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Recalling Jean Carignan, a French-Canadian treasure who had to keep his day job

Jean Carignan
Jean Carignan

Today, Dec. 4, would have been the 100th birthday of a French-Canadian icon, fiddler Jean Carignan (1916-88). He first learned the violin from his father, an amateur — who relented in the face of his son’s obstinate fascination with the instrument — and later studied with the Quebecois player Joseph Allard. But Carignan’s real education was technological: the wealth of folk music records released between the World Wars, not just by Quebecois masters, but also Scottish fiddler James Scott Skinner and, especially, legendary Irish-American player Michael Coleman. In addition, Carignan (who regretted being too poor for conservatory training) studied great classical soloists; Jascha Heifetz was a particular idol. Carignan never learned to read music, instead analyzing and memorizing records by ear, internalizing thousands of tunes.

The result was a singular technique, faithful to the letter of the repertoire but personal in spirit. Carignan’s renditions of Coleman’s numbers were note-perfect, even rigidly literal; at the same time, his phrasing and bowing were sharper and heavier — more Quebecois — than Coleman’s gentler approach. Carignan insisted on traditional, first-position fingering, but also incorporated flourishes from classical virtuosi, stylizing folk music into formidable display; witness his signature rendition of the “Reel du pendu,” the Hangman’s Reel, saturated with rhythmic alacrity and firework-like pizzicato effects. (One might compare Carignan with two other Canadian musical luminaries, classical pianist Glenn Gould and jazz pianist Oscar Peterson: like Gould, Carignan maintained a vigorously professed yet highly idiosyncratic authenticity; like Peterson, Carignan’s pervasive virtuosity left a noticeably individual stamp on a folkloric art.)

Much of Carignan’s career was decidedly local, in dance halls that were the music’s natural habitat. But even after headlining large folk festivals, Carignan, to his chagrin, still needed day jobs to make ends meet, working as a shoemaker, in construction, and as a taxi driver. His own recorded legacy, tellingly, was almost entirely produced by companies outside Canada, most notably a series of releases by the Vermont-based Philo label.

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In the 1970s, Carignan finally garnered official recognition: honorary doctorates, command performances, the Order of Canada, the Quebecois Prix Calixa-Lavallée. But Carignan was in his twilight: advancing deafness (a result, probably, of years working as a riveter) soon forced his retirement. “I can’t hear the birds anymore,” he lamented. “I can’t hear the crickets and I can’t hear the high notes on the violin.” It was a rueful way for Carignan’s music, fueled by industry and technology, to requite nature. Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.