St. Ann’s bay, looking towards River Bennett

Cape Breton looks different in every season. In summer it is dark green and blue and smells of salt and pine; the fire- and churchhalls are bursting with dancers and spilling over with fiddle music. In the winter it is quiet, the snowy hills carved like stone, every social visit celebrated and wrung out for all it can be. But here is Cape Breton in the Fall, all contradictions: soft yellow marsh grass, bays as still as a millpond one day and as wild as the North Atlantic can be the next. Cafes closing for the season, and the Celtic Colours festival club pressing on into the wee hours.

I’ve been visiting Cape Breton for 19 years now and along the way many people have asked why I count the place as my second home despite not having family ties there. Over the years my purpose for going has subtly evolved. At first I went to find songs, but instead I found a beautiful culture, wonderful people and a powerful community. It became clear that there was no way to just sing the songs, and to do them or their traditionse justice. Instead I tried to learn the Gaelic language, but just as important, the unspoken language of the culture: how people behaved towards each other, what their thoughts were about the songs but also each other, and the place they are so rooted in. Now I go to reconnect with all of that.

For my research on Gaelic singing I got to know many members of the eldest generation and prepared myself early for our friendships to be brief. I was lucky to have many years with them, but those that remain are octogenarians at best. Now, just as Fall gives way to winter, I sense a transition is possible and necessary. I continue to be interested in these amazing songs and the rich history of their performance ad transmission, but I also want to think about how all of this is being carried forward.


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