A dark-haired nine-year-old boy sat shivering as the sun rose. For three hours he had been watching the dilapidated grey house across the street, waiting to ask the finest fiddler he had ever heard to be his teacher. He crossed the street and sat on the doorstep, where he couldn’t be missed. Finally, the fiddler appeared. For the next four years he was the only music teacher the boy would ever have.
The boy was Jean Carignan and the teacher, Quebec master fiddler Joseph Allard. In four years Carignan mastered Allard’s repertoire, and continued to learn on his own by listening to the records of great Irish and Scottish fiddlers. Carignan went on to become one of the world’s greatest fiddlers. He has received the Order of Canada and, although he cannot read music, an honorary doctorate in music from McGill University. Yehudi Menuhin, the celebrated violinist, devoted a complete show to Carignan in his television series, The Music of Man. Says Menuhin: “He is the most extraordinary character and violinist I know. Sometimes one loses as much as one gains by formal training in music. Jean brings to music something equally valuable—melodic gifts and rhythms. He belongs to a people, a culture, a land. The power of the music seized him and made him.”
He may be Menuhin’s hero, but Jean Carignan, 64, has largely earned his
living in textile factories, construction jobs and, lastly, driving his own taxicab in Montreal for 22 years. His wife of 41 years, Ida, worked in a Seagram’s bottling factory for 27 years, and the couple now lives in a comfortable three-bedroom bungalow south of Montreal. Years of heavy construction work have caused irreversible damage to the nerves leading to Carignan’s ears. Because of growing deafness and anger with the music industry, he has not performed publicly since his retirement in 1978, though he still plays at home and with friends. Known for his volatile temper, Carignan is now a somewhat bitter recluse. Nevertheless, he welcomes visitors cordially, and produces a fine bottle of Puits d’Amour from his well-stocked wine cellar. “We are as snug here as two cucumbers,” says Ida as she looks across the living room at
her husband, contentedly puffing on one of the 65 pipes from his collection, and stroking his little black dog, Prince. “But, you know, some days he drives me crazy when he has nothing to do. He can only walk his dog so much.”
Downstairs in the grey-panelled music room, Carignan opens his violin case. It holds two violins: his own, a Paul Kaul made in France in 1930, and a much humbler one which was his father’s. Recalls Carignan: “He kept it under the bed so we would not touch it, but that did not stop me. Sometimes I would break a string and my father would give me the hand like that,” he says, mimicking a solid spanking. “I don’t blame him. In those days you couldn’t get the five cents for a new string. There was no work. But my aunt, who worked in the factory making suits, was there one day when my father was going to beat me. She said if I broke a string she would pay for it from now on. Ah, what a release.”
Jean left school at age 6 and began playing on Montreal street corners to help support his desperately poor family. This was illegal and he was often arrested, once 11 times in one day. By chance, he heard his first classical music from a café juke box, and spent his entire supper money listening to more. “In those days records cost $1.50 new. I didn’t have that kind of money, but when I had saved up a quarter I would
go to the Salvation Army store. I could buy them for 5,10 or 15 cents.”
George Wade, leader and caller of Canada’s top country dance band in the 1930s, drew Carignan into the entertainment world. Wade had halted his car at a stop sign in Montreal when he heard 10-year-old Jean playing during his lunch break from the cobbler’s shop where he was apprenticing. “The Kid Fiddler,” as he became known, toured Canada with Wade’s Corn Huskers from 1931 to 1937. The 12-member band taught him to speak English and to read, using the newspaper in the hotel room at night.
Carignan gained increasing acclaim as a musician, but never widespread popularity. Particularly in Quebec, where bluegrass and country and western are popular, his traditional folk albums have not sold well, and this made him bitter. Carignan has also antagonized some Quebec musicians with his claims that French-Canadian tunes are rooted in the Gaelic music of Scotland and Ireland and the music of France, which are his specialties. Says Carignan: “Some of them can’t play it because it is so difficult, so they say it is not our music. Ha! We never invented it, our ancestors brought it over.”
Carignan’s repertoire of more than 5,000 tunes is all in his head. His admirers believe it is urgent to preserve his achievements before he loses his hearing completely. Five years ago, Calvin Sieb, then concert master of the Montreal Symphony, suggested videotapes be used to record Carignan. The National Museum of Man in Ottawa transcribed over 300 of Jean’s tunes into sheet music, but Sieb says the music must be seen as well as heard. His intricate Gaelic bowing technique dates from at least the 17th and 18th centuries, and is accompanied by rhythmic footwork or “clogging.’’
Carignan, who is often too proud to wear his hearing aid, refuses to apply for the estimated $100,000 it would cost to make the videotapes. His hearing comes and goes unpredictably. Occasionally, he is forced to leave concerts or gatherings when music or any sound suddenly becomes a painful roar. “I cannot sit there like that [he demonstrates by plugging his ears]. I feel so bad inside as I drive home alone.” There is no selfpity, however, as he contemplates the loss of his music. Carignan even jokes about returning to needlepoint, a craft he learned while touring. But when the music dies for Carignan, a rare art will be lost. Laments Sieb: “No one else in North America can play as he does. It is a treasure not just for Quebec, but for all Canada.” -WENDY LINDSAY AND GILLIAN MACKAY
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