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Wednesday August 18, 2010

Lord of the square dance helped preserve Cape Breton's heritage

Special to The Globe and Mail

The son of a Cape Breton fiddling pioneer, John Campbell found himself following in his father's footsteps when, at nine years of age, he was pushed onto an outdoor stage to perform a lively dance tune at a wedding. It was his first public performance.

Campbell, who died on July 22 in Watertown, Mass., aged 81, was one of Cape Breton's great fiddlers, best known for his square-dance playing. He inherited a legacy of Scottish fiddle music and style from his father, Dan J. Campbell, who was one of the first fiddlers in the region to record his music.

"People on the floor just loved to dance with him," said Campbell's long-time friend and accompanist Doug MacPhee. "He would pack the halls. In a hall, four or five great dancers would be dancing in front of him. He would be playing for them. They would feed off one another.

"He was considered one of the best square-dance players."

For most of the last two centuries, Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island has been culturally dominated by the Scots who arrived there in large numbers - as many as 50,000 - in the first half of the 19th century, mainly as a result of the highland clearances. The island's Scottish culture has endured, and Scottish traditional music has never lost its popularity. Violin-based and dance-oriented, the music Campbell played is best known as "Cape Breton Scottish violin music" or "fiddle music."

Born on Jan. 23, 1929, in Glenora Falls - on Cape Breton's west coast, where Gaelic culture continues to thrive - John Campbell was one of 10 children. "It was a musical family," said his sister Helen Campbell-MacLaren, who later accompanied her brother on piano. "We were an earlier version of the Rankin family."

As early as the mid-1930s, his father, Dan J., had produced an album, and his mother, Mary, was an accomplished pianist. By the time John was 10 years old, he was in demand, receiving frequent requests to play at local halls. But his parents and the local priests were reluctant to let such a young boy play at dances where alcohol flowed freely.

His father insisted that he learn to play by note and become familiar with the great Scottish tunes. "I always wanted to sound like my father," John told The Oran, a weekly newspaper in Inverness, N.S., last year. "He learned from books, but he always had that traditional sound, which isn't written anywhere."

But it was witnessing Winston "Scotty" Fitzgerald, a renowned Cape Breton fiddler, play at a dance in the late 1940s that greatly influenced Campbell to forge his own path and pursue a professional career in music.

"I remember I was dancing with this girl, and Winston launched into the jig, The Canty Old Man," he recalled in an interview. "Four hundred dancing people got sent into the next level. He kept playing it over and over; seemed like something new each time. I just left the girl on the dance floor and went up to the front of the stage and stared."

In search of higher-paying work, Campbell moved to Boston in the early 1960s along with an influx of other Nova Scotians. He found it driving an oil truck and eventually built a successful company installing and servicing furnaces. Before long he was an instrumental part of the Cape Breton music scene in Boston, organizing countless concerts and dances at places such as the Canadian-American Club of Massachusetts and the Gaelic Club. A great promoter of Cape Breton fiddle music, he often invited musicians from home to the Boston area.

"John was an extremely popular dance player. He had impeccable timing. He just had it in his soul," said Bob MacEachern, owner of The Hawk radio station in Port Hawkesbury, N.S. "Step dancers often requested him."

For years, Campbell played at the Chestico Days Step Dancing Festival, held every summer in Port Hood, N.S. MacEachern remembers him sweating in the hot sun while playing non-stop for five hours. When asked if he wanted a break, Campbell piped back: "They're not going to kill me today."

An exacting player who despised hitting a wrong note, Campbell would lose himself completely while playing. He always sat while he played for a dance and would close his eyes in concentration. "He would need five shirts for a dance. He would sweat so much," said his sister Mary Campbell.

In addition to his playing, Campbell composed many tunes in traditional styles, putting his own creative stamp on them. His most widely known composition, Sandy MacIntyre's Trip to Boston, has been recorded by musicians around the world, including Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster.

Last year, Campbell released a collection, A Cape Breton Legacy, published by Mel Bay, which contains many of his own tunes, including Sandy MacIntyre's Trip to Boston, Highway Reel, Panel Mine Jig, Glenora Reel and Father Francis Cameron.

"His mind was going all the time, putting tunes together," said MacPhee, recalling the days when Campbell drove an oil truck in Boston in the 1970s. "He'd get home and say, 'Doug, get your music paper and pen out and write this down.'"

He also played and recorded many of the old arrangements that people loved and that his father had played, in the hope that they would be preserved. A music teacher for many years, he taught from his home in Watertown, Mass., just northwest of Boston, and at the Canadian-American Club.

"He influenced a lot of players," MacEachern said. "He kept traditional music he heard as a young fellow as part of his repertoire to keep the songs alive."

While a dance hall was his typical venue, Campbell was once called upon to play in a theatre, accompanying professional ballet dancers in Des Moines, Iowa, after the head of the ballet company picked up a copy of his first recording and was inspired to create a dance to his music.

"We got a kick out of that," recalled MacPhee, who accompanied Campbell. "There were ballet dancers flying through the air to reels and jigs."

Campbell continued to play until about five years ago, when his health started failing him after a series of strokes.

John Campbell leaves his wife, Beatrice; five children; seven grandchildren; six siblings; and his extended family.

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