Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

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.

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