It’s the off-season in Cape Breton. Drive through the streets of Baddeck or Louisbourg and you’ll know it. In the summertime, these towns are thriving, now only the essential convenience stores stay open, and the multi-colored Christmas lights strung up outside the year-round homes add the only touch of cheer to what might otherwise be a decidedly bleak view.
The beginning of the short Gaelic language film entitled, a “Wake for Calum MacLeod” was created entirely in Cape Breton, a fact made obvious when the narrator asserts at the film’s outset: “There are only two places on this earth, the island of Cape Breton, and ‘away.’” The film illustrates a phenomenon that persists on the island today. The evil King of the Winds scatters the narrators children to the four corners of the earth, only to have them reunite finally for their fathers wake, where ultimately, they rediscover their Gaelic heritages. In his song, “Man from the Isle of Skye,” a ballad that charts the beginning of Cape Breton’s settlement, J.P. Cormier asserts: “The folks in the cities, they don’t know where they come from, and they don’t care why,” implying that Cape Bretoners, on the other hand, know exactly where their people came from, and perhaps more importantly, where they all are today. It’s an honest assumption, every Cape Bretoner I’ve met knows where in Scotland their ancestors came from, and when they left. Many members of the older generations still live near their numerous brothers and sisters, and one could claim, that out in the countryside, outside of “industrial Cape Breton” where I have made my home, a different mentality still persists, where ones social placement, more often then not,might depend on who their father is.
I was recently traumatized during my last haircut, aside from reeking havoc on my bangs, the hairdresser asserted: “Oh yes, the winters are hard around here, but there also the only times we have for ourselves, the summer is for the tourists, and in the winter we just hunker down and recover.” This led me to ponder just how far the division extends between folks from this side of the Causeway, and those who hale from the other side of the narrow passage. Being from the wrong side myself, I have to wonder how close I can get to understanding and knowing the people of this island?
One cannot doubt that the people of Cape Breton put on a show for the tourists, “Cape Breton Hospitality” is known the world-wide, but those who swear by it have not often spent more than a week on the island. Their Cape Breton “experience” is limited to Cabot Trail snapshots and packaged oatcakes. A good friend of mine who moved here from New Brunswick couldn’t find anyone, or anyone to help him find someone, wire his new home. Although I like to focus on all the good folk I’ve met here, his story echoes my first night at the Red Shoe pub in Mabou, when the fiddler who was supposed to lead me to the hall left me to navigate the windy back-roads on my own. Surely these sorts of experiences are common to all small, close-knit, communities, but is there a reason why they might be exaggerated in Cape Breton?
I think so. The people of the island have something they need to protect, there’s something precious here, a legacy of music that is theirs but that entices travelers to get their own taste in the dance halls and summer schools. It attracts some of North America’s best fiddlers and challenges them to carve out their own place within the its competitive dance and ceilidh circuit. I have to wonder how free Cape Breton music is to change, if Cape Breton fiddlers feel like they’re allowed to synthesize outside influences, or if they feel as though their only choices are “Traditional Cape Breton” or as Otis Tomas so aptly put it, “mongrel.” Socially, even more comes in to play. The island has been depressed for a long time, people haven't traditionally had a lot of money to spare, and the tourists who frequent its shores in the summer often come from the opposite side of the economic spectrum.
This past Saturday, after the West Mabou dance, Jimmy and Margee invited me and another woman from “away” to a Christmas house party. I was hesitant, I didn’t know if we would be welcome, and after driving miles up a track-ridden logging road to the cabin, my uncertainty only grew. The party was fantastic. The chili and wieners were plentiful, all the best Inverness musicians were there, and the sets were in full swing. In between figures, folks from the couches and chairs would hop up to do some individual stepping only to return to their seats a few reels later to a smattering of applause.
At one point, an elderly gentleman asked me where I was from and when I told him New Hampshire, he answered, “I see, you’re here because you love the music.” He couldn’t have been more right, and I couldn’t have felt more welcome. On the way out the door hours later, I realized that the evening had felt exceedingly warm, and for the first time in a while, no one had asked me who my father is.