Memories of a fiddler
Fitzgerald made a living filling the dance floor
By Helen Murphy
GUYSBOROUGH – If you wanted to go to a dance in Guysborough years ago, when Gerald Fitzgerald was playing the fiddle, you had better arrive early. The dance started at nine, but if you arrived after 8:30 p.m., you weren’t likely to get in.
In that packed, noisy hall, friends and neighbours caught up with each other while the musicians took to the stage. As soon as that first “ping” of a string on Fitzgerald’s violin sounded, couples filled the dance floor -- and it stayed full until closing time.
That kind of love of fine Cape Breton-style fiddling and the dancing that goes with it provided a living for Fitzgerald and his wife Millie as they raised seven children -- first in Halifax, then back home in Boylston.
The Journal sat down with Gerald, 92, and Millie at their Boylston home on Monday to talk about some of those memories of fiddling and family.
Fitzgerald first played a dance when he was 10 -- more than 80 years ago -- at the Queensport Hall in his home community. In those early days, he was paid one dollar a night.
And there was no accompaniment back then, no guitarist. “I played alone all night,” he said. “It felt like my arm would fall off.”
But he loved it.
He learned to play from his uncle Bob, a fiddler with the New Glasgow band the Royal Swingsters.
Fitzgerald recalls playing for a Burns family wedding at the school in Erinville back in 1939, when he was 17.
Asked about his fiddling heroes when he was growing up, Fitzgerald is quick to respond: Winston Scottie Fitzgerald. “He was the best.”
Gerald would later play with Don Messer in Antigonish.
Before heading off to fight in WWII in 1943, he worked at the dockyard in Halifax. He was part of the Eastern Five band in the city. He and Millie married in 1952 and started their family in Halifax. In 1957 they moved their family back to Boylston.
In the late 50s and 60s, Fitzgerald was playing five nights a week at community halls: Guysborough Intervale, St. Francis Harbour, Giants Lake, Antigonish and Guysborough. He was paid $6 a night.
Getting around wasn’t so easy in Fitzgerald’s early career. Cars were not in abundance. “I used to hitch-hike to play for dances.”
In the 1970s, Fitzgerald was a regular at the Guysborough Legion, playing with Ronnie Hull, Neil DeCoff and Danny Rodgers.
Fitzgerald only stopped playing the fiddle 8-10 years ago, when he developed hearing problems.