Nova Scotia

Buddy MacMaster, renowned Cape Breton fiddler, dead at 89

Order of Canada recipient Buddy MacMaster, known as the dean of Cape Breton fiddling, has died at age 89.

MacMaster, born in Timmins, Ont., began recording albums at age 65, after a long rail career ended

Buddy MacMaster dead at 89


6 years agoVideo
CBC Arts reporter Zulekha Nathoo looks at the life of the dean of Cape Breton fiddling 2:33

Renowned Cape Breton fiddler Hugh Allan (Buddy) MacMaster has died at age 89.

A friend of the family confirmed MacMaster died in his home in rural western Cape Breton in Nova Scotia around 9 p.m. Wednesday.

A member of both the Order of Canada and the Order of Nova Scotia, MacMaster was born into a Celtic-speaking, musical family in the northeastern Ontario mining town of Timmins. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

MacMaster is credited with bringing Cape Breton fiddling to the world stage. He spent his career with Canadian National Railway, but often played fiddle on the side most nights of the week.

"I never considered being a permanent violinist, you know, making a living at it. But ah, I was popular as a fiddler it seems," he said in an interview earlier this year.

A member of both the Order of Canada and the Order of Nova Scotia, MacMaster was born into a Gaelic-speaking musical family in the northeastern Ontario mining town of Timmins. 

His family, however, was originally from Cape Breton, and his family returned there when he was a toddler, moving to the town of Judique.

Natalie MacMaster says her uncle has had more of an impact on Cape Breton fiddle music than anyone else.

"He had a real sweetness to his music that doesn't exist anywhere, really," she said.

MacMaster says she has tried to emulate Buddy's sound throughout her career. She remembers a lighthearted, kind man.

"The great impression he left on me was more about being generous with your music. Because Buddy played everywhere. I don't ever think he turned down a gig that he couldn't do. He did it because he didn't want to let anyone down," she said. "That's what is right to do. If we're given these talents they are for ourselves but they are also for everyone else."

Off the rails, onto the music scene

MacMaster says Buddy poured himself into fiddling, at times leaving pools of sweat on the stage.

"Sort of like if you saw Paul Bunyan hitting an axe to a tree. Here's this man who's not really big but he took out a sound that was just powerful," said renowned fiddler Ashley MacIsaac.

The angels will be playing fiddle tunes.- Ashley MacIsaac

MacIsaac grew up down the road from the senior MacMaster.

"There's been, I suppose, three big influences in my life: my mom, my father and Buddy MacMaster when it comes to music," he said. 

He remembers step dancing on stage when he was five years old while MacMaster played the fiddle.

"I went back up the stage and tapped him on the shoulder and said 'Buddy that tune's no good' and he laughed and he started playing another tune," he said.

"In church when they have the memorial next week for him, as they say the angels will be singing, the angels will be playing fiddle tunes."

MacMaster began playing the fiddle as a teenager. Although he worked for the railway company for about 45 years, he built a career performing his Cape Breton-style fiddle at concerts, dances, benefits and on CBC-TV shows like Ceilidh and The John Allan Cameron Show.

He began recording albums in 1989 — at age 65 — after he retired from his rail career.

MacMaster also earned multiple industry awards and honorary doctorate degrees.

Earlier this year, Folk Alliance International chose MacMaster to receive its Lifetime Achievement Award, joining the likes of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie and Canadian Stan Rogers.

"[The award] honours those who have made monumental contributions as performers to Folk Music in North America," said Art Menius, chair of the Folk Alliance International Committee, one of North America's largest folk music organizations.

The Celtic Music Interpretive Centre, in Judique, says people come from around the world to learn to play like  MacMaster.


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