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A Wolfe Island Ceilidh

A kitchen party in the 1950s, rural Canada. A small, tightly-knit, stable, island community in the mouth of the St Lawrence River.

On warm summer nights when the light lingers at this northern hemisphere, everyone comes to my grandparents’ house for the summer ceilidh [Kay-lee].

There will be food, drink, music, and company. In the front room of this small house you will see a player–piano, a big wood stove used for cooking and winter heat, a large kitchen table, wooden chairs, a sofa and a stuffed chair. Cousins, aunts, uncles and neighbours from near and far mingle in this space, the overflow spilling out onto the wide porch and the lawn.

These mariners, lighthouse keepers, farmers, fishermen, ferrymen, carpenters and blacksmiths have kept the Scottish-Irish fiddling traditions alive in this community for 100 years, playing for dances, anniversaries and weddings. This time, tonight, it is an informal gathering to celebrate being together.

Grandma on the piano and Grandpa on the fiddle start churning out reels, jigs, waltzes, strathspeys, and the occasional lament. We have no recordings of these musical events, only memories captured in our narratives which we pass down to our children and grandchildren. Grandpa is a man of few words, but speaks with his bow, making it dance on the strings, keeping time with the heel of his shoe.

Great Uncle Hiram takes out his fiddle and joins in, then Great Uncle Richard starts tuning up, and Dad gets his sax out of its case and begins to wet the reed. The music goes on until the wee hours, stopping only long enough to allow the musicians to adjust their instruments, puff on a cigarette, have a bite to eat or exchange a joke.

Some of the men disappear now and then out the back door and into the big shed for a sip of the forbidden grain, their wives cluck-clucking and exchanging disapproving glances. It is hard not to tap your feet, and Aunt Elma is as likely as anyone to grab your hands and pull you into an improvised dance on the polished linoleum floor. It is a classic Canadian kitchen party, a tradition you were apt to find in rural Canadian communities before television came along to seduce us into passivity in the early 1960s.

There is no master of ceremonies here, no program, and no announcer. The musicians don’t explain what they are doing: they seem to know which piece follows which. This is not a performance, but a musical conversation among people who know the core repertoire.

Its purpose, it seems to me, was to celebrate life, reaffirm family and community ties, enable participation, and re-connect with the values of the past through music that was not written down but was learned through repetition and immersion in the culture of the ceilidh.

My children, now grown up with families of their own have had their own musical experiences, also valuable. My purpose in writing about this is to try to convey what it was like to be part of a spontaneous, informal musical evening on that island in the St. Lawrence River, on a late summer night in July in the 1950s.

By Joan Russell, PhD, Associate Professor & Director of Music Education, McGill University (Retired)

Joan Russell (PhD) was Associate Professor and Director of Music Education at McGill University, Montreal. In this capacity she gave conference talks, carried out research, published in academic journals, served as journal editor and peer-reviewed editorial boards. Among the more exotic destinations her work took her were Bahrain, Brazil, Nunavut, Cuba and Scandinavia. She is working on tracing her Wolfe and Amherst Islands’ roots as well as a social history of small-time Canadian vaudeville in rural Canada in the1930s. She writes, “Retired from McGill since 2010, I plan to take up residence in Victoria, BC, in 2012, and will continue to water my Island roots each summer.”

Editor’s Note:  Do you have a musical story to remember?  If so let us know in our comment section. 

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Bill Cobler
Comment by: Bill Cobler
Left at: 10:36 AM Friday, June 15, 2012
What a great story. You were so fortunate to have witnessed these events growing up. It's sad to see this tradition go away.
Brian johnson
Comment by: Brian johnson ( )
Left at: 9:45 PM Friday, June 29, 2012
this is a priceless look back in the time when Wolfe Island really was a 'world of its own'!
Thank you for another look at the lives of the Island's former Reeve and Mrs. Russell!
brian johnson