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.


  1. La forte présence des canadiens-francais et Acadienne a l'époque du 18-19 siècle, dans dans ce qui est aujourd'hui les État-Unie, pour le commerce des fourrures a surement contribuer a a laisser des traces de son répertoire musical. Cette influence est certainement significative pour plusieurs pièce du répertoire Américaine qui est commun a celui du Québec!

    1. Excellent point, Jerome!Beaucoup des gens du Canada et de l'Acadie le long des rivières Missouri et Mississippi pendant cette époque.

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