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Johnny Archie MacDonald

Scottish Fiddlers - 25th in Series, “The Scotia Sun” May 9, 1973

Scottish music, in the finest Cape Breton tradition, lives on in Detroit, Michigan, thanks to Johnny Archie MacDonald who grew up in Little Judique Ponds just after the turn of the century.

Johnny Archie is almost eighty years old now and in the half century since he left Cape Breton he has nursed Scottish music through a long succession of music crazes enabling it to survive in the Motor City.

With the aid of other former Cape Bretoners Johnny Archie has sponsored dances, organized concerts and opened his home to musicians.  Now, he has resigned himself to entertaining family and friends in his home where he still loved to play his Roth violin.

A retired Detroit police Officer, Johnny Archie was born on May 22, 1893 in Superior, Wisconsin.  At age seven, after the death of his mother, Johnny Archie and his father moved to Little Judique Ponds, where he resided until moving to Moncton, New Brunswick in 1921 with his new bride, the former Florence MacKillop of Judique.  They moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1924.

Florence and J.A. had eight children.  Tragedy struck the family twice in 1938 when a daughter Christine, died followed by the death of Florence.  In 1946, J.A. married Dorothy Hogan of Boston, Massachusetts.  They had five children before Dorothy died in 1957.

J.A. comes from a musical family.  His grandfather, Donald Macdonald was the only fiddler in Little Judique in his day, so he played at all the weddings and dances in the area.  Sometimes he was so busy playing that he had to drink his whiskey while playing.  Four of his sons learned to play the violin, including J.A.'s father.  He went on to explain, “I also inherited music from my mother, the former Florence Beaton from Little Judique.  People have told me that both she and her brother, the late John Archie Beaton were noted step dancers and Gaelic and English singers.

As a boy, J.A. would use two kindling wood sticks as an imaginary violin and bow and pretend he was playing.  When his father left home to seek work in California and Alaska, he left behind an old violin which J.A. picked at until he learned to play “The Cock of the North” when he was 17.

There weren't many fiddlers around Judique then.  One would have to go to Mabou and further north to hear the good fiddlers.  The late Big John Alex MacDonald and the late Alex Michael MacDonald moved to Port Hood some time later, and J.A. recalls that they were two musicians whom he admired and learned from.

Reminiscing recently in his Detroit home, J.A. said, “I never learned to read music, which I deeply regret to this day.  However, I did have a good ear for music in my younger days.  I could pick a tune by hearing it just once..  I do know that no one can play by ear like those who can read music.'

Fondly recalling childhood experiences, J.A. said, “Years ago in Cape Breton, the big day was July 1st and there would be picnic in Inverness Town and all the top violin players and piano players would gather there.  I always made it a point to attend that picnic.  I dearly loved to dance, but on that day, I parked myself right behind the fiddler's stage and there I stayed all day.

“I remember at one particular July 1st picnic I learned 13 tunes and in a few days I played them all at home,” he said.  “It was at one of those picnic that I first head a young girl, who is now Mrs. Hugh MacDonald from Mabou and New Waterford.  She and her sister played together.  I was spellbound and certain I was in another world listening to that music.  I have since heard Mary playing many times, and to me, Mary Beaton Macdonald is in a class of her own.”

Johnny Archie often practiced on the violin at home, unknown to anyone, except his stepmother, who liked to tease him by saying in Gaelic “I thought it was Donald John the Tailor I heard playing”..  Donald John has been called the Strathspeys and reels.

J.A. first played publicly at a dance in Judique schoolhouse when Allan MacDonnell, the lone violin player at the dance, offered his instrument to J.A. in return for a dance with his girl friend.  Without saying a word, J.A. started playing.  “Allan and my girlfriend stood there definitely surprised, never dreaming that I would actually take him up on it,” he recalled.  “I played three sets that night, and after that, at any dance I attended, I had to take my turn.”

In the absence of recreation in Little Judique Ponds, the young folks liked to gather in the evening at the Maryville railroad station, a way station where mailbags were dropped.  One night J.A. perched himself on a lobster crate in an empty boxcar and played his violin until well after midnight while his friends square danced.  On another occasion, J.A. and his friends utilized his boat for an impromptu dance. “I was running a lobster smack and I had a large boat” he said.   “One Sunday my friends asked me to take them for a sail around the Port Hood Islands, so we took off for the outer islands.  There was a good floor in the boat and we had a fiddle so I started to play.  The girls and boys got on the boat floor and danced three sets while we circled both islands.”

“In 1923 I played a few square dances with a very fine violin player at a garden party in Mabou.  This man was Angus R. Beaton (Blacksmith), father of Donald Angus Beaton.  I was thrilled at playing with such a good player and after we finished, Mr. Beaton asked me just who I was and where I hailed from.  I replied that I came from Little Judique Ponds.  Mr. Beaton recalled that some years back there was a man by the name of Hugh MacDonald who worked in one of the general stores in Mabou.  This man was also a fine violin player and he and Mr. Beaton became good friends and played at many dances and weddings together.  This Hugh MacDonald was my uncle.  In 1939, at the age of 86, my uncle Hugh visited my home in Detroit and even then was able to play the old tunes very well.  He too recalled Angus R. Beaton and told me of what a fine violin player Beaton was.”

Johnny Archie's fifty-odd years in Detroit include just as many cherished memories as his Judique days and every one of them is related to Scottish music, naturally.  His down east dances, which featured such Cape Bretoners as Angus Chisholm, Cameron Chisholm, John Campbell, Donald Campbell, Winston Fitzgerald, Donald MacLellan and Buddy MacMaster, have thrilled Detroiters on many a Saturday night.

Besides dances, J.A. has usually always had a hand in organizing Scolong dream, he played the pipes for his father.  He has been studying only a short time - but according to J.A. (and again he says he is prejudiced) “Charlie plays quite well, he has good time and plays the types correct.  Since he did start to play later in life, his best asset is certainly that the music is in him.”  Charlie's daughter Sandy is a highland dancer and has won many medals and awards for her dancing in different competitions throughout the West.  Of course, J.A. is quite proud of his offspring (12 children, 25 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren) are so fond of music.  He feels that music makes life much fuller and more enriched. (Besides, how many other families have their own 'Lawrence Welk Program” when they get together?).  As he so aptly put it, 'I love our Scottish music even more than the corned hake that is shipped to me every fall from Leslie Toby from Port Hood Island”.

Johnny Archie's violin is a Roth which he bought from the late Danny MacDonnell, a former Cape Bretoner who lived in Detroit.  “It is a very fine violin.  The fiddle was in a freak accident when it fell on the ground and was driven over by a car, however, it was repaired by our local filled maker, Cleon Keply, who maintained that the fiddle (which was in a box in a million pieces) was too fine an instrument to throw away.  The fiddle is now as good as new.

On the subject of composing Johnny Archie says “Although I did compose a few strathspeys, reels jigs etc., through the years, since I couldn't read or write music, I would eventually forget them.  However, when the tape recorder came into vogue, I would record them for my own use.”

J.A. is still quite active, and makes an annual trip to Cape Breton around July 1st and resides there for the summer in Little Judique Ponds.  He has obtained many recordings of the musicians down east, as well as Toronto and Boston, and Detroit.  One of his greatest pleasures is to sit and enjoy every note of every tune.  He still frequents the summer concerts in Cape Breton and likes nothing better than to sit and talk “old times” with the performers there.  It is the consensus of many that Johnny Archie is a “legend in his time” - always promoting festivities to keep Scottish music in the hearts of people everywhere - so that Cape Breton tradition will live on.

Thanks to Mac for sending this into us

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