Our first trip to the Pembroke Old Time Fiddle and Step Dancing Championships began oddly enough at the Appalachian String Band Festival in West Virginia. We’d had the pleasure of hanging out at “Clifftop” with Canadian friends Graham & Jo Sheppard and Ann and Clare Renaud, who were from Ottawa and Windsor, respectively. Despite my lifelong interest in Canadian fiddling I had never heard of the event at Pembroke until I met Graham. Most American old-time fiddle enthusiasts would be aware of the Canadian Open at Shelburne, ON, and the Maritime Fiddle Contest in Nova Scotia. This event at Pembroke was something new to us. We hatched a plan to meet there in the fall.
For my wife Patt & me, the festival/contest at Pembroke, ON, is the best event of its kind we have ever attended and after our first time there in 2013 we swore we would attend every year from then on. We had kept true to that pledge until the pandemic got in our way in 2020. We hope to pick up where we left off at the next possible opportunity. Little did we know there would be a four year hiatus and we just attended the 45th in 2023!
Given the quality of the event we’ve been surprised at the dearth of Americans in attendance. One notable exception is Steve Jacobi from upstate New York, who has become well-known at the festival and placed or won several times in his age group. Incidently Steve was just inducted into the North American Fiddlers Hall of Fame and won the Senior category at Weiser to boot. We hope this article will encourage more American to cross the border and attend Pembroke. For fiddle fans in the New England it’s just a day’s drive even with the border crossing.
Pembroke, ON, is located along the Ottawa River 90 miles give or take from Ottawa. From Chicago it’s a bracing 800 miles drive. Camping and jamming take place in Riverside Park, a municipal sports park, which for the week before and through Labour Day, is transformed into “Fiddle Park”. The street signs in the park are named for fiddle tunes and there’s a beautiful view of Quebec across the river.
The camping space is laid out to accommodate hundreds of RVs, plus car parking and tent camping. The local Kiwanians, with Ottawa Valley fiddle legend Ian Hamilton in the lead, manage the camping and registration and provide power and water to the RV sites. A temporary city takes shape as the RVs file in and various large tents for jamming and congregating go up.
First timers need to be aware that the campsites are pre-designated so you can’t just park anywhere. People have been camping in the same spaces with their family and pals across generations. Still I’ve yet to see a group not willing to welcome newcomers or you can park in some unclaimed spaces. This is all confirmed when you register so no worries there.
Once you’ve established your camp grab up your instrument and walk around the campground. You’ll find tons of impromptu jam sessions at all times of the day and night throughout the week. Most of the tents have real pianos, many of which are tuned/maintained daily to insure they are in shape.
We advise familiarizing yourself with a portion of the shared Canadian repertoire, which is vast to say the least. It’s this common repertoire and the sense of community it engenders that has endeared us to this festival and the scores of nice folks we’ve met.
Pembroke being on the Ottawa River is situated at the border between Ontario and Quebec. As such, the tunes played at Pembroke are a nice mix of Anglo-Canadian Old-Time and Quebecois music. For a quick study the repertoire centers on a few famous fiddlers. These include Don Messer, Graham Townsend (who in his day attended Pembroke) and Ward Allen in the Anglo tradition, and Joseph Allard, Joe Bouchard, and Yvon Cuillerier among the Francophones. A lot of New England and various other Maritime tunes are heard, as well as an abundance of “new tunes” sourced primarily from compositions of the ever-prolific Calvin Vollrath and Germain Leduc.
We feel very privileged to have gotten to hear Yvon Cullerier play. He’s was a real giant of Canadian and Quebecois fiddling. Enjoy this playlist from 2015 of Yvon playing with Michel Mallette and several other players at the Duheme campsite.
Be prepared to do lots of listening though, as Patt and I will attest that the general level of play is as high as we’ve heard anywhere. On the upside, despite what I thought was a firm grasp of the Canadian fiddle repertoire we came home the first year with a list of 88 tunes to learn. This has continued for us year after year. As an aid in adding some Canadian tunes to your repertoire I’ve post a Pembroke tune list at https://www.blog.charliewalden.com. Just go there and enter “Pembroke” into the search.
Did I mention there is contest? The activity in the campground is such that many people never go near the competition, yet the contest is one of the best run with some of the finest playing we’ve ever heard. There are contests for age groups and as well as championship class for the “big dogs” in both fiddle and their amazing Ottawa Valley Style step-dancing. See the video below of the 45 to 64 age class from 2016.
The contest is held at that most Canadian of venues – a hockey rink. There’s even a big screen “jumbo-tron” that displays the contestants performances to the audience. The format of a Canadian fiddle contest is different than the local contests I’m used to in the Midwest. There is a strict time limit to accommodate so many contestants. Contestants must play a waltz, jig and reel in four minutes with only a short space for a breath between the tunes. The judges are seated in front of the stage in plain view. Was I nervous the first few times? YES!!
Piano is the king of accompaniment in Canada and contestants use the able house accompanists or bring their own. In seven times at Pembroke I’ve only seen guitar used in the contest a handful of times. I might add that other than a rare campground appearance you’re not likely to see many banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, etc., as you might at an American festival.
Although not an official part of the event the Pure Laine Competition in the campground on the Sunday before Labour Day is for many the highlight of the week. Pure laine translates literally to “pure wool” and is meant to convey “the real thing”. You might hear some Francophones refer to the competition as “bas de laine”, which means wool stocking in reference to the trophy.
The competition was started by Renee Dacier and Gaetan Bourassa as a party game in a home rec room in Quebec City. One fiddler in a circle would start a reel, play through one time and then play would pass on to the next fiddler who must start a tune that has not been played and not drop time between their performance and the fiddler before. Whoever would be unable to start a tune, play a tune that had already been performed or lose time would be ousted from the circle. The process would continue until only one person left – the winner.
The Pembroke incarnation of the game has been going for 21 years. A couple of hundred people crowd in around one or other of the big jamming tents and cheer on their favorite fiddler. There is no cash prize, only bragging rights. To win does not mean you’re the best fiddler though. It does mean you can be cool under pressure and have a sufficient ability to recall tunes and deliver them on a dime without any noodling beforehand (this will get you ousted).
Happily this is a fun contest to lose as well. One someone commits an oust-able “offense” the referee will rule and the whole crowd shouts “Out!” The player is then introduced to the audience and receives cheers and a cold beverage.
Past competitors constitute who’s who of Canada’s best including Germain Leduc (who has won more than anyone including most recently in 2023), Calvin Vollrath, April Verch, Paul Lemelin, and Jacquelin Guerette. Check out this playlist of Pure Laine competitions dating from 2009 to 2023.
Speaking of bragging, I’m the only non-Canadian to ever win the competition and so will offer a few tips that might be useful. One requirement is to tell the “referee” what key your tune will be while the player ahead of you is still performing. This is passed on to the accompanists so they can be set for your brief performance. Learn to announce the keys in solfege as that is the French way and will aid in communicating with the band.
As the competition progresses the rules are tweaked to make it progressively harder. The first adjustment is to require the contestants to play AA-BB reels as A-B or one A-part and one B-part. After a lifetime of playing AA-BB it is more difficult than you might think to play the tunes this way under pressure. When it comes down to the final few competitors you’re required to play one A-part only. So you’re turn comes increasingly faster as competitors fall away until when the final two players remain you’re playing a new tune every eight seconds! So make yourself a list of tunes you can play with ease and practice playing in the Pure Laine fashion.
Check out my list of Pure Laine practice tunes at https://www.blog.charliewalden.com.
I hope this article has given you a taste of this premiere Canadian fiddle event and will encourage more Americans and Canadians to give it a try.