Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

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.