Digest>Archives> April 2004

Lighthouse keeper fiddles into history

By Cliff McGann

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Canadian lighthouse keeper Paul Cranford, one of that country’s few remaining keepers, has for the past three decades utilized his unique 28 day on, 28 day off schedule to satisfy his passion for Irish and Scottish fiddle music. Over the last thirty years, Cranford has become a respected player, composer and publisher of fiddle music. Since 1979, his company’s publications have helped add and keep tunes in the repertoires of Irish, Scottish and Cape Breton traditional musicians. His own compositions have also worked their way into the repertoires of a diverse group of musicians including Grammy nominated Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster and Irish accordion virtuoso Sharon Shannon.

Cranford’s love affair with fiddle music began in 1975 upon his arrival in Nova Scotia from his native Toronto. Drawn by an interest in folk music, he stumbled upon a job as a lighthouse keeper within a week of his arrival. It wasn’t long before he picked up the fiddle as his primary instrument and never looked back.

During his 28 days of shore leave, Cranford gleaned tunes and technique from Cape Breton’s finest traditional musicians. He would travel the 3,970 square mile island learning from players in each community. The 1970s were the beginning of the end for the Golden Age of Cape Breton fiddling, and Cranford gleaned all he could from that eras greatest players. The 28 days of seclusion that followed, stationed at one of Atlantic Canada’s lighthouses, allowed Cranford the unique opportunity to digest what he had heard and seen during his travels.

After four years of learning from others, Cranford began giving back to the tradition that had given him so much. In 1979, he formed Cranford Publications and reissued one of the most influential books of Scottish fiddle tunes, The Skye Collection. First published in 1887, it was not easily obtainable until re-published by Cranford in 1979. Four years later he would follow The Skye Collection with the reissue of The Simon Fraser Collection. More recently, Cranford Publications has begun publishing the compositions of Cape Breton’s finest living composers including Jerry Holland and Brenda Stubbert.

While the 1980s brought automation that eliminated lighthouse keeping jobs the world over, Cranford remains gainfully employed thanks to a century and a half long dispute between Canada and the United States. His present post, Machias Seal Island, is a treeless 10-acre bird sanctuary equidistant from Cutler, Maine, and Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick. The lighthouse located on Machias Seal Island is at the center of a long-standing dispute between two countries whose relationship has generally been amicable.

US claims to the island can be traced back to the War of 1812 Treaty of Ghent. By 1865, an American known as “Tall Barney” had claimed the island for the United States. According to local Maine legend he even went so far as to defend it against Canadian officers who came during the spring of that year.

Tall Barney’s oversight upon claiming the island was that he ignored the fact that merchants from the Canadian city of St. John had established a lighthouse on the island thirty-three years prior. This lighthouse forms the foundation of the Canadian claim, and the reason why Machias Seal Island light remains the only manned station in Atlantic Canada.

Since first manning a lighthouse in 1975 at age 21, Cranford has also come into his own as a composer. According to Cranford, most of his tunes come to him while walking the shores and beaches listening to the wind and waves. By 1996, with the number of original compositions mounting, Cranford released a book comprised mostly of his own tunes. Sprinkled with tunes composed by those who had mentored him during his formative playing years, it is appropriately titled The Lighthouse Collection.

Cranford has also created an important on-line presence for lovers of traditional fiddle music at www.cranfordpub.com/

It features articles from his free yearly newsletter, The Silver Apple News, as well as hundreds of free tunes in ABC format. Free MP3’s are also available as are books and CD’s for purchase.

As this article goes to publication the US and Canadian dispute, or lack thereof, continues with regards to Machias Seal Island. It isn’t really much of an issue as the small island doesn’t register that high on either countries dispute to-do list. Until the time when one country decides to push its claim, blurring the lines between vocation and avocation, Paul Cranford returns every twenty-eight days to tend light and compose.

This story appeared in the April 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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