By Ed Staskus
“J’aurais quelque chose a dire.” Barachois
The Sterling Women’s Institute is the Stanley Bridge Hall on the corner of Route 6 and Rattenbury Road on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. The small town of Stanley Bridge spreads out in all directions.
A new traffic circle at the old intersection keeps the traffic moving. On one corner is the Race Trac gas station and farther down is the farmer’s market. Where the road flattens out at the river is the actual bridge that kids spend the summer jumping off down into the channel flowing out to the New London Bay.
The Women’s Institute is a yellow two-story clapboard building with white trim and a fair-sized deck. From the vantage of the front deck is a solitary house across the street, a cropland spread out wide and long, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a quiet building on rising ground, except when six nights a week ceilidhs fill the hall with Irish Scottish Acadian fiddles guitars pianos and step dancing.
The hall holds close to 150 if every seat and bench along the side is taken. The night the Arsenault Trio – Helene Arsenault Bergeron, Jonathan Arsenault, and his mother Louise Arsenault – joined by Gary Chipman, played their first show of the summer in Stanley Bridge on a Wednesday night, there were upwards of a hundred ready to go.
“It’s great to see you all, thanks for coming,” said Marsha Weeks, the host of the show.
“All set?” asked Gary Chipman.
“All set,” said Louise Arsenault.
Ceilidhs are concerts, but more like musical gatherings, often staged at small halls in the Canadian Maritimes. Not so long ago, and sometimes even today, they were more along the lines of a kitchen party, a kind of jam session at home with the neighbors. Whoever could play a fiddle or a guitar or belt out a song at the top of their lungs would inevitably find themselves in the kitchen with everyone else. In the middle of January a case of beer might be close at hand in the snow just outside one of the windows.
The word itself comes from the Old Irish for companion.
“On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house,” Donald Mackenzie wrote explaining ceilidhs more than a hundred years ago. “Some sing old songs set to old music or new music composed in the manner of the old.”
The music at Prince Edward Island ceilidhs is alert animate full of life, mainly jigs and reels, with a mix of waltzes and country songs. There are occasional vignettes about life on the island, some island humor, and stories about islanders making the music. Most of the shows are set in community centers, churches, town halls, and Lion’s clubs.
The Arsenault Trio ripped into the ‘Acadian Reel,’ an Evangeline Region tune in the Cape Breton style played in 4/4 time, in other words, on the fast side. From kitchen parties to laser-lit techno dance floors, the same rhythm pattern is part and parcel of the carousing. The signature style of Acadian fiddling is down home rhythmic drive with sawstroke syncopation, sometimes called shuffles.
“When you do the shuffle,” said Louise Arsenault, “it’s like two up bows in a row. That was dad’s style.”
The Evangeline Region of PEI is the land west of Summerside, from Miscouche to Mont Carmel to Abrams Village. Flags in blue, white, and red with a single gold star fly from front porches and front yards. Mailboxes are painted in the Acadian colors. The annual Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival features boot throwing, horse pulling, and a big music and dance party at the end.
The communities are about co-operatives, farming and fishing, vittles and fiddling.
“Where’s everybody from?” Marsha asked the crowd.
Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Ohio, Florida, and Australia were some of the answers.
“Massachusetts,” a man called out.
“Whatever you said,” said Marsha. “I can’t pronounce that.”
“Wellington,” another man called out.
Several in the audience, probably all from Prince Edward Island, laughed. Wellington is a small town on PEI. It is home to the head office of College Acadie as well as the Bottle Houses, which are three fantasy-like buildings made of approximately 30,000 recycled glass bottles.
Most of the year islanders have the island to themselves. In the summer ten times as many people as live on PEI visit there for a week-or-two.
“They gave it 150% and we could feel it down to our tappin’ toes,” said a man from Amherst, Massachusetts.
The Aussies in the audience thought it was an “all there bonzer” show.
“The energy was amazing,” said a woman from New South Wales, Australia. “We all clapped and stamped our feet.”
Gary Chipman announced he was going to sing a song.
“I’ve been told I have a great voice, but that I’m going to ruin it by singing,” he said. Still and all, he has been singing for many years. He sang ‘Prince Edward Island Is Heaven To Me,’ a country song penned in 1951 by Hal Lone Pine and recorded with his Lone Pine Mountaineers.
“The air is so pure, and the people so gay, Prince Edward Island, I’m coming to stay, there’s swimming and hunting and fishing galore, the sun shines so bright on its long golden shore, a touch of God’s great hand this island must be, Prince Edward Island is heaven to me.”
“Yes, sir!” somebody rang out at the end of the song.
Somebody else called out a request for the ‘Arkansas Traveler.’
“It was some hot day today,” said Louise Arsenault. “You can go from your fur coat to your bikini just like that here on this island.” A few days earlier it had rained eighteen hours straight and never reached fifty degrees. The day of the show it was a breezy sunny 74 degrees.
“Has anybody got a drink in his car?” asked Gary Chipman, to keep his singing voice well-oiled. He told a joke about a young woman in a tight skirt trying to board a bus.
The ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a plantation fiddle tune, a quick reel, from the early 19thcentury, one of the most famous of American fiddle tunes. Back in the day it was a barn raiser, meant to tear the audience up. The band tore into it, followed by ‘The Maid Behind the Bar’ and ‘Farmer’s Daughter.’
Jonathan Arsenault played ‘Cottonwood’ on his guitar. In the second half of the show he played ‘Jerry’s Breakdown.’ Written by Jerry Reed, a Nashville guitarist and country singer, the song is played finger-style on guitar in a similar way to the banjo.
“It’s a wicked hard tune to play, but Jonathan makes it look easy,” said Gary.
“When I was a boy, mom bought a little guitar at a flea market,” said Jonathan. “That was her only guitar back then. She sat me at a table, put the fiddle in her lap, and played a set. I learned to flat top pick from my mom, from the fiddle, since she didn’t have a second guitar to show me what a fret was.”
Step dancing is a part of most, if not all, ceilidhs on Prince Edward Island.
“Louise and I are from Acadian backgrounds,” said Helene Arsenault Bergeron. “We grew up with fathers playing the fiddle. In those days they didn’t have a lot of accompaniment, so they accompanied themselves with their feet. That way they always had their accompanists with them.”
She and Louise Arsenault stepped to the front of the stage.
“When you hear that every day, you learn how to play and dance and you don’t even remember learning it. We saw our fathers, aunts and uncles, and grandfathers, and it was just kind of always there, and so we’re going to do a dance for you now.”
The dancing was sparkling high-spirited swashbuckling.
“I was waiting all night for that,” said Jonathan.
Step dancing descends from traditional Irish dancing. Tap dancing is a modern form of it. It is a looser form. The arms move along with the feet. Step dancers keep their upper bodies still with their arms at their sides, except when they don’t, when they’re fiddling at the same time.
Creating your own melody by using your feet is challenging enough, but fiddling a reel at the same time as step dancing like the Arsenault’s do is gnarly, time to sit up and take notice. Louise and Helene do it like a walk in the park, no matter the large front tap on one of Helene’s shoes secured with black electrical tape.
Louise grew up down the road from Helene and Albert Arsenault, who she would later collaborate with in a roots music band. Her father, Alyre Gallant, played music, too. “I grew up in a musical family,” she said. “My father played the fiddle and my mother played the pump organ. I started playing when I was seven. I learned a lot of tunes from my dad.”
At a time in the 1960s when few Prince County girls picked up the fiddle, her father jigged tunes when she was a girl so she could find them on her instrument.
The first half of the show ended with a series of reels. “Whoop, whoop,” someone in the audience shouted. Someone else stamped their feet. It was getting dark on the other side of the windows. It was still fired up inside the hall.
The second half opened the same way as the first half, with the ‘Acadian Reel.’ The song is the work of Eddy Arsenault, a carpenter and fisherman and one of the hands-down best fiddlers on PEI for more than 70 years. Helene Bergeron’s father, he blended local Acadian fiddling with the Scottish approach.
“Is this a new tune,” asked Marie Gallant Arsenault the first time she heard the song a few minutes after its composition. “It is lively.”
“Yes, it is,” said Eddy Arsenault. “What are we going to call it?”
“That sounds right like Acadian music,” said Marie. “Why don’t you call it the Acadian Reel?”
The name stuck.
Even though Eddy Arsenault wrote it, it’s the kind of song that was never new and never gets old.
Gary Chipman strolled into ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ inviting everyone to join in, which many did, some of their voices uncommonly good.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray, you’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.”
After Gary put his guitar down to the side, Helene stepped around her piano to the front of the stage, and brought some perspective to the sunshine song that had brought a warm glow to the hall.
“Louise and I used to be in a band called Barachois,” she said.
Helene Arsenault Bergeron got her start as a fledgling in a barn putting on step dancing shows set to old records scratching out fiddle tunes. She watched her elders. “The kitchen parties we had at my grandfather’s and at our house, everybody was always jumping up to dance because the fiddling, the music was so lively.” By her 30s she was one of the best step dancers on Prince Edward Island. She took up the piano, taking on the Cape Breton style, with lift, syncopated, marked by step dancing rhythms.
“Jonathan would come on tour with us when he was a small boy, and he just loved this song we’re going to do for you. Some of the older generation, they used to compose songs as a way of keeping track of local events. It’s a song about an old maid, an old girl, whose neighbor, a young girl, asks for advice about getting married, but the old girl is disillusioned, so it’s not a very encouraging song.”
Louise threw her head back and laughed zestfully full-mouthed.
“It’s called ‘The Family Song,’” said Helene.
Later in the summer Gary might tell a joke about a RCMP officer who calls his station from a crime scene.
“I have an interesting case here,” he says. “A woman shot her husband for stepping on the floor she just mopped.”
“Have you arrested her?” asks his sergeant.
“No, not yet, the floor’s still wet.”
After more hoedowning by the band, Helene and Louise brought two chairs to the center front of the stage.
“Helene and I are going to do a sit down dance,” said Louise. “It’s not because we’re lazy. We can dance standing, we can dance sitting, so here we go!”
Their arms at their sides, their hands gripping the sides of their seats, able-bodied, their feet a breakdown blur, seeming to never leave the floor no matter the tapping, they chair danced up a storm.
Marsha Weeks walked out from the wings with her fiddle.
“You know it’s a great show when the host comes back on stage,” said Jonathan.
Gary, who taught Marsha how to play, picked up his fiddle, as did Helene and Louise.
Gary Chipman has been playing the fiddle since he was five-years-old. He says it was “about a hundred years ago.” Later in life he picked up the guitar and vocals, when “Elvis Presley and the boys came along and the fiddle was out.” With the revival of PEI fiddling in the 1990s, he rosined up his bow again. He earned a degree in clinical psychology, but says it “only made me a smarter fiddle player.”
A hundred years later he concedes, “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”
They played an arrangement of the ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ a tune from the 1940s whose lyrics were first written down on the back of a matchbox and whose music by Pee Wee King remains sad and lively to this day, tracing a man and a woman turning around and around a dance floor.
“I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz, when an old friend I happened to see, I introduced her to my loved one, and while they were dancing, my friend stole my sweetheart from me.”
They played a pretty arrangement on four fiddles of the pastoral melody ‘The Rosebud of Allenvale.’
Although they had been letting it rip all along, at the last Gary and the Arsenault’s let it rip. “We’re going to end with the fastest tune of the night, I’m pretty sure,” said Marsha. They dove headlong into an instrumental version of the ‘Orange Blossom Special.’
Laisse les aller!
The tune is for raising high the roof beam. It is sometimes just called ‘The Special’ and is known as the fiddle player’s national anthem. For a long time fiddle players needed to know how to play that one song before being able to join any bluegrass band.
“It is a vehicle to exhibit the fiddler’s pyrotechnic virtuosity,” wrote Norm Cohen in his book about railroads in folksongs. “It is guaranteed to bring the blood of all but the most jaded listeners to a quick, rolling boil.”
No one at the Stanley Bridge ceilidh was left jaded as the last notes of the ‘The Special’ steamed away into the night.
“She’s the fastest train on the line, it’s that Orange Blossom Special, rollin’ down the seaboard line.”
The show ended with hootin’ and hollerin’ and a big round of applause.
“If you had a great time, please tell everybody at your cottage and campgrounds,” said Marsha as the lights came up. “If you didn’t have a good time, you can just see Gary in the kitchen after the show.”
It wouldn’t be a kitchen party if something lively wasn’t going on in the kitchen.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.