This is high praise and what many Cape Breton fiddlers hope to hear from their audience. Because having “dirt in your music” means you can communicate the feeling and spirit of the land and family and Gaelic culture through your instrument.
Cape Breton is a place where music and dance is foundational to the Gaelic culture that remains remarkably pure here. In this place, conveying the essence behind the tune is more important than hitting every note perfectly.
Perhaps one of the reasons I connect strongly to this place is the strong Gaelic culture. This part of Cape Breton was settled by Highland Scots who were forced from their lands and moved here for a new start. And since Cape Breton did not have a bridge connecting it to the mainland until the 1950s, much of the music and way of life remained un-corrupted from outside influences for generations.
But it is familiar because many Highland Scots emigrated to North Carolina and I hear the the same musical roots in the Cape Breton fiddle music that I grew up hearing in our hometown bluegrass. Here they play in community halls and in homes. Back in North Carolina we had bluegrass every Friday night at the community college and at local events and weddings and celebrations.
In both places the music is danced with a similar step dance or clogging or square dancing.
The same musical roots, but they evolved differently. The sound here is more traditional – you can imagine hundreds of years ago the same tunes were played in ceilidhs all over Cape Breton and in the Highlands before emigration. (Ceilidhs is pronounced Kay-lees – literally visitations when neighbors go visit neighbors and bring music and stories and company.) The fiddle is the star, and most play with a piano and/or bagpipes that follow the lead of the fiddler as they spin from tune to tune for 3 minutes to a half hour.
Back home in North Carolina you hear the banjo and the soulful gospel roots that have blended to make our southern bluegrass reflect the many cultures that combined in the Carolinas, and integrated the Gaelic tunes as part of the stew. But you still recognize the Gaelic tunes and playing in the mix.
The music is different, but the same.
Because in both places the music is not the notes or the instruments or classical schooling – many of these musicians play by ear and don’t read music. And this music is certainly not about big stages and light shows and costumes and MTV.
In both places the music gives voice to the heart and spirit of a community … and the musicians themselves. And when the audience hears the dirt in the playing, it means they have recognized themselves and their home.