Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Queen's Reel

Here is a lovely and interesting tune that it seems just about all the old-timers from Douglastown and the neighbouring villages knew. It is a three-part tune that is clearly part of the Reel du Pendu (Hangman's Reel) family which usually has even more parts.

We are not sure which Queen this tune was named for. One of the things that really fascinates me is that many of the strongly French Canadian sounding tunes had English titles around Douglastown. But in this case, the local name isn't simply a translation of the more common French title. Many of the local Gaspé fiddlers, anglophone and francophone, born in the late 19th and early 20th century played this tune. Erskine recorded this tune many times and he always had a slightly different take on it. You can really learn a lot about his playing style by studying his different versions.

The first version which really grabbed my ear was from the February 1978 cassette. It is a great demonstration of Erskine's driving style and footwork as well as his classic syncopation devices. As Erskine did for almost all of his older-style tunes in the key of A, his fiddle has the two bass strings raised so the tuning is AEAE.

The Queen's Reel from February 1978 (AEAE Tuning)

The second version we have comes from the stunning 1990 tape. His playing here just has so much fire and his footwork has deadly precision. Again, the fiddle is tuned to AEAE.

Hear the Queen's Reel from the 1990 Tape (AEAE Tuning)

Now compare the last two with a version we have of Erskine from the reel-to-reel recordings he made in the 1960s.

Hear Erskine play the Queen's Reel in the 1960's (AEAC# Tuning)
Here, the fiddle is tuned AEAC# which is an open A chord. This is, in fact, the tuning generally used for the Reel du Pendu tune family in Quebec. As far as I know there are few, if any, other pieces using this tuning in our province. However, the tuning is fairly common in the Southern U.S.; as well, the Métis fiddlers in Western Canada make frequent use this tuning. Perhaps there were a whole slew of tunes in Quebec that used this tuning at one point. It is a bit of a pain to retune your fiddle to the open A chord especially if you only know one tune with the fiddle tuned this way. In the open A tuning, "The Queen's Reel" has a much more mellow atmosphere with the ringing overtones and drones.

Lastly, we have another real gem with an unidentified player playing this tune again in AEAC# tuning but this time with a couple of local stepdancers joining in. These are the now-distant sounds of countless house visits to homes around Douglastown that were once common place.

Hear an unidentified Douglastown fiddler play the Queen's Reel with stepdancers (AEAC# Tuning)

Anthony Drody (who is probably the most knowledgeable person when it comes the older Douglastown tunes) commented that the original way of playing this tune is with the open A tuning, AEAC#. He said that Erskine changed the tuning at some point to the AEAE. To my ears, the character of the tune changes dramatically when the tuning is changed.

Here is the great Québécois fiddler Isidore Soucy's version which has quite a few more parts (I lose count). He also plays it in the AEAC# tuning.

Re-tuning was once a very common practice on the Gaspé Coast although you don't hear it much with fiddlers born after about 1930. Several local fiddlers talked about how the older players would "turn over their bass" to get either ADAE for playing in D or AEAE for the key of A — this was the norm, not the exception.

While it's clear "The Queen's Reel" is part of the widespread Reel du Pendu family, it also bears a striking resemblance to a whole family of three-part tunes you will find all the way from West Virginia, out to Missouri, and down to Texas. These related tunes go by a variety of regional titles, but many are called "The Lost Indian." Here is a wonderful version from an Illinois group that I believe is based on the Texas fiddle player Eck Robertson's version.

Ed Haley, the great Kentucky fiddler also played a Lost Indian very similar to Eck Robertson's version.

"The Queen's Reel" and "Lost Indian" tune families share much of the same melodic content, use the AEAC# tuning, have three distinct sections, as well as a descending structure between the sections where (opposite to common practice), the first part of the tune is in the highest register and the last part is played in the lowest register. Folklorist and fiddler Alan Jabbour points out that the descending contour seems to be a decidedly "New World" feature of fiddle music in North America. It's not something you encounter in Ireland, Scotland, and England, from where so much fiddle music in the New World is derived. There, tunes almost always start low and then go to a higher part. Jabbour has wondered if this descending contour was either a North American innovation or borrowed from indigenous musical practices where descending tune contours are quite common. In Gaspé, there has always been a strong Mi'kmaq demographic and there's no reason why music and other cultural practices wouldn't have been exchanged between indigenous and European Gaspesians. Although it's unlikely we'll ever know where tunes like the "The Queen's Reel" originated, one thing is for sure: it bears an uncanny resemblance to tunes found from the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula down to the Texas panhandle. It does make you wonder.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Untitled Grondeuse (Old Grumbler)

Here's a really beautiful tune that we have from Erskine's playing on the Reel-to-Reel tapes from the 1960's:

Untitled Grondeuse

Untitled Grondeuse (Alternate)

This tune is part of a family of Grondeuses, or Grumbling tunes, which feature the low part making extensive use of the bass strings, then a high part which soars on the treble strings. Like a lot of Grondeuses (like Tommy Rooney's Jig), this tune has a high part that instead of repeating, just cascades back down and blends right back in to the low part again giving the tune a circular, endless feel which is really captivating.

This tune seems to belong to a rather ubiquitous family of tunes which use the ADAE tuning (low to high string) and share essentially an identical low part. The high part is subject to more individual variation depending on the fiddler. It is possible that Erskine devised his own high part but when Brian and I played it for Cyril Devouge, he recognized it as a tune his dad used to play and lilted us his version (with of course a few extra "jiggles" in it as is Cyril's custom). He remarked to Brian and I that, "that tune is older than the two of you put together". We also have a tape of a fiddler (possibly Gerard Durette) at the Wakeham Homecoming in the 1980's playing another variant of this tune but with a radically different high part.

Erskine himself put lots of subtle variations on the rhythms and notes in this tune as you will hear if you listen within and between the versions above.

Erskine's setting of this tune greatly demonstrates what I consider to be one of the the most important hallmarks of his style, what one of my fiddle-playing friends refers to as the "Morris Stutter". This is a syncopated effect that Erskine used on most of the older-style Douglastown tunes that is executed by crossing-strings in a certain manner. Basically, on the third note in a series of four notes, Erskine would drop down to the string below and just lightly play an open or closed note, before returning back to the higher string for the final note in the series. What is really interesting and challenging about this technique is that its effect is not really apparent when you execute it slowly. This was a big problem for me when I was first learning Erskine's old-style tunes. Since I would learn the tunes by slowing down the recordings, it wasn't obvious that the third note was being played quieter. Then when I played the tunes at their normal speed, all the notes had even volume and I was not able to get that great syncopated feel so characteristic of Erskine's music. It took me a while to realize what was going on here, that the syncopated effect only becomes apparent when played up to speed when you play that third note lighter.

I've included a PDF transcription I've made of this tune. In the score, I've indicated the syncopated bow lick I just described by using note-heads that are an open circle with an x through them. Also, this is a distillation of several variations that Erskine used but is most closely based on the first version above. There is great stuff in both versions and I hope the fiddlers out there will take the time to pick up some of Erskine's great variations.

See the transcription


Monday, November 1, 2010

Featured Fiddler: Hermas Réhel of Bridgeville, Gaspe, QC

Last week I stumbled across some videos of the great Gaspesian fiddler Hermas Rehel on youtube that his daughter Élaine posted earlier in the week. She took this great footage at Hermas and his wife Rita White's 50th Wedding Anniversary in St. Bruno, Quebec. I hadn't heard any of Hermas' music until seeing these videos and I was really blown away. All the older Gaspesians I talked with kept telling me I needed to hear Hermas Réhel and I now understand why. Cyril Devouge says that if he could have had the bow arm of any fiddler in the world it would have been Hermas Réhel's.

The first tune, "La Grondeuse" seems to be a variant of the better known "Growling Old Man and Woman" or "The Grumbler" as I've heard many Gaspesians (including Erskine) call it. Check out Hermas' great bow work. He really has such a nice touch, the right combination of smooth and jagged. The second tune is a really beautiful C tune that I don't know the name of. I just love the way he lifts his bow between the phrases to get little pauses in the tune. As well, in both tunes Hermas' clogging is spot on. After the first two tunes, you can see a great montage of pictures taken throughout Hermas and Rita's life.

In the second video, we are treated to Hermas and his son Damien doing some great gigue dancing to a set of hornpipes. At the end, Hermas' daughters Francine and Élaine get up to join the boys for a few steps. The first tune is the Golden Eagle Hornpipe. This is some really elegant footwork here. The amazing Yvon Cuillerier is playing fiddle in this clip.

Here is a wonderful bio of Hermas that his daughter Élaine has done for the readers here at the Gaspe Fiddle blog. Merci bien Élaine! (English translation follows):

Mon père est né à Bridgeville (municipalité de Percé) le 31 janvier 1920. Il aura donc 91 ans bientôt. Son père est Albert Réhel et sa mère Hélène Jeanne Francis, tous les deux francophones mais les Francis sont d'origine anglaise (d'Angleterre). Les Réhel sont originaires de Mégrit, région de Bretagne en France.

Mon père a créé son commerce dans les années 1940. Il a tenu un magasin général jusqu'en 1978, quand il a été exproprié par la Gouvernement du Québec pour l'élargissement de la route 132 qui était, à l'époque la route 6. Cette expropriation l'a mené à la retraite et à son installation la même année à Brossard. Il y vit depuis ce temps.

Il a été à la fois marchand, barbier, musicien. Il cultivait ses pommes de terre, coupait son bois de chauffage et nous élevait avec ma mère. Il jouait dans les soirées de danse sur la côte gaspésienne, principalement de Douglastown jusqu'à Port-Daniel. Mes parents se sont justement rencontrés à l'école du village, à Percé, dans une soirée dansante. Cette école existe encore et on y exploite une boutique de souvenirs appelée "L'Ancienne École" en face du bureau de poste. Un soir, mon père était engagé pour jouer du violon. Le guitariste devant l'accompagner ne s'étant pas présenté, on a demandé si, dans la salle, il y avait quelqu'un qui pouvait jouer de la guitare. C'est ainsi que ma mère s'est offerte et voilà la naissance de notre famille. Mon père ne parlait pratiquement pas l'anglais et ma mère ne parlait pratiquement pas le français. C'est la musique qui les a réunis.

Mon père a appris à jouer du violon par son oncle, Moïse Francis, le frère de sa mère. Les Francis étaient des gens qui jouaient de la musique et qui chantaient bien.

Sa fille, Élaine, a été la gagnante en 1985 du très populaire "Festival en chanson de Petitie-Vallée" en Gaspésie. Ce concours est reconnu nationalement. Tous les enfants d'Hermas et Rita jouent d'un instrument, chantent ou dansent. La tradition continue dans les arts aussi à travers de certains de ses arrières-petits-enfants.

Here is my best attempt at an English translation:

My father was born in Bridgeville (municipality of Percé) on January 31, 1920. He will soon be 91 years old. His father was Albert Réhel and his mother was Hélène Jeanne Francis, both francophones but the Francis family was originally from England. The Réhel family originated in the Mégrit région in Britanny, France.

My father opened his general store during the 1940's and he kept it until 1978 when the government of Quebec expropriated it to enlarge the Route 132 (then called the Route 6). The expropriation of his store brought forth his retirement and relocation to Brossard on Montreal's South Shore where he has lived since.

During his life he was a merchant, a barber, and a musician. He grew his own potatoes, cut his own fire wood, and raised his children with my mother. He would play fiddle at house parties and dances on the Gaspe coast, mostly between Douglastown and Port-Daniel. My parents met each other at a dance at the village school in Percé. This school building still exists and is now a souvenir boutique called "L'Ancienne École" and stands just across from the Post Office. One night, my father was hired to play the fiddle there. His guitar player did not show up and he asked if there was anyone in the room who could play guitar. It was then that my mother offered her talents and voilà, the birth of our family. When they met that night, my father barely spoke English and my mother barely spoke French. It was music that united them.

My father learned the fiddle from his uncle Moïse Francis, the brother of his mother. The Francis family were all people who played and sang music well.

In 1985, his daughter Élaine was the winner of the popular "Festival en chanson de Petitie-Vallée" in the Gaspésie. This contest is renowned throughout Canada. All of the children of Hermas and Rita play an instrument, sing, or dance. The tradition continues even among some of his great grand children.