Thoughts on the ‘Up-Driven’ Bow in Cape Breton Fiddling

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The up-driven bow is a term that is thrown around quite a bit in Scottish and Cape Breton fiddling. If you have read anything about Scottish fiddling, you’ll most certainly come across references to the powerful up-bow of Neil Gow. According to James Hunter (The Fiddle Music of Scotland), it was his favorite bow stroke.

The up-driven bow as described in older Scottish collections is a type of bowing mostly found in strathspeys that looks like this:

Excerpt from ‘The Braes of Mar’

The first note is on a down stroke and the last three are on an up stroke. Of the three notes that are in the up bow, the second is pulsed, meaning that extra pressure is applied and it is accented. The third note is detatched. In Cape Breton, this bowing is used most commonly in melodic phrases where the first two notes of the up stroke are the same note.

Even though the up-driven is a commonly talked about feature of the Cape Breton style, I don’t hear it much in this form. I do remember Sandy MacIntyre teaching this as an ‘old style bowing’ when I was student at the Gaelic College. However, there are common bowing patterns in the style that use strong up bows. One of the more common of these bowings is one that I refer to as a ‘shuffle bow’ like pattern that is very common in reels:

Excerpt from ‘Hamish the Carpenter’


Excerpt from ‘West Mabou’

In these examples, the upstroke occurs on either beat 1 or beat 3 which is are the strong beats in the measure, or the pulse. The  up-bowed slur in the first example and the up-bowed quarter notes and slur in the second example are very emphazied by using a lot of bow and some extra pressure. The upstroke is especially powerful and makes the melody sound very lifted and lively. A lot of the time, Cape Breton fiddlers are on a down stroke for a pulse. Having the pulse on this upstroke creates a varied and very powerful phrasing.

Even though it seems that technically the term up-drivin bow refers to the strathspey bowing in the first example, this latter bowing and others that have a strong up bow on a pulse is what I like to think of as an up-drivin bow in the Cape Breton style.

An introduction to great influential Cape Breton fiddler, Winston Fitzgerald

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In the next little bit, I’ll be writing a series of posts about Cape breton fiddlers you may or may not have heard of that I feel were influential in the evolution of the Cape Breton fiddle style. To begin, I’ll start with the late Winston ‘Scotty’ Fitzgerald.

I don’t think there is a single Cape Breton fiddle player who has not been influenced by Winston Fitzgerald, directly or indirectly. His crisp and articulate style was inspirational to the generations that followed him. So many Cape Breton fiddlers talk about trying to emulate his style. In addition to his style, the tunes he introduced into the repertoire have become classics in Cape Breton. McNabb’s Hornpipe (aka, Crossing the Minch) and the Farmer’s Daughter easily come to mind. That ‘classic cut’ is still heard on the radio today over 50 years after it was recorded. It’s difficult to not play the Farmer’s Daughter after McNabb’s hornpipe since the pairing is such a classic. And that is just one small example of the strong influence his playing, repertoire and recordings have had on the Cape Breton fiddle style.

Winston born in 1914 in White Point, in the northern part of Cape Breton. He came from a very musical family of fiddlers, singers and step dancers. At age 18, he toured Nova Scotia with a road show called “The Maritime Merrymakers”. He was heard regularly on the radio with his group the “Radio Entertainers” and he also played to a national television audience on the “John Allan Cameron Show” as one of the members of the Cape Breton Symphony.

While being strongly rooted in Cape Breton music, he had experience and interest in other styles. At about the age of 20, he toured and did radio shows as a member of Hank Snow’s band. He took a two and a half year correspondence course with the US School of Music. According to Paul Cranford, Winston ‘felt that this training gave him good instruction in bowing and got him started on position work”. If the opportunity had presented itself, he would have taken classical violin lessons. He also greatly admired the playing of the Scottish fiddler, Hector MacAndrew.

He was well known for constantly perfecting his tunes and crafting them into his own. His versions of tunes have now become classic. In his own words-
“After I got to learn music I had good tunes out of books-you know. Gow and O’Neill’s and Fraser’s and all those good collections. The Gow’s – they’d steal tunes and add variations so I figured if they can do it and get away with it, so can I. I might add a couple of grace notes or a little bit of bow work or some little thing that would add to it. It doesn’t take much to put a change in it for the better or for the worse.” (excerpt from an interview with Ron Caplan, Cape Breton Magazine issue 46)

So much can be said about such a pivotal and influential player, but his playing speaks for itself. A great introduction to his music is the compilation album, “Classic Cuts” and a tune book of his repertoire, “Winston Fitzgerald: A Collection of Fiddle Tunes”, both available on