Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Transcription and History: Father Morris' Tune

A few months back I posted a couple tunes of Erskine playing from the 1990 Tape, one of which was this lonesome sounding D tune (the key is D modal strictly speaking) that comes from a relative of Erskine's who was the parish priest in Fox River. He called the tune simply, "Father Morris' Tune".

Click Here to see a transcription of Father Morris' Tune

Note: The violin is tuned ADAE for this tune (as well as most of the older Gaspe tunes Erskine and others played in the key of D).

Click Here to hear Father Morris' Tune

I was playing this tune tonight and thought it was a fairly simple tune to illustrate some of Erskine's seemingly complex bowing effects, so I wrote out a quick transcription for our fiddle playing readers.

In the transcription I did a while back for the Untitled Grondeuse, I mentioned that one of Erskine's most common syncopated bow licks is achieved by crossing strings and playing one of the lower strings quieter than the others. This is what creates the syncopated effect. Cyril Devouge would also use this effect. In the transcription, the note heads that have an x through them are meant to be played quieter then the other notes to create this effect.

Another characteristic of Erskine's Gaspé style is playing the same note repeatedly to fill out the space of a tune. He demonstrates this effect frequently in the high strain of the tune. Again, Cyril also made great use of this effect. In fact, Cyril is the one that really made me understand how these repeated notes as he puts it " sharpen the tunes up". He calls this effect "putting the little hooks in it" which is a great description and he will always stop and chastise me when I play his tunes for him and leave out these hooks.

Diane Sinnett, a Gaspesian reader responded to a request I put out there looking for information on Father Morris and photocopied and mailed a section of a book on the history of Fox River by Gaetan Plourde which had some historical information on Father Elias Morris. I'd like to thank Ms. Sinnett for taking the time to do this. Here are some facts gleaned from this book and the internet:

Father Elias Morris was born February 15 1856 in Douglastown to James Morris and Agnes Rooney. At the age of 17 he attracted the attention of his priest, Father Winter, who noted Elias' intelligence and voice and recommended the teenager study at the Seminary in Rimouski. What is amazing is that when he left Douglastown, he did not know a word of French. Nonetheless, he learned quickly and excelled in his studies.

Elias Morris was ordained a priest on June 5, 1884. For short periods he was a priest in the french communities of Grande-Rivière and Saint-Eloi before being named as parish priest in Fox River (Riviere-au-Renards) where there were sizable Irish and French populations in the 19th century.

He was known to have had a very good voice and been a great musician on the fiddle and piano. He was equally comfortable singing in French as in English and locals around Fox River recalled him singing the following songs:

"Ainsi toujours poussés vers de nouveaux rivage" (Le lac, Lamrtine)
"Présent des cieux, amitié pure et sainte" (L'amitié)
"Toute espérance, enfant, est un roseau"
"Just a year ago"
"Will you tell me, Molly darling"

He was well loved around Fox River and a town and river nearby were named in his honour, St-Maurice and the Morris River. We're not sure if the mispelling of his name was intentional for the town name, but it should be St. Morris though perhaps this was to get around the fact that Father Morris was not beatified. Instead, they may have used the beatified name of Maurice (which sounds the same as Morris in Canadian French) to get around this fact. Father Elias Morris passed away in 1936 at his older sister's house after becoming ill and progressively weaker.

If any of our readers out there have anything else they can share about the life of Father Morris, we would love to hear from you.

1. Gaetan Plourde, "Rivière-au-Renard: Centenaire"

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Queen's Reel

Here is a lovely and interesting tune that it seems just about all the old-timers from Douglastown and the neighbouring villages knew. It is a three-part tune that is clearly part of the Reel du Pendu (Hangman's Reel) family which usually has even more parts.

We are not sure which Queen this tune was named for. One of the things that really fascinates me is that many of the strongly French Canadian sounding tunes had English titles around Douglastown. But in this case, the local name isn't simply a translation of the more common French title. Many of the local Gaspé fiddlers, anglophone and francophone, born in the late 19th and early 20th century played this tune. Erskine recorded this tune many times and he always had a slightly different take on it. You can really learn a lot about his playing style by studying his different versions.

The first version which really grabbed my ear was from the February 1978 cassette. It is a great demonstration of Erskine's driving style and footwork as well as his classic syncopation devices. As Erskine did for almost all of his older-style tunes in the key of A, his fiddle has the two bass strings raised so the tuning is AEAE.

The Queen's Reel from February 1978 (AEAE Tuning)

The second version we have comes from the stunning 1990 tape. His playing here just has so much fire and his footwork has deadly precision. Again, the fiddle is tuned to AEAE.

Hear the Queen's Reel from the 1990 Tape (AEAE Tuning)

Now compare the last two with a version we have of Erskine from the reel-to-reel recordings he made in the 1960s.

Hear Erskine play the Queen's Reel in the 1960's (AEAC# Tuning)
Here, the fiddle is tuned AEAC# which is an open A chord. This is, in fact, the tuning generally used for the Reel du Pendu tune family in Quebec. As far as I know there are few, if any, other pieces using this tuning in our province. However, the tuning is fairly common in the Southern U.S.; as well, the Métis fiddlers in Western Canada make frequent use this tuning. Perhaps there were a whole slew of tunes in Quebec that used this tuning at one point. It is a bit of a pain to retune your fiddle to the open A chord especially if you only know one tune with the fiddle tuned this way. In the open A tuning, "The Queen's Reel" has a much more mellow atmosphere with the ringing overtones and drones.

Lastly, we have another real gem with an unidentified player playing this tune again in AEAC# tuning but this time with a couple of local stepdancers joining in. These are the now-distant sounds of countless house visits to homes around Douglastown that were once common place.

Hear an unidentified Douglastown fiddler play the Queen's Reel with stepdancers (AEAC# Tuning)

Anthony Drody (who is probably the most knowledgeable person when it comes the older Douglastown tunes) commented that the original way of playing this tune is with the open A tuning, AEAC#. He said that Erskine changed the tuning at some point to the AEAE. To my ears, the character of the tune changes dramatically when the tuning is changed.

Here is the great Québécois fiddler Isidore Soucy's version which has quite a few more parts (I lose count). He also plays it in the AEAC# tuning.

Re-tuning was once a very common practice on the Gaspé Coast although you don't hear it much with fiddlers born after about 1930. Several local fiddlers talked about how the older players would "turn over their bass" to get either ADAE for playing in D or AEAE for the key of A — this was the norm, not the exception.

While it's clear "The Queen's Reel" is part of the widespread Reel du Pendu family, it also bears a striking resemblance to a whole family of three-part tunes you will find all the way from West Virginia, out to Missouri, and down to Texas. These related tunes go by a variety of regional titles, but many are called "The Lost Indian." Here is a wonderful version from an Illinois group that I believe is based on the Texas fiddle player Eck Robertson's version.

Ed Haley, the great Kentucky fiddler also played a Lost Indian very similar to Eck Robertson's version.

"The Queen's Reel" and "Lost Indian" tune families share much of the same melodic content, use the AEAC# tuning, have three distinct sections, as well as a descending structure between the sections where (opposite to common practice), the first part of the tune is in the highest register and the last part is played in the lowest register. Folklorist and fiddler Alan Jabbour points out that the descending contour seems to be a decidedly "New World" feature of fiddle music in North America. It's not something you encounter in Ireland, Scotland, and England, from where so much fiddle music in the New World is derived. There, tunes almost always start low and then go to a higher part. Jabbour has wondered if this descending contour was either a North American innovation or borrowed from indigenous musical practices where descending tune contours are quite common. In Gaspé, there has always been a strong Mi'kmaq demographic and there's no reason why music and other cultural practices wouldn't have been exchanged between indigenous and European Gaspesians. Although it's unlikely we'll ever know where tunes like the "The Queen's Reel" originated, one thing is for sure: it bears an uncanny resemblance to tunes found from the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula down to the Texas panhandle. It does make you wonder.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Untitled Grondeuse (Old Grumbler)

Here's a really beautiful tune that we have from Erskine's playing on the Reel-to-Reel tapes from the 1960's:

Untitled Grondeuse

Untitled Grondeuse (Alternate)

This tune is part of a family of Grondeuses, or Grumbling tunes, which feature the low part making extensive use of the bass strings, then a high part which soars on the treble strings. Like a lot of Grondeuses (like Tommy Rooney's Jig), this tune has a high part that instead of repeating, just cascades back down and blends right back in to the low part again giving the tune a circular, endless feel which is really captivating.

This tune seems to belong to a rather ubiquitous family of tunes which use the ADAE tuning (low to high string) and share essentially an identical low part. The high part is subject to more individual variation depending on the fiddler. It is possible that Erskine devised his own high part but when Brian and I played it for Cyril Devouge, he recognized it as a tune his dad used to play and lilted us his version (with of course a few extra "jiggles" in it as is Cyril's custom). He remarked to Brian and I that, "that tune is older than the two of you put together". We also have a tape of a fiddler (possibly Gerard Durette) at the Wakeham Homecoming in the 1980's playing another variant of this tune but with a radically different high part.

Erskine himself put lots of subtle variations on the rhythms and notes in this tune as you will hear if you listen within and between the versions above.

Erskine's setting of this tune greatly demonstrates what I consider to be one of the the most important hallmarks of his style, what one of my fiddle-playing friends refers to as the "Morris Stutter". This is a syncopated effect that Erskine used on most of the older-style Douglastown tunes that is executed by crossing-strings in a certain manner. Basically, on the third note in a series of four notes, Erskine would drop down to the string below and just lightly play an open or closed note, before returning back to the higher string for the final note in the series. What is really interesting and challenging about this technique is that its effect is not really apparent when you execute it slowly. This was a big problem for me when I was first learning Erskine's old-style tunes. Since I would learn the tunes by slowing down the recordings, it wasn't obvious that the third note was being played quieter. Then when I played the tunes at their normal speed, all the notes had even volume and I was not able to get that great syncopated feel so characteristic of Erskine's music. It took me a while to realize what was going on here, that the syncopated effect only becomes apparent when played up to speed when you play that third note lighter.

I've included a PDF transcription I've made of this tune. In the score, I've indicated the syncopated bow lick I just described by using note-heads that are an open circle with an x through them. Also, this is a distillation of several variations that Erskine used but is most closely based on the first version above. There is great stuff in both versions and I hope the fiddlers out there will take the time to pick up some of Erskine's great variations.

See the transcription


Monday, November 1, 2010

Featured Fiddler: Hermas Réhel of Bridgeville, Gaspe, QC

Last week I stumbled across some videos of the great Gaspesian fiddler Hermas Rehel on youtube that his daughter Élaine posted earlier in the week. She took this great footage at Hermas and his wife Rita White's 50th Wedding Anniversary in St. Bruno, Quebec. I hadn't heard any of Hermas' music until seeing these videos and I was really blown away. All the older Gaspesians I talked with kept telling me I needed to hear Hermas Réhel and I now understand why. Cyril Devouge says that if he could have had the bow arm of any fiddler in the world it would have been Hermas Réhel's.

The first tune, "La Grondeuse" seems to be a variant of the better known "Growling Old Man and Woman" or "The Grumbler" as I've heard many Gaspesians (including Erskine) call it. Check out Hermas' great bow work. He really has such a nice touch, the right combination of smooth and jagged. The second tune is a really beautiful C tune that I don't know the name of. I just love the way he lifts his bow between the phrases to get little pauses in the tune. As well, in both tunes Hermas' clogging is spot on. After the first two tunes, you can see a great montage of pictures taken throughout Hermas and Rita's life.

In the second video, we are treated to Hermas and his son Damien doing some great gigue dancing to a set of hornpipes. At the end, Hermas' daughters Francine and Élaine get up to join the boys for a few steps. The first tune is the Golden Eagle Hornpipe. This is some really elegant footwork here. The amazing Yvon Cuillerier is playing fiddle in this clip.

Here is a wonderful bio of Hermas that his daughter Élaine has done for the readers here at the Gaspe Fiddle blog. Merci bien Élaine! (English translation follows):

Mon père est né à Bridgeville (municipalité de Percé) le 31 janvier 1920. Il aura donc 91 ans bientôt. Son père est Albert Réhel et sa mère Hélène Jeanne Francis, tous les deux francophones mais les Francis sont d'origine anglaise (d'Angleterre). Les Réhel sont originaires de Mégrit, région de Bretagne en France.

Mon père a créé son commerce dans les années 1940. Il a tenu un magasin général jusqu'en 1978, quand il a été exproprié par la Gouvernement du Québec pour l'élargissement de la route 132 qui était, à l'époque la route 6. Cette expropriation l'a mené à la retraite et à son installation la même année à Brossard. Il y vit depuis ce temps.

Il a été à la fois marchand, barbier, musicien. Il cultivait ses pommes de terre, coupait son bois de chauffage et nous élevait avec ma mère. Il jouait dans les soirées de danse sur la côte gaspésienne, principalement de Douglastown jusqu'à Port-Daniel. Mes parents se sont justement rencontrés à l'école du village, à Percé, dans une soirée dansante. Cette école existe encore et on y exploite une boutique de souvenirs appelée "L'Ancienne École" en face du bureau de poste. Un soir, mon père était engagé pour jouer du violon. Le guitariste devant l'accompagner ne s'étant pas présenté, on a demandé si, dans la salle, il y avait quelqu'un qui pouvait jouer de la guitare. C'est ainsi que ma mère s'est offerte et voilà la naissance de notre famille. Mon père ne parlait pratiquement pas l'anglais et ma mère ne parlait pratiquement pas le français. C'est la musique qui les a réunis.

Mon père a appris à jouer du violon par son oncle, Moïse Francis, le frère de sa mère. Les Francis étaient des gens qui jouaient de la musique et qui chantaient bien.

Sa fille, Élaine, a été la gagnante en 1985 du très populaire "Festival en chanson de Petitie-Vallée" en Gaspésie. Ce concours est reconnu nationalement. Tous les enfants d'Hermas et Rita jouent d'un instrument, chantent ou dansent. La tradition continue dans les arts aussi à travers de certains de ses arrières-petits-enfants.

Here is my best attempt at an English translation:

My father was born in Bridgeville (municipality of Percé) on January 31, 1920. He will soon be 91 years old. His father was Albert Réhel and his mother was Hélène Jeanne Francis, both francophones but the Francis family was originally from England. The Réhel family originated in the Mégrit région in Britanny, France.

My father opened his general store during the 1940's and he kept it until 1978 when the government of Quebec expropriated it to enlarge the Route 132 (then called the Route 6). The expropriation of his store brought forth his retirement and relocation to Brossard on Montreal's South Shore where he has lived since.

During his life he was a merchant, a barber, and a musician. He grew his own potatoes, cut his own fire wood, and raised his children with my mother. He would play fiddle at house parties and dances on the Gaspe coast, mostly between Douglastown and Port-Daniel. My parents met each other at a dance at the village school in Percé. This school building still exists and is now a souvenir boutique called "L'Ancienne École" and stands just across from the Post Office. One night, my father was hired to play the fiddle there. His guitar player did not show up and he asked if there was anyone in the room who could play guitar. It was then that my mother offered her talents and voilà, the birth of our family. When they met that night, my father barely spoke English and my mother barely spoke French. It was music that united them.

My father learned the fiddle from his uncle Moïse Francis, the brother of his mother. The Francis family were all people who played and sang music well.

In 1985, his daughter Élaine was the winner of the popular "Festival en chanson de Petitie-Vallée" in the Gaspésie. This contest is renowned throughout Canada. All of the children of Hermas and Rita play an instrument, sing, or dance. The tradition continues even among some of his great grand children.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Eva's Tune - February 3, 1983

Here is a lovely, and slightly mysterious sounding D tune from the Douglastown area

Hear Erskine play Eva's Tune from February 3, 1983

Charlie Drody was a brother of Joe Drody (Sr) who was Erskine's main fiddle tutor growing up. Almost all the Drody males played the fiddle. The title of this tune was told to me by Anthony Drody who is Joe Sr's son and Brigid's brother. He told me that there used to be a title for this tune but as his Unlce Charlie's daughter Eva would always step-dance to this tune, they began calling it Eva's Tune. Anthony could not recall the original title.

In addition to the Drody family, it seems the Devouge family also knew this tune. In fact, this tune came to my knowledge when we were visiting Cyril Devouge last June. We were talking about the unique syncopation that was featured in the older Gaspesian sound and Brian pulled out this tune that I'd never heard before and picked a great version on the guitar. As is Cyril's custom, he showed us a spot where you can get an extra syncopated note at the end of the first phrase in the low strain. When we played this tune again for him on our last visit on Thanksgiving, he immediately recognized it as one of his Dad's old tunes. Brigid also remembered well her father Joe playing it. It is very possible that Erskine learned it from Joe Sr.

The smoothness of the high strain of this tune makes a really interesting contrast with the low strain which is extremely syncopated. In fact, I would venture to say that this is probably the most syncopated playing we have of Erskine on record. The melody of the tune itself is not overly complicated but a mastery of the bow hand is required to capture the precisely-timed syncopated string crossings.

As seems to be the case for most of the old-time Douglastown tunes in the key of D, the fiddle has the bass string raised to an A making the tuning ADAE from bass to treble string.

This recording comes from a cassette tape that Joeseph (Jr) and Anthony Drody made of Erskine on February 3, 1983. Erskine would have been 70 when this was recordied and you can hear Erskine is in fine form and his bowing is as precise as ever. Anthony and Joseph had the amazing foresight to realize that Erskine knew many of the old Douglastown tunes that no one else knew anymore and that they ought to be recorded. Thus, the tunes on this tape represent the older local repertoire that Erskine learned as a kid growing up in Douglastown before 1945.

Now if there had been video cameras back then, I'd love to have seen what Eva did when she step-danced to this charming little tune.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Second Visit With Cyril Devouge

We've been pretty overloaded with material to post at the Gaspe fiddle project here and this post's material is something I'd been meaning to finish up several months ago. Well, better late than never. We visited Cyril again this past Thanksgiving weekend and learned a bunch of great new stories and jokes and I still hadn't posted anything from the previous visit so it was high time to get this post finished.

Brian, Brigid, and I visited Cyril at his rest home a second time last June for the Jean-Baptiste holiday and we were treated to another wonderful afternoon with the entertaining and intelligent Mr. Devouge.

When we first arrived he surprised us wit two tongue twisters he'd learned back home.

Here is the 3 Skunks

After he got us all twisted up with the 3 Skunks, he pulled out an even more complicated one that he learned from his Granny.

Here is Betty's Bitter Butter

Since the first visit back in May, I'd learned a few tunes from his lilting (that's a term for singing fiddle tunes) and wanted to check if I'd gotten them right. He really helped me out showing me where to add "the little jiggles in it" as he calls them.

The first tune we played for Cyril was one he had lilted for us on our previous visit and he says he learned from his Dad, Leslie Devouge. I've left in the talking where Cyril teaches me the extra jiggle that really does sharpen the tune up.

Here is Leslie Devouge's Tune

We then played a tune all together with Cyril on the harmonica. Cyril is a really excellent harmonica player and can really make joyful music when he gets into a tune. This is a tune he learned from his best fiddling friend growing up, Roland White of Bois-Brûlé just down the road from where Cyril lived.

Hear Roland White's Tune

At the end, Cyril teaches me a little extra note to round the tune out.

Here is Roland White's tune with some pointers

Cyril told us about listening to and learning from his father and other fiddlers from L'Anse à Brillant and Bois-Brûlé. He also talked about Willie White who Cyril says was the best fiddler on the Gaspé coast. He talked about the old-timers "rolling" the tunes, taking out all the sharp corners and says that this is one of the aspects that made these tunes so beautiful.

Hear Cyril talk about the old-time players

Cyril also gave us his secret hunting tip on how to snare a rabbit.

Cyril talked a bit about Hermas Rehel, and excellent fiddler from around Perce, who Cyril knows and really respects.

Here, Cyril tells us this funny story about a neighbour who apparently heard him practicing fiddle one night when he'd left the window open.

Cyril also showed us this really beautiful waltz in in the key of D by lilting the melody to us. He says he learned this tune from his father.

Cyril lilts this nice waltz

Finally, you can listen to a couple of the tunes Brian, Brigid, and I played for Cyril.

Untitled D Tune from Douglastown. Cyril used to play this tune and lilts us his version at the end.

Untitled D Tune from the North Coast of Gaspé

The Shannon Reel


Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Blindman's Reel : A Comparison of Styles

I wanted to to take an opportunity to contrast Erskine's highly syncopated Gaspé style with a more conventional French Canadian style. One of the goals of the Gaspé Fiddle project here is to understand some of the defining characteristics of the old-time fiddle style that was once common around the Douglastown area and compare it with the fiddle music from other parts of Quebec.

The tune we're going to take a look at is The Blindman's Reel (le Reel de l'Aveugle in French). This is a legendary tune that comes from the playing of Joseph Allard who recorded it in the 1930.

Hear Joseph Allard play the Blindman's Reel.

Joseph really burns this tune up. He's playing it at a good clip with a straight, driving bow. I would describe his style as very Irish influenced with Irish-inspired trills and other left hand flourishes. Rhythmically, its essentially a barrage or rapid sixteenth notes (the rhythm sounds like "one-ee-and-ah two-ee-and-ah) in both sections.

Now, let's have a listen to how Erskine treated this tune.

In contrast, Erskine achieves a lot more "groove" on this tune on account of the use of syncopated bow work, especially during the low part of the tune. In Erskine's setting of the tune, the melodic contours are much less linear, often seeming to ascend and descend within a single phrase. Contrast this with Joseph Allard's interpretation of the melody where the melodic direction of the phrases is much more "in a straight line" so to speak. As in a lot of his music, Erskine creates a jagged feel with all his syncopated bow work and melodic interpretation.  My theory is that Erskine and other Gaspesians developed this style to provide captivating rhythms for the step dancers around Douglastown.

Despite Joseph Allard's immaculate performance on the recording, I prefer the rhythmic variety and jagged melodic contours of Erskine's setting which makes the tune more distinctive to my ears.

Another feature of the older Gaspesian sound is the use of what violinists would call "scordatura" (and what us fiddlers call "retuning your fiddle"). Erskine tuned his bass string up to an A (ADAE tuning) for this tune as he often did when playing in the key of D on the unaccompanied old-style tunes. This gives his fiddle a really rich and resonant sound. Joseph is most likely playing in the standard violin tuning of GDAE.

This recording of Erskine's comes from the stunning 1990 tape where he really digs deep into the old-style.  Brian remembers his father commenting to his mother that he was playing "like he did in the good old days back home, playing for all those dances and parties".

An interesting thing to consider is where Erskine developed his setting of the Blindman's Reel from. At first listening, one wouldn't necessarily make the connection that Joseph and Erskine are playing the same tune, especially on the low strain. A natural guess would be that Erskine's version must have come from a local Gaspé source to have diverged so much rhythmically and melodically from Joseph's. However, Joseph Allard was one of Erskine's favourite fiddle players and he had many records of Joseph's and learned tunes from them. So what is also very likely (almost certain in Brian's opinion), is that Erskine took Joseph's setting and consciously or unconsciously adapted it to fit his own unique Gaspé style. One of the aspects of Erskine's playing that I most admire was that he took great pride throughout his life in maintaining the traditional Gaspé sound when he played the fiddle.  Even when he learned tunes from commercial fiddlers like Don Messer, Andy DeJarlis, or Joseph Allard, he would always adapt them to his own native style. For my tastes, the end result are settings of tunes which are often more rhythmically interesting than the originals.

One thing that strikes me, and is somewhat of a crude generalization of many commercially recorded French Canadian fiddlers, is that they often played in a style much closer to what you would have heard coming from Ireland in the 1920's and 1930's. Its not clear to me whether or not Joseph was raised in a culture where the fiddle playing was very Irish or if he developed his style later on.  However, the Irish fiddler Michael Coleman's records were a very popular in Quebec and it is possible that his recordings  made an impact on the styles of Joseph Allard and others.  Anyhow, I would say that the ornamentation in Joseph's and many mainstream French Canadian players is done with the typical Irish-inspired trills and rolls.  However, Erskine and his Irish-Gaspesian community played in a seemingly more old French-influenced style where the ornamentation was not so much based in the left-hand ornamentation, but rather in rich vocabulary of right-hand techniques using the bow, many which created a strong syncopated rhythm. At some point in the near future, I will make an effort to transcribe some of these "bow licks" for the fiddle playing readers out there.

The fact that the Douglastown style seems more French than that played by the mainstream recorded French players is a bit ironic because the founding families of Douglastown were Irish. The Irish culture was very strong in Douglastown with about 95% of the population being of Irish lineage up until about the 1950's. My own theory is that the Douglastown fiddle style was something that was largely developed out there on the Gaspé and is not necessarily a French thing or and Irish thing, but instead a joint musical creation of all the diverse groups that coexisted on the coast at one time including people of French, Irish, English, Scottish, Jersey, and other descents. I find there is a tendency to want to believe that fiddle music came to the New World already developed from Ireland and Scotland and then was sort of whittled away into its present state. In fact, the reality seems to be that fiddle music and its styles were developing simultaneously throughout different communities in the Western world on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this sense, it may be more appropriate to regard North American fiddle styles more as cousins of the styles in Ireland and Scotland as opposed to their descendants. Definitely there were many tunes that were brought here from the Old World but there are many more that certainly were not.  For some great insight on the the evolution of fiddle music in the New and Old World are inspired from the great folklorist and fiddler, Alan Jabbour. You can read a great article of his here. Starting on Page 2, he describes what I suggested above in the context of fiddlers from the upland southern United States.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Handy Tool to Keep Up-to-Date

I wrote a little tutorial on using one of Google's built-in applications for users with a Gmail account to stay up-to-date with our posts here.

The page is on the right.

Click here for a quick tutorial.

Handy Tool to Keep Up-to-Date

I wrote a little tutorial on using one of Google's built-in applications for users with a Gmail account to stay up-to-date with our posts here.

The page is on the right.

Click here for a quick tutorial.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Another Tune Title

I recently discovered another tune title while listening to and playing with a great Quebecois and Cape Breton style fiddle player this weekend in the Eastern Townships. I was in the other room and he launched into this really great tune that I heard faintly. Getting closer to the living room I had a bit of a Eureka moment where I said to myself, "Erskine played that tune!"

So, the untitled G tune from June 20, 2010 is in fact a fairly widely known tune called, the Reel des Eskimos or Reel des Esquimaux whichever spelling you prefer. Isidore Soucy recorded a nice version which I've actually heard many times and knew I recognized it from somewhere else. However, surprise surprise, Soucy's version is very crooked with respect to the timing (extra/missing beats in the phrases of the tune). This may explain why I hadn't made the connection earlier. Nonetheless, Soucy's playing is captivating as always.

Here's the link to the Soucy Recording

Here's a youtube video with an American fiddler playing this tune in the same setting as I heard this weekend.

Compare with Erskine's setting

While the Soucy and the other setting are excellent and demonstrate a very fine reel, I prefer the extra rhythmic vocabulary Erskine achieved by doubling up on notes, using drones, and adding little pauses between the phrases in the low strain.

Although its always great to have a proper title for these tune, I must confess I'm still a little partial to the Erskine's Ramble title because it is more politically sensitive and I feel captures the mood of the tune with its rambling feeling in the low strain.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some Tune History

Equally important to finding out titles of many untitled tunes that we have in our collection, is finding out about where they came from especially those that Erskine learned from local Douglastown and area fiddlers. This past summer while visiting with Ernest Drody, a Douglastown fiddler from the musical Drody family, I played the Untitled D Tune for him that we posted here on the blog on April 1st, 2010.

Here this tune again from the 1978 Tape

He remembers being a kid and hearing that tune when a couple of french fiddlers from the north shore of the Gaspé would come down and learn tunes from his father Charlie. He remembers them playing this tune and reckons his father picked it up from them. As he put it, "that was a long time ago, and I was terrible young".

Here is another version of this that Erskine recorded on the reel-to-reel machine in the 1960's.

Hear the Untitled D Tune from the north coast of the Gaspé

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

More Tune Title Mysteries Solved

Vivian Williams let me know in the comment on one of the posts that the tune that Erskine called the Liverpool Hornpipe is in fact a tune Don Messer recorded called The Victory Breakdown. Apparently, the first parts are very similar and this could explain Erskine's confusion of the title.

As well, the tune we labeled Erskine's Hornpipe for the sake of having one less "Unknown" title for is indeed a well-known tune in Quebec and Canada that goes by several different titles such as Reel de\à Remi, Reel de Saint-Jean, and Reel de Ti-Jean, Gordon's Reel, and the Chamberlain. Joseph Allard played this tune calling it L'Hôtielier. Jean Carrignan played this tune very well also. Erskine was a big fan of both Allard and Carrignan and was known to pick up tunes off their recordings.

Monday, September 20, 2010

1990 Tape: A New Find of Rare Old Tunes

Recently while visiting Brian's aunt in Douglastown, we were given a bag of 15 cassettes that Erskine and she had made featuring Erskine and other Douglastown fiddlers. Among these was an extra special gem that contains perhaps some of the most powerful playing and footwork that Erskine ever recorded. Here is how Brian described the circumstances surrounding this recording:

"I remember talking to my Mom around the time this cassette was being recorded. She told me, if I can remember correctly, that his brothers and some sisters wanted my Dad to record a cassette with all up-tempo tunes and fast playing. He commented that he hadn't played like this since the good old days when he played for all those dances and parties.

Anyhow they got their wish here"

Although 77 years old when this was recorded, Erskine is at the top of his game here and is really playing the devil out of his fiddle. One of the things Brian always tells me about his Dad's playing was that he really went to town when he played, putting all his effort both mental and physical into his music. When visiting with Cyril Devouge earlier this year, he remembered playing with Erskine many years ago under a big tent in Douglastown and that when Erskine played, the sweat would come pouring down his face from all the effort he was putting in. The recordings on this tape really show a man completely invested in his music, playing as if his life depended on it.

Listening to the music on this tape is like stepping back in time 100 years or more. There are many rare tunes on this tape that come from local Gaspesian sources that Erskine knew. Also, there are other tunes we can't find any information on in the tune databases with the titles Erskine supplied, strongly suggesting they could be of local Gaspesian origins or settings. We feel this collection of tunes might offer one of the most extensive recorded glimpses into the oldest Douglastown area tunes and the pre-20th century old time style which had been handed down for over 150 years in the Gaspé. As well, this tape includes many more well-known fiddle standards like Dusty Miller, Money Musk, Devil's Dream, and Fisher's Hornpipe, but played in non-standard settings with a very old Gaspé style with the fiddle tuned to either AEAE or ADAE.

Here are a few cuts from this tape.

The first is a tune that Erskine would have learned from his main fiddling mentor, Joe Drody (Sr), who was Brigid's father. The tune is "Joe Drody's Jig" and the fiddle is tuned AEAE, what Erskine referred to as Double Tuning. Erskine would walk many a night from his home on the main road in Douglastown (now the Route 132), on a trail through the woods to Joe Drody's homestead up on the 1st Rang road where Joe would teach young Erskine the old time tunes from the area. This tune is perhaps the most intense and powerful playing I've ever heard from Erskine. Its a simple tune but played with so much fire and conviction its almost unbelievable. Erskine also takes the footwork into the stratosphere on this one.

Hear "Joe Drody's Jig"

The second tune is a haunting and highly syncopated D modal tune in ADAE tuning. The source for this tune was a relative of Erskine's who was a parish priest up in Fox River (Rivière au Renard), a Father Elias Morris. Brian remembers people saying that Father Morris was quite musically talented. There is a footnote about Father Morris in the appendix of this article from the GoGaspe site which also attests to his musicality as a "great singer and musician, a real descendant of the Irish Minstrals of Erin". We are going to try to find out more information about Father Morris and we'll update the readers if we find out anything. This playing really captures both the Irish and French Gaspesian influences. The melodic content is very Irish but the delivery and phrase structure has Erskine's classic Gaspé treatment.

Hear "Father Morris' Tune"

The third tune also ranks high among Erskine's most powerful performances. This tune is an A modal tune called "The Blue Shannon" and is again a beautiful melding of Irish and French Gaspesian influences. The title suggests that this might be a tune from Ireland named after the Shannon river that flows there. However, searches through tune databases have yielded no tunes by this title. It could be possible that it was brought over with the early Irish settlers in the Gaspé or was composed by one of them to pay homage to that river.

Hear "The Blue Shannon"

Brian and Erskine's ancestry (indeed all the Morris' of Douglastown) can be traced back to a one Thomas Morris who came to Douglastown from County Wexford in South East Ireland with the British Navy fighting against the American Revolutionaries in the Siege of Quebec and the Battle of Valcour Island. An amazing account of Thomas Morris' voyage can be found here at the Douglastown Historical Review.

We have 35 tracks recorded on this tape. As Brian and I feel the music is extra special on this tape, on account of how rare many of these tunes are and how authentically they are played, we are in the process of investigating ways to put together a little cd of this recording so that this music can reach a wider audience. We'll keep you all updated as this side-project develops.

In the meantime, enjoy these tunes

Monday, September 6, 2010

Pembroke 2010

I just got back from the Pembroke fiddle and step dance festival today. It was my first time there for the festival. I went up on the bus Saturday morning and arrived in the early afternoon. Having walked from the bus depot into town, I stopped into the Giant Tiger to buy some food. The town seemed to have come alive for the fiddle festival; there was a family group inside in the cafeteria singing a Carter Family song and when I went out into the parking lot, there was Peter Dawson, Jim Beatie, and some friends putting on a show there. Jim treated the audience to four or five traditional songs from Pontiac County, which is just across the Ottawa river from Pembroke on the Quebec side. He was soon joined by Peter Dawson on fiddle, and soon enough there were two step dancers, a Ms. Dewar and Mr Hughes.

I walked into the park along the riverside and once inside wandering amongst the RVs, heard my friend Jeannie's voice. At this point, I knew that I had found the famed blue Gaspesian tent. This is pretty much where I stayed the whole weekend. I had two great nights of fiddle tunes and country songs and met some new friends along the way too. Brigid and I played many of Cyril Devouge's and Erskine's tunes during the weekend. Roland White's son, Gavin was there and he especially appreciated Cyril's tunes and had Brigid and I record a bunch of them in his camper the next day. Roland was Cyril's best friend growing up and taught Cyril many tunes, so Gavin hadn't heard a lot of these tunes in many years and was excited to hear them again.

Saturday and Sunday afternoons I spent trading tunes with the Drody brothers and Gary Snowman which was a lot of fun. Anthony played a great version of the Cultivator Reel which he called the Turkey Farmer and had learned from a busker in Perce. Joseph played a great version of the Gaspe Reel, not the better known tune these days by this title, but a great funky little G tune with a characteristic plucked E string in the last phrase of the tune.

Saturday night at the tent was really magical. Michel Mallette joined us and played some really incredible French style fiddle music with Brigid. Later on, Derek Wilson showed up and gave us some top notch Ontario style fiddling which was also just incredible. Gary Snowman got up several times and shook the floor boards with his lively and powerful step-dancing. At the end of the night, Derek was joined by a fiddler from London, Ontario named Carmen. They were really on fire and played a medley of about eight Bb tunes and then a bunch of waltzes in Bb and F. Here is a picture of the Saturday night session:

And here are two tunes from the same night. The first one, I'm playing one of Cyril's old tunes he learned from a fiddler from York in the Gaspe named Arty Savidant. We call it Arty Savidant's Tune.

Listen to Arty Savidant's Tune

And here is Michel Mallette burning it up on two great reels, Bailey's (composed by one of the fiddler's who hangs out at Pembroke) and St. Anne's.

Listen to Bailey's Reel and St. Anne's Reel

Sunday had another real treat in store. A nice elderly French fiddler from Valleyfield named George showed up in the tent, initially playing guitar. Eventually he moved on to the fiddle and I switched to guitar as people began leaving for dinner. He is in his late 70's and is originally from the Huntingdon area in the Chateauguay Valley and learned fiddle from his Dad who he said was very good. He really blew me away, playing these elegant old French style reels as well as a lot of modern waltzes. He had amazing bow control and intonation and was just as comfortable in Bb or F as G and D. He seemed to enjoy the way I played backup guitar because I used a few jazzy passing chords on the waltzes as well as some nice old-fashioned bass walks I picked up from Brigid and old Doc Roberts records. I also tried using some Missouri style backup on some of his driving French reels and I like the way they turned out. In addition to being a wonderful player, he was such a perfect gentleman. So polite and considerate and willing to help me out with a melody or chord whenever necessary.

I really like Pembroke because its not just an ordinary music festival where people go to watch big name acts, but a place where people come together to see old friend, socialize, play cards, share songs and tunes, and dance a few steps. I think that's pretty special thing and its really wonderful to be around people who love great fiddling and step dancing. I really had a blast and will be back in the years to come.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Goals of the Project

Some people I've met recently in different places have wanted to know why we are doing this project. I thought, I'd write a separate page with some of my thoughts and keep it on the right hand side of the site under "Pages" so new-comers to the blog might find it easier. For those interested, here it is:

Goals of the Project

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tommy Rooney's Jig Revisited

Here are two stunning versions of Tommy Rooney's Jig.

The first version is one that Erskine recorded on a household reel-to-reel recorder in the mid 1960's. Despite their early arrival on the home-recording scene, they generally offered better sound than most cassette recorders which came in later on, probably due to the fact that they came with a half-decent microphone.

Hear Erkine Play Tommy Rooney's Jig

Anyhow, this recording really captures Erskine in the prime of his playing and you can hear the nuances of his intensely syncopated Gaspé rhythm and clogging much better in this recording than the previous version that was made on a cassette recorder.

While vacationing in Douglastown recently, Anthony Drody asked me if I played this tune and I answered that I do but I find it a very difficult one to really bring to life. As we began discussing this tune, he told me a story about how at one of the Wakeham Homecoming Fesitval's fiddle contests in the 1980's Erskine took second place to Girard Durette. Anthony had urged Erskine to play this tune and said that if he had, he could have won the contest. In Anthony's words, Erskine played this tune "just perfectly". I tend to agree with him. Tommy Rooney's Jig is in my opinion, another one of Erskine's masterpiece tunes.

The second version of Tommy Rooney's Jig comes from an unknown fiddler almost certainly from Douglastown. Erskine's reel-to-reel machine was for a period of time, in the hands of his brother Manny who lived in Douglastown and who probably made this recording of one of the local fiddle players. If anyone can identify who this fiddle player is with any certainty, please let us know by leaving a comment.

Hear unidentified fiddler play Tommy Rooney's Jig:

This other fiddler's version is particularly pretty, featuring many of the same cross string licks that Erskine used, especially on the high part. This recording is not at concert pitch, but instead comes out about 3 semitones lower in the key of B instead of D which gives the tune a more relaxed atmosphere than Erskine's recording. I'm not sure if this was just the way the fiddle and guitar tuned when this was recorded, or if the recording machine was operating at a slower speed. Anyhow, all of the recordings we have of this fiddle player made on the reels come out lower. We also don't have any idea who the guitar player is, but they do a wonderful job of providing tasteful backup on this tune.

Again, the fiddle is tuned to ADAE from low to high for this tune. This piece is part of a family of tunes in Quebec knows as "Grondeuses" or "growling" tunes. These are tunes which feature the violin tuned to ADAE and the low part of the tune is more or less confined to the two bass strings and makes heavy use of droning in the bass. This is what gives these "Grondeuses" tunes their great, growling quality. As well, the high parts of these tunes will really soar when they finally come around and this is especially true in Tommy Rooney's Jig. For me, Tommy Rooney's Jig is the best Grondeuse I've heard played before.

We mentioned in our previous post on this tune that it was supposedly composed by a Ms. Napoleon Rooney of Douglastown for a relative. Talking with people from Douglastown it seems this may or may not be true, but it is almost certain that this is a pure Douglastown tune having been composed by one of the old time fiddlers there. Again, if any of our readers know the true story of Tommy Rooney's jig, we encourage them to leave a comment or get in touch with us to let us know.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back from Douglastown

Hello readers,

I finished my 3 week bike tour of the Gaspé coast from Campbellton New Brunswick to Forillon last Friday. I had a wonderful time, having seen some truly spectacular scenery and met some of the most kind-hearted people in this province. After spending a week in Douglastown during their Irish Festival, we have lots of new material for the blog.

Brian and I played in a different person's kitchen just about every day and we were treated to great stories, hospitality, and even some step-dancing in return for music. I met many new friends in Douglastown, Shigawake, and at the Malbay Fiddlers Hoedown. We also met many people out there who follow this blog and its rewarding to know that this music and culture is being enjoyed and appreciated out in the Gaspé as well as elsewhere. We even visited with an in-law of Erskine's who had a family member have each posting we do printed out and kept in an envelope. That really means a lot to us!

Currently, we have many hours of recordings of our sessions and Brian's aunt gave us a bag of 15 cassettes of Erskine playing that we need to go through and digitize. Add to that about 5 tapes of Cyril's playing that we are also working on.

One of our Gaspesien readers we met out there gave us a great idea to have a single page where our readers can access all the tunes rather than having to hunt for them through pages of old postings. Now, on the side of the site under "Pages" you should see a link that says "Listen to All the Tunes". Go here if you want to get right to the music.

Here are some pictures of the trip:

Gaspe Bike Trip 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

News and Updates

Dear readers,

Thought I'd update everyone with the latest news on the Gaspe Fiddle Project. I know I haven't been posting as many tunes lately but rest assured there is some great stuff in the pipeline.

We had another visit with Cyril on the Jean-Baptiste holiday and he treated us to an afternoon of new stories and jokes, and even a few tongue-twisters he learned from his Granny. We also played some of his tunes for him which I'd learned since my previous visit with him. He set me straight, helping me out on adding a few extra "jiggles"in the tune which he says help round the tunes out. There will be a bunch of new audio clips from that visit in before too long I hope.

We've also gotten a few tapes of Cyril's that we are in the process of digitizing. There are some real lively tunes there and I'll be sure to share these with the readers.

In other big news, I am leaving this weekend on a 3 week bike tour of the Gaspe coast from Campbellton, New Brunswick to Douglastown and Forillon Park. I'm hoping to meet some of the remaining fiddle players out on the coast. The highlight and culmination of the trip will be the Douglastown Irish Week which is from August 2nd to 6th. There's going to be some great fiddlers there including Yvon Mimeault, Gerald Fullum, and Pierre Schryer. I got some great news last week, it seems that Brian, Brigid, and her two brothers Joe and Anthony who play fiddle will also be out there. I'm sure I'll have some great fiddling and photos to share with all our readers from the music that happens out there.

Here is the site of the Douglastown Irish Week

And here is a picture of Douglastown beach:

The Liverpool Hornpipe (The Victory Breakdown)

Here is Erskine's setting of the an elegant and fairly well-known book tune, The Liverpool Hornpipe. Printed versions can be found in Cole's 1000 Fiddle Tunes, and R.P. Christeson's and O'Neill's collections. Erskine's high strain is a different melody from the printed version and is in my opinion, a better melody. Its possible that he or his source for this tune took the high strain of another tune and glued it to the low strain, but kept the Liverpool title. 
Hear the Liverpool Hornpipe (The Victory Breakdown)

I feel in Erskine's hands, this tune achieves a greater lift than all the versions I've heard of the standard book setting. As he often does, he gets a bunch of great cross string syncopations and doubles up on notes, both devices creating a slightly jagged texture to this tune which is really exciting. You can also really hear his feet beating out the rhythm on this one. I imagine some people really enjoyed dancing to Erskine fiddling this tune.

Vivian Williams told me that this is in fact a tune Don Messer recorded called the Victory Breakdown. Apparently, the first two parts are similar which may explain Erskine's confusion of the title. Erskine had many of Don Messer's records and learned tunes there. What is interesting is that he always adapted Don's tunes to his own Gaspé style never seeking to imitate Canada's most influential fiddle player.

Even though Erskine had the wrong title for this tune, we will keep it here and put the correct title in parenthesis so people coming back to the blog looking under the Liverpool title may find what they are looking for.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Erskine's Hornpipe (Reel de L'Hôtielier)

Here's a charming little hornpipe that Erskine played in the key of D from the reel-to-reel recordings. This one has an especially cute little rhythm to it that must have made it great to step dance to.

This tune seems to pop up in many places in Quebecois fiddling under different titles, though the high strain has a somewhat different twist to it. Pierre Schryer told me he'd heard it called Reel de Ti-Jean, Reel Saint-Jean, and Reel à/de Remi. Further research has shown that other titles include Gordon's Reel, and the Chamberlain. Joseph Allard played this tune calling it L'Hôtielier. Jean Carrignan played this tune very well also. Erskine was a big fan of both Allard and Carrignan and was known to pick up tunes off their records.

This tune appears on an Isidore Soucy recording as "Set Américain, deuxième partie" which strikes me more as a movement in a dance set as opposed to a title.

Like many hornpipes, the first part of this tune just follows the chords D, G, and A with nice rolling arpeggios that just seem to flow out under Erskine's bow. The second part of the tune is a little more mysterious and primitive in its melody and really contrasts well with the first part. I find that this part just kind of floats, not really going anywhere melodically which for me, gives it a feeling like being suspended in mid-air. This might by why I have the impression that this tune was really geared towards step dancing; this part has a real lift to it. Its impossible not to tap your foot to this lovely little tune.

Hear Erskine's Hornpipe

Here is Isidore Soucy playing essentially the same tune.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Erskine's Ramble

Here's an untitled G tune off one of the reel-to-reel recordings Erskine made in the 1960s. We've started calling this tune Erskine's Ramble because it has a sort of rickety feel in the low part, sort of like an old car going over some bumpy gravel road.

Hear Erskine's Ramble

This tune has a really captivating rhythm to it in both parts. I love the way the low part has these little pauses between the phrases to create a somewhat jerky feel and then the high part has this smooth, gliding feel with more slurred bowing. Also, note the great droning effect Erskine gets on the bass string in the low part.

This tune reminds me of some of the G tunes from Northeast and Central Kentucky that you can hear on Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky Vol 1 and 2 and Along the Ohio's Shores. The low part of Kelly Gilbert's setting of Billy in the Lowground (which is a different melody from the well-loved C tune of the same title) has a similar melody and feel to Erskine's tune. Further, the high part reminds me a little of J.B. Miller's tune, Severn Creek.

This must have made a great tune to step-dance to.
Update: Sept 2010:
I was playing at a friends place in the Eastern Townships and a younger fiddler from the area who plays a lot of Quebecois and Cape Breton style fiddle played this tune. He told me this tune is called the Reel des Eskimos. Although the skeleton was clearly the same tune, his version had more notes of the scale whereas Erskine would create great rhythmic effect using notes repeated consecutively and drone-strings. Isidore Soucy recorded a rather crooked version of this tune you can hear here(from Collections Canada). I still like the Erskine's Ramble title as at least its a little more politically correct.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Visit With Cyril Devouge of L'Anse à Brillant, Gaspé, QC

A few weekends ago, Brian, Bridget, and I spent a Saturday afternoon with an old-time fiddler, Cyril Devouge at his senior's residence in Chateauguay, Quebec. I first heard about Cyril when a fiddler, Jimmy Allen from New Jersey emailed me having noticed our blog. He told me he used to hang out with all the Gaspe fiddlers at Pembroke back in the 1980's. He said the best fiddlers there were Hermas Rehel and Cyril Devouge who had a very complex and hypnotic bowing style.

Anyhow, Bridget and her husband had been visiting Cyril every month or so. When I met Bridget, I played one of Cyril's tunes for her and she remarked that I played it very close to Cyril and that we should go play the tune for him at his residence.

Now, a little about Cyril:

Cyril was born in 1915 in Brilliant Cove (L'Anse à Brillant), Gaspé, Quebec which is just down the road from Douglastown where Bridget and Erskine lived. He is currently 95 years old. He was already playing in public at 10 years old and recalls playing at a "Tea Meeting" in a little schoolhouse in Brilliant Cove. Apparently, he couldn't get his feet to reach the floor while he was playing there and that "The whole of L'Anse à Brillant and half of Seal Cove were there that night". His first fiddle teacher was his father, Leslie Devouge, who was a fisherman who would return on the weekends and played the fiddle on Sundays. He had three other brothers: Denzil, Herzil, and Glen. Denzil and Glenn also played the fiddle. He told us that there were three fiddles in the house hanging on the wall in the kitchen and that they were never all on the wall at the same time.

Apparently, his father was an exceptional old-time fiddler. Cyril has always been extremely moved by fiddle music and told us that his Dad's playing was so pretty that he would often begin to cry when father played and would have to go hide so his father would not see this.

His best fiddling friend growing up was Roland White whom he learned many tunes from. One of these tunes was the Golden Rooster which Cyril says no one knows anymore except himself.

Cyril left the coast at age 16 to go work in the Siscoe Gold Mine which is on an island in the middle of Kienawisik Lake near Val d'Or, Quebec. He worked here for 13 years and saw many friends maimed and others killed on the job. This convinced him to leave the mines and head back for the coast. He eventually ended up in Chateauguay, Quebec on Montreal's South Shore where he still lives.

Currently, Cyril can no longer play the fiddle due to a pinched nerve in his right shoulder and paralysis in his left hand which happened about 3 years ago. However, he has been learning the harmonica and I must say, is extremely good at it. He can also "lilt" (sing) tunes and still express all the complex rhythms of the Gaspé style in his singing.

Cyril is really an amazing person. At 95 years young, he is extremely intelligent and a great teller of stories and jokes that had us laughing nearly all afternoon. It was an absolute pleasure to spend an afternoon with him. I've now set about to learning on the fiddle several tunes of his that he either hummed or played on the harmonica for us. Spending time with Cyril really made me understand how important and moving fiddle music can be for many people across Canada.

We hope to visit him again in the next few weeks and enjoy another afternoon of fiddle tunes, stories, jokes, and his favourite drink "Irish Mist" which he generously shared with us which helped Brian and I loosen up and really let those tunes soar!

Here are some recordings of our get-together that I made:

Since there are many small files, I recommend clicking the "Auto-Play Next" box when you arrive at the first file.

Hear Cyril tell jokes and stories about people from Gaspé

Hear some of the music that was made during our get-together

Finally, here are some pictures of Cyril from the Pembroke festival in th 1980s courtesy of Jimmy Allen from New Jersey:

Finally, here is the tune of Cyril's I have learned played by the man himself at Pembroke in the 1980's:

Enjoy and feel free to leave us a comment

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Shannon Reel

Here's a really beautiful, hypnotic D tune Erskine played that seems to come from the Gaspé coast. Perhaps it was named after someone with a surname Shannon who either played fiddle or step-danced to this tune. Anyhow, I couldn't find any other tunes out there with this title and melody. Any Gaspesiens out there who have any ideas, feel free to email us or leave a comment and let us know.

Hear the Shannon Reel played on a Reel-to-Reel recording from the 1960's.

Hear the Shannon Reel played in the 1980's at a house session in Cambridge, Ontario with Brian on guitar

For all the fiddlers out there, this tune features one of Erskine's trademark Gaspé-style syncopation devices: the repeated note. Basically, rather than hold a given note for a beat, you just saw back and forth on it a few times to fill out the space. In fact, I have to say that in this tune in particular, Erskine takes this device to its extreme repeating a D note 5 times in a row at the start of the first strain! All in all, I've never heard any fiddler use this device as much as Erskine did and it really creates an amazing and hypnotic rhythm. My guess is that this may have been a very common fiddle technique in the Gaspé where creating a good dance beat for step dancers was so important.

The version from the 1960's is Brian's all time favourite arrangement of his Dad's and I think I feel the same way. He remembers hearing this tune as a kid growing up in the country when he was outside playing with his brother and friends and the melody never left him. In any case, another true masterpiece of Gaspé fiddling.


Monday, May 17, 2010

A Visit With Brigid Drody

Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the wonderful Brigid Drody at her home in the Chateauguay Valley of Quebec. Brian and I drove out there on a Saturday and after finally finding her home at the end of a rural sideroad we began what turned out to be an 8 hour session of Gaspé fiddle tunes and stories.

Brigid is the daughter of Joe (Sr) Drody who was somewhat of a mentor to young Erskine, having taught him many of the local Gaspé tunes. Brigid has spent decades playing guitar for old-time fiddlers and is probably one of the finest rhythm guitar players out there. She really knows how to play in the true old-time guitar backup style featuring a heavy use of bass walks which really bring the tunes alive. As well, her timing is rock solid and her playing is never overbearing. To top it all off, Brigid can probably outlast any fiddler in a session and is known to have recently played in a 16 hour fiddle session ending at 7 a.m.!

Her and her husband Jimmy were warm hosts and treated Brian and I to many jokes and stories about old times and people from the Gaspé. My favorite was when we were talking about the tune her Dad and Erskine played (see our earlier post on this tune) called Tommy Rooney's Jig . She was saying that the old-time fiddlers would play this tune so fast for step-dancers that they used to say it would take a spider with forty legs to keep up with Tommy Rooney's Jig!

Brigid and Jimmy's daughter Pearl and her husband also dropped by from down the road to listen to a few tunes. What struck me most about everyone there is that they really had a deep appreciation for the old-time music and would really listen to the tunes even in an informal setting like a kitchen session. This really made me realize that people who listen to and appreciate old-time fiddle music are just as important and vital to keeping this music alive as those who play the music.

I captured some of the tunes we played on my digital recorder and thought I'd share them with our readers. These are all unrehearsed, but I feel really capture the afternoon.

Here is Reel de Pechêur which I learned from the recording of Erskine which was published in a previous post. Brian really goes to town doubling the lead with me in parts of this tune.

Here, Brian and Brigid play a wonderful guitar duo on Listen to the Mockinbird. Check out Brian's amazing cross-picking guitar technique. Really top-notch guitar playing here.

One of the first tunes we played was Erskine's setting of Stirling Castle. I probably should have picked an easier tune so early on but with the help of Brian and Brigid they managed to keep me from going off the rails on this one.

Finally, here we are playing Reggie Rooney's Reel a local Gaspé tune named for a well-loved local step dancer and the subject of a future post. Again, give a close listen to Brian's great lead guitar work. Growing up with this music, he has a instinctive feel for that French Canadian syncopation and double noting that was so prominent in his Dad's playing.

Erskine's Fiddle - More Pictures

Brian sent me some more high resolution photos last week of his Dad's fiddle taken four years ago. These pictures really show off the beautiful red finish of this violin.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Frank Miller's Hornpipe

Here is a great, rocking D tune that Brian turned my attention to a few weeks back. Nothing too fancy here, just straight up old-time fiddle and a great melody. We don't know who Frank Miller was, but in all likelihood he was a local Gaspé character perhaps a fiddler, step-dancer, or just someone who appreciated fiddle music. Perhaps some of our Gaspé readers know who this Frank Miller could be?

Hear Frank Miller's Hornpipe

As is the custom in North American fiddle traditions, and unlike the Irish tradition, hornpipes here have the same feel as a reel and this tune is no exception. In the North American tradition, what makes a tune a hornpipe instead of a reel is the contour of the melody, generally featuring lots of arpeggios of the underlying chord progression.

Judging by the character of this tune and its similarity to a lot of Missouri breakdowns and hornpipes, my guess is that this tune is probably a "book" tune, meaning that it was published in standard notation in either of Cole's 1000 Fiddle Tunes or Howe's collection. These early volumes of fiddle music from the 19th Century, were hugely influential in all North American traditions, establishing a common repertoire of tunes across the continent. Although most traditional fiddlers could not read music, it was quite common for fiddlers to have a local piano player play the tunes from the sheet music and the fiddler would pick up the tunes this way. From this point, the tunes would then spread into the aural tradition being passed along by ear.

Over time, many of these book tunes would be given their own local titles. The sheer size of the number of melodies in these collections makes it difficult for me to find out whether this tune is really a "book" tune or just a very convincing impostor. In the Gaspe tradition it seems very common for tunes to be named in honour of local characters. Brian speculates that one possible reason for this is that many anglophone Gaspesiens in Erskine's area would have had trouble pronouncing the French titles of fiddle tunes and so they gave them their own titles. If any of our readers know this melody under a different title, please let us know by leaving a comment.

Here is an excellent article on the Howe collection (aka Ryan's Mammouth Collection) from Andrew Kuntz of the Fiddler's Companion Site, by far the most comprehensive collection of online information about fiddle tune history.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Erskine's Fiddle

The weekend before last, Brian brought his Dad's fiddle to our Gaspé tunes session and I had the distinct pleasure of getting to play some of his tunes on this instrument. Needless to say, it was a very special experience for us to hear his Dad's tunes played once again on this fiddle.

The fiddle was made in 1967 by Anton Wilfer, a locally well-known luthier in Montreal. He was born in 1901 in Luby, Czechoslovakia and immigrated to Montreal in 1951 where he made about 75 violins as well as cellos and string basses. Erskine had this fiddle made for him by Anton and is the one he used in the later part of his life. Here are some nice photos Brian took of this fiddle, check out the beautiful brown-red finish and flamed maple 2 piece back:

When playing this fiddle, the first thing we remarked on is just how loud it is. I mean it seemed nearly twice as loud as the two fiddles I use! As well, it had a really tight sound and great projection. It had been strung up with a set of cheap old-style Black Diamond strings which made it a little harsh, but I'm excited to try it out with a nice set of Prims.

Here is a picture of your's truly testing out one of Erskine's tunes on this fiddle:

Finally, just for fun here is a track with Brian and I playing Erskine's Drops of Brandy on this fiddle recorded with my little digital recorder at our session. When we first recorded this track, this fiddle was so loud it was causing my recorder to peak and so the track was distorted! However, Brian EQ'd it and smoothed out the sound so that it shouldn't hurt your ears too much....

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Stirling Castle

When Brian sent me the this tune of his Father's from a cassette recording made in February, 1978, I immediately realized the breadth of mastery Erskine possessed for the art old-time fiddle. There are several recordings of Erskine's which stand out to me as masterpieces of fiddle music, and his interpretation of Stirling Castle is one of them. Here are two recordings of Erskine playing this tune

Hear Erskine Play Stirling Castle in February 1978

Hear Erskine Play Stirling Castle on a Reel-to-Reel in the mid-1960's

This tune is a traditional Scottish strathspey but in Erskine's hands, it becomes a driving, syncopated masterpiece of Gaspé fiddling. In the 1978 recording, pay particular attention to the way his feet add so much drive to this tune.

What is particularly interesting to me is the process of transformation of this tune from its traditional setting as strathspey into a driving French Canadian reel. For comparison, here is a link to a remarkable Scottish fiddler, Hector McAndrew playing Stirling Castle at the beginning of a set of tunes. By the processes of adapting the tune into the Gaspé style, it has essentially become a whole new tune.

The first part of this tune is loaded with Erskine's classic cross-string syncopations. The second part features a lovely flowing melody with the number of measures extended from the traditional Scottish version. As well, as Erskine often did on the older tunes in his repertoire in the key of D, he uses the ADAE tuning. At the present time, we don't know where Erskine got the idea to adapt the tune in this fashion. Its possible that he learned if from an older Gaspé fiddler in this setting, or came up with it himself. The great Irish fiddler Michael Coleman recorded a version in the 1920's.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Some Pictures

Here are some wonderful pictures of Erskine throughout his life that I got from Brian this past weekend.

Here is one of Erskine, his brother-in-law Bert (with the tropical guitar!), and an unknown character taken about 1945, probably just after the Second World War:

Bert also played fiddle and was a veteran from the Royal Canadian Navy, having served in World War 2. A friend of ours, Bridget Drody from Douglastown, believes the unknown character is either Lorne or Reggie Rooney, two brothers.

Here is one or Erskine and his wife, Kyra Grant, taken around the same time:

This one is Erskine playing at a relative's house, probably in the mid 1960's:

Finally, here is a great picture of Erskine playing at the Wakeham-York Homecoming Festival in July, 1984:

Notice his bow is angled with the stick facing inwards as opposed to the conventional practice of facing outwards. I believe Erskine's strong tone is perhaps in part attributed to this. I fooled around with this angle and it tends to get more hairs pulling at the strings

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Title Mystery Solved! Reel du Pecheur (Fisherman's Reel)

The Untitled AEAE Tune that I had dubbed Ox and Buggy-O a few weeks has found its proper title!

This had appeared as untitled on our recording of Erskine, but when I pulled this tune out to play with Brian today, he recognized it as a tune that Jean Carignan played and then remembered the title was the Reel du Pecheur. I've updated the title in our earlier post and provided some further details and background info there as well for all the hard-core fiddle nerds.

Brian had played this tune for me on the guitar a few weeks back but I hadn't realized it was the same tune, an error that I can assure you was on my part and not on Brian's excellent guitar rendition of the tune. Actually, my main source of confusion was that Carignan played this tune in standard tuning in the key of Bb while Erskine played this in AEAE tuning in the key of A. So even though the melodies are the same, the atmosphere created between the two versions was so different for me that I hadn't realized they were in fact the same tune.

Anyhow, I'm happy to have one less untitled tune of Erskine's in my repertoire. It was becoming a drag to have to always tell people that I didn't know the name of a tune I was about to play.

In other title-related business, Brian came up with a great title for the AEAE tune featured in the 24 second tune posted on April, 16. He came up with "Pearl of the Coast". I think that is a really beautiful title for an equally beautiful tune. Out in the Gaspe, Douglastown (Erskine's hometown) is affectionately referred to as the Pearl of the Coast.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Pearl of the Coast

Here's a lovely melody in AEAE tuning that we only have 24 seconds of. I wish it was longer but that's just the way it goes sometimes and you have to be thankful for even having that when the tunes are as rare as these. I recommend putting it on repeat if you're longing for more.

Hear Pearl of the Coast.

Anyhow, there's some really classy fiddling here. Lots of string crossings and trills that will keep you on your toes throughout both sections. If you're a musician and are inclined to learn the tune please feel free to play it as long as you like. Hopefully, for at least a minute or until you get all tangled up and have to stop which happens to me a lot in this one.

I really like this melody because it has a mysterious floating or rolling atmosphere. I've always believed good fiddle music will paint the landscape of where the music is from. I wish I was capable of being more of poetic, but I can really see the rolling hills meeting the rugged coastline and see the mist when I listen to this tune.

Today Brian and I played a good session of his Dad's old tunes. This was the first one we played and he came up with a title "Pearl of the Coast," which is what Douglastown is sometimes referred to out there. I think such a pretty tune merits an equally pretty tile. Thanks, Brian!


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Drops of Brandy

Here is a great almost-Appalachian sounding tune that Erskine played in double tuning, AEAE. This is not the well-known Irish or Métis tunes that also both go by this title. Honestly, we're not sure where this version of the melody comes from. Nonetheless, it is a great, twisty tune.

The Drops of Brandy

This was recorded in 1984 at a family reunion in Douglastown, Quebec. At the time, one of Brian's uncles was working further down the coast and couldn't make it to the reunion. So someone there had the great idea that they would tape the evening for this uncle so he wouldn't miss out completely. No doubt there was no shortage of great fiddling and dancing that night.

I really love this recording because in the background you can hear what a great party they were having and can hear dancers' feet. You really feel the excitement of the music and party coming through in this recording. At one point, Brian's uncle Watson yells out "Come on, Tommy" to his cousin, Tommy Girard, to either start or keep on dancing. Fantastic stuff.

Brian tells me that:
"These people would dance all night, with their white shirts dripping with sweat, you had to be there to witness it. Neighbors would drop in for a while to dance, and others would follow.

News gets around quickly in a small town, The fiddle would pull the whole town together on any night of the week."

I think Brian's description paints a really vivid picture. I think to myself how great it would have been to have been there in the flesh at one of these parties with friends, family, and old-time fiddling. His description also attests to the power that that fiddle once enjoyed in entertaining people, being able to pull a whole town together. At the same time, when I hear descriptions such as these I find it sad that this kind of entertainment is fast disappearing in much of North America having been replaced by the television set and modern pop music.

There are some really great cross-string licks in this winding tune. As well, Erskine gets some really nice long-bows on the second part where 2 or 3 notes are played without changing bow direction. This is a bowing style that is somewhat unusual compared to the bowing style he uses in his other tunes.

This tune reminds me of some of those lonesome southeast Kentucky tunes that guys like John Salyer, Luther Strong, and Hiram and Art Stamper played in AEAE tuning. Check out this clip of Art Stamper playing Goodbye Girls, I'm Going to Boston. I think you'll hear some similarities in the melody and harmony.

Until recently, I beleived that the older southeast Kentucky tunes were really heavily Scots-Irish based and that only in the Northern and Central parts of the state were there more similarities with French Canadian fiddling. However, after listening to several tunes from the great Quebecois fiddler Isidore Soucy and tunes like Drops of Brandy I'm convinced that there are more similarities than I used to believe. Sometimes I put my IPod on random shuffle and when certain Isidore Soucy tunes come on, I swear I'm listening to John Salyer until I look at the display. Tonight I listened to John Salyer's Give the Fiddler a Dram and swore I had heard Soucy play the same tune. Although my attempts to find local French Canadian tunes played in Appalachia have so far been in vain, one of these days I swear I'll hit the jackpot.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Untitled D Tune

Here's a great D tune off the 1978 Cassette recording. I really love the laid-back approach Erskine gives this tune. For myself, coming from a southern fiddling experience I have a tendency to anticipate the first beat of a new phrase with a down-bow to drive the tune forward. However, Erskine is not afraid to let the notes breathe and wait for the phrases to come around and this creates a great pulsing feel in this tune. Also, give a listen to the really pretty trill ornaments on the high part.

Untitled D Tune

Anyone know the name of this tune or ever hear it before?

Laura Risk noted to me that this tune bears a pretty strong resemblance to a tune known in French circles as, La Belle Catherine. Like Erskine's version, it also features the second strain played in both octaves. Erskine's tune has an extra measure in the first strain. While not the same tune, there is a good chance that these tunes are close cousins. Here is a great video of the outstanding Louis Boudreault of Chicoutimi playing La Belle Catherine:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reel du Pecheur (Fisherman's Reel) in AEAE

Here's a really beautiful tune in what Erskine called "Double Tuning" or AEAE. Its from the February 1978 Cassette recording. This tune is played pretty straight and doesn't have those cross-string syncopations characteristic of a lot of Erskine's tunes. However, the low part does feature healthy dose of another one of Erskine's favourite bow licks: repeating the same note consecutively in a 16th note pattern. Note only does this lick serve to fill in the spaces in the tune, it also creates an amazing drive. Also, note the variety of clogging patterns Erskine gets with his feet. There is often a lot going on with his feet beyond the basic foot pattern.

Hear Reel du Pecheur (Fisherman's Reel)

April 17, 2010:
When I played this with Brian today at our Gaspe tunes session, he immediately recognized it as a tune Jean Carignan played called the Reel du Pecheur (Fisherman's Reel). Apparently, this was a tune either composed by Joseph Allard from Lachine, Quebec. You can hear Jean Carignan play this tune here. Jean Carignan played this tune in standard tuning in the key of Bb. Its remarkable how much Erskine's setting in double tuning changes the atmosphere of the piece, though a brilliant tune in either key!

It is related to a tune called the Democratic Rage Hornpipe which is probably in Coles 1000 Fiddle Tunes book. The great Missouri hornpipe fiddlers Bob Walters and Cyril Stinnet both played a variant of this tune under the title Leddy's Hornpipe.

For all the readers who understand French, here is an excellent article that traces the evolution of this tune through different regions of Quebec. It first talks about the dance music of Quebec being highly inspired by the music from the British Isles. It then talks about how a base melody like the Democratic Rage Hornpipe would be adapted by adding bars, adding/removing beats from bars, and changing keys, to create local variants of a tune. Indeed, this is exactly what Erskine did by moving this tune into the AEAE tuning and playing it in the key of A. The article also provides 3 different transcriptions of the tune from different regional players in Quebec. This is some serious fiddlosophy here!

Here is the Fiddler's Companion entry for this tune:

REEL DE/DU PÊCHEUR (Fisherman's Reel). French‑Canadian, Reel. B Flat Major. Standard. AA'BB'. A creation of Lachine, Québec, fiddler Joseph Allard (1865‑1947), who taught the tune to a young Jean Carignan, the famous Montreal fiddler. The “Democratic Rage Hornpipe” is a variant. Carlin (Master Collection), 1984; No. 74, pg. 50. Cuillerier (Joseph Allard), 1992; pg. 27. Folkways RBF 110, Joseph Allard. Folkways FG 3532, Alan Mills and Jean Carignan ‑ "Songs, Fiddle Tunes and a Folk Tale from Canada."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Isidore Soucy Tune (Reel de Bellechasse)

Here's a tune that Erskine apparently got from an Isidore Soucy recording . Isidore cut something like over 1000 sides, so its often hard to track down tunes accredited to him. Anyhow, this is a really great D tune.

Erskine owned many of Isidore Soucy's records and learned many tunes there. Nonetheless, like most old-time fiddlers, he added his own style to Soucy's tunes.

Listen to the Isidore Soucy Tune

Erskine adds some really nice Gaspé touches on this tune. There's a fair bit of cross-string syncopations (the 1st part of the tune) as well as doubling up on single notes (the 2nd part). The melody of this tune isn't difficult in itself, but getting those little touches of Erskine's style took me a while to start to grasp. Anyhow, I think this is a good tune for a beginner who wants to work on getting some of those Gaspé bow licks in their playing without having to worry about complicated left hand stuff.

This recording comes from the same cassette as Fat Molasses, made in February, 1978.

Isidore Soucy is definitely one of my favourite French Canadian fiddlers. He had some really wild stuff, a lot of it really crooked. He even has a few tunes that remind me of stuff the legendary Kentucky fiddler Ed Haley played. I'll post links to these tunes at some point. For more information and tunes from Isidore, a great resource is the Virtual Gramophone from Collections Canada. They have over 200 of his tunes there that you can listen to or download:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Ottawa Valley Jig

Here's a cute little G tune that Erskine played on the 1985 Cambridge Sessions. We're not sure if this is the original title, but its the one Erskine used. This tune is a lot of fun and isn't too hard so it would be great for beginners.

Its not a jig in the Irish sense of the word (6/8 time). In Canada, we often use the term jig in tune titles to indicate the dance that went along with it. "Jigging" or "Gigue" is an umbrella term for all manners of step-dancing in Canada whether or not the dance is set to a reel or a jig. So there's a good chance at sometime there was a dance called the "Ottawa Valley Jig" that went along with this tune. Any Ottawa Valley folks out there who would know about this?

Hear Erskine Play the Ottawa Valley Jig

We don't know where Erskine picked this tune up, maybe from someone from the Ottawa Valley. Erskine worked in lumber camps for many years and there you would find people from all over Canada and the North Eastern U.S. Fiddlers there were known to trade tunes after a hard days work, so maybe this is where he picked it up. Or maybe he just picked it up at a festival in the Ottawa Valley like the big Pembroke Fiddle and Step Dance festival..

Anyhow, its a simple tune but its got a really cute rhythm to it. Notice the neat way the first part of the tune is syncopated especially on the C chord in Erskine's classic Gaspé fashion. The second part of the tune is very similar to our last post, The Golden Wedding Reel.