Profile by Jane Ledwell
Sheila (MacKenzie) FitzPatrick’s fiddling fingers are in the tight grasp of her eight-week-old daughter, Brenna. “She’s a big Stan Rogers fan,” Sheila laughs. “And,” of course, she adds, “she likes all the old stuff”—meaning traditional East Coast music.
To Brenna’s delight, Sheila is getting her bowing arm back in shape for a season performing with the Celtic Ladies at The Guild, and new trio Mulligan Stew at Harmony House, a music venue opening in Hunter River in July.
Mulligan Stew will feature Sheila, Kendall Docherty, and John Webster offering new takes on traditional Maritime music, with a mix of influences. Sheila says, “I’m playing more country music than I’ve ever played!”
The Celtic Ladies will return after a hiatus last summer for member Darla MacPhee to have a baby. Among them, band members have three babies under three. “We’ll start the ‘Celtic Babies’ next,” Sheila laughs.
The Ladies showcases her love of traditional music. “We want to show people what traditional Island music is and where it came from,” Sheila says. “It’s definitely not a show that’s just produced for the sake of making money. This is our music. It’s the music we grew up with.”
Sheila was the youngest-by-far child of Little Pond parents who were still connected to traditions of visiting neighbours, playing cards, and tuning in to the ceilidhs from Antigonish on the radio. “I always pretended I could stepdance, so Mom put me in lessons. Eventually, I started to dance at the MacKinnon family [ceilidhs] in Richmond, and when I was nine, I decided I wanted to start on the fiddle.”
Ceilidhs in Monticello were “very influential,” too. “It was a ceilidh in the real sense. Whoever was there, played. There was a dance, and there was lunch,” she says. “We all cut our teeth playing for the dancers. At first, you’d play the first figure of a set, and then after a while a whole set,” Sheila remembers.
“Playing for dancers is such a natural thing,” Sheila says. “When you’re playing for a dance, you’re not the focus of attention when you’re in the middle of the stage. There’s a reason to be playing. And you can’t stop! If you make a mistake, no one notices, and no one cares. One night, I was playing and the bow just flew right out of my hands!”—no one stopped dancing.
Sheila works hard to help Island audiences hear the best musicians in the region, organizing shows last year at the King’s Playhouse and this year again helping promote the popular Close to the Ground series at Poole’s Corner.
“You want to bring music you know is great to PEI, but timing is always a problem, pricing is always a problem,” she says. “You might be able to book a show for March or April, but people’s EI is running out, so they don’t have the $15 right now.… It’s hard too, because when I found someone really, really good, sometimes when they’re more genre-specific, mainstream people don’t know who they are.”
She says that with so much stay-at-home entertainments, people don’t feel it’s “necessary” to go out to the theatre or to hear a show. “There are people who are culturally minded and who go out,” she says, “but it amazes me—there are so many people who have never been to a live show. When they do finally get to hear a musician live, “I really think it’s magical for them,” Sheila says.
What will keep traditional music alive in PEI? Sheila FitzPatrick says, “I think at this point, it is really just a lot of work to do it: constantly putting shows on, bringing music to new people, trying to get into schools to bring traditional music to younger people. PEI is so small, but there are still people here and there that you don’t know play. We need to find and reach those people.”
Baby Brenna reaches up to her mom and gurgles musically. She’s got some ideas of her own about how tradition gets handed down.