Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Gaspé Reel

Here's a catchy little D tune that Erskine composed called the "Gaspé Reel." The melody and phrasing are quite intuitive but the string crossings and some of the note orderings make this one just enough out of the ordinary to keep it interesting. I'm sure our fiddle playing readers will have fun with this tune.

Listen to the Gaspé Reel

Erskine recorded this tune on several tapes. In fact, one of the earliest tapes Brian and I used to share music on this blog back in 2010 featured this tune. But today was a rainy day and I had a fire going and wanted to listen to a tape on my reel-to-reel player. I put on a reel that Brian loaned me last year which features acoustic fingerstyle guitar music dubbed from a commercial recording on side A and, tucked away 15 minutes into side B which is otherwise blank, is half an hour of his dad playing alone at home.

One thing I really appreciate about Erskine's artistry was that his playing intensity varied by context. At parties he could play hard-driving, syncopated fiddling with the full weight of his bow arm; at home, playing solo, he would sometimes play a little sweeter, with a softer touch, weaving through the twisty passages with a surprising gentleness without sacrificing the drive and danceability of the tune. Case in point: as soon as this tune was over I found myself reaching for my fiddle case, the melody still buzzing around my head, to see if I could catch what I'd just heard.

Of course, there are several well-known melodies that go by this title and here is yet another. Erskine wrote quite a few original tunes throughout his life, often for different relatives and family members. I look forward to sharing a few more of these originals in the year to come.

Monday, August 1, 2016

How To Chord For Fiddlers - With Brigid Drody

Today I'm cross-posting from our sister blog (Gaspesian Community Sound Archives) to share something extra-special and often overlooked when it comes to fiddle music: chording on the guitar.
One of the aims of this project is to provide aspiring musicians in the community with resources to develop their playing or singing. There's a lot of practical knowledge about playing music among the wider Gaspesian community at home and away. The archives can in a small way, help convey this know-how. In a region where resources for public and private music education are limited, I think this form of archival outreach could be valuable.
In July of last year, Brian Morris and I visited Brigid Drody at her place in the Chateauguay Valley south of Montreal (Brian and Brigid's music was featured in the previous post). I had been asked to give a rhythm guitar workshop at the 2015 Irish Week in Douglastown and I wanted to bring my students some videos of good rhythm guitar playing to learn from. We setup the camera to focus only on Brigid's hands to give viewers the best possible angle to study her style. I'll be giving another guitar workshop at this year's festival, on Saturday, August 6, 2016 at the Douglas Community Center as part of the Douglastown Irish Days. Voluntary contribution.
Brigid Drody-Miller at her home. June 13, 2013. (Photo by Glenn Patterson)
Today I'm featuring these videos of Brigid's chording and will provide an overall commentary on her style of backup for old-time fiddlers.
Brigid has six decades of experience chording for fiddlers, beginning in the 1940s with her own musical family in Douglastown. Her father and uncle, three brothers, and two of her sisters played fiddle. She began guitar at a very young age by strumming on a neighbour's guitar that was hanging on the wall of her home - she was forbidden to take the guitar down from the wall.
I've been playing music with Brigid for about 6 years now and she is a joy to play with. When you play with her it feels like you are having a conversation. She doesn't try to copy your rhythm but instead responds to and complements what you are doing.Her style has a lot in common with the older guitar style you'll hear on early records of fiddle music from the 1920s and 1930s (listen to old Joseph Allard recordings for an idea) but with her own unique twists.
Here is a YouTube playlist where you can see the videos of Brigid's guitar playing. 

Here's the address for the full playlist, should the above embedded video not work on your platform.

Common Rhythm Problems

One of the single biggest problems I notice with people new to chording for fiddlers—even if they are otherwise experienced players and especially if they come from a folk, rock, or post-1950s country background—is that they have an "undisciplined" right hand. Their style is just far too loud and "strummy." Every time they touch their strings it's always with a full-force strum across five or six strings, the pick flailing up and down in an unpredictable rhythm. There are a few problems with this approach besides its unsteady rhythm.
Firstly, from a fiddler's perspective, it completely overwhelms the melody simply because five or six strings constantly ringing out creates far too much sound. You will drown out the fiddle player and the rhythm you are providing lacks clarity. Second, if you are playing at the faster tempos required for fiddle music, your arm will quickly tire out and you will soon start to drag the beat and pull the tempo down. The music begins to feel like a quickly deflating tire. It is simply not possible to play for faster tempos or for the longer durations required for square dances if you strum like this.

The Alternating Bass-Strum Style

As you'll notice in Brigid's guitar style, there are two basic alternating parts to her chording style that she uses for most of her playing:
  1. The Downstroked Bass Note: First, there is a bass note in the chord played on its own. These happen on the three lowest-pitched strings (E, A, or D) and always happen on the downbeats with a heavily accented downstroke of the pick. It is the downbeat that creates a sense of drive in this music not the strums. [This is probably the single biggest misconception that I encounter. People think you need to emphasize the strumming aspect of rhythm guitar but this isn't really true for old-time music.]
  2. The Light Strum: Between these bass notes is where you put a single strum using a downstroke of the pick. Importantly, this single strum shouldn't be too loud—a light brush will do. Otherwise you will make the music sound like reggae (which it isn't) because you will drown out your downbeat bass notes. And this creates the opposite of drive: drag.
On the bass note that follows this strum, Brigid will often alternate to a different bass note in the same chord as the first step.
What you notice with the above is that there are actually no upstrokes in the this basic pattern. Both the isolated downbeat bass note and the offbeat strum happen on consecutive downstrokes. This basic pattern is most evident in her performances on "Leslie DeVouge's Tune," "Another one of Roland White's," and "Casey's Hornpipe." You'll also notice that Brigid often "walks the bass" to change from one chord to another. To figure this out, you need to use your ear to find the possible in-between bass notes from the lowest notes in the two chords you want to connect. These can come later after you've mastered the basic pattern described above. 
Sometimes, Brigid will put in a brief burst of rapid-fire strumming using alternating down and upstrokes to complement the fiddle part. However, these are the exception to the rule in her playing. They are effective but should be used sparingly (see her playing in "La ronfleuse Gobeil" for an example of this technique). I have met some solid guitar players around Gaspé who have a tight and non-overwhelming "strummy" rhythm guitar style with few bass notes. but this is rare in my opinion (it is a more common guitar style in modern Irish and Celtic music and is often used with a delicate right hand touch).
Enjoy and please leave a comment if you get something out of this or have any questions.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Little Boy's Reel (Teaching Files)

The Little Boy's Reel is one of my favourite D tunes of Erskine and is one I've played for the last five years or so. I first encountered it on Erskine's 1990 tape, one of his best and most energetic recordings. Have a listen to the original tune that I posted back in 2011:

Hear Erskine play the Little Boy's Reel

A reader of the blog from the Saguenay region of our province recently emailed me to ask if I would break the tune down for him so he could learn it. It's been a long time since I shared any teaching files on this blog so I thought I should fix that. Here's how I play the tune. I'm sure it's not note-for-note how Erskine played it. I play it slowly all the way through before breaking apart the low and high part in the next two files.

Learn the Little Boy's Reel

Enjoy and feel free to write me or leave a comment if you would like me to break down other Gaspé tunes you find on the blog.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Live From Brigid's Trailer (2013) - Brian Morris and Brigid Drody

On our sister blog, I just posted a playlist of guitar duets featuring Brian Morris (lead) and Brigid Drody (rhythm) that I recorded at the Pembroke festival in 2013. (It's easier to make playlists on the Wordpress blog platform). This is some top-notch instrumental guitar music and for me, captures the spirit of laid back afternoons with friends at the Pembroke festival. Check it out over there.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Erskine and Brian Morris - 1985 Cassette (ENTIRE TAPE!)

Today's post marks a first in this project: We are featuring an entire cassette of music of Erskine's fiddling! I've long wanted to share a whole tape that our readers could listen to continuously without having to click on each tune, however, the blog interface on this site doesn't easily support this kind of listening. However, the sister blog I began last year on another platform has support for audio playlists and I recently made a post featuring this music and some commentary.

Check it out here.

The 1985 Cambridge Tape - Photo courtesy of Brian Morris

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

One of Fred Kennedy's - Pearl of the Coast Revisited

Nearly six years ago, I posted what I still feel is some of the most beautiful Gaspesian fiddle music I've encountered during my time working with Brian Morris on this blog. Back in April 2010, Brian salvaged twenty-five seconds of a tune off an old reel-to-reel that his father made in the 1960s and the sound has captivated me since I first heard it. For lack of a title, Brian decided to call this tune "Pearl From the Coast" back in 2010, a reference to Douglastown's unofficial title.

Here is the twenty-five second clip

Although twenty-five seconds was enough to give me a sense of both parts of the tune, I wasn't sure if Erskine played any variations throughout the rest of the performance. Or perhaps there were even additional parts not captured in this recorded fragment?

Last month, however, Brian sent me a tune he had just found. It was on one of the remaining tapes of his father's that he had yet to digitize. Erskine identifies it as one of Fred Kennedy's tunes. As I listened for the first time, I began to smile as I knew I was hearing something familiar if somewhat distant. And then it dawned on me that this was the mysterious and beautiful tune from the early days of this project. The tempo here is faster and more driving, but it is otherwise quite close to the other performance, crooked twists and all.

Here is the latest recording, "One of Fred Kennedy's"

Douglastown - The Pearl of the Coast
We haven't been able to find out much about Fred Kennedy although he was clearly a fiddler from Douglastown. According to Joseph and Anthony Drody, he was one of the very old local fiddlers who they don't remember very well.

The wonderful site, "Our Gaspé Roots," shows a Frederick Thomas Kennedy who lived from 1855 until 1942. Given when this Fred Kennedy lived, Erskine would have known him in Douglastown from before his stint in the army; and Joseph and Anthony would have been teenagers when he died at age 87. And so it is possible that this is the same Fred Kennedy from whom Erskine learned this gorgeous tune.

If so, his parents were John Kennedy and Catherine Morris, both born in the 1810s. This Fred Kennedy's great-grandfathers were William Kennedy and Thomas Morris, both among the first settlers of Douglastown, having arrived in 1785. William Kennedy (approx. 1740-1797) was an Irish-born Loyalist refugee who had been living in New York State before the American Revolution broke out; Thomas Morris (about 1750-1792) was also Irish-born and had been a British sea captain who had fought the American's at Valcour Island and later escorted Loyalist refugees to both New Carlisle and Douglastown (where he also settled). More information on Douglastown's early settlers can be found in Al White's newsletters, the Douglastown Historical Review from a few years back. I find myself constantly returning to his newsletters for the extensive research they contain.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Uncle Peter's Tune" - Erskine & King Marion

Here's a tune that caught my ear a few years ago and is one I've been playing often for the past six months. Erskine didn't supply a title for it—this came a few years later when I found a tape of old Gaspe fiddlers in Willie Methot's collection. On the tape, Kingsley Marion played this tune during a house party and the person recording announced it as "Uncle Peter's Tune." Kingsley (or "King" as he was known) seems to have been from the Line Road, either Bougainville or Belle-Anse. Some of the old timers still remember him but he left the coast many years ago. I'm in the process of finding out more information on him. He was certainly a wonderful player. Also, if any readers thinks they might know who Uncle Peter was, drop us a line.

Both Erskine and King provide some nice footwork along with the tune, Erskine using what sounds like quite a bit of double toeing to my ears. Bill Lucas from Haldimand also played this tune and so it seems the tune may have once been in wide circulation around the Gaspé area. This lovely melody is just a little peculiar, with loads of lift. It starts off with a charming and sharp melody in G, but when the turn hits it sounds more like a bunch of syncopated bow riffs than a clear melody. As Brian Morris told me a few years ago when we were talking about the character of the old Gaspé tunes:

They’re more rhythmic instead of melodic, because the dancers loved that. I mean there’s syncopated, off-beat stuff. Man, it’s good for dancing. (Brian Morris, July, 2011)

The view from the yard at Belle-Anse School