Dawn Beaton, artistic director of the Celtic Colours International Festival, remembers the joy his music brought to her as a young step dancer. She and her sister played Judique on the Floor so many times while dancing that they wore it out. They eventually had to replace the cassette tape.
“He did the most iconic version of [the tune] King George the Fourth,” she said. At an annual step-dancing festival held in the community of Port Hood, he was the fiddler all the dancers wanted. “Every little girl got up and asked for Buddy to play King George the Fourth.”
Born in 1924 into a Gaelic-speaking, musical family in the northeastern Ontario town of Timmins, Mr. MacMaster was the second eldest of eight children. His parents, Sarah Agnes and John Duncan MacMaster, had moved from Cape Breton to the mining town so John could work in the mines. In 1929, the family returned to Cape Breton’s Inverness County, where John resumed work at the mines.
Mr. MacMaster’s father played the fiddle, but he didn’t hear him play often, instead he learned his first tunes mainly from Judique fiddler Alexander MacDonnell, and revered players such as Bill Lamey and Winston (Scotty) Fitzgerald when they visited the MacMaster home.
He says, however, that his love of music came largely from his mother, who sang to him from birth. She would lilt, often referred to as mouth music or “jigging,” with a Gaelic inflection peculiar to the area, and always encouraged people to play music in the house. Several of Mr. MacMaster’s sisters became accomplished piano players and would accompany him when he played publicly.
“I’d be lying in bed jigging tunes,” he once said in an interview of his childhood. “Then I got two sticks of wood and would be rubbing them together pretending I was playing the fiddle. My grandfather, Alain Iain, was up at the house and he saw me at this, so he whittled the pieces of wood down to resemble a violin and a bow. Somewhere along the way I got away from that. I guess I was getting older, saw it was foolish to be rubbing two sticks together.”
His first paid gig came when he was about 15 years old. “I was asked to play for a dance at the Troy School,” he recalled in the book Buddy MacMaster: The Judique Fiddler. “It was just a little dance, you know. Anyway, they gave me $4. I had to pay my way on the old bus to the dance and then on the train to get home the next day.” On the train ride home he met a man he knew who was impressed by his earnings from the dance. “You did well,” he told Mr. MacMaster.
“In Cape Breton, step-dancing and square-dancing, I think, has a lot to do with the way we play,” Mr. MacMaster told Fiddler Magazine in 2000. “You have to give it a lift or a lively feel to make the dancer feel like dancing or perform better, you know. Then when you see a dancer responding to your music, that sort of puts you in a better mood to play.”
At a typical dance, Mr. MacMaster would play from his repertoire of hundreds of tunes with precision timing and impeccable correctness, all from memory. He put so much energy into each performance that sweat would cover his short-sleeved, collared shirt. A young woman, named Marie Beaton, who frequented the dances where he played, caught his eye. The couple married in 1968. By that time, Mr. MacMaster had been a regular player on Cape Breton’s dance circuit for close to 20 years.