Knee Deep in Fiddle Music


Published in The Victoria Standard – Vol. 3, No. 2 – July 8 to July 21, 2013

Paul Cranford 001Across the length and breadth of Cape Breton Island you’ll never find yourself very far from the sound of the fiddle. It’s everywhere. The fiddle is synonymous with Cape Breton herself. As summer blossoms beneath our feet, and the cafes and shops throw back their shutters, the floorboards of parish halls and community centres across the island begin to resound to the tap of the fiddler’s foot. At no time is the distinct styling of fiddle music more apparent than when a Cape Bretoner picks up his bow.

A huge repository of fiddle music resides in the hands of Paul Cranford at his publishing house, Cranford Publications. Paul has written, arranged, recorded, and published literally thousands of fiddle tunes, both traditional, and modern compositions. A fiddler himself, Paul has also studied the art of music notation in his endeavor to capture the essence of the music; to put it down in print as an historic record of the rich Scottish, Irish, and Cape Breton ancestry, alongside the modern writings of Cape Breton fiddlers.

Paul believes it’s the skill with the bow that defines a fiddler and the music he or she plays. The length of the bow stroke and the pressure applied results in that special accent which denotes the Cape Breton style, and distinguishes our fiddling from other types of violin music.

Many old time fiddlers could not read music. They learned to play by ear. So the tunes they played and composed were in danger of being lost. Paul began the immense task of putting these tunes down on paper, then arranging them into books and collections to preserve them. Paul is meticulous in his music notation emphasising the value of a properly written score for those who play by sight. He has already produced a dozen or more books and CDs that highlight the heart and history of the fiddle in Cape Breton. Some are reproductions of old compilations that originally came from Scotland. Others, in an attempt to pass on the ways of older musicians, contain Cape Breton settings of Irish, Scottish, and locally composed tunes.

CBSC RPaul’s latest book, The Cape Breton Scottish Collection, is the eighth volume in his heritage series. This new book is a compilation of Scottish music containing over 300 melodies. These tunes were originally published between 1740 and 1935 then interpreted by 20th century Cape Breton musicians. It’s a book of musical notation arranged for fiddlers and their accompanists. The release of The Scottish Collection was timed to coincide with World Fiddle Day, May 18, 2013. Paul hopes to complete a full set of twelve volumes for his Cape Breton Musical Heritage Series.

There’s an interesting twist to Paul’s musical career. For thirty four years he was a lighthouse keeper. It was during these long stints of keeping watch that he researched, wrote, and practiced the music he records and publishes. Paul was first stationed at the St. Paul Island light from 1975 to 1991. St. Paul Island is part of Victoria County and lies approximately 15 miles offshore at the tip of Cape North. The island is an extension of the Cape Breton Highlands. Paul’s final posting was at the opposite end of Nova Scotia, on Machias Seal Island in the Bay of Fundy. Machias Seal Island is claimed by both Canada and the United States, but it is Canada that has maintained the light station since 1832. Machias Seal Island is also an international bird sanctuary, home to over 5000 puffins. Paul was one of the last lighthouse keepers in the Maritimes as the lights are gradually being decommissioned or switched to automated solar-powered systems. Paul retired in 2009 and returned home to Cape Breton.

Paul hosts a series of summer ceilidhs at St. John’s Parish Hall in Ingonish. Every Saturday night all summer long, he presents a feast of Cape Breton musicians. Paul and his fiddle make frequent appearances at Governor’s Pub in Sydney and he also writes a regular feature for the Victoria Standard called Fiddler’s Corner. Here he introduces original tunes, some old, some new, many being published for the first time, and includes a short detail on the composer and history of the piece.

Paul and his wife Sarah live on the Cabot Trail where they work together in Sarah’s shop, Wildfire Pottery, during the summer. Sarah also plays the fiddle and piano. A must for any fiddle music aficionado is a visit to Paul’s website at where you will find links to his extensive collection of Celtic fiddle music. The next time you’re out on the trail, stop in at Wildfire Pottery. Paul will most likely be in the shop, playing the fiddle, telling stories, and sharing his vast knowledge of fiddle music with folks who drop by for a chat.


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