Canadian fiddles, like Canada's immigrants, come from different countries: German immigrants bringing violins from Germany and Austria, Frenchmen preferring those from France, and settlers from the British Isles favouring their own manufacturers.

Since fiddles were the main Canadian folk instrument, well into the 20th century, cast-offs are turning up constantly at auctions, as families empty out attics of a musical instrument that has long ago lost favour to the guitar and accordion and now the i-pod.

So you can find a bargain.

We found this decrepit looking English fiddle - it even had a small, but tight, crack near the f-hole - at an auction for $125.

We went home, put on new strings, played Golden Slippers, and instantly threw out a French violin, which we had paid $1,200 for at a famous Toronto violin store in 1980...

Unusual? Not at all.

Many people in pioneer times had top flight instruments. When fiddles lost popularity, the good were trashed with the bad.

And from time to time really high quality instruments turn up, reflecting the neglect of generations, not the excellence put into them by their original makers.

Rusty strings, broken bridges, ratty bows, decrepit cases, are not the violin, but may only disguise a possible gem.

They're out there. The pride and joy of a fiddler whose single most valuable item, on his log-house homestead, may have been a prized violin that he had brought from the "ould sod."

And for decades after, used in fiddle dances, at land clearing parties, log cabin building and barn raising dances, and at public celebrations, at a time when it was the sole source of musical entertainment for countless pioneering families across Canada.

If only this fiddle, or its coffin case, could talk...

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Fiddle, George Withers & Co., London, UK - c 1880
Orig. fiddle - Size - 35.5 cm
Found - Burlington, ON
The interior of the case still has two tags that identify the manufacturer.

The coffin case is externally, in very fine shape, but extremely ratty inside, which tends to put off resellers when an instrument comes up for auction.

In urban areas it was once common to see men in suits carrying coffin cases as they climbed in and out of hacks or trams, on the way to some gig or other.

In Chicago these cases became the perfect cover for Mafioso hit men to conceal their Thompson sub-machine gun on the way to rub out some guy or other who was singing, off key - probably to the Feds...

A Bridge Too Far - Bridges are under tremendous pressure when the strings are tightened up. If you are not careful, when retuning a new string, to keep the bridge at right angles to the top of the fiddle, it can suddenly twist and snap in two, like this one, from the Withers fiddle, did, but a long time ago...

The long gone fiddler has carefully glued the two pieces back together, on the outside, to preserve the solid wood to wood contact between the pieces. Possibly this instrument was used on a remote farm in southwestern Ontario, where trips to cities to get a new bridge were few and far between.

Fiddle Versus Violin - Fiddlers and violinists are two different kinds of people. Many violinists honestly confess that they cannot fiddle; it takes a different feel and personality to do the one, instead of the other. No real fiddler could put on the concert duds violinists favour and perform in, any more than you could feel free in a straight jacket.

Fiddlers are loose, joyful, and emotional players who play solo; violinists are up-tight, academic perfectionists and mostly play in groups. Every fiddler has composed pieces; violinists prefer to leave that to Mozart, and those other long-hairs... Fiddlers much prefer short hair... and words too, for that matter...

Violinists like to talk about their music as much as play it. Fiddlers say, "Hell, let's just do it..."

Violinists like to perform, almost always in front of trussed up people in fancy duds, sitting in rows of repressed attention as they passively watch, and wait, for the end when they are allowed to clap...

Fiddlers are fellow participants in a group activity, not display artists for passive listeners. They want to be part of the dance. They encourage - demand - audience joviality, and are urged on to new levels of frenzy when the listeners whoop and holler.

Fiddlers laugh and grin as they play; violinists frown in fervent concentration to get the notes right.

Fiddlers have dusty instrument tops, leaving alone the rosin powder that sawing away drops around the bridge, believing it improves the tonality. And hey, music is what it's about, not good housekeeping...

Violinists wipe their instruments clean with paranoid precision, using perfumed hankies at every opportunity, mainly to keep their fancy duds clean, lest they be accused of having dandruff on their tuxedo, later at a soiree, by members of the fancy crowd like Lady Black who is always on the lookout for such gaucherie.

Like the Charles Heyd Klemme fiddle, this George Withers instrument has a one-piece tiger maple back, suggesting, if nothing else, that it was an earlier rather than a later manufacture, possibly mid-19th century, since Withers & Co. had made violins since 1763.

That was the year French Canada was taken over by the English and British colonists started to arrive, carrying, what else, George Withers fiddles...

Above the legendary Canadian fiddle great Al Cherny (1932-1989) who won all kinds of fiddling contests, made countless recordings, and was fiddler supreme for years on the long-running Tommy Hunter show on CBC Television.

Al hailed from Wingham, Ontario, and passed on much too soon.

But what can you do, when God wants a fiddler, and won't settle for second best....


Two of the darkest days in Canadian broadcasting history occurred because of the fiddle...

In 1969 CBC decided that Don Messer's Jubilee (Don below right played the fiddle, while much beloved musical troubadors Charlie Chamberlain and Marg Osburne sang their way into the heart of a nation) should be trashed from the National Broadcaster, in spite of angry protests from coast to coast.

In 1992 CBC cancelled the Tommy Hunter Show, another iconic Canadian country showcase, featuring outstanding champion fiddler Al Cherny, in spite of protests from the hinterland across the country.

CBC suits - they're violin types - decided that neither group defined Canadian culture of the kind they wanted to be associated with.

To set the record straight, they set up a replacement series featuring Her Highness-In-Training, Adrienne Clarkson, going on high-brow, overseas junkets to report on the real Arts (you know, long hairs in Europe) in the UK, France, Italy, Germany, the US, etc. **

As many commented at the time: "How Canadian! Eh?"

So what are you complaining about? Isn't it the National Broadcaster doing exactly what It's supposed to...?

(**Adrienne went on to become Governor-General of Canada, with a well-earned reputation as having the most elitist airs of any occupant in that office, ever. Mercilessly lampooned by comics as "I'm Adrienne Clarkson and you're not!" she tried to cover her obviously deep seated insecurities with a pompositous patina of polished pretensions, utterly foreign to any fiddler, or Canadian for that matter.

As she has often confided to her few remaining intimates, "It's that perfectly awful fiddle of Don Messer and his singers that made me do it! Give Canadian hayseeds a taste of what real culture is... Getting rid of him was the best thing CBC ever did... That, and giving me my arts show Adrienne Clarkson Presents."

There are precious few Canadians - and not a fiddler - who would disagree that Don - or Charlie and Marg - besides being romping better companions at a party, would each have made a far better Governor-General as well...

But then Canadians have always been noted for their generosity, always willing to give losers an even break.)

Great Canadian Fiddle - George Withers, London, UK - c 1880

Fiddlers and violinists use different arches in their bridges. Fiddlers flatten the tops of theirs so they can rock between adjacent strings faster and also play two strings at once more easily. Violinists use a high arched bridge because they do single string work primarily and don't want to accidentally hit adjacent strings.

Right above a flattened top on a bridge which we used for years, copied from Indian fiddlers in the 1970s.

Bottom, When Canadian super fiddler Al Cherny - we believe the best ever - performed music for us in a film, he took one look and said "too flat," and gave me his more arched bridge which I have used, with everlasting gratitude, ever since, migrating it to different fiddles with the passing years.

Thinking of you Al, and close to you, every time I pick up the fiddle...
Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. - 1996, 1999, 2005

Musical Instruments 1

Great Canadian History

Charles B Heyd 1842-1929, of Brantford, Ontario, stemmed from an interesting family tree, as summarized in a local atlas in 1883, below, starting with his father.

BERNHARD HEYD, grocer, was born in the City of Berne, in Switzerland, June 13, 1813, where he lived until he was 19 years of age, when he emigrated to America. He settled in the City of Rochester, State of New York, where he worked until he came to Canada, in 1854, at his trade of carpenter. On arriving in Brantford he took charge of the shops of the Buffalo, Brantford and Goderich Railway, and so continued until the line became the Buffalo and Lake Huron, when he took charge of the extensive car works of Williams, Butler & Jackson, in Hamilton, who were making cars for the Great Western R.R. He purchased the site on which his present store stands in 1855, and began business as a grocer, in which he has been moderately successful. In 1871 he erected his present shop at a cost of $5,000, including his warehouse. He keeps a large stock of general groceries and provisions, and is a heavy packer of pork, of which, and fresh meats, he sells a large quantity. In 1881 and 1882 he erected the Commercial Building on the corner of George and Dalhousie Streets, which is considered as amongst the finest in the city. He married Magdalena Maurer, a native of Prussia, and of this union 12 children have been born, of whom 6 are living- 4 sons and 2 daughters. The oldest, Charles B. Heyd, and the youngest, Edward, are in the store. Louis T., the second son, is a barrister by profession, and is practising in his native city, Brantford, his office being in the Commercial Block. He is married to Amelia Weinang, a native of Brantford. Dr. Herman Emil, third living son, is a physician and surgeon, and a graduate of McGill College, Montreal; he is an M.R.C.S. of London, England, and spent two years in the leading hospitals of England and the Continent practising his profession. He is now practising in the City of Buffalo, at No. 9 Niagara Street.

CHARLES B. HEYD, grocer, Brantford, is the eldest living son of Bernhard and Magdalena Heyd. He was born in the City of Rochester, State of New York, Feb. 23, 1842, and has been a resident of the City of Brantford about 30 years. On Dec. 4, 1865, he married Janet Davey, a native of Scotland. Mr. Heyd is a Liberal-Reformer in politics, and has been for 5 years an Alderman for Queen's Ward. He is a director of the Royal Loan and Savings Co., and of the Brantford Young Ladies' College.

Charles was Mayor of Brantford twice, in 1886 and 1888-89. He was Liberal Member of Parliament for South Brant from 1897-1904.

Coffin Case - Charles housed his fiddle in a typical "coffin style" black wooden case, commonly used in 19th century Canada. His case is in rough shape, showing it had a tough life, probably being carted around in and out of sleighs and wagons around Brantford and probably on trains to Ottawa in all the years he lived there.

Charles has carved his name on the front around the lock and on the bottom of the case as well.

And each gouge, no doubt, is for a fine time had by all.


Great Canadian Fiddlers - The main folk instrument of Canada is the fiddle, originally brought over by French settlers, from whom it spread via the coureurs-de-bois, to the Métis, and to Indian people in the late 18th century.

While the lower orders caroused to wild fiddling and drinking, on into the 20th century, the members of the delicate classes, like Lady Barbara Amiel Black, called it the violin and used it in more sedate surroundings, though we are not sure if the notoriously well-bred Lady Black herself has the musical talent to jerk a bow, finger a flute, or blow a horn.

It is fair to say, that as late as 1950, there were few Canadians indeed, anywhere, who had not heard Golden Slippers on a fiddle somewhere...

Charles B Heyd Fiddle - Charles' instrument, thanks to the sturdy coffin case, is in perfect shape. It is a fine German violin made by Georg & August Klemme in Neunkirch (Johan August Klemm 1727-1797). It has paper and markings identical to other Klemme fiddles which bear dates of 1761. So the fiddle is 250 years old.

His instrument is a tad larger than most violins, which usually have a body 35.5 cm long. At 37 cms his fiddle has a louder voice which would have been appreciated at barn dances, as it would have had more reach, through the pandemonium of stomping and hollering, that accompanied these raucous events.

Like most fiddles it is made of tiger maple for the back and sides. The finger board is ebony to withstand the pounding of fingers on metal strings.

Most violins seem to have two piece backs, split down the middle, possibly because big boards of tiger maple were just to hard to find in sufficient quantities.

Charles' fiddle has a fine one-piece back, which some claim, gives a superior sound. Those with two-piece backs say no...

A special feature of Charles' fiddle is the tailpiece top which has mother-of-pearl inlays.

Charles died in 1929 after which his fiddle went into storage.

Home made music went into a decline with the coming of the gramophone in the early 20th century, as people - especially the urban snoberati - turned to commercial music, preferring to put rolls into pianos, wind up Swiss music boxes, crank up gramophones, and cylinder players, or turn the knob on a radio. Far less talent and effort required...

Where, a century ago, you could find a fiddler on every other farm, it is scarce to find one anywhere anymore. Which makes Charles' fiddle a fine souvenir of a grand time in home entertainment which those who have experienced it can say without fear of contradiction, that it has no parallel in modern commercialized entertainment.

Those who have experienced the raucous dancing to the wild wail of a fiddle at a country dance, can only feel pity for those thousands of silly spectators at a modern concert, waving their arms around like so much sluggish seaweed in a polluted stream, as they passively watch some commercial product - usually noisy, untalented, and unwashed - though not necessarily in that order - on stage pretending this cacophony is fun. Which is why they are high all the time...

Luckily the people that remember the good old times, in community and family entertainment, are dying off so we won't long have to remember how much we truly have lost...

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A fabulous Great Canadian fiddle that belonged to Charles B Heyd, emminent member of a founding family of Brantford, who became Mayor of Brantford in 1886, and 1888-1889, and a Member of Canada's Parliament in Sir Wilfrid Laurier's government from 1897-1904.

For decades Charles rested his chin on this fiddle, and sawed away for his own pleasure and also at social get togethers and community musical evenings and recitals.

The mother-of-pearl inlaid tailpiece features Alpenrosen, the flowers of the Swiss Alps.

It harkens back to the mother country from which his father came. It was already over 100 years old when Charles got it.

Fiddle, Charles B Heyd - Johan August Klemm 1761
Orig. fiddle - Size - 37 cm
Found - Brantford, ON
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Liberal Cabinet, 1902
Orig. photomontage print - Size - 57 x 71 cm
Found - Brantford, ON
A fabulous, and rare, photomontage of Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Boer War cabinet of 1902, which was the personal property of Charles Heyd, whose photo, as MP of South Brant is in it, in the middle row, third vertical row in.

Two Boer War enemies are in it too, side by side below Laurier, Frederik Borden, Minister of Defence and Militia, who, like all his fellow Anglos, strongly supported the war against the Boers, and Israel Tarte, Minister of Public Works, who, like most French-Canadians detested the British jackboot stomping all over a poor minority in a distant land.

A hundred years later French-Canadian passions for poor oppressed people around the world has not cooled; fully 75% oppose Canada's US style military campaign in Afghanistan.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Canadian Victorian Violin Dance, Evil Davis, 1945
Orig. watercolour - Size - 24 x 34 cm
Found - Kingston, ON
Prov - John Russell Estate, Exhibited Royal Ontario Museum Primitive Art Show, Feb-May 1971
An absolutely fabulous depiction of a 19th century Canadian upper class fiddle dance, from the private collection of Canada's premiere antique dealer and collector, the late John Russell CM, of Montreal and Gananoque. (Ah, sorry, no sawdust on the floor; this is a violin, not a fiddle dance.)

John collected this from Evil Davis, of Gananoque, Ontario, who painted it in 1945 from his youthful recollections. That's the fiddler in the corner showing us how Charles Heyd dressed in tails while entertaining the social elites around Brantford and Ottawa in the late 19th century.

What spellbinding tales his fiddle could tell...

Great Canadian Fiddle of Charles B Heyd - 1899

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