Eddy Arsenault: fisherman, carpenter, chorister, and one of the best fiddlers of Prince Edward Island died September 18th at a hospital in Summerside, just short of his 93rd birthday. He was born in St. Chrysostome in the Evangéline (Acadian) region of Prince Edward Island. The son of Arcade and Madeleine Arsenault he was known as Eddy à Arcand. Not until 1943 when he enlisted in the army and looked at his birth certificate did he realize that his real name was Alfred J. Arsenault, but everyone called him Eddy. After a tour overseas as an army vehicle operator he returned home and married Rita. They had seven children and four grew up to be musicians, including two members (Helen and Albert) of the group Barachois. For more than forty years, Eddy was a lobster fisherman in Egmont Bay. He has been playing fiddle since he was 16 years old and his fiddle style is a blend of Cape Breton and Acadian French styles. He made two recordings: Eddy Arsenault-Egmont Baie in 1981 and a cassette tape in 1993 called Piling on the Bois Sec. His music is also featured on the cassette tape Party Acadien from 1995
Here's a great tune composed and played by Réjean Simard in honor of Francine Desjardins. Devon picked up the tune at a workshop with Réjean in Montreal last summer and I have added the audio file as well as a simple transcription of the tune. This, of course, is just the bare bones of the tune and should be used only as a preliminary learning tool. To learn more about the accordion style of Réjean Simard, check out his many Youtube videos.
Francine Desjardins comes from L'îsletville, a small town not far from Montmagny, the accordion capital of Canada. Her father started her off on the fiddle and accordion but she gradually moved to the accordion and started being noticed playing for weddings, sugar parties and corn huskings in Québec. In 1975 she joined the dance troupe "Les Danseurs de St.-Louis-Maillet de Madawaska in New Brunswick. She toured Europe and played at the Mariposa festival in Toronto as well as the Carrefour Mondial de L'accordéon in Montmagny. She has made several recordings, including a 1996 "Hommage à mon père" and a 2003 album of tunes from Philippe Bruneau.
Born and raised on the Magdalen Islands, Jerome Arsenault, also known as Vilbon le Violoneux, is an excellent traditional fiddler with a repertoire that reflects old Acadian tune sources, Québécois tunes translated to the islands via either older players or possibly radio stations, and many other genres (he participates in a bluegrass hoedown weekly at The Wheel Club in Montreal and even played in a Russian ballet in the 1980s). Yann Falquet and I (Devon Léger), visited Jerome at his apartment in Chateaugay (a suburb of Montreal) in May 2014. A police officer for many years, first in the suburb of Outremont and then in Montreal, Jerome has worked hard to connect Madelinots (Magdalen Islanders) living off the islands. In the nearby town of Verdun he helped found a large social club for Madelinot and had a local park renamed “le parc des madelinots”. He remembers a time when there were a good number of Acadian fiddlers in Montreal (Aurelien Jomphe was a name that came up, and Jerome lent us a cassette tape of him to digitize), but it seems now that he’s the last of the old guard. As a side note, young Montréalais fiddler Matthieu Gallant is a fellow Madelinot fiddler who’s quite a lot younger, but learned from Bertrand Deraspe and plays some lovely Acadian fiddle tunes as well as a wide selection of tunes from the Montreal québécois jams. Jerome still plays, though not a lot, and retains some of the power that was his hallmark in his youth. He tells wonderful, colorful stories, often long stories that wind around and around before getting to the punchline. In his work and through his generous spirit he’s met many famous people and was pleased to show us photos of himself with politicans, celebrities, even Joe Frazier, the great boxing champ. The best photo shows legendary Québécois politician René Levesque trying out Jerome’s fiddle while he looks on! His stories are impressive as well, especially the time that he busted a young, hippified Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, future Prime Minister of Canada, in a Montreal park for his long hair. He made Trudeau report to the police station the next day with a haircut, which Trudeau did! Sounds like Jerome was a tough cop!
Jerome Arsenault is best known for the LP he recorded in 1977 under the pseudonym Vilbon le Violoneux. It took us a while to confirm that Vilbon was not his given name, but it turns out he chose the name for the recording in honor of his much-loved grandfather (on his mother’s side), Vilbon Arsenault, a blacksmith (forgeron) from the Magdelans. Jerome was born in Havre-Aubert in 1932, making him 84 in 2014. His father was Azade Arsenault (not the same Azade as the one listed as the source for the amazing tune “Rigodon au p’tit Azade” on his LP) and his mother was Hilda Poirier, the adopted daughter of the original Vilbon. Jerome was one of six children, and the family lived on a large homestead. They had livestock (cows, sheep, chickens, pigs) and grew most of their own food. According to him, the family only bought suger and flour at the general store (his father bought huge sacks of flour to share with neighbors during the winter). Jerome’s first instrument was the harmonium (he started playing when he was 4), a kind of pump organ common in Atlantic Canada and often used to accompany fiddle tunes. After receiving the gift of a fiddle from an older brother, he began playing more fiddle and learning tunes from fiddlers in the surrounding region. Most of the tunes on his LP are listed as a Rigodon from so-and-so, who got it from so-and-so. Jerome talked a bit about these individual sources like the other Azade, who wasn’t a great fiddler and only had one tune to share, but also Onésime (last name??), or Charlie McKay. McKay was an interesting case, being an Anglo fiddler living in the far North of the island. On the LP, Jerome refers to the songs as “rigodons”, something he says is common in the islands, though I’ve found few examples of this. He also says that rigodon can be used to mean tunes particularly popular during Christmas. On the album, and from the few tunes we were able to record for him, there’s a strong connection between older Acadian fiddling styles and strong Québécois influences. Perhaps more so than in the fiddling of Jerome’s friend, the great Madelinot fiddler Bertrand Deraspe.
As a young man, Jerome played often for social dances on the island, which sound like informal affairs. He also played a lot for weddings, which he said typically lasted three days and brought the community together. The Fall was the best time for music, since the fishing was over by then and folks needed something to do. Jerome was much loved as a fiddler, both on the Islands and later in Montreal, where his penchant for social organizing and his charismatic personality made him a popular figure in the 1970s and 80s especially. He left the Islands as a young man in 1951 and found work in the mines of Ontario before moving to Montreal to work as a police officer for the town (later suburb) of Outremont. He worked as a police officer for the rest of his professional career, and was known popularly as “le policier violoneux” (the fiddling policeman). It’s funny that Jerome lived for years in Montreal, but when we went looking for him, none of the Montreal québécois musicians had any idea he was there. Our hope is that more folks in Montreal today will discover his music once they realize that he’s still living in the area and once they see what a charming, generous fellow he is! After recording the album in 1977, something he said he did mainly for the pleasure of it, Jerome hadn’t really been heard from in the larger circles of French-Canadian music, though his album remained and remains a touchstone of the genre of traditional Acadian fiddling. It’s great to have him back!
Contact Devon Leger (firstname.lastname@example.org) for Jerome’s contact information if you’d like to talk to him directly. He’s a charming guy!
Many thanks to the people who helped track down Jerome: Bertrand Deraspe from the Magdalens who made most of the connections, Yann Falquet who made the trip out with me, Léo Thériault who passed along Jerome’s phone number and address, Gilles Garand of La Grande Rencontre for bringing me out in the first place, and Matthieu Gallant who worked with Bertrand to make the connections. And of course the most thanks to Jerome Arsenault dit Vilbon le Violoneux for a lovely visit!
Léo (à Pat) Aucoin was born May 27th, 1923 in St. Joseph du Moine near Chéticamp in Cape Breton. He was a collector and singer of traditional Acadian songs, many of which were later published by Père Anselme Chiasson. Léo started singing at an early age and provided the entertainment for many house parties, especially during Mardi Gras and the Chandeleur. He sang with only the accompaniment of his foot tapping, and loved to just sing by himself for hours, just sitting in a chair. Later in life he wrote down his songs in notebooks and recorded 150 songs for a Heritage Canada project. He also made a compilation CD of 21 songs in 2002. Below you can listen to one of his songs and also try out some links for more information on Léo.
Considered the grandfather of Québécois accordion players, Alfred Montmarquette was born in New York on April 6, 1871. It wasn't until the early 1920's that he moved to Montréal and at 50 years old started playing accordion for audiences with Les Veillés du Bon Vieux Temps. In music he was self-taught and played by ear. He played with such great French Canadian musicians as La Bolduc, Ovila Légaré, Adélard St. Jean, Henri Langlois, Eugène Daigneault, and Arthur Lefebvre. He recorded over 100 accordion pieces, among them Gigue de Terrebonne, Reel de Chicoutimi and Reel de Valleyfield. Like many musicians at the time, he was unable to earn his living from his music and worked as a mason. He died May 24, 1944 at a hospice for the elderly: penniless, sick and an alcoholic.
A contemporary and friend of Alfred Montmarquette, he was often asked to fill in for the great accordionist who would become "indisposed" at dances. He grew up in Montreal, the son of a stone cutter. At age 6, he lost an eye and has to leave school when he was 10 and had difficulty with reading. He learned to play accordion from his older brother Honoré and they would hang out at the local parks, listening and playing music for the dances. By age 14, he was playing his Ludwig accordion at Parc Jeanne Mance and at dance halls. He married, had seven kids and worked at a sawmill then as a machinist in a munitions factory. In 1931 he met Alfred Montmarquette and they became good friends, sharing tunes and styles. After his daughter Lucienne married the fiddler Henri Wattier, he started playing concerts as a duet and when they met the pianist Edmond Moreau they became the "Les Trois Copains". They made their first recording in 1936 and then in 1940 recorded with RCA Victor on the Bluebird label as "Trio Pigeon". After seven intense years of touring and radio shows, Arthur bought some land and moved to the country. He took up farming and passed on his accordion skills to his two twin grandsons: Philias and Marcel Pigeon.
Les Frères Pigeon
The two twin grandsons of Joseph Arthur Pigeon, Philias and Marcel, have carried on his legacy of accordion playing. Born in 1931, they grew up listening to the music of their grandfather Arthur. When Arthur bought a new accordion, he passed on the old one to the twins and for awhile they shared it, each playing for on hour. They also were helped and influence by the great accordionist Philippe Bruneau (1934-2011) who lived nearby. By age 15 they were playing for local dances and weddings. Their musical careers were interrupted after they married but the returned to their love of the accordion after meeting up with Raynald Ouellet, the accordionist for the band Eritage and a close neighbor to Philias. They have recorded the tunes that were played by their grandfather Arthur and many of these recordings can be heard at the website of Les Danseurs de L'île de Jésus": http://www.dmij.net/laval.html
Etienne Larocque was born in 1933 in the small fishing village of Cap Bateau on the island of Lamèque in northern New Brunswick. He has been playing fiddle since the age of 5 and by the time he was 11, he was playing for community dances most Saturdays. Starting in the 1980's, he entered and won many fiddle contests, winning more than 40 awards. He was four times New Brunswick champion and in 1983 won the famous maritime championship in Dartmouth. In 1990, he was chosen to represent New Brunswick at the Grand Masters Fiddling Contest in Nepean, Ontario. In 1993 he was inducted into the New Brunswick Country Music Hall of Fame. Etienne to this day is still fiddling up a storm and gives lessons to young promising fiddlers. He still lives in Cap Bateau in a beautiful house that he built himself.
Bertrand Déraspe is a fiddler from the Magdalen Islands (Iles de la Madelaine), a small chain of islands off the East Coast of Canada. He was born in Point-aux-Loups and worked as a lobster fisherman when not busy fiddling. He inherited a large répertoire of Acadian and "madelinots" tunes from his father, Arnold Deraspe and other Acadian fiddlers. Bertrand started playing fiddle when he was 4 years old and was already playing for weddings when he was 6. He has been a member of various music groups, including Suroit, Les Clapotis, and Vent'arrière. He recorded a solo album called "Mes Racines" (my roots) - featuring the traditional fiddle style of the Magdalen Islands as well as other Acadian styles from PEI and Chéticamp in Cape Breton.
The Magdalen Islands are a group of small islands in the shape of a fishook that lie in the Gulf of St. Lawrence between New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Gaspé and Newfoundland. You can get there by airplane but the most rewarding trip is by boat, either from Montreal (3 days and 2 nights) or on a 5 hour ferry ride from Souris in Prince Edward Island. The main sources of income are fishing, hunting and tourism. The fiddling tradition is very strongly tied to the fishing industry and the "Madelinots" share the rich maritime tradition of the Acadians from PEI, New Bruswick and Cape Breton. We first discovered Bertrand through his CD "Vent'arrière" with Patrice Deraspe and Carole Painchaud. The first tune was "Célestin à Jos" and it totally blew us away. The recording starts off with the "toc-a-toc" sound of the old one lung "Make or Break" fishing boat motor and the fiddler takes up the off-beat rhythm and launches into the tune without a pause.
Further research into the music of the Magdalen Islands and Bertrand Deraspe led us to the archives of the Centre d'Etudes Acadiennes Anselme Chiasson at the University of Moncton. Robert Richard, the archivist, graciously allowed us access to their wonderful collection of field recordings and we found recordings of Bertrand's father, Arnold Deraspe. Here is a sound file of a tune called "Reel de la Morte" from these recordings.
Here is a a video that we found through the Université de Laval ethnology department with Bertrand playing a tune in the kitchen with his dad. The video starts off with a sweet twin fiddle waltz. Bertrand then talks in French about the fiddling style of the islands and the fact that many fiddlers play a slow style with very strong bowing. He demonstrates how Madelinots fiddlers have a different bow stroke than Cape Breton fiddlers. The Madelinot fiddlers, who were mostly fishermen with calloused hands and sometimes missing fingers, would tend to play with less notes and more rhythm.
Eloi LeBlanc was born in College Bridge, New Brunswick on November 26, 1909, died June 21, 1978 in Beaumont and was buried in Pré d’en Haut. He started playing fiddle at an early age, inspired by his fiddling maternal grandfather and uncle. Throughout his lifetime played for local dances and weddings, getting the nickname “The Fiddler of Memramcook Valley”. He had a phenomenal memory for tunes as well as a great knack for composition. Many of his tunes live on thanks to other fiddlers such as Den Messer who made them even more popular. He performed with Bob White’s Moncton Ploughboys, then on the Maritime Farmer’s radio show, and finally joined up with Kidd Baker and the Pine Ridge Mountain Boys in Ontario. He stayed with this band for 12 years and spent the final years of his life living with his sister Laura who was also his piano accompanist. Eloi recorded only one record album, “Eloi and his Fiddle” (Eloi et son Violon) on Les Productions Acadiennes LPA-1001-1977. Some of his tunes include: Le Reel de l’Hiver, Anne Marie Reel, Reel des Maritime Farmers, Narcisse à John (named after his maternal grandfather), and Eric à Théotime à Six Pouces (named after his uncle).
There are more than 25,000 Inuit living in Northern Canada, in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Nunuvik in Northern Quebec. Inuit music was primarily based on drumming and throat singing but after contact with European and American whalers, the music has included fiddles and accordions. In the 1800's, Scottish and American whalers hunting blowhead whales traded their tunes, dances, and instruments with the native Inuit and the musical traditions were passed down through the families. They danced squares, round dances, polkas, and waltzes to the sound of the accordion. Dorothy Harley Eber, in her book "When the Whalers Were up North" tells the story of Inuit whale hunters leaving up to 30 of their accordions in a shed for safekeeping while they went hunting. They would choose several from the pile when they came back to play for a dance then leave them back in the shed for the next group.
In an article published in the Bulletin de musique folklorique canadienne 34.1/2 (2000) called "Inuit Accordion Music-A Better Kept Secret", Jim Hiscott lists some of the great Inuit accordion players. They include:
Kaina Nowdluk and his brother in Iqaluit. They come from a musical family and their mother played accordion.
Edward May in Kuujjuaq
Andrew Atagotaaluuk’s sons in Inukjuak
Simeonie Keenainak from Pangnirtung north on Baffin Island (retired RCMP).
Elisapi Kasarnak from Pond Inlet
Qarpik Pudlat from Cape Dorset
Zebedee and Jeannie Nungak from Kangirsuk in Nunavik.
Avila was born March 14th, 1914 and died July 13th 2010 at Gros-Cap in the Magdalen Islands off the coast of Canada. He was 96 when he died and during his lifetime he was celebrated as a fisherman, folklorist and fiddler. He fished for lobster and herring in Baie de Plaisance with his father and brothers. During his lifetime he gathered stories about the life and times of the Madelinots and was a respected storyteller and oral historian. He was a friend of Père Anselme Chiasson, the great collector of folklore and a co-author with Jean-Claude Delorme of the book « Histoires Populaires des Iles » (A Popular History of the Islands). He is cited in another book as the guardian of the oral tradition of the islands: « Deux Cents Ans d’Histoire aux Iles de la Madelaine » (Two Hundred Years of History in the Magdalen Islands). Above all, Avila was a great fiddler. His father bought him his first fiddle for 38 cents. Finally, his uncle bought him a Simpson/Sears fiddle for $50 and this is the one he played for gatherings and dances through the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Many of his tunes were recorded by the department of folklore studies at the Université Laval and there are also recordings at the University of Moncton. Robert Richard, the Archivist at the Centre d'Etudes Acadiennes Anselme Chiassson has graciously sent us some recordings of Avila Leblanc which we share below along with an approximate notation. We have also included one of Avila's famous stories. Many of Avila's tunes are without titles and are known as either Rabestans (short pieces), Cotillons, Reels, and Gigues (Stepdances). La Bottine Souriante featured one of his tunes "Air de Cotillon" in a Pot-Pouri (medley) called "Surf and Turf" on their CD: "Tout Comme au Jour de l'An". Another great fiddler who knows and plays many of Avila's tunes is Lisa Ornstein. On her CD: "Par un Beau Samedi d'Eté" (One Fine Summer Day), she plays a medley of a cotillon sandwiched between two rabestans in "La Suite des Madelinots"