Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

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: