History of the Maritime Fiddle Festival
Money was needed to build a church…
It was early 1950. A group of men had gathered in Ed Greenough’s kitchen to discuss fundraising for their new church building, a temporary structure which would serve the growing community of what would later become East Dartmouth. In addition to Ed Greenough, the group included Father Ernest Sweeney, Charlie Lethbridge, Don Currie, Jack Brenton, John MacCormick, and George Meisner.
At the time, the parish group was served by a mission of St. Peter’s Church. This group would be the start of the community’s true dream – their own independent parish - St. Thomas More. So, the usual ideas were tossed around: bingo, a variety show, a minstrel show. But someone had an inspired suggestion and there was no need for further discussion.
Why don't we hold an old time fiddling contest?
Old-time, or country fiddling, was the principal folk-music activity in Canada dating back to the earliest European settlers; there was even a distinctive Maritime tradition coming from the ancient lyrical Acadian style and from the Scottish style of Cape Breton Island where the fiddlers employed embellishments to mimic bagpipes. Nova Scotia was, and still is, a province of fiddlers, many playing home made instruments. Yet by 1950, this indigenous musical heritage was threatened. The effect of television which had lately come on the entertainment scene was moving rock and roll and other styles of music to the forefront in Nova Scotia and around the world. While new styles of music had always been embraced in Nova Scotia, many worried that old-time fiddling, and important provincial heritage tradition, was in danger of becoming a footnote in history.
So it was that the community felt they could not only build a parish, but they could also ensure the survival of one of Nova Scotia’s most recognizable styles of music. As Father Ernest Sweeney put it at the time, here was an opportunity to cash in on a latent feeling for the home-made Nova Scotian music, while at the same time doing something to reawaken interest in an important part of our cultural heritage.
Arrangements would not be easy. In the 1940s and 50s, fiddling contests were local country events tied to an earlier generation. Events in the country were an outgrowth of country kitchen parties that were far less common in the city. How many fiddlers would be willing to travel from country to city to display their talents in an unfamiliar environment, perhaps before an unappreciative audience, with only the possibility of a trophy at the end of the night in return? Ed Greenough and Father Sweeney, both of whom grew up with fiddling, called in all their old debts. The result was an assembly of ten fiddlers and about an equal number of step dancers who promised to participate in the first contest.
A Modest Start
The first Old-Time Fiddling and Step Dancing Contest took place in the spring of 1950. It was staged in the unfinished church building. There was a respectable attendance and the event was sufficiently successful that a second contest was organized not long after. But there was certainly no indication that first time that anything exceptional had taken place. The men of St. Thomas More did not know what they had started.
A Traffic Jam, and Things Get Busy
What everyone seems to remember about the second contest was the traffic jam. The contest organizers weren’t prepared for the crowds that had heard about the first event and showed up to the second. To accommodate as many people as possible, the windows of the hall were opened so that the overflowing crowd outside would still hear the music.
By the time the third contest was held, it had been moved to the Dartmouth Memorial Rink. Attendance was now in the thousands. A parishioner who had acted as master of ceremonies on the first two occasions couldn’t believe the impressive attendance. He contracted stage fright at the last minute and had to be replaced by Father Sweeney.
The Dartmouth Memorial Rink remained the contest site for years to come. It was a gathering place for three to four thousand fans who gathered annually to participate and listen to old time fiddling competitions and watch step dancers cross the stage with skill and grace. An old wooden structure redolent of a country barn, the rink was an ideal setting for foot-stomping down-home music. Many a spectator, having come to watch, was seized by the spirit (and in some cases the “spirits”) and ended up jigging in the aisles! There was one exception to the rink as a location for the early years of the festival. In 1964 it was held in the old Halifax Forum.
No longer was there a question about finding contestants. When Mike MacDougall won the first monetary prize in 1956, the papers pointed out that he had traveled all the way from Ingonish Beach in Cape Breton -“especially to compete in the annual event”. In those days that was a long journey, but the organizers were no longer astonished at such efforts. As the reputation of the annual competition spread, fiddlers and step dancers had been coming from far and wide. In turn, ticket sales increased. Dartmouth residents and contest attendees came to expect traffic jams and long lines. Many were turned away from sold out shows disappointed at not being able to get a ticket.
The increased revenue meant that cash prizes could be offered and door prizes added. Celebrities were added to the program. Ned Landry was a guest star and judge in 1957, Earl Mitton appeared in 1958. Don Messer and his Islanders played for the dance that followed the competition in 1959. In other years, the festival included appearances by Cec MacEachern, Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald, and John Allen Cameron.
The Contest Loses a Venue, But Gains a TV Audience
By the mid-sixties, so many contestants were participating that the contest was running to two and three in the morning. It became clear that healthy development required pruning. To shorten the evening, step dancing was eliminated as a competitive category, remaining solely as entertainment. In turn, the event was renamed the Maritime Old-Time Fiddling Contest. The show evolved over the years but never failed to draw a crowd.
Jim Delaney took on the role of contest chair, taking on that role
in 1961 from one of the early founders - John MacCormick. Delaney was
involved with the festival for over 30 years, and was instrumental in
slowly changing the festival into something much more like audiences
1974 became a year of major changes for the festival. This was perhaps fitting as the event was celebrating the 25th Anniversary. A professional master of ceremonies, Vince Mountford, appeared for the first time and the event was expanded to two nights, with “Scottish” and “Under Sixteen” classes were added to the competition. Around the same time, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) discovered the value of regional culture and turned the event into a broadcast program. Fate added one more change. Just as plans were nearing completion, the Dartmouth Memorial Rink burned to the ground on May 16, 1974. The contest was moved to the auditorium of Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth. The change to a school was fitting in view of a more subtle change that had been taking place for some time. Every year the contest was attracting more and better fiddlers, and the challenge grew each year. Eventually, the “note-readers” (the Old-timers’ name for trained musicians, who always seemed to have an edge) were battling it out on stage with those who played by ear. Those reading music were often products of a growing public school curriculum which was increasingly including the reading of sheet music, and classical violin instruction, in its programming.
If the contest is top entertainment, it is at least in part owing to the fact that the fiddlers are first-class musicians, in many cases the products of school programs, where old-time fiddling is now at of the curriculum.
The Festival Moves Again
By 1999 the festival was on the move again the attendance had been falling from the highs of three to four thousand people, but there were high hopes for this move. This was the 50th anniversary and it saw the festival move to the Dartmouth Sportsplex (former site of the Dartmouth Memorial Rink). In the same year, Halifax was hosting the Fiddles of the World which meant attendance would likely grow. This also marked the start of a strong partnership with I.W. Akerley Community College, which provided space for an RV park serving over 100 RVs The turn of the millennium saw the contest again at the Sportsplex and yet another challenge. With dwindling attendance facing many churches in North America, the Men of St. Thomas More were retiring after 50 years. So a group of volunteers, fiddlers and friends of the fiddle music agreed to assist the men in 2000 with a view of taking over for 2001. This marked a change for the event and a move away from a church organized event, to an independent festival.
For 2001, the Maritime Fiddle Festival Committee, a group of volunteers, moved the festival location again, this time securing a new site at the Nova Scotia Community College, I. W. Akerley Campus, Dartmouth next door to the former Prince Andrew High School location. They coined the caption “All Under One Roof”. It was a trial run and among the changes was an Ecumenical Church Service on site which again proved successful. The event now included: Opening Reception on Thursday Night, Preliminaries on Friday Night, Under 12 Fiddling Saturday morning, Finals Saturday evening, Ecumenical service Sunday morning, a Jamboree Sunday afternoon, A Social Sunday evening, and a Bon Voyage Breakfast Monday morning at Smitty’s on Main Street.
Staying at Akerley, Step Dancing Classes were added to the program in 2002 with one class and in 2003 expanded to two classes. The under 12 Fiddle class was divided into two classes 9 & Under and 10-12 years, thus Saturday morning was devoted to preliminaries. Saturday afternoon was for Step Dancing preliminaries and if that wasn’t enough, the long standing program of visits to Seniors Homes by fiddle groups still remained on Saturday afternoon.
2004 saw the return of workshops with a scheduled one day workshop in both fiddle and piano. The year also marked the 30th Anniversary of the CBC Television’s participation in the festival.
More Big Changes
2005 marked both good and bad moments for the festival. After over 30 years of televising the festival, CBC decided to withdraw televising the event as part of a review of regional programming. However, on the bright side, the festival welcomed a partnership with the Rotary Club of Dartmouth East as working partners to our festival.
Over the next three years the festival began to expand again. Funding was provided to Prince Andrew High School for significant sound and lighting upgrades to the auditorium which allowed the festival access to a first class venue. The festival thus returned to Prince Andrew High School’s 1500 seat Auditorium. Next door, Akerley Community College continues to serve as the primary site for workshops. The festival has also continued the RV park at Akerley, and has added sites in downtown Dartmouth, including Alderney Landing, as venues.
By this time, having been through many titles over the years, the name of the event had begun to solidify, finding itself with a permanent name reflecting the variety and size of the event, and the importance of the celebration to local and regional culture and history. The Maritime Fiddle Festival.
In preparation for the 60th anniversary in 2009 in 2008 the festival launched its new logo, website, and brand. For the 61st festival step dance and fiddle waltz workshops were added.
With the 2011 festival, a partnership was formed with the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax to help them celebrate their 250th anniversary. While holding onto the tradition of old-time fiddle music, Irish flavour was added for this year to recognize the important contributions of Irish music to Nova Scotia and to fiddling. In 2012, the Festival revealed it's "new look" with the purchase of new stage backdrops.
In 2013 the 64th Festival moved to the East Dartmouth Community Centre and staged full events at this facility which worked out fine and the facilities were very accommodating with some minor changes in our administration processes. Based on reports received in general all patrons were pleased with the facilities and the contestants had very little interruption in their format. We once more promoted the facilities of Shubie Park and Campground under 10 km away.
The festival draws people from across Canada and the United States and remains the pre-eminent Old Time Fiddling Competition in North America.
In 2014 (66th Festival) we were fortunate to have Donnell Leahy accompanied by his Piano player Mac Morin and a surprise visit from the one and only Natalie MacMaster and children.
A thrilling performance by the Leahy family.