Couldn’t Have A Wedding Without The Fiddler

The Story of Traditional Fiddling on Prince Edward Island

University of Tennessee Press

Bocşa Couldn’t Have A Wedding Without The Fiddler offers a social, cultural and musical exploration of traditional fiddle playing on Canada’s Prince Edward Island (PEI). Based primarily on oral histories collected from about 150 fiddlers and other “Islanders,” the narrative colorfully brings to life the electric atmosphere of the old Island dances and the central role that fiddlers and their music once played in community life. And as implied by the book’s title, it was almost unthinkable to plan any important event in the community without first making sure there was at least one fiddler available to play for it.

The book also explores attitudes about fiddling, learning patterns and strategies, playing styles and repertoire, dancing and accompaniment, fiddle contests and the role of mass media, the decline of fiddling in the decades following the second World War; and the uneven progress of the Island’s subsequent fiddling revival movement. To widen the scope of the narrative, material is often presented in the context of parallel cultural developments in Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere in North America.

Couldn’t Have a Wedding is the first published volume of a new series at the University of Tennessee Press named for, and financed by a grant from the estate of Dr. Charles K. Music Wolfe (1943-2006), the great historian of Southern vernacular music. As noted by Professor of Appalachian Studies Ted Olson in the Foreword, “Not only does Perlman explore an overlooked music culture located far from the exhaustively studied South, but, like earlier books by the namesake of this series, Perlman’s study is both groundbreaking in its research and passionate toward its subject.” 462pp., plus introduction by author and foreword by Ted Olson.; features c. 40 photographs and dozens of musical examples.

Note: Couldn’t Have a Wedding is available in digital format via “Kindle” on and through e-books.

Couldn’t Have a Wedding without the Fiddler: The Story of Traditional Fiddling on Prince Edward Island

Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, Charles K. Wolfe Series Just Out!! A social, cultural and musical exploration of traditional fiddle playing on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, on oral histories collected from about 150 fiddlers and other “Islanders.” The book colorfully brings to life the electric atmosphere of the old Island dances and the central role that fiddlers and their music once played in community life.

462pp.; includes c. 40 photographs and numerous musical examples. Click for more information.


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From the Back Cover:

Ken Perlman’s book on Prince Edward Island fiddling is a watershed accomplishment in the study of a grassroots art form. It supplies a rich and textured analysis of a fiddle tradition that, till now, has been virtually ignored in scholarly research. But it does not simply fill a gap in research. The book is the most thorough and comprehensive exploration of any fiddling tradition anywhere. It is a model for artistic ethnography. (Alan Jabbour: Director American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, 1976-99)

With an eye for detail and an ear for nuance, Ken Perlman’s in-depth study deftly deconstructs Prince Edward Island’s distinctive fiddle culture, artfully embedding the music in its social milieu. The result, like a well-played reel, is deeply satisfying—and deeply respectful of its subject. (Ed MacDonald:  Associate Professor of History, University of Prince Edward Island)

With rich commentary from the fiddlers on learning, style, and social occasions, with Perlman’s historical research, sensitive observation, and deft analysis, Couldn’t Have a Wedding without the Fiddler is among the very best musical ethnographies ever published. (Henry Glassie: Emeritus Professor, Dept. of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University)

Over the past many years there has been mutual respect, appreciation, and friendship established between Ken and the P.E.I, fiddlers. It is amazing to see Ken in action. He has the ability to quickly dissipate and dispel any fear and intimidation initially present in the fiddlers as they encounter strangers, especially in front of video and audio recording equipment. Indeed, before too long they are sitting down in the kitchen playing their familiar tunes and talking freely about fiddling, completely oblivious to the recording apparati. (Fr. Charles Cheverie: Emeritus Professor, parish priest and former Director of the Prince Edward Island Fiddlers’ Society)

Reviews for Couldn’t Have A Wedding Without The Fiddler

[A]n amazingly comprehensive study of fiddling within its historical and social contexts. Perlman provides a history of fiddling on Prince Edward, blending this chronology with in-depth presentations of the social context for music making. The fieldwork integrates oral history with folklore and ethnomusicology in a method that is both extensive and intensive. [H]e gives us a nuanced portrait of the role of the fiddler. . . his treatment of genre and repertoire is especially strong . . .  [and] his analysis of dance in its relationship with fiddling is one of the finest treatments that integrate dance scholarship with folklore and ethnomusicology. His work will stand as a model not only for additional studies of old-time fiddling but also for those who wish to continue this integrative research approach for studying a range of other musical traditions.
(Gregory Hansen, Journal of American Folklore)

. . . a wonderful accomplishment, a landmark portrait. . . Very clearly a labor of love . . . a terrific accomplishment. It is methodical, based in deep knowledge and experience, well-written, and clearly very caring.
(Burt Feintuch, JFRR/ Journal of Folklore Research)

[This is  an  interesting  and  worthwhile book.  . . [it] is essentially an ethnography, roughly arranged in topical and chronological order, and like all important ethnographies, it is very thorough. . . Each topic is backed up by multiple interviews and cultural context . . . From his vast constellation of details, the author successfully organized coherent topics and chapter headings that are a tour de force of information organization. Readers who share my fascination with choreology will be especially pleased to read about the place of dance in his examined fiddle world. The dance information in one particular chapter is so detailed that it would be entirely possible to reconstruct a dance or two, along with the music that would have been played by the fiddler. . . This book needs to be in the libraries  of every member of the CSTM [Canadian Society for Traditional Music], and I believe, every undergraduate  and graduate  music student in Canada. It is the newest member of the Canadian music canon. .  . In sum, Enjoy!
(Norman Stanfield, Canadian Folk Music).

This book is a comprehensively researched, densely annotated, well organized and clearly written labor of love. It is a traditional music geek’s dream. PEI is a cultural treasure trove of highland Scottish,Irish, and Acadian French folkways and Perlman provides a highly entertaining gold mine of anecdotes and analysis (from both an academic and a musician’s perspective). The book is chock full of quotes from Islanders, which lend delightful charm, character, and ambience. Thisbook is just a marvelous glimpse into a little-known and seldom-researched area of the world that had and has a magnificent fiddle tradition, which deserves the wider recognition this work will provide. Top notch!”
(Kevin Carr, Fiddler Magazine)

This is a major piece of work which deserves wide attention . . . a must read. It is good for a general reader but beyond that I think that it should be required reading for anyone involved in what might be termed ‘folk development.’ There was a lot in the book that caused me to think and reassess some of my own opinions. At a time when many of our traditions are increasingly in the stewardship of people who might be better defined as ‘arts professionals’ than cultural insiders, this book may serve as a stimulus for them to be more inclusive. This book has set an incredibly high standard and is a credit to Ken Perlman.
(Pete Heywood, Living Traditions)

[This fascinating book is a study of the history and development of fiddling on Canada’s Prince Edward Island. . . It’s written by one of the masters of traditional music in the US, and it does have a lot to say about musical culture and small rural communities. As such, there are parallels to be drawn between Prince Edward Island and, say, North Carolina. . . The book is both a satisfying read and a thorough academic study. Whilst the author employs some historical documents, he more frequently uses material from interviews with Prince Edward Island residents. Mr Perlman has wisely decided to let the individuals’ voices speak direct to the reader, and often quotes them at some length. This is often in support of a particular point, but is never done in an obtrusive manner. (Dave Mepsted, Old Time News)

This is the crown jewel of Perlman’s extensive research of the fiddling on Prince Edward Island. . . The fall of and the revival of a traditional art are revealed. Fiddlers talk about their art and reflect on what it means to be a fiddler, the challenges of fiddling, and the changing role of fiddling on the island. Fine photographs put faces to the words. We learn about a people and their values. To read this book is to visit with these people and even though they are far removed from the Southern mountains, their lifestyle was and is very similar.
(Bluegrass Unlimited)

Who Should Own “Couldn’t Have A Wedding” (from a review by Dave Mepsted in Canadian Folk Music)

So who should buy Ken Perlman’s book?

  • Ethnomusicology instructors in Canadian universities and elsewhere looking for Canadian musical ethnographies. They will be able  to access a “local” musical  scene   to  balance  the  “global”  perspective they are mandated to deliver.
  • Academics   and   cultural   brokers   who   want  to identify an Intangible  Cultural  Heritage within Can­ada.  I.C.H.  is a  new  imperative  promoted  by UNESCO  as an adjunct  to its World  Heritage  sites. As near as I can tell, the fiddle is our most likely candidate.  And all  the source  players  in Canada  need a hand to maintain their heritage. It’s interesting to note that P.E.I.’s  fiddling  I.C.H. was documented  by somebody  “from  away”,  despite  the active  presence of Canadian music folklorists and resident ethnomusicologists.  I wonder how that happened!
  • Historians and history  buffs  who want to fill out their understanding of Canada’s history by using the familiar medium of music. Although the material is unique to P.E.I., many of its general descriptions of fiddling are relevant across Canada.
  • Young   fiddler  hobbyists  who want to place their jigs and reels into a cultural context. For example, Perlman’s  descriptions  of  the nature of revivals  will make many of them look at their fiddles in a new and sobering light.
  • Budding authors and movie-makers looking  for material and stories, both real and fictional, to evoke Anne with an “e” [of Green Gables], but with music at its core.