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The fiddle is at the heart of traditional music in New Hampshire. From 17th to the 19th century, settlers from England, Ireland, Scotland and French speaking Canada brought their fiddles, traditional tunes, and love of dancing with friends and neighbors to the region. The portability of a fiddle, the driving rhythm it can produce for dancers, and its ability to project across a room or barn filled with people continue to be irresistible today.
Brendan Carey Block grew up in Antrim, a small town in the Monadnock region known as the cradle of traditional music and social dancing in New Hampshire. At the age of ten, he showed a natural ability to play the fiddle. After visiting the annual Highland Games, which draws thousands of Scottish descendants to the mountains of northern New Hampshire each year, he found himself pulled to the unique fiddle traditions of Cape Breton, an island off the northeast coast of Nova Scotia.
Recognizing his innate talent, Brendan's parents Rich and Loranne pursued all avenues to help their son learn more about the music. Family resources and scholarships from the New Hampshire Highland Games and the Saint Andrews Society of New Hampshire made it possible for him to spend eight summers of his formative years on Cape Breton immersing himself in the fiddle music, dancing, and culture of the island. He attended community dances, gatherings, and the Ceilidh Trail School of Celtic Music in Inverness, where he learned from Cape Breton and other Scottish music legends like Buddy MacMaster, Natalie MacMaster, Jerry Holland, Brenda Stubbert, Jackie Dunn, Richard Wood, Brendan Mulvihill, and John McCusker of The Battlefield Band. Brendan's insatiable interest in Scottish music took him to Cape Breton during the "off season" as well, to seek out older masters of the tradition, including the much beloved Cameron Chisolm.
Cape Breton is a stronghold of Scottish fiddle music and dance traditions. It was settled during the late 1700s to mid 1800s by some 25,000 Scots, primarily from the Gaelic-speaking regions of the Scottish Highlands and the Outer Hebrides. They immigrated to the island to escape rigid laws and persecution in Scotland referred to as the Highland Clearances. As is the case in many stories of immigration, Scottish music and dance were preserved in Cape Breton with deep allegiance, while the traditions of the home country of Scotland continued to evolve. Today, the music of Cape Breton represents a style not easily found in Scotland itself.
Cape Breton music is completely entwined with dancing, an important social and athletic activity in many northern climates where the winters are long and isolating. Strong and steady rhythm, needed to keep dancers moving and happy, is an important aspect of Cape Breton music. The music can be played on Highland bagpipes, smallpipes, piano, guitar, and harmonica, but the fiddle has always been king. The fiddle style relies on a strong up-bowing technique with a downbeat created by a fiddler tapping a foot onto the floor. Lively reels, jigs, marches, strathspeys, and clogs (hornpipes) are the rhythms most commonly played for Cape Breton dance music. Waltzes and slow airs are also enjoyed as part of a music session.
Cape Breton fiddle music is rich with ornaments and grace notes, many of which are adapted from those used in Scottish Highland bagpipe music. Cape Breton fiddle music is also highly accented. The intonations are related to the Scots-Gaelic language and puirt a beul ("mouth music"), a very rhythmic style of a cappella singing (usually sung with nonsense syllables instead of words). A fiddler develops a unique personal styling within the tradition by combining subtle variations in ornaments, slurs, double notes, drones, intonation, and bowing techniques. Though there are many shared tunes among Irish, Scottish and Canadian fiddlers, tunes sound quite different when performed by Cape Breton players.
Happily, Cape Breton music is alive and well on Cape Breton. Master fiddlers, both young and old, perform for community dances on Cape Breton, and tour within Canada and internationally. The magnetic appeal of the music is inspiring fiddlers beyond the shores of the island, and Brendan Carey Block has emerged as one of the most promising young Cape Breton fiddlers in the United States today.
The New Hampshire State Council on the Arts recognized Brendan's abilities at an early age. From 1999 to 2003, he received three Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants to learn from master musicians. During his first apprenticeship, Brendan worked with master New England fiddler Rodney Miller, who enriched Brendan's repertoire of New England contra dance tunes and his technique. Brendan went on to receive two apprenticeship grants to work with master Scottish Highland bagpipe player Gordon Webster. Originally from Scotland, Gordon served as piper to the Queen of England in the late 1990s, and he helped introduce Brendan to the relationships between Scottish Highland piping and fiddling. Brendan's efforts to master the intricacies of the fiddle recently came full circle, when in 2008 he was awarded a fourth Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant, this time to serve as a master artist teaching a fiddler younger than himself, Craig Brunson of Derry, N.H.
Like many young fiddlers, Brendan has spent time competing on the fiddle contest circuit. He is a three-time New England Scottish Fiddle Championship winner, and in 2000-2001 he took the U.S. National Junior Scottish Fiddle Championship. Brendan actively performs in New Hampshire and regionally. He has opened for and performed with many of the most celebrated traditional Cape Breton and Scottish musicians on tour today. He is often accompanied by his talented father Richard Block on bass guitar, and friend Flynn Cohen on vocals and guitar. Brendan's most recent work with his group Annalivia blends music from a variety of traditions with some contemporary sensibilities. Brendan is on the faculty of the New Hampshire School of Scottish Arts in Manchester, N.H., where he teaches fiddle. He also races and restores German sports cars, helps maintain and race a team of Siberian Husky sled dogs, and is an avid mountain biker, sailor, and certified telemark ski instructor.
Lynn Martin Graton, Traditional Arts Coordinator
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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