N. American Fiddle Traditions: James Bay Cree Fiddling
This is the second article in an ongoing series on lesser-known North American fiddle traditions, or at least fiddle traditions that deserve more press and attention. Our first article focused on the Tennessee fiddling of Joseph DeCosimo. Now we have a guest post from ethnomusicologist Dr. Frances Wilkins from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Dr. Wilkins has been traveling to study fiddling with James Bay Cree fiddlers–Native American artists living in the Cree nation in Québec primarily (the Eastern edge of Hudson’s Bay)–for a while now and plays both fiddle and concertina. I got to hear key James Bay fiddler James Cheechoo’s fiddling at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Washington State a few years ago. He has a beguiling style of fiddling that kept referencing other Celtic traditions, but also seems rooted in New World rhythms and ideas. I wanted to learn more about the music and was happy when Dr. Frances Wilkins agreed to write an introduction to James Bay Cree fiddling for us!
Photo (above): Frances Wilkins, Daisy Cheechoo, and James Cheechoo in MF 2011
The Cree Fiddlers of James Bay: Notes on a Musical Tradition
By Frances Wilkins
One thing I love about being an ethnomusicologist is having the opportunity to go out ‘into the field’, meet musicians in their home environment, and see and hear them performing the music live which I spend so much of my time researching and teaching. My first visit to James Bay last year was an exciting experience. I stayed in the region for two months researching the historical links between the fiddle and dance traditions of the James Bay Cree and those we have here in Scotland. While I was there I found a number of connections and learnt some of the repertoire on concertina and fiddle from local musicians including Bobby Georgekish, James Stewart, Les Jolly, and James Cheechoo. Fiddling in James Bay is a hereditary tradition, and most fiddlers have emerged from long lines of musicians dating back many years. They perform for dancing at weddings and social events at weekends, and are integral to the social life of each community.
The musical connection between James Bay and Scotland is strong due to the substantial influence in the past from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), a dominant force in the fur trade in James Bay from the late 1600s until the twentieth century. The HBC workers, most of whom were Scottish, introduced fiddles to the nomadic Cree population when they met together to trade on the James Bay coast. There are many references in HBC post journals across the Arctic and sub-Arctic to fiddling and dances taking place in the fur trading posts, and these were some of the few occasions when HBC workers and the Cree were able to socialise together. The Cree, who already had a rich song and drumming tradition, welcomed the arrival of the fiddle with the Europeans, and a number of them bought instruments from the trade post stores. They constructed their own versions of the tunes they heard and took fiddles with them for entertainment when they were away on their hunting grounds. Over the years, the Scots and Cree built friendships together, and in some cases Scots men married Cree women and raised families in the region. Even though the fur trade is now a remnant of the past, the music from the old days of the trading posts lives on and has been passed down in oral tradition through generations of fiddling families.
One such example are the Cheechoo family in Moose Factory, and octogenarian James Cheechoo is a key tradition bearer and exponent of some of the oldest fiddle tunes in James Bay’s history. He believes that these tunes came straight from the men who arrived in James Bay off the Hudson’s Bay Company ships, and is one of the few fiddlers today who continues to perform them (others prefer to play well known Canadian and American tunes). He is usually accompanied by his wife Daisy on drum or wooden spoons, and in 1998 released his first solo album entitled Shay Chee Man, which literally means ‘big boat’ or ‘ship’ in the Eastern Cree language which he speaks. This is a direct reference to the HBC ships, and one of his aims in releasing the album has been to preserve the old James Bay tunes for posterity. Each tune is linked a specific dance, and tunes such as the Rabbit Dance and Scratching Dance also have their own specific steps. Another tune on his album which has clear link to the HBC is The Kissing Dance. The corresponding dance was once common throughout Scotland and often went by the name of ‘Babbity Bowster’, or Dannsa am Poc in the Highlands.
Unlike in Scotland and other areas of Canada, James Bay fiddlers will usually play alone and you will rarely find two melody instruments performing together. As a result, each fiddler plays a distinct interpretation of each tune – one which often changes every time it is played. As tunes are linked to a specific dances, the idea of medleys does not exist in James Bay fiddling. Instead, one tune will be performed repeatedly for each dance, and sometimes this means that the same melody is played continuously for half an hour or more. A favourite tune among James Bay fiddlers is The Soldier’s Joy, and you are likely to hear it played many times during an evening.
Photo (left): James Bay musicians – David Kakabat, Bobby Georgekish, and James Stewart in Wemindji
Who is Playing the Music?
There are numerous fiddle players in the James Bay region, and most have recorded albums. However, these are usually short runs and can only be found locally. If you are looking for James Bay fiddle music, the following artists are a good starting point:
James and Daisy Cheechoo – As written above, James and Daisy Cheechoo are the main exponents of the older James Bay fiddle tunes today. They often perform outside Moose Factory at concerts and festivals in Canada and the United States. They recorded the album, Shay Chee Man, in 1998.
James Cheechoo’s CD can be ordered by e-mail from Kwiskhegun Productions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ray Spencer – Another of the older James Bay fiddlers, Ray Spencer gained recognition as an exceptional fiddler following his participation with Robert McLeod in the NFB documentary film, The Fiddlers of James Bay, directed by Bob Robb. The documentary followed the two fiddlers as they travelled from James Bay to the Orkney Islands to perform in concerts with the local Strathspey and Reel Society in 1980. In 2012 Ray Spencer’s family released a CD of archive recordings of his music entitled Spencer’s Reel.
To order Ray Spencer’s album, try contacting the Chisasibi Cultural Department.
Harry House – One of the younger generation of fiddlers from Chisasibi, in the far North-East of James Bay. Harry House released an album of his fiddle music in 2010, entitled James Bay Fiddle Music, and this can be purchased online from www.amazon.com and www.cdbaby.com.
Thank you to Dr. Wilkins for such a lovely introduction to James Bay Cree Fiddling! We’ll let James Cheechoo play us out: