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Playing It By Ear

Playing It By Ear

Fiddling and dancing have entertained Northerners for the past two centuries. But in this age of constant distraction, will music survive?
By Samia Madwar
Oct 14
2015
From the October 2015 Issue

As a child, Peppie Beaulieu would hunt ducks and geese with his father at night. They had to do it in secret—off-season hunting was forbidden then in Fort Resolution, NWT, on the southern shore of Great Slave Lake. “It was just the law,” says Peppie, now middle-aged, taking a break from a talent show in the community’s Métis hall on a warm August evening. Inside, a handful of couples square dance to a local group, the North Country Rock band.

“We used to come back early in the morning, and we had to hide the ducks and the geese at the edge of town,” continues Peppie. They’d stuff them in gunnysacks and nestle them in the willows to be retrieved the following night. Then they’d run straight home. No stopping under any circumstances, Peppie’s father insisted. 

But when Peppie passed a certain house—it still stands today, but barely—he’d see tables, chairs, even the woodstove, all piled in the yard. And there’d be music coming from within. Fiddle music. Young and curious, he longed to peek inside.

Just then, he breaks off and leans over to peer into the hall. “Who won?” He asks. Dressed in moccasins, a moosehide vest, and a ball cap, Peppie had jigged enthusiastically for the talent show earlier that evening, and the judges are finally announcing their scores. And the winner is Peppie—whose name is actually Philip, but nobody ever calls him that. He runs inside to claim his prize, an envelope of cash, and back out to the porch to resume his story. 

A few times, after a couple hours’ sleep, Peppie would go back to that house to investigate. By then, all the furniture was gone from the yard. It was quiet. He’d walk in—“In those days, you didn’t knock, eh”—and ask for a glass of water. Inside, the furniture looked like it had never been moved. An elderly woman would be sitting quietly, sewing, and she’d get up to fulfill his request. He’d walk out feeling just as confused as ever.

He finally asked his uncle what was up with that house. “He was one of the guys I’d sometimes see outside the house, cooling off,” he says. A few family members and friends would get together, his uncle explained, pool their ingredients to make a gallon of homebrew. They’d clear the floor inside, and with the woodstove gone, they could sometimes see their breath in the cold night air. But then they’d dance, with each tune lasting over an hour, and they’d forget the cold. In the morning, they’d tidy up, sweep the floor, bring everything inside, and start a new day. 

Master fiddler Kole Crook, who was killed in a plane crash travelling to Fort Good Hope in 2001. He was only 27. Photo by Fran Hurcomb

It’s a story many Métis fiddlers in the North have heard—those all-nighters in Fort Resolution are legendary now. They don’t happen much anymore, though. These days, there might be a fiddling night now and then, but it’s usually scheduled and held at the community hall. The music young Peppie heard in those early mornings wasn’t played for an organized event. It wasn’t even a party. It was just a family, maybe a few friends, clearing some space in their home so they could dance. The church, some whisper today, forbade drumdancing; fiddling was permitted. So it became the thing to do.

"I put my fiddle down, got on my hands and knees, and I had to crawl in amongst [the dancers] and find my bow. And I found my bow and picked it back up and played for another 15 minutes. And they hadn’t even broken a sweat.” 

There’s been fiddling in the North for as long as explorers, trappers, traders and whalers have been coming here. Anne Lederman, renowned fiddler and music historian, has traced three waves of fiddling influences in the North. There were dance tunes introduced by Scottish and French-Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company workers in the early 19th century; the second wave of tunes likely came north with the Klondike Gold Rush near the turn of the century, along with their accompanying waltzes, square dances, two-steps and polkas. And from the 1940s to the 1970s, popular country tunes took over, brought north by Prairie workers travelling by riverboat to Great Slave Lake.

But the North’s fiddling style has attained its own character beyond a simple blend of Old World tunes. It’s known to be “crooked”: Métis fiddlers add an extra beat here, an extra note there. Many Northern musicians learned to play out in the bush without any guitar or piano accompaniment to keep time for them. They weren’t reading sheets of music, so who needed time signatures? 

Over the years, that became the norm. The Northern masters of today all learned by ear, picking up tunes from the radio, or from visiting traders. The more isolated a community, the more distinctive its style. And the farther north you go, the faster the tunes—and the dances—get.  

Linda Duford, a longtime fiddler who’s lived in the North on and off since the early ‘70s, recalls playing Saturday nights at the Fort Simpson Hotel (now the Nahanni Inn) as a 17-year-old, accompanied by Morris Lafferty on bass and Stanley Champagne on the guitar. 

“The place would be packed,” she says. “People would come in off the trapline from out in the bush, and they were in peak, peak physical shape from living off the land. Their favourite tune was the Red River Jig. I couldn’t play it fast enough for them. One night I played the Red River Jig, and I can’t remember, maybe it was 45 minutes, but it might’ve been an hour. Everyone was on the floor. Nobody sat down. I played it so long, my thumb holding my bow cramped up and I dropped my bow on the dance floor. To my amazement, nobody stopped dancing. Morris and Stanley kept playing, so I had no choice. I put my fiddle down, got on my hands and knees, and I had to crawl in amongst [the dancers] and find my bow. And I found my bow and picked it back up and played for another 15 minutes. And they hadn’t even broken a sweat.” 

***

Back inside the Fort Resolution Métis hall, it’s time for the fiddling portion of the talent show. But there’s a problem: only one person is signed up. 

“Come on, where are all the fiddlers?” Lloyd Cardinal, the MC, asks, grinning into the microphone. “Fiddling around, probably.” (Actually, the local First Nation is hosting its cultural week at the same time.) Nobody raises their hand. Resigned, Cardinal announces the sole contestant: 

“Angus Beaulieu.”

From the audience, an 80-year-old man in a black ball cap and matching hoodie leaves the hall, returning seconds later, gingerly carrying a fiddle case. He removes his “Proud to be Métis” hoodie, and lays it down on a chair. He heads purposefully to the stage, his face focused, serious, as though he hasn’t played on hundreds of stages before, as though this competition weren’t already sewn up, as though he weren’t one of the biggest names in NWT fiddling. As though his audience didn’t comprise of friends and family, who all know what he’s been through. He takes out his instrument, a 118-year-old Stradivarius that once belonged to his great-great-uncle, plugs it into the sound system, and starts playing. The North Country Rock band joins in, and the audience claps along, tapping their feet.

For decades, Beaulieu played with the Native Cousins, so named because the members’ grandfathers were all cousins. They saw the opening and closing of bars such as the Caribou and the Zoo lounges in Hay River, and they played at the first and last ever parties in the now abandoned mining town of Pine Point, NWT. 

“I knew more than 200 songs before the stroke. I had to learn them all again. Some I still can’t really remember.”

Like many fiddlers of his time, Beaulieu was never formally taught how to play. He just listened to his great-uncle whenever he came to visit. Angus’s grandfather, who raised him, had a fiddle at home, and when Angus finally dared pick it up, he started squeaking out a few notes. He kept at it, eventually becoming a cornerstone of fiddling in the NWT.

Nine years ago, he almost went silent. He had a sudden stroke, spent three weeks in hospital in Edmonton, and was told he’d never play music again. The audience knows this. After a couple of tunes, they applaud and cheer. 

“The wife, she made me play,” Beaulieu says, after he’s returned to his seat, recalling those early days after his stroke. For a long time, he hadn’t wanted to hear any music—no live performances, no records. But she insisted. “I knew more than 200 songs before the stroke,” Angus says. “I had to learn them all again. Some I still can’t really remember.”

He’s been making his own fiddles for years, and when he started playing again, he fashioned a new one in the shape of the Métis symbol, a white-on-blue infinity sign. 

“I took it to Edmonton to show that doctor who told me I’d never play again,” he chuckles, his bright eyes—one slightly clouded—glinting below his ball cap. But, he adds matter-of-factly, “The doctor was on leave.”  

Angus and Dorothy Beaulieu practise their trick. Each have one hand on the fiddle, one on the guitar, and try and play both instruments together. Photo Shannon Graf

***

Kole Crook would have been the next Angus Beaulieu, the next Richard Lafferty—a Hay River icon. The two fiddling masters were his mentors, guiding him from when he first learned to fiddle at 13 to when he began touring NWT communities, playing festivals, infecting crowds with his passion for the instrument. He became involved with Strings Across the Sky, a project led by violinist Andrea Hansen, bringing fiddling workshops to Northern schools.

On December 31, 2001, 27-year-old Crook was travelling to Tulita from Fort Good Hope to play a New Year’s Eve party when the tiny Cessna he was on crashed, killing him and three others. The news devastated his many fans across the North. The Kole Crook Fiddle Association was formed in his memory, bringing week-long fiddling camps to NWT schools throughout the year.

A structured workshop may not be the traditional way to learn. But neither is learning from a family member. “It wasn’t really something that was passed down from generation to generation,” says Linda Duford. “If you were going to learn the fiddle, you did it yourself.” And you did it for entertainment. Now, with more to do in communities—TV had just arrived in Fort Simpson when Duford was living there around 40 years ago—fewer children are motivated to teach themselves these days. 

That means less square dancing, which Métis fiddler Lee Mandeville says goes hand-in-hand with fiddling. “Back then, every song had a dance,” he says. “Through square dances, playing the same song over and over, that’s how you improve your technique, how you figure out the instrument.”

But fiddling isn’t on its way out completely. There’s a new generation of fiddlers who might one day fill the oldtimers’ shoes. Wesley Hardisty of Fort Simpson—a Kole Crook alumnus—is quickly gaining fame as one of the most talented fiddlers in the region. In Kugluktuk, Colin Adjun, known as the Fiddler of the Arctic, is starting to see some competition: his son, Gustin, learned the guitar and fiddle from his dad and, like the oldtimers, plays by ear. 

Bob Bromley, a recently retired member of the legislative assembly of the NWT, used to work with the Kole Crook Fiddle Foundation. Now he still meets up with friends for fiddle jams, and likes to point out there's a fiddle on the NWT mace. Photo by Hannah Eden

This past summer, 17-year-old Gustin and his band played at the Alianait Arts Festival in Iqaluit, meeting musicians from across the North, and in early September, he began recording his first album.

Today’s workshops are also, in part, helping encourage more girls to pick up the instrument. In her time, Duford reckons, she was one of the few female fiddlers in the North.

In Fort Resolution, Laura Boucher is offering after-school lessons to local school kids, teaching them the Metis jigs she grew up with—and hoping that eventually, she can teach some of her student fiddlers to play for them. (“They’re pretty good,” Angus Beaulieu remarks, watching three of the lead dancers jig at the Fort Resolution talent show). 

And those all-nighter fiddling and dance fests do still happen—during the dogsled races in the spring, when mushers from around the territory gather together in Fort Providence, or during the Midway Lake Music Festival every summer near Fort McPherson. 

“I used to weigh 220 pounds, so my tummy used to hold it up.” Now, he needs the Velcro to keep the fiddle from slipping.

There are some tricks, however, even the most experienced teachers can’t pass on.

“Traditional fiddlers are not going to be around for that much longer,” says Yellowknife player Andrea Bettger, who, over the past few years, has started transcribing Métis fiddle tunes. But they’re only for reference. “The minute you introduce a piece of paper—I know this, coming from a classical background—that always becomes a crutch,” she says. Many of the older fiddlers had only the radio for reference. “Sliding your finger a certain way, or making a certain scratchy sound under E string because you’ve done this for your whole life, and you’ve taught yourself—you can’t teach those things.”

***

Sunday morning, Dorothy Beaulieu, Angus’s wife, has to give the church service. But first, she’s getting breakfast ready for her visitors, filling the house with a scent of bacon. In the living room, Angus shows Gerald Poitras and Leonard Desjarlais—two members of the North Country Rock band—his family photo album. There are photos of Angus’s mother, holding him as a baby, and a photo of Angus’s maternal grandfather, who raised him. Angus lost his mother at age five, and doesn’t remember much of his father, a Hudson’s Bay trader.

There’s a copy of an article on Francois Beaulieu, Angus’s great-great-grandfather, who brought the Catholic Mission to Fort Resolution in 1852, and a photo of his grandfather’s uncle, Joseph King Beaulieu, whose Stradivarius violin Angus now plays. 

Dorothy taps Poitras on the shoulder with a metal spoon. Time to eat. The younger men disappear into the kitchen. Angus stays behind to linger on the photos. Along the walls, bookcases are lined with trophies from all the fiddling competitions he’s entered. For decades, he was the custodian at the local school, but he doesn’t keep any memorabilia of that, aside from the skills he picked up working with his hands. He displays a violin case made from a segment of ABS pipe (normally used for plumbing) that he fashioned himself. Inside, he keeps a plunger fiddle, which is exactly what it sounds like: a fiddle made from a plunger. 

He picks up the ancient Stradivarius to practise some tunes. He’s outfitted a keyboard with pedals, allowing him to keep time with his feet as he plays. As he raises the fiddle to his chest, he points out the square of Velcro glued onto bottom. He’s always held the instrument unconventionally, pushing it against his chest instead of resting it below his chin. Nobody ever taught him otherwise. Ever since his stroke, though, he’s had trouble holding it that way.

“I used to weigh 220 pounds,” he grins, pointing at his midsection, “so my tummy used to hold it up.” Now, he needs the Velcro to keep the fiddle from slipping. 

When they’re done with their tea, Poitras and Desjarlais get up and put on their coats. “It’s always great playing with you,” Poitras tells Angus with a handshake. Dorothy starts heating water for more tea, and a few minutes later, there are new voices at the door. Two musicians from out of town are in Fort Res for the week to give fiddle lessons to the kids. Angus waves them into the living room. The photo album is lying open on the table, waiting for them. Angus picks up his fiddle, heads to the keyboard, and as his guests take off their coats, he begins to play.