Canadian Journal for Traditional Music (1991)

Old Indian and Metis Fiddling in Manitba: Origins, Structure, and Questions of Syncretism

Anne Lederman

* This article was originally published in The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 7.2 (1988): 205-30.

This paper concerns what I call the "old style" and repertoire of fiddle music in two Native communities of western Manitoba: the Pine Creek Reserve and the nearby Métis town of Camperville, and the Ebb and Flow Reserve, including its 'satellite' non-status community, Bacon Ridge, and the nearby Métis town of Eddystone. Fiddle music from this area, although related to French-Canadian, Scots-Irish, and American fiddle traditions, frequently uses phrase lengths and overall structures that are rarely if ever found in those traditions. In fact, the structure of fiddle tunes in this area have much in common with old Native song traditions, especially those of Ojibwa and Plains groups. This observation has led me to conclude that Native fiddlers in this area, and perhaps throughout the Canadian northwest, have created a syncretic music, one which combines features of two separate traditions to form a new style.'

The people in Camperville and Ebb and Flow consider themselves to be Saulteaux and speak Saulteaux as their first language, although they are often called "Plains Ojibwa" in anthropological literature (Howard). I taped approximately 450 different tunes in these communities over a two-month period in 1985, and another hundred or so in 1986, many in several different versions. I estimate that approximately two-thirds of these tunes are 'old,' having been learned from older members of the community, while the other one-third were learned from commercial recordings available since about the 1940s.2 Twenty-three players were involved, ranging in age from approximately 45 to 82. Although my study was restricted to this area, I suspect that many of the structural principles of the music apply to older styles of Native fiddling throughout the Canadian northwest, as evidenced by material I have heard from other communities throughout the Prairies, the Northwest Territories, and Alaska.

Fiddles and fiddle music seem to have been introduced in this area by Scottish and French-Canadian fur traders in the early 1800s.3 Intermarriage between traders and Native women begat much of the present mixed or "Métis" population of western Manitoba. Most of the surnames in these communities are French or Scottish, those of the fiddlers in this study providing good examples: Fagnan, Houle, Boulieau, Richard, Desjarlais, McKay, and Flett among others. Over the past hundred years these Indian and Mé tis communities have remained somewhat distinct geographically and culturally from more recent settlers of various nationalities, although the presence of the occasional Ukrainian, Polish, or German tune in the repertoire suggests some interaction.

Even to the causal listener, the fiddling of Camperville and Ebb and Flow seems to have much in common with older Québécois styles. It has a direct historical link

with Québec though the fur trade and shares the following characteristics with traditional fiddling in Québec:

1. Repertoire—some of the most common tunes are also well-known in Québec, albeit under different names. These include "The Red River Jig" (called "La Grande Gigue Simple" or "La Grandeux" in Québec),4 "Drops of Brandy" ("Le Brandy" in Québec), and "Devil's Reel" ("Le Reel du Pendu" in Québec).

2. Foot-tapping or "Clogging"—As a percussive accompaniment to the tunes, all of the older fiddlers in Camperville and Ebb and Flow tap both feet in altern ating patterns when playing in a seated position.5 Aniong the players I recorded, the tapping is always in the following rhythms:

Communities with strong French roots seem to be the only ones in Canada where such alternating foot patterns are practised. However, in Québec and northern Ontario, clogging does not seem to be used on 6/8 tunes, and the most common pattern for 2/4 tunes is slightly different than that given above, as follows:

3. Short Bow Strokes—Fiddlers in this area usually play one note per stroke with occasional slurs of two or more notes, often 'across' the beat (see Transcription #1, "Haste to the Wedding," especially version "e" by Lawrence Flett, for some bowing across the beat). This style is also common to other French areas of Canada and creates a rhythmic feel which seems to 'push' the beat at times. It gives the fiddling a noticeably different character than that of Scots-Irish traditions without French influence.6

4. Syncopated Rhythmic Figures— is a common one. However, besides also being common in Québec, this figure occurs frequently in American styles and may have come to both regions from the south (see Transcription #4, b part).

5. Asymmetric Phrasing—This means that the musical phrases are not all the same length, as they usually are in the Scots-Irish tradition. Asymmetric phrasing occurs frequently in Québec (Ornstein 63-259) and also in some older American styles (Thede and Bayard), and in some European traditions, notably Scandinavian. However, the principle of asymmetric phrasing goes much further in the Native fiddling in Camperville and Ebb and Flow than in these other traditions, and its particular character is the main indicator of Native musical influence in the fiddling of these areas. Further details of these asymmetric structures will be discussed in the section on Form which follows.

Although the French-Canadian connections are the strongest, there is also evidence of Scottish and American influence, especially in the repertoire. Many of the tunes are versions of old Scottish tunes such as "Caber Feight," "Lord MacDonald's," "Walker Street," and "Haste to the Wedding," among others. Certain elements of the style, such as short bow strokes and double-stringing are also features of Scottish playing. However, much of the French-Canadian repertoire in Québec and other parts of Canada is also from Scots-Irish tradition. It is likely that the Manitoba players were influenced both directly by Scottish players coming through Hudson's Bay to settle and/or work in the fur trade, and by eastern French-Canadian players playing Scots-Irish tunes.

Some American tunes, such as "Year of Jubilo." "Arkansas Traveller," "Home Sweet Home," and "Billy in the Lowground," are also standards in the area of this study and appear to be among the older items in the repertoire. There are also resemblances in style between the Native tradition under discussion and some American playing such as the frequent use of doublestops and drone notes (or "double-stringing" as Native players often call it) and the emphasis on heavy offbeat accents reminiscent of the "shuffle" style of the American south.78 These features may have come from early exposure to American radio and recordings, but also may have resulted from the common Scots-Irish roots of both areas. There was certainly some aural exchange across the border, as migrations south and back were quite common for the Indian and Métis population in the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to my informants. Many Americans also moved north into the Prairies around the turn of the century (Morton, 254).


Most Scots-Irish fiddle tunes and the larger portion of North American tunes are in the following standard 32-bar form:

Summarized, this chart indicates two major sections, each repeated, each containing two eight-beat phrases (4 sub-phrases of four beats each). The most common pattern of melodic repetition within these sub-phrases is a b, a c (repeated), then d e, d c (repeated). The following version of "Devil's Dream" demonstrates this standard form:

Only about one-fifth of the older tunes I collected in Camperville and Ebb and Flow are in the standard form given above. On the other hand I would estimate that 90 per cent or more of Scots-Irish, Anglo-Canadian, and New England repertoire is in this form. The rest of the Camperville and Ebb and Flow repertory exhibits the following features:

a. Phrases are often substantially different lengths within one tune, usually between three and seven beats, although two-beat motifs are common and might be considered independent phrases at times (see Transcription #4, B part). Although some parts contain several consecutive phrases of the same length, including three-beat phrases (see Transcription #2), five-beat phrases (see Transcription #3), and seven-beat phrases (see #1e, Flatt version), the only tunes that have phrases the same length all the way through are the few in standard form.8

b. There are often three or five phrases in a part rather than the standard four of the Scots-Irish model (see Transcriptions #1-d, e, f, also Transcriptions #2, #3, and #4). Even irregular Québécois tunes usually have two or four phrases in a part.

c. Tunes sometimes have only one part instead of the standard two, or one part plus an extension, which is sometimes played on repeats and sometimes not (see Transcription #2). These one-part tunes seem to favour five or six phrases overall and are usually descending in contour (see Transcription #2).

d. Parts sometimes consist of only one phrase, usually repeated several times with slightly different cadential endings (see Transcription #4).

e. Overlapping phrase structures occur where the last section or note of one phrase seems to be also the beginning of the next (see Transcription #2). Sometimes a short phrase that seems to stand on its own at one point becomes part of a longer phrase at another point in the tune. Also, reiterative structures are common, structures where small units reappear in irregular sequences (see Transcriptions #2; note the a b c d c structure of part A).

f. Beginnings usually demonstrate a strong sense of introducing a tune. Older players almost always play an introductory chord, motif, or longer phrase, which is not repeated later in the rendition (see Transcription #4). In addition to this feature, the first phrase of the melody is often longer and more elaborate the first time through the tune (see Transcription #1-d, Mousseau version).

g. Cadence notes are often reiterated or embellished for two or more beats. This practice, in itself, changes many phrases of standard Scots-Irish tunes from their original four beats into five, six, or seven-beat phrases (see Transcription #1-d and e, Mousseau and Flett versions, end of phrase 1). Also, the final cadence of a tune is frequently lengthened with a rhythmic figure (see Transcription #4).

h. Older tunes are more often descending in structure, whereas, in Scots-Irish tunes, there is generally a 'low' part and a 'high' part occurring about equally in either order throughout the tradition. Players in Camperville and Ebb and Flow have a tendency to play the high parts first, even when playing ScotsIrish tunes that are originally the other way around.

Significantly, al/ of the above features are also common to old Ojibwa songs circa 1910, as found in the recorded examples of Frances Densmore from Minnesota and Wisconsin.9 In order to demonstrate the relationship between old Ojibwa song form and the forms of fiddle tunes in Camperville and Ebb and Flow, let us look at the following example. "One Wind" is an Ojibwa song recorded just after the turn of the century by Densmore, revealing many features similar to those just discussed with reference to Camperville and Ebb and Flow fiddling, notably the following:

a. The song has one section which is then repeated without its first phrase, which Venuum says are often called "incomplete repetition" form. The opening phrase, which is not repeated, is comparable to the introductory phrases or extended beginnings found in many fiddle tunes.

b. Phrase lengths vary from five to seven beats.10

c. There are monotone "tag" phrases at the ends of sections, comparable to the extended cadences found in the fiddling.

d. The contour gradually descends. As mentioned in the previous section, this feature occurs frequently in the Native fiddle tradition, but is not especially typical of non-Native fiddle styles which may begin with either a high or low part (see Transcription #2 for a fiddle example of one section form in descending contour).

Many of these characteristics are found in the Native song traditions of cultures other than the Ojibwa, notably other Plains groups (Netti 1954: 24). I used an Ojibwa example because it is closest to the roots of the people in Ebb and Flow and Camperville. It is probable, however, that the presence of these characteristics in a great range of Native tribal traditions accounts for their presence in fiddle music throughout the northwest, where tribal roots may be Cree, Blackfoot, Dene, Kutchin, or others.

Several musical researchers, such as Alan Merriam (1964:314), Richard Waterman (207), and Bruno Nettl (1953:216) have contended that syncretism between two musical cultures is more likely to take place if the two groups "have a number of characteristics in common" (Merriam 1955:28). Further, both Merriam and Nettl cite the case of European and North American Indian music as one in which the

styles are unrelated and therefore did not blend (Merriam 1964:314; Netti 1973). 1 maintain that European fiddle traditions and North American Indian music do share some characteristics and that, contrary to the belief of other researchers, such a blending did take place in the fiddle music of the Canadian northwest. The characteristics held in common by the two traditions, which may have encouraged their blending, include the following:

a. Texture—Both traditions consist of melody with percussive accompaniment. In Native tradition the melody is provided by voices and accompanied by various percussion instruments, while the resources were generally limited to the fiddle melody and foot-tapping of the individual player." The fact that the sound of the fiddle is close to the human voice probably encouraged the Native transition to playing a melody instrument. By all accounts, it did not take long for fiddles to become well established in Native music-making, eventually replacing vocal music entirely in some areas.12

b. Rhythm—There is a steady underlying pulse in both traditions, either subdivided into two or three. The two main Ojibwa and Plains drum rhythms of

etc. and can be fit easily to Scots-Irish fiddling, 2/4 tunes in the first case (reels and marches) and 6/8 tunes in the second (jigs).

c. Melodic embellishment—In both traditions the melody is frequently embellished with ornamentation or slight variation from one repeat to the next.

d. Pitch set—Although the question of intonation in Native music and in fiddle tradition has yet to be dealt with comprehensively, the scales used in Native songs are not dissimilar to those used in Scots-Irish fiddle music. Thus, there are melodies in both major or minor sevenths, while fourths and fifths seem to be stable points. The use of 'gapped' scales is also frequent in both traditions: in other words, melodies whose major intervals are often thirds and fourth rather than seconds (see "One Wind" for an Ojibwa example of this principles, and Transcription #2 for a fiddle tune). The fact that the fiddle does not have tempered tuning built into it and is adaptable to any concert of intonation again may have encouraged the blending of the two traditions.

e. Contour—Ojibwa and Plains Indian music is generally descending in contour ('One Wind' is a typical example). The two-part form of Scots-Irish tunes easily allows the high parts to be played first, whether or not they were originally, thus adapting them more closely to Native tradition.

What the two traditions did not share were their approach to form in general, the lengths of the phrases (largely irregular in Native tradition and regular in Scots-Irish fiddling), and the use of introductory lines, monotone tags, and one-section form (all found in Native music and not in the Scots-Irish fiddle tradition). These Native features are the very ones that have become an integral part of the fiddling in this study and are what sets this music apart from all non-Native fiddle traditions.

Individual Variation

Versions of the same tune vary considerably from one player to the next. According to conversations I had with several players, there seems to be a fairly widely-held belief that every fiddler should have his own version of a tune which is different from that of other players.'3 Moreover, the three oldest players in the study, Grandy Fagnan, Willie Mousseau, and Fred McKay, also vary their playing considerably from one repeat of a tune to the next. In contrast, the younger players generally do not, even when playing tunes they learned directly from the older players. This may be attributable to the influence of recordings on young players, which provide them with 'frozen' versions of tunes, perhaps thus psychologically undermining the art of variation.

The kinds of personal variation practised by the older players include not only changes of bowing and embellishments of the melody, but melodic alterations which significantly change the length of the phrases from one repeat to the next. These changes occur in several ways:

a. Motifs are frequently added or dropped at the beginning, the end, or in the middle of phrases. In the middle, a short motif may be repeated different numbers of times on subsequent repeats of the tune (see Transcription #4, B part).

b. Key notes of the phrase are embellished and thereby lengthened, usually the tonic or fifth. This feature occurs most often at the cadences where the final notes are extended for varying numbers of beats on different repeats of the tune, but may also occur at other points in the phrase. This embellishment of important pitches is the main way of extending the opening phrase of a tune as well (see Transcription #1d, Mousseau version, the first 5 beats where both tonic and fifth are emphasized before the tune really gets underway).

c. A rising or falling melodic line may be compressed or extended (see Transcription #2a, Fagan version, end of phrase 3).

We do not know if personal variation techniques, such as those listed above, were also a part of old Ojibwa songs. In the fiddling, however, these techniques contribute to the asymmetric nature of the tunes and reveal a dependence on short motivic units as building blocks in the overall form, both of which are strong traits of the Ojibwa song tradition. In addition, adding onto the beginnings and endings of phrases while leaving the middle intact is reminiscent of the structural principle pointed out in "One Wind" (see Note #10), where phrases are based on one isorhythmic pattern with variations at the beginning and end.

Summary and Conclusions

Older Ojibwa music and the French-Canadian and Scots-Irish fiddle traditions already had certain features in common when they met in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some syncretism may have taken place in Québec already, both between French song and Scots-Irish instrumental music, thus explaining some of the irregular phrase lengths in Québécois fiddling, However, the irregularity in Québec may also be due to western Native influence working its way back along the fur trade routes into the east. In any case, the elements that Scots-Irish fiddling and Québécois fiddling had in common with Native music were maintained by Native players, in particular the rhythms, pitch sets, texture, embellishments, and melodic contours. Other elements were altered according to the Native aesthetic: the length of the phrases, their patterns of repetition, the treatment of beginnings and endings of individual phrases, sections, and whole tunes. Also, both Native song and Native fiddling reflect a kind of 'one-beat' approach to rhythm, in which the music is felt as a continuous series of steady beats without setting up any expectations in terms of grouping the beats into longer units.

This 'one-beat' character and the melodic and structural features discussed are remarkably different from the source fiddle traditions involved (Québécois, ScotsIrish, and American). Moreover, all of them reflect the aesthetic of older Ojibwa tradition. Therefore, I maintain that this is indeed syncretic music, a blending of Native and European musics of which other researchers have found no evidence in North America. A form "having the features of both" traditions has been created in the fiddle music of Camperville and Ebb and Flow.

Notes TO The Transcriptions

Each transcription is followed by a chart indicating main sections (Parts), phrases, and the number of beats in each phrase. Division of points in the melodies, as indicated by longer notes or reiteration of notes over several beats is followed by leaps to new material. There is no way at this time of determining whether or not my perception of phrasing would correspond to the player's as such concepts as "phrasing" are not generally articulated in this tradition.

Because grouping the beats into larger metrical units is not always appropriate in this music, time signatures are indicated in brackets only to indicate the genre of tune, whether ajig (6/8) or a reel, two-step, second change, et cetera (2/4). Half bars are added to the transcription as an aid to reading only and do not necessarily correspond to the bracketed time signatures. Neither are they meant to indicate phrasing or accentuation.

1. Haste to the Wedding

The seven versions in this transcription are done paradigmatically, with each phrase corresponding to the original 4-beat 'standard' (O'Neill's 1001 Gems: Dance Music of Ireland, reprint 1965:200). Players are ordered from oldest to youngest in each of the two communities, as those are the lines which show the closest correspondences. Eddie Klyne's version is the exception to this and is placed at the end as it has the most in common with the 'standard' and the least with any other local version. It is likely that he learned it from a recording of a non-local player.

Note that all three Ebb and Flow versions have B parts in an "a a b" pattern, here marked "3 3 2" as the last phrase is the same as the last phrase of the A part.

York University,

North York, Ontario


1. A tape of the musical examples transcribed in this paper is available from the author. Please write Anne Lederman, do Falcon Productions, 783A Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario M6H 2J3, and enclose a blank cassette.

Two record sets of the fiddle music discussed are also available commercially from Falcon Productions under the title Old Native and Métis Fiddling in Manitoba. Volume 1 contains music from EBb and Flow and the surrounding communities of Bacon Ridge, Eddystone, and Kinosota, and Volume II from Camperville and Pine Creek. Each is a double album or 90-minute tape with an accompanying 20-page book of photographs, interviews, and background information.

Much of the material in the above article is taken from the author's Master's thesis (York 1986), which should be consulted for more information on fieldwork, historical background, repertoire, musical characteristics, and comparison with Ojibwa music as well as biographies of players and transcriptions.

2. The relatively late date of availability of commercial recordings in the area reflects the poverty of the inhabitants. The first memory of a gramophone in the community is from the early 1940s. However, it is possible that commercially recorded tunes had entered the repertoire earlier from aural sources.

3. For a review of historical sources of information on fiddling in the Canadian Northwest, see Lederman, Chapter Two.

4. For a comparative study of "The Red River Jig" and "La Grande Gigue Simple," see Gibbons, 71-114.

5. Players always sit at home and in my experience older players sit a public events also, while younger ones sometimes stand when playing for dances.

6. The different rhythmic characters of various fiddle traditions are difficult to describe verbally and should be experienced through listening.

7. Pinning down characteristics, such as offbeat accents or double-stringing to one area of origin is dangerous. For example, some Québécois players also play with a heavy offbeat accent, which may or may not have come from American, or, for that matter, Manitoba influence. Some Scottish and Irish styles feature offbeat accents while double-stringing is characteristic of older Scottish playing and American playing, as noted.

8. By comparison, French-Canadian tunes contain only minor irregularities of form, such as an occasional three, five, or six-bet phrase in tunes that are otherwise in standard form. See Ornstein, Transcriptions F1, p. 68 and F23, p. 140 for examples of irregular structures found in Québec.

9. I used Densmore's recordings for comparison and not her transcriptions, which contain many inaccuracies.

10. Phrase lengths vary even though all phrases in Ojibwa songs are frequently based on the same basic rhythmic pattern, a principle called "Isorhythm." Additions at the beginnings and/or ends of phrases account for their differing lengths (see chart of the "rhythmic unit" following the transcription of "Our Wind"). Although the principle of isorhythm is not so obvious in fiddle music, which is often a more or less steady stream of even notes, additions at the beginnings and endings of phrases on subsequent repetitions are a feature of many of the tunes (See Transcription #la, Fagnan version where subsequent repeats of each phrase vary in length). These changes are a part of the variation style practised by many of the older fiddlers (see the following section on "Individual Variation").

11. Chord instruments were extremely rare in the northwest until recently. The first guitar in the area of this study was bought by Mr. Fagnan through mail order around 1928, and there are no keyboard instruments in homes or community halls down to the present day, although a couple of players say they learned a bit of piano chording while staying in Sanitoria in other parts of the province. Guitar accompaniment has become popular over the last forty years or so, but fiddlers still frequently play alone or with another fiddler.

12. In the area of this study, many older players say that there was virtually no singing outside of hymns in church in their youth, only violin. This situation seems to have prevailed form about the turn of the century up to the 1 950s, when country music began to become popular.

13. The principle involves some contradiction. For example, there are also some strong ideas of the 'right' way to play a tune. This could be another example of Native and non-Native values co-existing in the tradition and is discussed in greater detail in the "Individual Variation" section of the booklet accompanying the recordings, Old Native and Métis Fiddling in Manitoba, Volumes I and II (Falcon FP 18887 and 287).

14. The French song tradition in both Canada and France exhibits much asymmetric phrasing. Even though most of the fiddle music in Québec is traceable to Scots-Irish roots, this strong song tradition may have exerted its influence on the structure of fiddle tunes.


Bayard, Sam. Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife: Instrumental Folk Tunes in Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State UP, 1982.

Densmore, Fances. Songs of the Chippewa. AAFS L22. Archive of American Folk Song. Washington DC, 1950.

Gibbons, Roy. Folk Fiddling in Canada: A Sampling. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada Mercury Series, #35, 1981.

Howard, James H. The Plains Ojibwa or Bungi. Lincoln, Nebraska: J & L Wedgewood Re-print Co., 1977.

Lederman, Anne. Old Native and Métis Fiddling in Two Manitoba Communities: Camper-ville and Ebb and Flow. M.A. Thesis, York University, 1986.

Merriam, Alan P. "The Use of Music in the Study of a Problem of Acculturation," American Anthropologist 57(1955): 28-34.

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Morton, W.L. Manitoba: A History. 2nd ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P., 1967.

Netti, Bruno. Stylistic Change in Folk Music. Southern Folklore Quarterly 17(1953): 216-20.

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____. Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973.

Ornstein, Lisa. . Life of Music: History and Repertoire of Louis Boudreault, Traditional Fiddlerfrom Chicoutimi, Québec. M.A. Thesis, Université Laval.

Thede, Marion Unger. The Fiddle Book. New York: Oak, 1967.

Vennum, Richard. "African Influence on Music of the Americas." In Sol Tax, ed. Acculturation in the Americas. Chicago: Proceedings of the 28th International Congress of Americanists II, 1952, 207-18.

Résumé: La plus vieille inusique de violon de Camperville et Ebb et Flow cotole le syncretisme en montrant clairement des origines autochtones et allogenes. Les communautés forment partie d 'un réseau culture! et musical crée par le commerce de fourrures des XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, dont les routes s 'etendaient du Québec en Alaska.

L'influence autochtone estée évidente dans les structures des airs du violon, qui sont souvent tres différentes de celles des traditions du violon des allogenes. A bien des regards, ces structures experiment des traditions de chant des autoch tones d 'Ojibway et des Plaines.