Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Remembering Anthony Drody (October 9, 1932 - December 26, 2019)

Anthony Drody. 2012 Douglastown Irish Week
I'm writing this post in memory of Anthony Drody who passed away the other week. Anthony was the son of Joe Drody Sr. who, as many readers will know, was Erskine Morris' fiddle mentor back in the 1920s and early 30s. Fiddling was just kind of ubiquitous in the house - I never got the sense that it was something that any of the Drody's set out to work, to sit down and practice hours on end. But it was always there. I remember Anthony telling me the way it usually worked: no one would play for weeks but whenever one of his siblings picked up the fiddle, they would all be fighting over it.

Anthony was one of the last links to the living memory of the old Gaspesian fiddle music before the influence of fiddle styles began reaching Gaspé from afar in the 1940s through radio, vinyl, and later, cassette. As such, he was a great help to Brian Morris, Laura Risk, and me in our work. Anthony gave us lots insight into who the older fiddlers were, what made their style unique, and stories about their lives and music. His specialty perhaps was in supplying alternate tune titles. For example: he noted that the original name of the "Bois-Brulé Jig" among many old-timers was "The Spruce Knot"; similarly, Anthony provided such obscure and outlandish titles like "The Tune that Connie Maloney Danced On" (for "Joe Drody's Jig") and "Piss and Keep the Hair Dry" (for "Reggie Rooney's Tune").

Like many others, Anthony left the Coast with his wife Connie Ingrouville (of Barachois) for work decades ago, eventually ending up in Old Bridge, New Jersey where they raised their family and he was an ironworker. Still, Anthony and Connie generally made the trip back to Gaspé in the summers. Anthony played an eclectic repertoire of tunes learned from many sources over the years: In addition to the tunes he kept up from his father and uncle Charlie, he learned from radio fiddlers like Don Messer while also keeping up many of the old tunes he learned from his father and other Gaspé players; I even heard Anthony play southern old-time tunes he picked up from friends in New Jersey. It was always a joy to be around him at Pembroke or Gaspé when one of the old Gaspé tunes would come back to him, sometimes after five decades of not having played or even heard it.

Like many of the Drodys, Anthony had a calm and generous disposition and was as happy to sit back and listen to you or anyone else play fiddle as he was to play music himself at a gathering. In typical Drody style, time always had an unhurried quality when I was around Anthony. Simple things like chatting over toast and coffee at Pembroke, or stopping for a visit at his summer home in Gaspé - I always left feeling more at-ease in the world and like Anthony had some kind of secret to everyday happiness for the modern world.

You can read his official obituary from the family here.

I recently uploaded a series of videos to our project's YouTube Channel, and below I've shared some of the highlights that feature Anthony's fiddling. The footage was supplied to me by his niece Linda Drody. She made this home movie during a 1990 Family Reunion that took place in Haldimand and L'Anse-à-Brillant. I love these videos because they show the bigger picture as it were: music was simply a way the Drody's connected to family, friends, and their community far and wide.

I hope these videos give you some time to see this special connection between family and music and, if you knew Anthony, to remember him fondly by getting to see him do something which ran both so deep and unassumingly in who he was.

  • Here is Anthony playing the great Douglastown step-dance tune, Tommy Rooney's Jig (of which there are several versions of Erskine playing elsewhere on the site). His sister, MaryEllen Drody-Savidant is backing him on the guitar. I'm amazed by much Anthony drives the tune with a bow stroke that just glides gently back and forth over the strings. Anthony always loved this tune and thought it was the best tune that Erskine played. 

  • In the second video, Anthony plays the Bob Wills classic, "Faded Love" again with MaryEllen chording for him. I love the way that Anthony plays this with a danceable march-like tempo rather unlike Bob Wills slower and smoother rendition. At the end, there's a nice teasing moment between brother and sister at the end of the video: perhaps influenced by American bluegrass and old-time jams, Anthony brought the practice of raising his foot to indicate when he wanted to end a tune - his siblings always found this a little peculiar.

  • Here is Anthony playing "The Old Man and Old Woman" with his brother Johnny on fiddle and again, and his sisters MaryEllen and Brigid on guitar and piano accordion respectively.

  • Finally, here's a clip of three Drody siblings (Brigid, Anthony, and Joseph) all playing fiddle together on "McNabb's Hornpipe" as MaryEllen and Johnny back them up on guitar with Debbie Sams (MaryEllen's daughter) on piano accordion. You can see Anthony's mastery of the bow-work required to play this tune.

There's plenty of other good music from this same tape on the following YouTube playlist I created.

Enjoy the music.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Alternate Tune Titles with Paul Fackler

A few years back, I received an email from a gentleman in North Carolina named Paul Fackler who runs a local fiddle appreciation group where they have monthly presentations about fiddlers whose music they've been studying and share the music. He had been learning some of Erskine's tunes and was wanting to present this music to the class.

His email also contained a spreadsheet of various tunes from this blog for which he knew alternate titles from his knowledge of fiddle music in Ireland, Cape Breton, and elsewhere in Quebec. A few of them I was aware of but the vast majority were a revelation. Sometimes I'll be listening to a bunch of Joseph Allard or Isidore Soucy on my iPod while driving, hear a tune I recognize from Erskine or Cyril, and then not be able to find it later. I had started little documents in the past to note these down but never got very far. Paul's document on the other hand was full of all kinds of additional information, commentary, and even links to other places on the Internet where you could hear these tunes played under such alternate titles. I've compiled his extensive efforts with some of my smaller contributions into a PDF document that you can see here (I'll post it in the "Listen to All the Tunes" page too for reference). Anything that appears in blue can be clicked and you'll be taken to the appropriate webpage.

Here is the document. The text in blue should allow you to click on it to be redirected to the online source where you can listen and/or read more.

Paul and I also had a more philosophical discussion about tune titles in Quebec. In all fiddle traditions, there is a certain amount of variability in tune titles, say when someone doesn't correctly recall the title of a tune learned at a dance and then shows it to someone else. However, in places like Ireland and Scotland, there is for the most part, a strong consensus about what the "real" title of any given piece is and that is the title that most will use. This might have to do with the early availability of tune collections of Irish and Scottish music going back to the early 1800s (tune books were especially prominent in the Scottish and Cape Breton traditions). In Quebec, it is a whole different story. If you take two fiddlers from different parts of the province who play the same tune, they will almost always have a different title. Even in the 78 rpm recording era, a fiddler like Joseph Allard would record a tune like St. Anne's Reel several times using different titles (for example, Esquimault Reel). I can only think of a handful of older tunes in Quebec that have a fairly stable title: Reel du pendu; La grande gigue simple; La tuque bleu. There are more of course but they tend to be the exception to the rule.

A lot that can be said for this, including the fact that there was often a language barrier for Irish and Scottish repertoire that entered circulation in Quebec in the late 18th and 19th centuries. In Gaspé and other areas of the province which once had significant anglophone populations (e.g. Eastern Townships and Quebec City), it's even possible that the language barrier was crossed back and forth multiple times: Erskine—who didn't speak French—surprisingly referred to "La grande gigue simple" not with it's anglicized "Grand Jig" (a title I've heard other anglophones from Gaspé use) but with the French "La Grande Rouge" which actually hints at its connection to the Métis version, "La gigue de la Rivière Rouge" or "The Red River Jig."

I remember visiting Cyril DeVouge back in 2010 and he told us that the old fiddlers didn't care what tunes were called. His favourite joke after we would play him a tune would be to tell us that he knew the title. When we would ask him what it was, he would reply that it's called "I Don't Know." Classic Gaspesian oddball humour. Indeed, in my experiences in Gaspé, for both local and well-known tunes, they are as likely to be known by the name of the fiddler who played it or someone who enjoyed it (E.g. Edmund McAuley's Tune, Eva's Tune, Tommy Rooney's Jig, etc.). Still, it's very useful for those of us learning this music to be able to compare versions and so I'm grateful for Paul having reached out to us.

If you know any other alternate titles when exploring this blog, please let me know.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Bone in the Cupboard or Blackberry Blossoms

Here's a tune of Erskine's that Brian sent me a few years back that I've always loved. It's one of those ones with such a peculiar title that it makes you wonder if the person who named it was just seeing what they could get away with.

Hear Erskine play "Bone in the Cupboard"

I've always loved this tune because, technically speaking, the melody never resolves (it always ends on the 2nd rather than the 1st note of the scale). Because of this, you just want to keep going and you find yourself caught in a hypnotic loop with this simple little tune. A few of Erskine's Gaspé tunes have melodies like this (e.g. Fat Molasses, Little White House Under the Hill, Eva's Tune) and so I'd just assumed this tune must also be one from around Gaspé. It has a few snakey string crossings but overall, feels nice under the bow once you get it down. Erskine has a nice soft touch on this one, almost a plaintive sound.

I've been learning the 1-row button accordion since this past summer and have been really getting into the repertoire of the New York-born German-American accordionist John J. Kimmel. Kimmel was one of the earliest musicians to record, as early as 1906 on wax cylinders for Edison records). Kimmel is still revered 110 years after he made his first recordings, especially in Quebec where he is perhaps best known for his unrivaled and virtuosic interpretations of Irish tunes. Driving around town today, I was listening Kimmel's music interpreted by Raynald Ouellet, Denis Pépin, and Christian Maes on their homage to Kimmel album when a familiar melody came on. Indeed, it was the elusive "Bone in the Cupboard" but under a different title, "Blackberry Blossoms" (it's the 2nd tune in Kimmel's "Stack of Barley Medley")

You can hear Kimmel's version here (just wait until the second tune in the set) recorded in 1916 with Joe Linder on piano. It's remarkable how close his version is to Erskine's and given Kimmel's massive popularity in Quebec in the early 20th century, I wonder if Erskine's version comes either directly or indirectly from Kimmel.

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.