Stephanie Conn

writer, researcher, producer



Legacy and nostalgia

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I just received my copy of the Last Will and Testament of Peter MacLean. He left me books ― two of the ones we used to pore over together. I am touched by this last gesture from him, which seems in keeping with his sharing of personal artefacts and souvenirs on our many visits, but in receiving these physical objects that I will doubtless treasure I am also prompted to think about the role that nostalgia plays in the practice of Gaelic singing.

Svetlana Boym writes that nostalgic longing is “defined by loss of the original object of desire, and by its spatial and temporal displacement.”[1] Nostalgia, however, is not sentimentality, or need not be, and how it inspires us to reflect and act is quite different. Boym writes that the exiled state which gives rise to nostalgia is intrinsically outward, and so the exiled “cannot be retroactive (i.e., merely nostalgic); he has to be reflective, flexible toward himself and others.”[2] This attitude seems especially apt for Gaelic singers today (or any time, perhaps?). We cannot simply reproduce the practice of those who precede us, not only because it is impractical but also because it is unproductive.

Peter MacLean asked that we be ‘faithful to the song’ and its bard’s wishes, and to sing it in a way that is inspired by great singers we have heard. He left us his books, and he left behind recordings, and those of us who knew him will carry his words and uphold his standards. We must also, however,  consider in which outward direction we will carry his legacy, and how his voice (and those of other friends and culture-bearers) might be best presented and shared with future singers and listeners.

[1] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (2001), 38. [2] Boym, 341


Peter’s Tapes

demos the reetoreel machine

A highlight of my visits with Peter MacLean were sessions at his reel-to-reel machine. As we meandered thorough hours and hours of his recordings of Gaelic and English song, violin and piano, I felt like a time traveler eavesdropping on house parties, quiet visits, concerts and radio shows. Once we had fallen into that rabbit hole where long-vanished sounds came back to life, we were not likely to surface for many hours.

Peter MacLean’s collection of 48 multi-sided reel-to-reel tapes stand as a significant piece of Cape Breton musical history. They are a connoisseur’s collection of songs in Gaelic in English, fiddle music, party chatter and radio shows; an example of a personal archive; and a source of songs that sustained his own practice and along with other tape archives, which will aid in the future transmission of Gaelic song in CB.

When he moved into hospital Peter asked that we help to preserve his tapes, and so Paul MacDonald made digital copies of the precious ribbons. Coming soon on this blog: a preview of my article about this remarkable collection.

“Fitting between Present and Past…”

EthnoForum-myissueMy article, ““Fitting between Present and Past: Memory and Social Interaction in Cape Breton Gaelic Singing” is now available. You can download it from the publisher directly.

Ask a Gaelic singer in Cape Breton to help you learn a particular song and they might begin by commenting about its melody or clever wordplay. They will probably sing it for you, or ask you to sing part of it for them. If it has been published, they might bring out a well-worn copy of a Gaelic songbook.  Most often, however, they begin to reminisce in detail about who used to sing the song, and how, and under what circumstances. Now, after many years of visiting Cape Breton, I, too, find that each song reminds me of the person I first heard sing it. For example, I will never hear A Fhleasgaich Uasail without thinking of the late Donald MacDonnell of Mabou and his heartfelt performance at the Johnstown Milling Frolic. It quietened the rowdy room until you could have heard a pin drop.

Such experiences have called me to examine what is behind this linking of musical associations. Surely it is more than mere sentimentality– although surely, it is partly nostalgia. In The Anthropology of Performance, Victor Turner wrote that performative meaning is constructed through, as he put it, “negotiating about ‘fit’ between present and past.”  Indeed, it seems that any rendition of a Gaelic song resonates not only with the present circumstances but also with the memories of past performances. One comes to understand a song as a composite of evolving memories, performances and meanings … but it seems that a song’s meaning is not just referential, and does not point solely towards the past.

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