The fantastic fiddle of Rufus Guinchard

Newfoundland ambassador's music lives on

Published on September 8, 2010

Hawkes Bay—The resurgence of the fiddle in the current music landscape would have put a big wide grin on the face of Rufus Guinchard.

Earlier this year a new generation of fiddle fans were hooked to the manic scratching of Cape Breton’s Ashley MacIsaac who wowed the world during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Juno Award-winning Natalie MacMaster, also an exponent of Cape Breton fiddle playing, now commands an increasing legion of fans inspiring a young breed of players to rosin up their bows.

But for the Newfoundland style, which is more closely linked to English and French heritage as opposed to the Scottish-based Cape Breton style, one name is still held aloft and regarded as one of the most important figures in traditional music — Rufus Guinchard.

Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of the passing of arguably one of the most influential fiddle players in Newfoundland next to the great Émile Benoit.

Guinchard, who was born in Daniel’s Harbour in 1899 before moving to Port Saunders and later to Hawkes Bay, died one day after his 91st birthday on Sept. 7, 1990.

Hawkes Bay’s Nova Hoddinott, who inherited a treasure trove of Guinchard’s belongings when she bought her house a dozen years ago, said the fiddle player was a sight.

“Everyone knew Uncle Rufe,” she said. “He was a very witty guy. He was like a 16-year-old, and when you saw him strutting off, he was somebody.

“He was a friend of everybody. He lived right there behind us, so when he was trottin’ off to play at one of his house parties at Daniel’s Harbour or Parson’s Pond or wherever, he would come across there with his fiddle and a little backpack and walk through the yard and meet someone at the service station or he would hitchhike.”

Hoddinott was instrumental in starting the Rufus Guinchard Music Festival that ran for 11 years, and established the Fiddler’s Café in Hawkes Bay, which displayed mementoes, including airline tickets from all over the world, passports, an old broken fiddle, Guinchard’s award for performing at the 1985 International Exposition in Tokyo and notes he made while travelling.

“Look at this one,” she said, holding up a piece of greying paper with notes scribbled in pencil.

“Aug. 12 1985,” she started, “went to Tokyo (for the expo). Spent all day going from one place to the other. It’s some beautiful place to see. It’s different to any of our cities or any other city I have seen. The train runs overhead; all the tracks are overhead ... Aug. 14, 1985: 19,000 people passed by us when we were on stage playing.”

As for the demise of the music festival two years ago, Hoddinott said she would like to see the community rally together once more.

“I think it’s important that he is remembered and I think a music festival in his name should be held here in Hawkes Bay,” she said.

While the festival may be no more, Guinchard’s music continues to live on through musicians like Kelly Russell who, as a fellow fiddler, crossed paths with Guinchard in the late 1970s.

Russell, who performed with Guinchard for more than a decade, said his legacy was the “wonderful repertoire of unique Newfoundland music.”

“As a man, Rufus was that breed of Newfoundlander that they don’t make anymore. He came from a time when Newfoundlanders worked hard, played hard. It was a whole different life back then,” Russell said.

“As a fiddle player, he was completely unique and he was a great source of musical knowledge and heritage, being that he was born in 1899 and because he learnt music from his grandfather and great uncles.

“A fiddle tune is not just a fiddle tune. A lot of tunes that Rufus played, you wouldn’t find anywhere else. They were not in the repertoire of Irish musicians, Scottish or Cape Breton. He had tunes that were unique to his local area. And he was one of the last people to play that kind of music, a lot of others had given it up.”

Russell said Guinchard was a living library — his and many of his ilk’s work was based in an aural tradition, with very little written down.

“I am thankful he lived to when he did, because if he had died in his 70s, all of that knowledge, that heritage, would have been lost forever,” he said.

“The first tape-recording of Rufus was in 1975 or so. Prior to that there was no record of it and we should be thankful that he kept playing the fiddle because a lot of people gave it up. He refused to quit.

“There are hundreds of Cape Breton fiddlers and Irish fiddlers, but Rufus wasn’t like any of them. He stood apart, he was different in his style, his repertoire, who he was as a man, his accent, where he was from, his outlook on life.”

Memorial University folklorist Anita Best, who met Guinchard in the ’70s, said his tunes were unique because of the way he thought about music.

“You have to remember that fiddle music and accordion music in Newfoundland was played for dances, to accompany dancing, so dancing could happen. Instrumental music was not for any other purpose. That’s what defined his music; the dancing was the important thing,” she said.

“His legacy is the fact he showed a whole new generation of Newfoundlanders the tunes he had learned and composed himself.”

Russell, who learned those traditional songs from Guinchard and eventually wrote them down for posterity, still plays Guinchard’s music.

“What Rufus played was pretty much an exact reproduction of the original tunes he learned, but every now and again he would add a few things, quick notes to dress up a tune, but for the most part because the opportunity to hear music from other places was few and far between in those days, he wasn’t influenced by other styles in the same way modern musicians are,” he said.

“He was very important for Newfoundland music.”

The Northern Pen