Interviewer: Franziska von Rosen assisted by John Cheechoo and Stan Louttit
Place: Moose Factory, Ontario
Franziska von Rosen: Could you please tell me your name and where you come from?
James Cheechoo: My name is James Cheechoo. I was born in Eastmain [Quebec] and then we moved over here [Moose Factory] in 1960. This is where my father came from, a treaty Indian; he moved to Eastmain just to visit. His mother was over there and after two years staying over there he had a girlfriend. They got married in Eastmain. Then his mother came back to Moose Factory. They were working in the Revillon [Frères] Company. The Revillon Company had transferred people, half-breed people, anywhere that was suitable for them. His stepfather transferred to Eastmain and he quit over there and they came back. My father stayed at Eastmain. That was where all of us were born, until at last in 1960 I came back here myself. The others came back before that time and my father too. We all stayed here.
FvR: So the Cheechoo family has been in this region for a long time?
JC: Yes. They did very well here and they were staying in Moose Factory.
FvR: Do you know anything about the kind of life your grandfather lived in that period of time?
JC: I never knew my grandfather. He died before I was born and my grandmother too. They all died before I was born.
FvR: What were your first influences to learn to play fiddle?
JC: My father had a fiddle and he played at square dances. He was pretty good at it. He always hung his fiddle on the wall. I began to think about it myself when I grew up. And I used to listen to him play fiddle after supper. I was sitting there watching him play fiddle. I began to think, I wish I could do that. Years after that, I tried his fiddle. He said: “That’s OK; you’re playing my fiddle as long as you don’t break it.” I said: “OK, I won’t break it. I will look after it myself.” I used to play his fiddle and hang it up again after I finished. That was what I used to do and then I began to make at least one tune. Once I made one tune, then I would make another one. Try that, another one, and so on. So I can play fiddle. That was when I was 11, 12 years old. By the time I was 14, I could play at the dances, square dances.
FvR: So you are self-taught?
JC: Yes, self-taught. My father did not teach me either. We had a small wind-up gramophone. We had some fiddle tune recordings. That was what I tried, those tunes. Old-timers.
FvR: Can you remember who those fiddlers were that you listened to?
JC: No. I never bothered with the writing because I could not read. I never went to school in those days. My mother said that you are not going to school because there was no school where we were. Only in the summertime a guy, a teacher, came. He came by boat. There was no airplane either. The only airplanes that came were those of prospectors. Not like today, you know.
The boat came there from Moosonee, Moose Factory, to Eastmain, all around to Chisasibi and then back here. I do not know how many times in the summer. So this guy came on the boat. He would teach us in the church. We had that only in the summertime, not the winter. By the time spring came, I would have forgotten all that.
FvR: How big was that community of Eastmain where you grew up?
JC: It was very small. There were three, four, maybe five families.
FvR: Were there other fiddlers or was your father the only fiddler there?
JC: Some other guys played the fiddle too. They did the same thing as I did. They were good fiddlers too.
FvR: Can you recall what the event was like at which these fiddlers would play? What would they dance? Did the event take place in somebody’s house?
JC: In somebody’s house they would make room in the evening. That was where we would have a dance. And we got the candles from the store. We would ask the manager for candles and he would give perhaps 20 candles. That was what we used. That would make the light good in somebody’s home. He is making a dance and my father would be playing fiddle. Lots of people inside – ladies came with their children, and the men. Through the window on the outside they would look in to see what was happening inside. We would have many different square dances. Kissing Dance too. That was good. The Kissing Dance was not used in the beginning. That is the last one they play before they close off to say good-bye to everybody. Kissing Dance – I kiss a woman and then she kisses the man. And they make a big circle. First, two people make a small circle, and then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger until that’s it. The last lady had to kiss the fiddler. The fiddler went into the centre and he played the Kissing Dance.
FvR: And everyone danced around in the circle?
JC: Yes. Everyone danced around and joined hands as in a Round Dance. That was what happened. When the fiddler goes inside he has to kiss the lady on the ring only, and then the fiddler gets out and sits down over there and plays fiddle. Then the circle gets smaller until there are only four left. That’s it.
FvR: Does the fiddler have to kiss all of the women in the circle or just the one?
JC: No, just the one.
FvR: Can you play a Kissing Dance?
FvR: That sounds like an old tune.
JC: It’s pretty old. I do not know where it came from. Perhaps from the Orkney Islands. It could have come from there. Indians do not make tunes. They make songs, like the powwow. They do not make [fiddle] tunes. I do not know what the Métis did. Maybe they make a few songs for themselves too.
FvR: What about other dances? How would the evening start? What would the first tune be?
JC: Anything at all to start with.
FvR: How many fiddlers would you have at an event like this?
JC: Two or three. They would take turns. When somebody got tired, someone else would come in and play fiddle.
FvR: Would it just be the fiddle or would there be someone playing something else?
JC: The drum. Somebody would be playing the drum.
FvR: What would that drum look like?
JC: Could you bring my drum, please? The persons playing the drum take turns too. There is always just one fiddler at a time.
FvR: Are you a drummer as well?
John Cheechoo: Did you not start out as a drummer too with your Dad?
JC: No. Insert photo: pine.john.cheechoo.jpg
JC: That was the Eeyou Breakdown. Or the Indian Breakdown. When I play fiddle and maybe five sets of square dances, those people dance and they are very tired. Next one they ask, give us the Breakdown. That is what I play, the Eeyou Breakdown.
FvR: Do they dance differently to the breakdown?
JC: Yes, different. All those tunes in the square dances are different too. They do it a different way.
John Cheechoo: You asked him before about the influence of other fiddlers. Dad, all of those fiddlers you heard back in the old days playing, can you remember those people when they played?
JC: One guy who played was named Johnny Salt. Another guy was David Salt. And the other guy was Simeon Cheechoo. That’s my brother.
FvR: So these were some of the good fiddlers?
JC: Yes, they were good and then my father. His name was Noah Cheechoo. That’s all I can remember of people who played fiddle.
John Cheechoo: At Fort George too and the other places?
JC: Ray Spencer is a good fiddler in Fort George, Quebec. Many years ago one old man, his name was John C. Iserhoff, he was a very good fiddler. He was the one beginning the fiddling. He was from Waswanipi. He came down at Eastmain. He got transferred. Like I said, half-breed people got transferred, not like Indian people. Hudson’s Bay Company does not want to transfer the Indian people because it wants them to hunt, get fur. The Métis do not get as much fur as the Indians do. They work as chore people for the Company.
FvR: When would that fiddler John C. be active?
JC: Long before I was born. He was living at Eastmain.
FvR: How old are you now?
JC: I do not know if I should tell you. I am 76.
FvR: Do you know the names in Cree of some of the other dances? How would people talk about these dances in Cree?
JC: Oh, Sigabonhiigan (Goose cooking on fire dance), Kwiiskuuhiigan (two lines – one female and one male). That’s another one. Rabbit Dance.
FvR: How do you say Rabbit Dance in Cree?
JC: Waapshuuhiigan. "Wabush" is rabbit.
FvR: During the evening with the fiddle players and the drum there, how long would that evening go? When would it start and when would it finish?
JC: Sometimes we would start at 9 o’clock in the evening. They finish around 5 in the morning. The dance went on all night because there was no job to go to. The only thing that we have is entertainment. In those days, it was dance, dance, dance.
FvR: I have heard about some fiddlers from James Bay going over to Scotland. Were any of them from this area and the families you know?
JC: Robert McLeod was here, living in Moose Factory. And the other one is Ray Spencer from Fort George, Quebec. He had a family there.
John Cheechoo: Remember the first time you met Robert McLeod when you moved here to Moose Factory? At school when you were a teenager.
JC: When I came to Moose Factory Robert McLeod was around and he used to work on a boat. Coming on the boat from Eastmain he was playing fiddle. He and I played fiddle at the square dances in Moose Factory at the school’s dining room. Every Friday night we'd make a dance, people would come there and we would take turns playing fiddle. Bobby Vincent was the one playing guitar.
FvR: When was the change to playing guitar instead of the drum?
JC: About 50 years ago.
FvR: That was when the guitar was introduced?
JC: Yes. We had never seen a guitar before. I did not know what a guitar was. At Eastmain we did not know anything about it.
FvR: Tell me about some of the places where you have played.
JC: In Toronto I played at festivals and in Ottawa at the CBC. We went to Halifax once. I played over there too. A lot of people in Halifax.
Stan Louttit: Remember when you were telling me about some of the good dancers and as you were playing the fiddle you were watching them. How could you tell if they were good or not?
JC: I can tell that like some people step-dancing. They follow my fiddle. The way I play is the way they put the steps on it. Yes, that is just the way they move too, just the way I move. I play the fiddle and they follow my fiddle and some people they do not follow my fiddle, they just dance anyway. Sometimes I make a mistake when I watch them. When I see a person that follows my fiddle, I watch him and play the fiddle the same way as he dances so he is listening to my fiddle. Some guys, they don’t follow my fiddle. It causes me to make mistakes too – a terrible mess. Sometimes I couldn’t play any more and then we'd start all over again.
SL: Was that fast dancing?
JC: Yes. They go either faster or slower. They do not follow me at all, and then I begin to make mistakes.
SL: In the square dance they have to listen to you too?
JC: That’s right. It’s the same way. They have to listen to me in the way they move. Dance and listen to me. They don’t step anytime at all without listening. They have to listen to the music.
SL: In a way you are leading them?
JC: Yes. That is the way.
SL: What about the women in the breakdown or some dances like that, were they good dancers?
JC: Oh yes. The women do the same thing. They follow the music, the same as the men.
FvR: In the beginning you were talking about learning songs from old gramophones. What were some of your other influences in learning songs? How did you learn them?
JC: I listened to them many times. Then, I began to know how it goes, and I began to remember how they go.
John Cheechoo: I think she may be asking how you learned from the other fiddlers, not just listening to the gramophone. How did you learn from those people?
JC: It was just the same thing as listening to the gramophone. Say I am listening to a person who plays something I have never heard before. I listen to this guy and a few times that guy was playing in a dance. Each time he played that tune, I would listen carefully and then tried it on the fiddle. That is the way I learned tunes from people. Also, from old people I learned tunes. And the other way I heard music was on the radio. When I heard something nice, I would pick up my fiddle and try that. I could play a little bit at a time.
SL: When you were a young boy, were you learning to step-dance too? Who were you learning that from?
JC: Nobody. I just danced.
SL: Did you learn to dance before you played the fiddle?
JC: I learned at the same time.
SL: How did you feel when you were fiddling and you saw a lot of good dancers? Did it make you feel like playing better?
JC: Yes. I play better when I see someone following me and the fiddle. I like that, you know.
SL: If you see young kids dancing the right way?
JC: Yes. Some kids follow the music and some kids don’t follow the music. I do not follow them! I watch them and I play at the same time.
John Cheechoo: There is also his sister. Florrie learned how to play. Tell them about Florrie.
JC: My sister, much older than me, she played fiddle. Simeon played fiddle, Sinclair played fiddle, and Florrie played. And my father played fiddle. And me, I did not play fiddle yet. Those four persons played fiddle. Sometimes they would sit around in the room and play fiddle. They would each play the fiddle and asked who could play fiddle better. There was only one fiddle.
FvR: It would be passed around?
FvR: Are there any women fiddle players that would play for dances?
JC: I never heard of any other woman to play fiddle, but my father had told Florrie to play fiddle.
FvR: Did she stop playing?
JC: She stopped when she got married.
FvR: What are your thoughts on why women would not play the fiddle?
JC: They do not have a fiddle. Indians have never had many fiddles. Only one guy that I know had to fiddle as he bought the fiddle from the store. The Salt family, David Salt and Johnny Salt, only had one fiddle.
FvR: So having a fiddle is a very precious thing is what you are saying?
John Cheechoo: Were they expensive?
JC: Not too expensive for a fiddle as good as this one. At age fourteen, I bought this fiddle at the store in Eastmain. I used to hunt. I killed a few foxes and sold them in the store. Then I told my mother, I want to buy a fiddle. There are three fiddles in the store, so I looked at them. The manager said this one is better. I bought it for $138. Today it would be about $3000. It’s a good fiddle. It sounds good.
FvR: How many foxes did it cost you?
JC: Two to get $138, and I had five foxes that time. My father went out one time and checked his traps and snares and got six foxes. He was very rich. A cross fox (silver fox) could get anywhere from $60 to over $100, or even the top price of $500. He got one of those. That’s a lot of money a long time ago. One could live on that for a year.
FvR: Have the tunes that you play now changed from those that you played when you were younger? Do you play different tunes now from what you used to play?
JC: No. I still use tunes that I first learned, but there are new tunes over the years. I also have very old tunes like those my father used to play. Those are very different to the new ones today. And there are all kinds of tunes today. Every tune has the kind of dance that you want. Like the Kissing Dance I just played, you have to use that tune. It is the same way for others. A [particular] dance has its own music. These different square dances have their own music.
Step-dancing has its own music too. That was how it was a long time ago. Nobody was step-dancing just by himself, or even two or three. They always had eight couples on step-dancing. They step-dance with four men and four women on one side and four couples on the other side. And after they step-danced the men went into a line and the women would go around. That is the step-dance of a long time ago. You can do a step-dance with six couples rather than eight. Today there is just one guy step-dancing.
JC: I do not remember the name of that tune. It was a step-dancing tune that my dad played. It’s another “Kwiiskuuhiigan.” That’s very old.
FvR: How many songs do you know?
JC: Maybe sixty.
John Cheechoo: I remember that in Moose Factory for many years he just played modern tunes that we heard growing up here. Then once I heard him play a tune I had never heard him play before. And then he came back to remember all of his old songs that he had not played for many years. How did that come back after only playing stuff like Orange Blossom Special? Those old ones were used on the recording of the CD.
JC: Around 1950 I stopped playing those very old songs. That was all I knew – very old songs. And then I began to switch into the new songs. I just played the new songs, but I had those old songs in my memory. I knew a lot of my father’s songs. I work on those new songs right up to today. Another would come in, and then another that I had never heard before and so on. And I wanted to know those, but I still have the old songs. I have them in tapes to also help my memory. Now the people want to know about the old songs and how they go. I have to look through my tapes for more of the old songs.
FvR: Do you find that they are still in you and come back as you play more of the old songs?
JC: Yes. I feel I am going back in my memory. I feel like I am living in the old days as I play the old songs.
FvR and John Cheechoo: Do you have favourites? Do you prefer the older to the newer songs?
JC: I like the old songs more because the new songs mix it up with the other songs when you play the new songs. The old songs are pure; that is just the way it is. You do not mix up anything. I like it better that way. In the new ones they play two or three different kinds of music in there. They mix it up. [He is probably referring to a new tune that takes portions or motifs that he knows from older tunes to string together a so-called ‘new’ tune.]
John Cheechoo: You know, Dad, how fiddlers in the old days learned from other fiddlers, but they also have their own style of playing.
JC: They have their own style. I play my own style, and the other people play their own style. Same tune that they play, but they play it their own way. They don’t mix it up, but they play it the way they want to play. The way they hold their bow, and their fiddle and the way they act.
FvR: Thank you very much.
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