Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

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!

No comments:

Post a Comment