Inside more than 200 manuscripts and yellowing notebooks are the legacy of one of Cape Breton's most prolific — and unknown — composers.

John MacDougall, who died in 2008 at the age of 83, composed 38,000 tunes during his lifetime. But few have ever been heard.

The Mabou fiddler kept them secret, as he claimed they came to him from deceased musicians.

Some of those secret compositions are now hitting the stage.

A special show, part of the Celtic Colours International Festival, took place Wednesday to pay tribute to the composer whose huge volume of work was a mystery for decades.

John MacDougall's Tunebook, as the concert is called, featured selected tunes arranged for fiddle, guitar, bagpipes and piano at a performance at Strathspey Performing Arts Centre in Mabou.

From 'the other side'

The composer's third cousin on his father's side, Ian MacDougall, 36, said he thinks John would eventually have come around to the idea of letting others hear his work. 

"This stuff's been sitting here for years and not being played, not being heard," he said. "At some point, you have to get it out there, and this is a great way to do it."

Ian MacDougall

Ian MacDougall pours over some of his late cousin's sheet music. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

John MacDougall amassed more than 200 manuscript books of music, all filled with his fine, steady, handwritten compositions. 

Although he was protective of them, his cousin has confidence in those to whom he's entrusted the performance of the tunes.

"The people that we chose to play it will give it the respect it deserves and John will get the credit," said MacDougall. 

MacDougall, a fiddler himself who took lessons from his late cousin, said John described the compositions as coming to him from "the other side" and said he was simply a conduit.

"They're sending them over and he'd just hear them," explained the younger man. 

'A little spark of genius'

MacDougall said John could write up to 60 songs in one day. Sometimes he'd "receive" the songs while giving fiddle lessons, and would need to scribble them down as fast as he could. 

Cape Breton piano player Mac Morin knew John and knew of his legendary catalogue of music. 

John MacDougall

John MacDougall composed about 38,000 tunes during his lifetime. (submitted by Ian MacDougall)

He jumped at the chance to be part of the show, "selfishly, just to be able to delve into the collection," he explained.

Morin said he visited John with Ian in years past and remembers hearing snippets of some of the tunes. 

"John would take a book out of the safe or wherever he kept them packed away and open a page at random. Ian would start to play them," said Morin, "and truly every tune that he would flip to was just something that had a little spark of genius in it and it was great."

New tradition

Bagpiper and fiddler Kenneth MacKenzie said he grew up knowing of John's famed stash of tunes. 

"It's a key moment in our tradition where there's thousands and thousands of tunes that are going to enter our tradition," said MacKenzie, "and it'll be interesting to see how that plays out in the next few years."

He agrees with Morin and MacDougall that no matter how the tunes came to John, the process worked.

"It is funny and quirky, for sure, but I take it seriously," said MacKenzie. "I think he was part of an older world that we were lucky enough to see for a while, and we have all these tunes as his legacy to speak to that old world."

Ian MacDougall is pleased the show was created and for the most part, he's confident his late cousin would be happy with the decision to make the compositions public.

"If I get to the other side, I'm kinda more worried about meeting John than meeting Peter," MacDougall joked, "but I'm sure by the end of the show, everything will be fine."