Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

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.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Readers, We Need Your Help / Appel à Tous

Dear readers,

I thought I'd write a general call for help with this project.

If you know anyone who would know about the old Gaspé music, please don't hesitate to get in touch with me by email (if you go to my complete profile on the side of this page, you can email me from there). We need lots of help identifying tune titles and sources for the tunes and would appreciate your help.

Also, if anyone in your family was from the Gaspé and played this music I'd also love to hear from you. As well, if you have any stories about music in the Gaspé that you would like to share, feel free to leave a comment or email me.

Chères amis,

Si vous avez quelque chose que vous voulez partager avec nous concernant la musique traditionelee des violoneux Gaspesiens, on vous encourager de laisser nous une commentaires. Aussi, s'il y a quelqu'un dans votre famille qui joue ou jouait cette musique, ne hésitez pas de nous contacter. Si vous regardez les "Contributors" à la côté de cette page, vous trouverez un lien de mon courriel.

On a besoin d'aide pour identifier les noms des plusiers tounes et leurs origines.



Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Golden Wedding Reel

Here is a great driving version of a down-east classic. Nothing fancy here, just straight up old-time fiddle with no shortage of energy and a great dance beat. This is the kind of tune that gets people right up on the floor at a moments notice.

This tune holds a special place for me because it is the first tune of Erskine's I attempted to learn. It got me doing things I'd never done with my left hand and bowing. I ripped into this tune one night at our jam without announcing the title. When Brian realized what I'd jumped into he was pretty caught off-guard because I had never mentioned that I'd been secretly learning his Dad's tunes. He was grateful to hear these tunes played again on the violin, even with my Kentucky-tinged take on them.

Hear the Golden Wedding Reel

This tune was recorded in Cambridge, Ontario in 1984. Erskine spent his later years there in order to be close to one of his sons.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Erskine's First Tune: Fat Molasses

Before Brian ever sent me the first recordings of his Dad's playing, in one conversation he asked me if I ever retuned the fiddle out of the standard violin tuning of GDAE. He told me that his Dad would often play in what he called "Double Tuning" for certain tunes. I was pretty sure Brian was referring to what Southern fiddlers call "Cross-Tuning" or AEAE which is used extensively for playing in the key of A, and I use this tuning a lot. I've heard several Quebecois fiddlers, both modern and old-timers, use this tuning though not as much as you hear Appalachian fiddlers use it. Perhaps at one time this tuning was more common because the fiddle produces more sound which is useful when playing solo at dances which is how Erskine almost always played. I know in Cape Breton it is said that this tuning was once common for this reason.

Early on when Brian was sending me tunes, one that really grabbed my attention was a tune called Fat Molasses which is played in "double tuning" or AEAE. When I heard it, I don't think I'd ever heard such intensely syncopated playing before. As well the raw power of the playing really knocked me out.

So hear it is, the first tune Erskine's ever learned. Brian found this recording on an old home-made cassette recording made in February of 1978. Notice Erskine's amazing footwork which accompanies his playing:

Hear Erskine Morris Play Fat Molasses

What also surprised me about this tune, were two details that Brian provided me:

  • It was the very first tune that Erskine learned when he was a boy.
  • Erskine's mother taught him the tune by singing the melody. Apparently, she did not play any instruments but could sing the old Gaspé tunes so well that young Erskine could pick them up from her singing. 
There is an old tradition of singing melodies of dance tunes from Scotland, Ireland, and on into Canada. In French Canada, they call this turlutte. I believe in Cape Breton they call this "lilting". Mary Travers (aka La Bolduc), another Gaspésienne, was also a renowned practitioner of turlutte. Anyhow, the fact that a tune as complicated as Fat Molasses was sung and was the first tune ever learned by young Erskine really amazed me. As a fiddler myself, my first tune was probably Oh Susannah....We are in the process of looking for recorded examples of Erskine's mother's singing. Who knows, maybe there is even a recording of her singing Fat Molasses!

I don't think I'm going out on too much of a limb here and by saying that Erskine's recording of Fat Molasses is a masterpiece of old-time fiddling right up there with Luther Strong, Bill Stepp, Louis Boudreault, or Jean Carignan's playing.

This tune is related to another Quebecois tune called the "Reel de Windsor Mills" recorded on an old 78 by Louis Blanchette.

You can hear La Bolduc demonstrate "turlutage" here

Hope you enjoy!

Streaming Mp3s


I've had some feedback that the streaming feature is not working in some browsers. Currently, I believe it only works in Google Chrome. If you can't stream the mp3's, I've added a [Download] link to download each tune beside the tune title.

I hope to get streaming working by this weekend.

The streaming should now be fixed in Firefox. Use the little circle button beside the tune name to stream the tune in Firefox. This works in GoogleChrome as well. I'm still going to experiment with the GoogleReader player because I'd like people to be able to stream from their GoogleReader pages. I'm not sure if this will work with the YahooMedia Player.

For now, I'm just going to support downloading. I don't want to have to worry about embedded players being browser-dependent and I figure having download links is the best way to do this. Also, I don't want technical issues to get in anyone's way when it comes to hearing a great tune!

I'll mess a little with streaming in a few weeks once I've got a couple more tunes up.

Who Was Erskine Morris? - An Introduction by Brian Morris

Erskine Morris was an Old Time fiddler who was born in Douglastown Gaspe, Qc in 1913. Erskine was the second child and first boy in a family of six girls and four boys. Being from a large family, Erskine had to leave school at a young age to help support the family. He worked with his father for a number of years as a fisherman in summer and lumber camps in the fall and winter.

At the age of 13, he started playing the fiddle after hearing his mother singing tunes while clogging. She was his biggest influence at that time, because he could imitate her melodies while he was learning to play. He learned to play his first tune, Fat Molasses, from his mother’s singing. She also taught him the footwork which would become a very important part of his playing. He also learned tunes from local fiddlers Joe & Charlie Drody. Joe in particular was a big influence because he knew many French Canadian tunes.

By the age of 16 he was already playing in public. Because he developed such a highly syncopated and driving playing style, he was highly sought after for parties and dances. For the next 13 years he played many dances, before enlisting in army. At that time, he left Douglastown for good only to return occasionally for vacations and family reunions.

After the war, they settled in Montreal where he continued to play the fiddle for family, friends, and relatives. He spent many hours learning new tunes and developing variations to old tunes. He had a repertoire of approximately four to five hundred tunes.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The First Two Tunes

These are the first two tunes alluded to in my first post.

The first tune is Tom Rooney's Jig and it seems to be a tune local to the Douglastown area. It is in what southern fiddlers refer to as high bass tuning or ADAE. This is what allows Erskine to get that great syncopated droning effect on the low part. I just love the way the high part kind of soars then floats back down into the driving low part. I've never heard anything quite like it. There are a lot of Rooney's in the Gaspé. Brian tells me that Tommy Rooney's Jig was written by a woman named Mrs. Napoleon Rooney from Douglastown, probably for a son
or nephew.

The second tune is a Quebecois warhorse, the Cultivator's Reel which Erskine likely learned off of a Joseph Allard recording.

Tom Rooney's Jig :

The Cultivator's Reel :

Introduction to the Blog

Welcome to my blog on the music of Erskine Morris and Gaspé fiddle music. I will spend a few paragraphs explaining how and why this blog came about.

For the past five years I have played fiddle and been learning about the music from the southeastern United States, particularly the music from northeastern and central Kentucky. I really dig players like Buddy Thomas, Roger Cooper, Charlie Kinney, George Hawkins, Paul Smith, and Snake Chapman. I had been hosting a weekly old-time bluegrass jam at a bar in downtown Montreal for several years when a fellow comes in and begins doing some first-rate flatpicking on the guitar. He mentions that his dad was an old-time fiddle player from the Gaspé area of Quebec.

As is my custom whenever I meet someone who mentions something along the lines of a family member being an old-time fiddler, I ask if there are any recordings of this person, home-made or otherwise. This guitar player responds something along the lines of (as is also usually the custom) "..oh yeah, somewhere there's some old-recordings that were made around the house. The audio quality is pretty bad though, probably nothing worth listening to". Again, as is my custom I tell the person that I don't mind if the audio quality is a little rough and I can guarantee them that the audio quality of some of the best fiddle playing ever recorded is almost certainly in far worse-shape than their dad's or grandfather's home-made tapes (see John Salyer and Ed Haley recordings). In an effort to further persuade them, I stress that by this point, my ear has become so accustomed to the hiss and scratch on old-time fiddle recordings that I kind of miss it if it's not there and really, I'd love to hear their dad's home made tapes.

Fast-forward about a year and a half, this guitar player comes in and has learned some great northeast Kentucky tunes from a talented young fiddle player on Youtube. Suddenly, there is someone else at the jam learning tunes like Coon Dog, Yellow Barber, and Briarpicker Brown. Needless, to say it was great to not be the only one that knew the melodies to these tunes and these tunes were really being given a great interpretation on the guitar. At some point in the next month or two, the subject goes back to his Dad's playing and again I push for possible recordings. He half jokes that if he sends me some of his Dad's tunes, I should learn some and we could play them at the jam. Well, if me struggling to learn some twisted Quebecois tunes and breaking the jam's strictly Old-Time & Bluegrass Code of Conduct by playing them there was what it was going to take to hear some of this stuff, then so be it.

After a little more prodding, around early December of last year (2009) I received an email with two tunes of his father's playing that were recorded at a family reunion about 25 years ago ca. 1985 at an Uncle's house in Douglastown, Quebec.

Needless to say, I was stunned by what I heard. This was some of the most exhilarating, syncopated, and driving fiddling I'd ever heard and the musicianship was easily equal to that of many of the players who are revered among southern old-time fiddle aficionados.

So all of a sudden this staunch adherent of southern-old time fiddling is all mixed up trying to learn these complex and confusingly syncopated tunes from the Gaspé.

This blog is a result of my current mix-up and through it I hope to share the music of Erskine Morris, a wonderful old-time fiddle player from Douglastown on the Gaspé Coast with anyone interested.

Of course none of this would be possible without the hard work of Erskine's son, Brian Morris. He has spent countless hours transferring old recordings from reel-to-reel and cassette tape to a digital format and cleaned up the recordings. As well, he has been a great source of advice and anecdotes about his Dad and the Gaspé.