Shawville’s “Hooley in the Hall” and why amateur music making matters

It’s always a bit awkward to walk into a room full of strangers and start setting up tripods and recording gear. In early December, I was in West Quebec for a week, mostly driving up and down a short stretch of the Route 105 along the Gatineau River between Chelsea and Wakefield where there is a vibrant local music and arts scene. But on the Friday afternoon, I took a very circuitous detour to Shawville in the Pontiac region, first heading north along the Gatineau River through Low and Kazabazua and then west and south through the Pontiac backcountry arriving in town just as the sun had set on this Ottawa River community. As part of the larger Ottawa Valley region, the Pontiac is renowned for its older traditions of fiddle music, step dancing, and unaccompanied ballads like “The Chapeau Boys.” But I’d never spent much time on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River.

In the weeks prior, I had been corresponding with Robert Wills, a musician from the area about the weekly “Hooley in the Hall” that happens every Friday night at Saint Paul’s Anglican church hall in Shawville. Mostly, I’d wanted to know if it would be okay to bring my recording gear and document the event for this project’s archival collection. Robert assured me the musicians were no strangers to being recorded, especially in the age of the smartphone camera, and there should be no problem. Robert described the event as an unpretentious and relaxed gathering of mostly amateur musicians who like to jam once a week and, despite his assurances, I still worried my gear might bring an awkward formality and make the musicians self-conscious.

I arrived half an hour early to introduce myself to musicians and organizers and ask their permission to record. As always, I let performers know that I’m happy to turn off the recorders when they perform. But the first two people I spoke to were totally unphased by my request and the volunteer emcee for the evening, Gerald Storing, even suggested what he figured would be the best place to put my video tripod. However, not all the musicians had arrived and I still figured there was a chance my gear would irk someone – performer or audience member.

I crossed the hall to set up my audio gear alongside the other wall, finding a place near the piano that wouldn’t obstruct the audience’s view. As I am setting up the audio recorder on the tripod, I see a woman walking quickly towards me in the corner of my eye. I can tell she has something to say and I prepare myself for a possibly tense encounter. I couldn’t have been more wrong and what the woman asked me, I think, says a lot about the spirit of the Hooley and what it means to the people there:

Could you please hurry setting up your equipment? That little girl over there is about to sing and we want you to record her.

Katelyn and her mom singing the Old Crow Medicine Show sing-along favourite.

Later in the evening, I was invited up to the mic to explain the project and why I wanted to record the Hooley. I reiterated to everyone that I wouldn’t share any of the video or audio without the explicit consent of the performers. One of the musicians nearby commented quizzically, “But why wouldn’t you share our music online? Everyone else would?”

The Hooley is all about sharing. It is the sort of event that breaks down typical barriers to participating in music in our communities. Anyone can be in this band. Most of the musicians sit huddled in a long line facing the audience at the foot of the stage; a few others sit facing them in the first row of the audience, in this way, blurring the typical distinction between audience and performer. Some have brought along their own small amps. There is only one person on stage — the man on the electric drum set, presumably because he needs the extra space. Everyone plays together all night and simply does their best to support whoever is leading each song or tune. After each performance, Gerald, the emcee sets up the mic for the next musician and passes them a few words of encouragement. Audience and fellow musicians sing along as enthusiastically as they like. And when the music stops, everyone claps, including the other musicians.

The Hooley is the kind of place where a child feels comfortable taking the mic and singing alternate verses of a country song with her mother; where a college-aged electric bass player practices laying down the bottom the whole evening; where older fiddle players get the whole room clapping to a traditional jig or reel. And no one thinks twice when a teenage girl seated next to her guitar teacher, launches into somewhat lyrically suggestive country hits like “Girl Crush” and “Love Me Like You Used To”; the other musicians, many of them her parents’ age or older follow the chords and a few even quietly join in on the refrain. You can tell that everyone there—audience and performer—are there to support and encourage her.

Stacey sings and plays accompanied by her guitar teacher.
Paulette treats us to a classic Scottish jig, “Hundred Pipers”

To my mind, the Hooley’s openness—to styles, instruments, eras, and ages— provides an example of how amateur music making can bring communities together. Being there that first Friday night in December, I had the sense that the bonds of community were being reinforced in real-time through the music. Chris Judd is a farmer and longtime community leader in the Pontiac. He is one of the people who started the Hooley and below I’ve asked him to share, in his own words, what the Hooley is all about.

“Hooley in the Hall”
What is a Hooley? If you look Hooley up in a dictionary or on Google you will get many varied definitions. A Hooley could be a description of a drunken brawl; “brouhaha”; or just an old Irish word for a party, get-together, or celebration—usually with some lively music and singing and a place for friends to gather!

For several years many of us have traveled miles to music festivals from Chichester to Cape Breton and have discovered that some of the best music is played after the big organised event is over. When a group of impromptu musicians just sit in a circle and have fun taking turns playing whatever they really want to, the real music comes out! We often remembered our parents talking about house parties (every week at a different kitchen) where folks young and old would gather, talk, dance, and either play or listen to music provided by local musicians. These were occasions where young up-and-coming musicians could play or dance and also learn from the more experienced. There was usually a light lunch and tea or coffee (or more) that came with the kitchen party.

Most musical parties are now held in bars or other areas where under-age musicians cannot join in. This is where the idea of a “Hooley in the hall” came from. The church council of the local Anglican Church agreed to open the hall to a community musical get together on Friday nights. The ladies even agreed to provide a few drinks and light munchies; (so far I cannot persuade my wife to bake cookies or squares though).

The “Hooley” has been ongoing each Friday night since October 2015. There are usually twelve to twenty musicians and singers each Friday night. There have been twenty five different musicians, step dancers, and singers having fun together and entertaining an audience of appreciative music lovers that ranged from five or six to sixty people! There have been instruments as simple as a Jews harp and a tambourine to guitars, fiddles, and piano. Besides great musicians, step dancers, and singers that sing everything from blues to bluegrass, roots to hymns, old country songs to songs written locally and performed by local song writer-musicians. More than 160 musicians aged from eight to eighty have played the “Hooley” and so far there have been only a very appreciative audience, never run out of coffee, and NO brawls!

Published by Glenn Patterson

I'm a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. I'm currently back in Montreal doing research for the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network and their 2019-2020 project "A Different Tune: Musical Heritage in English-Speaking Quebec"

2 thoughts on “Shawville’s “Hooley in the Hall” and why amateur music making matters

  1. This was wonderful. Now living in Edmonton and remembering with joy the wonderful sharing of music with family and community. When waiting for the train to Ottawa on Sunday nights people gathered in the little train station to sing, play and dance. The “spoons” were popular to.

    Liked by 1 person

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