James Cheechoo (1929-2022), the ‘Last of the James Bay Fiddlers’, and his Scottish Connection

James Cheechoo (1929-2022), who passed away at the age of 92, on 11 February 2022 in Moose Factory, Northern Ontario, was a much-loved Eeyou fiddler and storyteller from the James Bay region of Northern Canada. Often referred to as the ‘Last of the James Bay Fiddlers’, James together with his wife Daisy who accompanied him on percussionist, was instrumental in bringing the tunes of the Eeyou people of James Bay (also known as the James Bay Cree) to public attention through the release of his CD album, Shay Chee Man (lit. ‘Big Ship’) in 1998 and his subsequent touring in North America and Scotland. Shay Chee Man was produced by their son and daughter-in-law Clayton and Lynn Cheechoo, with a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

The significance for Scottish music history is that the album title ‘Shay Chee Man’ specifically refers to the ships of the Hudson’s Bay Company which sailed each year from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Travelling between London, Stromness, and James Bay, these ships delivering men and goods to the trading posts and collected cargoes of furs which were to sell in London and across Europe in the fashion markets. As well as trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Eeyou hunters adopted some of their cultural ways – food such as bannocks became (and remain) part of the staple diet. Tartan bonnets and shawls became popular attire, and fiddles were bought by many of the Eeyou from trading post stores. Fiddles were taken out to the traplines over the winter months, when hunting and trapping took place, and played by the Eeyou at their camps. During the quieter summer months, fiddles were played in the trading posts for social events such as dances and weddings. Later, fiddling became an important feature of New Year celebrations in the settled communities which formed around the bay. Fiddle dances in the trading posts were one of the few kinds of social occasion where the Eeyou and Scots freely came together, and Eeyou fiddlers learned and composed much of their original repertoire from their encounters with Scots fiddlers, many of whom were from the Orkney Islands. [1]

Ethnomusicologist Lynn Whidden described the music as a ‘language of exchange’ between Eeyou and Scots at this time.

Because of these initial encounters, and the passing on of music by ear through the family, often from father to son as it was with James Cheechoo, musicians in the region hear a very close connection between James Bay fiddle dancing and the music and dance of the Orkney Islands. This is magnified by the fact that a number of Eeyou not only have cultural connections with Orkney, but also ancestral links through some of the men who remained in the region and married Eeyou women. Other areas of Eeyou musical life have primarily involved solo singing and percussion, and the combination of drumming and spoon playing as the main accompaniment to the fiddle evolved to signify the distinctive sound of traditional James Bay fiddle music. James’s tunes and playing style came from his father, and he remembered times when he was growing up in Eastmain, on the east coast of James Bay, hearing his father play. He recalled:

“My father Noah Cheechoo was the first fiddler I listened to when I was a young boy. My father would play the fiddle when he came home after a day’s work. I enjoyed listening to him play. I keep those memories. In those days, people enjoyed listening to the fiddler play his tunes. People had good times with the square dances that were often held. It made you feel happy listening to the fiddler and dance to the tunes’ (James Cheechoo, Moose Factory, 2018). [2]

Sitting with his siblings in their home, they would pass around a fiddle, taking turns to play a tune and learn the music from each other. James’s repertoire was rooted in the history of James Bay, and he believed that a number of the tunes  were first learnt many years ago directly from HBC fur traders. While fiddlers in James Bay today tend to choose to play tunes from the more generic Canadian repertoire rather than the ‘old tunes’ from the region, James was one of the few people who continued to practice and perform the traditional James Bay repertoire, music which has never been formally written down and, until recently recorded in any tangible form.

In May 2013, I had the good fortune to host James and Daisy, with their daughters Treena and Rita, on a wonderful two-week musical tour of Northern Scotland. Starting in Aberdeen, James and Daisy on fiddle and drum, with Treena on spoons, performed at sold-out concerts, gave radio appearances, workshops and talks on the James Bay fiddle tradition, and completing their tour at the Orkney Folk Festival, which in 2013 was celebrating the 200 year anniversary of John Rae’s birth [3]. James played a hugely important role in the shared musical histories of Scotland and Canada and his loss will be felt on both sides of the Atlantic. For more information about the James Bay fiddle tradition, please see Further Reading.

Further Reading

[1] For much of its existence, the vast majority (nearly 80%) of Hudson’s Bay Company servants were hired from Orkney, the last stopping-off point on the voyage between London and Ruperts Land/Canada. Orcadians were hard workers, used to a harsher environment and accepted lower wages than their contemporaries in London at that time.

[2] This quote from James was written down specifically for the exhibition Nimitaau | Let’s Dance: Fiddle-Dancing through Scots and Eeyou Cultures, curated by Frances Wilkins in partnership with the University of Aberdeen and the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute and exhibited at the Sir Duncan Rice Library at the University of Aberdeen in 2018; forthcoming tour to communities in Eeyou Istchee.

[3] As well as being a fiddle player, John Rae spent ten years as an HBC surgeon stationed in Moose Factory, the community where James Cheechoo lived for most of his adult life.

2 thoughts on “James Cheechoo (1929-2022), the ‘Last of the James Bay Fiddlers’, and his Scottish Connection”

  1. So sad to learn of James Cheechoo’s passing. I learned “Sigabon” (?) (the tune about the roasting goose spinning over the fire) from a friend of mine and was enthralled. Some other friends of mine play a duet tune of his and again, it’s really special music. Thank you, James Cheechoo. RIP.


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