'A terrific gentleman and top-notch fiddler': remembering Buddy MacMaster

Nancy King nking@cbpost.com
Published on August 22, 2014

Buddy MacMaster

©Cape Breton Post - TC MEDIA

Those fortunate enough to have known Buddy MacMaster are remembering him as much for his gentleness of spirit as his virtuosity on the fiddle.

Hugh Allan (Buddy) MacMaster, the master of Cape Breton fiddle, died Aug. 20 night at age 89.

Born in Timmins, Ont., MacMaster grew up in Judique in a musical family, and began playing his father's fiddle at age 11.

In addition to his full-time job with the Canadian National Railway, MacMaster was also a full-time fiddler, regularly performing across the island at dances, benefits, and parish and community events, often several nights a week. Later on, he had opportunities to tour and perform internationally, from Scotland to the United States.

MacMaster was in his 60s before he made his first recording, but that didn’t hinder him from becoming a worldwide ambassador for Cape Breton’s unique culture and music, amassing honours including an Order of Canada induction, a lifetime achievement award from Folk Alliance International and honorary degrees.

“People were waiting for his recording for about 30 years before it came out,” said piano player Doug MacPhee.

Fiddler Ashley MacIsaac said that while everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the ailing MacMaster would pass away, it doesn’t make the loss any less profound.

“You don’t want to know when it’s coming, but Buddy was getting older and hopefully he’s at peace,” MacIsaac said in a phone interview from Halifax.

The first time the Creignish native set foot onstage with MacMaster was in 1980, as a five-year-old stepdancer in Glencoe Station. MacIsaac made a mistake as he began to dance and rushed offstage. He found his mother at the back of the hall and told her he couldn’t dance to the tune MacMaster was playing. She advised him to ask MacMaster to play a different tune.

“So I ran back up on the stage and Buddy was laying back with his eyes closed, still playing the tune, and I tapped Buddy on the shoulder and said, ‘Buddy, that tune’s no good,’ and he laughed and he laughed and he started another tune.

“He was so caring for a nervous little kid that was onstage. You learn a lot from your parents, but you learn a lot more from your friends when you’re young and you’re a musician. You look up to someone like that. I respected him from five years old forward as this really gentle man.”

Sheldon MacInnes, who wrote a book about MacMaster, said in addition to Cape Breton losing an exceptional musician with MacMaster's death, those who knew him also lost a great friend.

“He was a man of faith, he was a man of family and he was a man of community,” he said.

“You would feel that you’ve known him all your life once you’ve met him for the first time.”

MacMaster set the standard for Cape Breton music, with an unparalleled repertoire of tunes that he would interpret in a way that suited the tradition, MacInnes said. He was a particularly good dance player, he noted.

“You would go to a dance session with Buddy in a place like Glencoe, or Brook Village, or Glendale and you would go through the entire evening listening to Buddy as you’re dancing, and he would not repeat the tune again.” MacInnes said.

His desire to learn new tunes and play them correctly continued late into his career.

MacMaster was a musical perfectionist who took care to ensure his execution and timing were precise, MacPhee said.

New Waterford's MacPhee often took to the stage with MacMaster, going along with him on four trips to Scotland. When MacMaster travelled from the western side of the island to perform a set, he could have taken a piano player along with him, but instead he would call his longtime friend to see if he was available.

“He was very respectful to people,” MacPhee said. “We all loved him, just a beautiful, beautiful person. I just got a message on my phone from his wife saying, ‘You lost your good friend.’”

MacPhee described MacMaster as a “terrific gentleman and top-notch fiddler, one of the very best we’ve ever had... .He was just the perfect guy, as far as I’m concerned. MacMaster’s death is a loss to not only Cape Breton’s musical culture but to the world," he said.

MacIsaac noted that while he’s incorporated the flash of modern pop culture into his own style, he has also been inspired by MacMaster’s unmatched mastery of technique.  As he was learning to play, MacIsaac said he followed MacMaster’s playing note for note, measure for measure. MacMaster had a singular vision of playing the music right, for people who loved it or would come to love it after hearing him perform.

“He’s of an era of fiddlers that probably will never be seen again,” MacIsaac said. “He believed in reading things from the book and playing them as they should have been played.”

A tribute to MacMaster had already been planned for this year’s Celtic Colours International Festival. Now the festival’s artistic director, Mabou native Dawn Beaton, and her sister Margie were just getting started in playing and dancing when MacMaster’s first tape was released.

“His became the absolute standard of practising step-dancing to,” Beaton said, calling MacMaster an idol to whom is owed a debt of gratitude for propelling Cape Breton culture to a world stage.

What set MacMaster apart as a musician, apart from the pureness and sweetness of his playing, was his charity of spirit, Beaton said.

“That he would take that gift and give it to so many organizations and charities on the island, that stands out, that willingness to give back and share his gift, especially to young people growing up who wanted to be a part of this culture too,” she said.

“You could be a six-year-old little redhead from Mabou and he would say hello.”

When Bob MacEachern and his wife-to-be set the date for their wedding 26 years ago, the Judique native’s first call was to his mother. The second was to MacMaster to see if he would be available to play at the church.

“I was willing to change the date,” MacEachern said. “He was free and he played at the church that day. That was a pretty awesome part of it.”

MacEachern, owner of local radio station The Hawk, was often in a position to look to book MacMaster for events. A devoted family man, MacMaster was also a strong supporter of his community. MacEachern said his willingness to play at community and parish hall fundraisers helped many of them keep their doors open.

“Buddy was pretty much part of all our lives growing up in those years. … When you were throwing a fundraising concert together, one of the first names you always thought of was Buddy — 'Can we schedule the concert around Buddy’s schedule to make sure we got him'  — and if you got Buddy, then you knew you had a show, then you just filled in around the name,” he said.

MacMaster had a reputation for never turning down an engagement if he had an opening, regardless of how much it paid. He also had a strong interest in people, and when he met someone and asked about their family lineage, MacMaster would often then be able to recount a story about a relative he had known.

“There’s a lot of wonderful players and wonderful musicians, but Buddy just had a way about him. He was engaging as a musician but he was engaging as a conversationalist,” MacEachern said.

“I think he knew how much he was appreciated, but I suspect he didn’t know how much of an icon he was,” MacEachern said.

MacMaster is survived by his wife, Marie, children Allan and Mary Elizabeth, and grandchildren.

Name: Hugh Allan (Buddy) MacMaster

Age: 89

Born: Oct. 18, 1924 in Timmins, Ont.

Family moved to Cape Breton: In 1928 when Buddy was four years old, settling in Judique

First paying gig: Square dance in Troy at age 14

Family: He married Marie Beaton in 1968 and they have two children, Mary Elizabeth and Allan

Day job: In 1943, Buddy began as a telegrapher and station agent for the Canadian National Railroad where he worked, in a variety of positions, until his retirement in 1988.

Night job: For decades, Buddy was the go-to fiddler for community, parish and benefit dances across Cape Breton

Television highlights: Throughout the 1970s he performed as part of the “John Allan Cameron” and the “Ceilidh” television shows; in 2007 he performed with his niece Natalie MacMaster on a BBC TV special.

Recorded first CD at age: 65

Recordings: His debut “Judique on the Floor” was released in 1989, followed by “Glencoe Hall” in 1991, “The Judique Flyer” in 2000, “Cape Breton Tradition” in 2003, and “Natalie & Buddy MacMaster” in 2005.

Awards and honours: Honorary doctorate from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish in 1995, Order of Canada recipient in 2000, Order of Nova Scotia recipient in 2003, honorary doctorate from Cape Breton University conferred in a special ceremony held in Judique in 2006, recipient of the East Coast Music Association’s Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2006

Quote about Buddy: “I’m very proud to say that Buddy MacMaster is my uncle. He gives credibility to what I do and I’m glad I can carry that MacMaster name because he has created such a good name.”

- Natalie MacMaster

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil:

"Buddy MacMaster brought Cape Breton music to the world and influenced a generation of Celtic musicians. His gift of music will live on for generations to come."


CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke on Twitter:

"Very saddened to hear of the passing of Buddy MacMaster, a great Cape Bretoner and great Canadian. Condolences to his family and friends."


Jamie Baillie, leader of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative party:

"For decades, Mr. MacMaster was a musical ambassador for our province and our country, and his talent drove a resurgence of Cape Breton fiddle music that has strengthened Nova Scotia’s rich cultural history."


Cape Breton Centre MLA Frank Corbett on behalf of the NDP caucus:

“Buddy was a hero to a lot of people of people in Cape Breton and around the world. He was the face of Celtic music for several decades. He helped make the genre popular and it’s really no stretch to say that Buddy MacMaster did for fiddle playing what Eric Clapton did for the electric guitar.”


CBC Radio 2 host Tom Power on Twitter:

"Just heartbreaking to hear of the loss of Buddy MacMaster. A true giant of traditional music —the likes of which will never be seen again."


Musician Carmen Townsend on Twitter:

"CB's Buddy MacMaster put us on the map. Rest in jigs & reels!"


Musician J.P. Cormier on Twitter:

"So profoundly saddened to hear that Buddy MacMaster has left us. He was my friend and such a unique spirit."