Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

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.