PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 27, 2007

A Scottish Festival in Phoebus

by Jim Newsom

Over the last ten or twelve years, Celtic music has emerged as a major force in the entertainment world. Bonnie Rideout has been a beneficiary of this resurgence. So when I called her on Valentine’s Day to talk about her upcoming matinee this Sunday at the American Theatre, I asked why it had become such a hot commodity.

“You get one really popular thing that happens,” she said, “and in America we got two. It started with the cinema, with Braveheart. That was a huge thing, even for musicians. All of a sudden everybody wanted a pipe. Then, about the same time, the other huge force was Riverdance.

“You had a combination of Braveheart and Riverdance, and you got an audience base that was just huge. After that, we had twice as many interviews as usual; we went on CBS Sunday Morning. We couldn’t manufacture discs fast enough—the New York Times put us on their top seller list of Christmas CDs, and we didn’t have enough! I was always touring before that, but I was playing folk clubs, not 2,000 seat concert halls.

“They started calling it Celtic music because that was a way they could market it. But I was never a Celtic musician; I was always a Scottish fiddler.”

She’s been fiddling in the Scottish tradition since she was a little girl. She split her early years between Cliff Island in Casco Bay, Maine, and an old farm in rural Michigan.

“My father was a documentary filmmaker,” she explained. “He worked for the University of Michigan. When he was doing location work we lived in Maine where both sides of my family are from. I lived about five months a year in Maine and the rest in Michigan. The one-room schoolhouse on the island was kindergarten through eighth grade; there were only nine of us and two were my brother and sister. We were one-third of the school! It was pretty remote. We had an outhouse and no telephone.

“We had no television, so music was really a way of entertaining ourselves in the long hours. The music I grew up with was the music of my parents and grandparents. It’s not like Cape Breton where there were dances; it was sitting around the piano playing songs, songs of Scotland.”

In the isolated environs of Cliff Island she learned to play fiddle by ear. A little later, she began to receive more formal training during her sojourns to Michigan:

“During the months I got to go to school in Michigan, they started an orchestra when I was in the fifth grade. I was already playing fiddle, but I learned to read music and play other music besides what I did at home. When we were in Michigan we were also out in the middle of nowhere on a farm, so even then I wasn’t exposed to a lot of pop music. We had no TV ever, anywhere. My father sort of had a chip on his shoulder about video because he was a filmmaker.”

She went on to major in violin performance at the University of Michigan. But she also stayed rooted in the folk traditions, winning the U. S. Scottish National Fiddle Championship three years in a row.

“Musically it was good for me,” she said, “because I played by ear and then I am trained. It’s good for Scottish fiddling because Scottish fiddle music is both a written and oral tradition, whereas most folk fiddle music is just the oral tradition. Because of the Scottish enlightenment in the 18th century, there were a lot of people composing and literate enough to be writing it down. If I hadn’t had my formal training, I wouldn’t be able to play a lot of this stuff—there’s some technically demanding stuff out there that doesn’t get played in a pub or a bar.”

Sunday’s concert in Phoebus marks the end of the premiere two-week tour for a new show called “Caledonia.”

“Caledonia is a dream that I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” she said. “I’ve always loved the idea of exploring the Gaelic music, the mouth music in Scotland where they had no instruments up in the northwest, especially on the islands. It’s a real old form of how people danced and sang.

“I’ve got Mairi MacInnes coming in from the northwest of Scotland. She’s the premiere Gaelic singer in Scotland, an amazing singer. We’ve got John Doyle from Ireland, who sings a song from the northeast of Scotland about the fishing; myself, I sing; and then Roy Munro, who represents the post-war generation. He’s in his seventies and sings bawdy ballads, the kind you would sing when you went to market and people would trade off songs.

“But I’m a fiddle player so there’s a lot of instrumental music as well. One of the other songs is a contemporary song written by our harper, William Jackson, called ‘Land of Light.’ He won a contest in Scotland; they were looking for a new anthem and he won it. It was performed when Scotland opened parliament for the first time [there was no Scottish parliament from 1707 until its reopening in 1999], and Mairi MacInnes sang it.

“We’ve got two dancers, so we’re exploring the different eras of dancing and going through history with music that way. There’s poetry—Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Hogg—there’s dancing, our percussionist Nat Bell is extraordinary, and I’ll do my specialty, which is pibroch, and playing with the band on other numbers. We’ve got a great cellist, Christine Hanson, coming in from Scotland as well. So it’s exciting, and it’s going to be really fresh because we’re all pumped. It’s like a Scottish festival on the road!”

That being the case, should we wear kilts to the show Sunday afternoon?

“Sure,” she laughed, “If you’ve got one. I know [American Theatre director] Michael Curry has one!”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.