Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

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


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