portneuf , about an hour west of Québec City. They both mastered the fiddle at an early age, fusing the music of their elders into their own styles and spending their lives hard at work during the day as laborers and at nights and weekends entertaining at house parties and dances. They represent a direct link to this rich tradition of itinerant fiddlers, workers, and dance masters.
The Dennis McGee CD, titled Himself, is a series of historical recordings made in 1973 by Gérard Dôle and mastered recently by Joel Savoy. There are short snatches of tunes and conversations with Dennis in French. He talks about learning the fiddle, the etiquette of the bal de maison, his four different fiddle tunings, and even recounts a pistol duel between two jealous suitors. Some of the old reels that he plays, “Reel de Coquin” and “Reel de Marcantel” sound a lot like fiddle tunes from Québec and Acadia, and when he tells his stories, I could just as well be listening to some old farmer or fisherman from Chéticamp, Nova Scotia.
Dennis McGee: Reel de Coquin
Dennis McGee: La Jalouserie (story about duels: see english translation)
The André Alain recording was made with the help of fiddler Pierre Laporte and musicians Guy Bouchard and André Marchand in 1986 and just recently re-issued as a CD through [online music store] Trente Sous Zéro. This recording is a true classic and has inspired many of today’s great Québec fiddlers. Listening to the CD, I kept finding tunes that I had heard at music camps and jams for years, not knowing that they came from this seminal recording. Alain was one of the last of the great “lumber camp” fiddlers: short, wiry, tough as nails, known for his brawls as well as his fine fiddling. He worked as a draveur in the lumber camps “driving” the logs down-river, he worked for the Canadian National railways, in lumber mills and as a waiter in a bar. He was a great hunter, trapper, weight lifter and barroom fighter. His fiddle style reflects his life: gritty, forceful, soulful and most often crooked (meaning outside of the usual Celtic tune structure).
André Alain: L'Ostination / Le Step à Ti-Phonse
Our favorite band, De Temps Antan, covers Alain's classic tune, "Le Step à Ti-Phonse"
A note of caution: these recordings are not meant to be played as background music or easy listening. They reflect the hardscrabble life of people who worked hard and played just as hard. These two fiddle styles are made to get a rowdy bunch of people up and dancing long into the night – forgetting the tired and aching muscles from a hard workweek.
Dr. Squeeze – “take two measures of this music and call me in the morning”