Emile Benoit was born on March 24, 1913, in the predominantly French speaking community of Black Duck Brook on Newfoundland's Port aux Port Peninsula. Emile's ancestry traces back to St. Malo, France, where his great-grandfather left to settle in Newfoundland as a fisherman. Emile was married at age 21 (later widowed with 4 children) and remarried at the age of 37 with an additional 9 children. During these years he also acquired the many additional skills required to live in rural Newfoundland in those days, including being an accomplished fisherman, logger,carpenter, blacksmith and even doctor.
At the age of 9, Emile fell in love with the fiddle without ever having seen one. His grandfather, Henri, had been a good fiddler and his father, Amedee, would imitate playing the fiddle using two pieces of kindling while singing the tunes. Emile adopted this method, of which I believe Suzuki would have approved, until 3 years later his persistence was rewarded and he got his first fiddle, made for him by his Uncle Jean. Plenty of practice and eventually he was competent enough to play for local times and weddings, which he continued to do throughout his life. At the age of 60, when most people are contemplating retirement, Emile embarked on his new career as a "professional" musician.
As a renewed interest in Newfoundland culture and music took place in the early to mid 1970's, Emile became a central figure in this "folk revival". He toured and performed with many younger musicians, most notably the world renowned band Figgy Duff , with whom he recorded his third album, Vive La Rose , currently available from Amber Music in Newfoundland. Emile's first two albums, Emile's Dream which I produced in 1979 and It Comes from the Heart produced by Dr. Gerald Thomas and recorded by myself in 1982 were released on the Pigeon Inlet Productions label.
Emile became a regular performer at Festivals and Clubs around Newfoundland and travelled to major events not only all across Canada but as far away as Louisiana, England, France and Norway. He was much sought after as a guest on radio and TV programs such as Peter Gzowski's Ninety Minutes Live, Pistroli en Atlantique, Jiggs Dinner , etc. He holds an Honorary Doctorate from Memorial University in St. John's for his contribution to the rich cultural life of our Province as well as being a recipient of The Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council Lifetime Achievement Award.
Emile loved to perform and his appearance when on stage was just as entertaining as his musical performance. A bit of a contortionist, his face and body were in constant movement as he played fiddle behind his back, while lying on the floor or while step-dancing, never missing a note of the tune. As well as being an accomplished fiddler and composer of tunes, Emile was also a great raconteur or storyteller. Not only would he include humourous and interesting anecdotes on how he came to compose many of his tunes, but he also knew many lengthy traditional folktales which, if the occasion was right, he would tell with great enthusiasm.
When Emile Benoit passed away on September 2, 1992 after a battle with cancer, he left behind a rich legacy of original and traditional music which will live on for many generations to come.
The 156 tunes in this collection represent everything Emile Benoit composed or could recall to play for me during the years I knew and worked with him, from 1975 to his passing in 1992. There are tunes, however, that seem to have escaped. For example, I know he composed a tune called Rhiannon's Reel , but nowhere could I find a recording of the tune or any other fiddler that knew it.
I remember well my first visit to Emile's house in Black Duck Brook. Armed with a fiddle and a tape recorder, I was welcomed warmly by Emile and Rita and ended up staying for the better part of a week as Emile played many wonderful tunes for me. I learned some of the easier ones on the spot and he took great satisfaction in hearing me attempt to play them, coaching me along with tips on how to "make the bow talk" and play the music "from the heart". It was during these early sessions that he played many of the traditional tunes which he recalled from his younger years. This was important since, as time went on, he rarely ever played these tunes, preferring to perform exclusively his original compositions which he continued to create until his last few months.
Emile was a very prolific fiddle tune composer with a total of 95 original tunes presented in this collection, the remaining 61 tunes being of traditional origin. It may be noted that several of his original tunes are similar to other traditional ones - perhaps a phrase or an entire turn exists in another melody found elsewhere. In fact, in 2 cases I discovered that an entire tune which Emile thought he composed was known elsewhere as an old traditional tune. The reason for this is one that any songwriter or composer can relate to : simply that a piece of melody will come to mind and the composer is not entirely certain if he has heard it before or if it is a product of his creative imagination. That being said, however, it is my opinion that a large majority of his tunes are, without a doubt, highly unique and original pieces. It is also interesting to note that Emile composed a number of tunes that don't fall into the standard forms of jig, reel or waltz i.e. Roaming Scott, Delyth's Desire . These pieces are somewhat "free-form" and display Emile's interest in exploring composition beyond the commonly accepted boundaries of fiddle music. For much further insight into Emile's method of composition, one should obtain a copy of the book, Music From the Heart - Compositions of a Folk Fiddler by Colin Quigley, published by University of Georgia Press .
According to Emile, most of his composing was done at home early in the morning. He would get up long before anyone else in the house, light the kitchen stove and sit down while all was still and quiet and work on a tune. Many tunes were composed for people he knew : friends & relatives, fellow musicians, even politicians i.e. Diane's Happiness, Kelly Russell's Reel, Brian Tobin's Reel. Others were named for significant events i.e. On the Way to New Orleans, Gerald Thomas' Burnt Potato Reel , places he played i.e. Bridgett's Reel, The Ship Inn Reel, or even current events i.e. Gulf War, Meech Lake Breakdown . It even got to the point where people would request that a tune be composed i.e. Steve Neary's Waiting for This .
The traditional tunes Emile played were mostly "old Irish" or "Scotch". I was never really clear on where he had learned these tunes, whether from old records, the radio or from other players in the area, as he would only say they were "real old tunes". However, he was very definite, for the most part, about which tunes were his own and which were old and he rarely played the old tunes in public performance. There are several traditional tunes that Emile named, even though he didn't compose them i.e. Forgotten Reel, Go to the Cape Uncle Joe . Then there are the traditional tunes that he knew the names of i.e. Woman of the House, Caper Fey . There were quite a few other tunes that Emile played for me that had no names that he could recall. With the valuable assistance of Paul Cranford in Nova Scotia, I was able to identify many of these tunes as Cape Breton, Scottish or Irish tunes along with their appropriate titles and previously recorded sources. These are shown (in parentheses) to indicate the title, but not a name that Emile used. Still other tunes were traditional with no known source that I could discover and these are named Jig #1, Jig #2, Reel #1, etc. in arbitrary order by me. There were 4 other tunes which Emile played for me which research uncovered were original compositions by other fiddlers. Due to the potential for copyright infringement, I have not printed these tunes but, for the record, they are : Green Fields of White Point (Winston Scotty Fitzgerald), The Tea Gardens (Angus Chisholm), Miss Sophia Campbell (R MacIntosh) and The Inverness Jig (JD Kennedy).
Emile's playing style is, as he himself would often say, all in the bow. For Emile, a tune was not complete if you simply played the correct sequence of notes to form the melody. The essence of the tune was in the particular swing or lilt of the rhythm. For example, when playing a reel, he placed particular emphasis on the "down bow" on many of the main beats. As previously stated in my introduction to Rufus Guinchard's music, this type of description is unsatisfactory and I suggest that the student of this music requiring further insight into just how Emile played these tunes should listen to the available commercial recordings. There is also video footage of Emile available for viewing at Memorial University's Educational Television Division (ETV). One particular technique often employed is what Emile always called a “squibble” : essentially a triplet executed very quickly with the bow on three of the same notes (example DDD). Thus a quarter note D, squibbled, becomes 3 quick D notes. On occasion he would vary this and squibble 2 eighth notes (example DB would become DDB).
Emile's music has been performed and recorded by many other musicians and he remains a great source of inspiration for many who have heard him or had the good fortune to perform with him. I know he wanted people to play his tunes and I hope that I have helped to fulfill this wish to some extent with this publication.
Kelly Russell, 2000