Grandy Fagnan was born in Camperville, Manitoba, probably around 1902 as far as we can determine from things he said. But then, Grandy said a lot of things. He was Métis, talked about his Mexican grandfather, his uncles, Charlie and Michel Chartrand and many other people he had known in his life. He was married to Jean, who played guitar for him for some part of his life and they had one daughter. By his own count, he spoke 10 languages: Cree, Swampy, Saulteaux, English, French, German, “Mexican,” Icelandic, Polish, Ukrainian.
It all started with intrepid reporter, photo-journalist and musician Will Henry from Ontario, who had moved to Manitoba in the late 70s and met Carl Grexton, elderly fiddler. Will started hanging out with Carl, who gradually introduced him to other fiddlers – some Ukrainian, some French, some Métis. One day, Carl decides Willie should meet an old friend of his, a man he calls “old Grandy.” So they drive a couple hours to Camperville where Grandy lives, bring him back down to Carl’s for a couple of weeks just to hang out and play some music, and somewhere in there, Willie flips on the tape recorder, and just for the hell of it, sends a copy back east to his old buddy, Ian Bell, who gives it to me.
I had never heard anything quite like it. I loved Quebecois music and this was sort of like that, only with even more wildly unpredictable tunes, lots of great double foot work and, best of all, it was from a couple of hours from where I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I was hooked, and managed to get a grant and get myself out there by the spring of 1985. I met Willie, re-connected with Carl whom I had met a couple of times on his visits to Ontario, and, eventually, many adventures later, met Grandy. Along the way I met many other wonderful players, from Ebb and Flow, Bacon Ridge, Kinosota, Pine Creek, Boggy Creek, San Clara, Ethelston, Roblin. . . It didn’t take long to realize that Grandy was not just a crazy old guy with a strange way of playing. Instead, he was pretty much the oldest living representative in Manitoba of an entire musical culture that had dominated his part of the prairies since the early 1800s when fiddles and strings began to show up on the lists of supplies for Hudson’s Bay Company posts. Some of those crooked tunes he played started out in Quebec, some in Scotland, some in the U.S., some even in the Ukraine. But they all went through the filter of Métis culture, and of Grandy’s own personal style.
The fiddle ruled. For several generations in prairie aboriginal communities, there was no other source of music. The ceremonies and their drum songs had gone deeply underground, or in many areas, simply stopped altogether (having been outlawed in the late 1800s). Some people sang hymns in church (many denominations of Christianity had a presence), but at home – in kitchens, parlours, sheds, barns and community halls – everything depended on the fiddle. If a fiddler didn’t play quite right, he’d know soon enough, since people would simply sit and wait for him to stop. But if it worked, if he hit the right stride, so to speak, everyone was on the floor and the dancing went ’til the wee hours.
Or so I heard it told. By the time I got there, everything had changed. There were country bands playing for local dances, and, occasionally someone would ask the fiddler for one of the old “quadrilles” or the “Drops of Brandy” or the “Red River Jig.” Then, the very air in the room would change and people would hit the floor with their feet beating out the time, showing off their steps and looking for all the world like they could go on forever. Sometimes there was a ‘dry’ dance where the old music was still the thing, or one of the elders would get the kids together at school and form a performance group. They would wear their ribbon shirts and skirts, their fringed shawls and beadwork, sometimes moccasins, sometimes hard-soled shoes, in some way honouring both the European and the Aboriginal sides of their heritage. Just like the music.
So, I went back in 1986 with more grants. I recorded everything I could on audio and video tape. I interviewed people, or sometimes we would just play and I would ask occasional questions, whatever worked. But Grandy was gone, having passed away in early 1986, between my first and second trips. My tapes of Grandy and all the others are in the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s Centre for Folk Culture Studies (with copies in the Music Department at York University). I went back in 1988 and videotaped dancing, also for the National Museum. Sometime in the mid-90s I started to write down stories and that become a solo show, Spirit of the Narrows. In 2004, the Blyth Theatre Festival invited me to turn it into a two-person production, with a young actress playing me in my youth while I got to be my older (and, of course, wiser) self, morphing into the fiddlers as she met them. As of this writing , December, 2015, just finished a run of 7 performances of the show in Hamilton, Ontario at The Pearl Company –– seems fitting somehow for these rare gems of music that reveal so much about our country. The reviews were completely positive:
“Anne is a great fiddler and story teller. . the real life Anne has clearly absorbed many of the accents and idiosyncrasies of rural Manitoba, often portrayed to hilarious effect. . . recommended for those who love music, fiddle, Manitoba, and good times.”
Mackenzie Kristjon Jenkyns, Raise the Hammer, Nov. 23, 2015
Over the years, I have played many different kinds of music, with many different people, travelled to so many parts of the world I didn’t know I would ever have the chance to see.
But I always come back to this music, to Grandy and his tunes. I have just recorded a whole CD of them, Old Man’s Table. My intention was always to make the originals available to everyone, to tell people what I have learned about this music over the years. I know it would have made him happy and proud to think that 30 years after his death, his music is still inspiring people and reminding them of the old ways.
“Pretty soon, I’m going to start going backwards, then I can live for 100 years, then I’ll be a little tiny baby again.” [Grandy Fagnan, 1985, Usherville Saskatchewan]
For links to Grandy’s tunes, go to the Tunes page.