Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Handy Tool to Keep Up-to-Date

I wrote a little tutorial on using one of Google's built-in applications for users with a Gmail account to stay up-to-date with our posts here.

The page is on the right.

Click here for a quick tutorial.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Another Tune Title

I recently discovered another tune title while listening to and playing with a great Quebecois and Cape Breton style fiddle player this weekend in the Eastern Townships. I was in the other room and he launched into this really great tune that I heard faintly. Getting closer to the living room I had a bit of a Eureka moment where I said to myself, "Erskine played that tune!"

So, the untitled G tune from June 20, 2010 is in fact a fairly widely known tune called, the Reel des Eskimos or Reel des Esquimaux whichever spelling you prefer. Isidore Soucy recorded a nice version which I've actually heard many times and knew I recognized it from somewhere else. However, surprise surprise, Soucy's version is very crooked with respect to the timing (extra/missing beats in the phrases of the tune). This may explain why I hadn't made the connection earlier. Nonetheless, Soucy's playing is captivating as always.

Here's the link to the Soucy Recording

Here's a youtube video with an American fiddler playing this tune in the same setting as I heard this weekend.

Compare with Erskine's setting

While the Soucy and the other setting are excellent and demonstrate a very fine reel, I prefer the extra rhythmic vocabulary Erskine achieved by doubling up on notes, using drones, and adding little pauses between the phrases in the low strain.

Although its always great to have a proper title for these tune, I must confess I'm still a little partial to the Erskine's Ramble title because it is more politically sensitive and I feel captures the mood of the tune with its rambling feeling in the low strain.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some Tune History

Equally important to finding out titles of many untitled tunes that we have in our collection, is finding out about where they came from especially those that Erskine learned from local Douglastown and area fiddlers. This past summer while visiting with Ernest Drody, a Douglastown fiddler from the musical Drody family, I played the Untitled D Tune for him that we posted here on the blog on April 1st, 2010.

Here this tune again from the 1978 Tape

He remembers being a kid and hearing that tune when a couple of french fiddlers from the north shore of the Gaspé would come down and learn tunes from his father Charlie. He remembers them playing this tune and reckons his father picked it up from them. As he put it, "that was a long time ago, and I was terrible young".

Here is another version of this that Erskine recorded on the reel-to-reel machine in the 1960's.

Hear the Untitled D Tune from the north coast of the Gaspé

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

More Tune Title Mysteries Solved

Vivian Williams let me know in the comment on one of the posts that the tune that Erskine called the Liverpool Hornpipe is in fact a tune Don Messer recorded called The Victory Breakdown. Apparently, the first parts are very similar and this could explain Erskine's confusion of the title.

As well, the tune we labeled Erskine's Hornpipe for the sake of having one less "Unknown" title for is indeed a well-known tune in Quebec and Canada that goes by several different titles such as Reel de\à Remi, Reel de Saint-Jean, and Reel de Ti-Jean, Gordon's Reel, and the Chamberlain. Joseph Allard played this tune calling it L'Hôtielier. Jean Carrignan played this tune very well also. Erskine was a big fan of both Allard and Carrignan and was known to pick up tunes off their recordings.

Monday, September 20, 2010

1990 Tape: A New Find of Rare Old Tunes!

Recently while visiting Brian's aunt in Douglastown, we were given a bag of 15 cassettes that Erskine and she had made featuring Erskine and other Douglastown fiddlers. Among these was an extra special gem that contains perhaps some of the most powerful playing and footwork that Erskine ever recorded. Here is how Brian described the circumstances surrounding this recording:

"I remember talking to my Mom around the time this cassette was being recorded. She told me, if I can remember correctly, that his brothers and some sisters wanted my Dad to record a cassette with all up-tempo tunes and fast playing. He commented that he hadn't played like this since the good old days when he played for all those dances and parties.

Anyhow they got their wish here"


Although 77 years old when this was recorded, Erskine is at the top of his game here and is really playing the devil out of his fiddle. One of the things Brian always tells me about his Dad's playing was that he really went to town when he played, putting all his effort both mental and physical into his music. When visiting with Cyril Devouge earlier this year, he remembered playing with Erskine many years ago under a big tent in Douglastown and that when Erskine played, the sweat would come pouring down his face from all the effort he was putting in. The recordings on this tape really show a man completely invested in his music, playing as if his life depended on it.

Listening to the music on this tape is like stepping back in time 100 years or more. There are many rare tunes on this tape that come from local Gaspesian sources that Erskine knew. Also, there are other tunes we can't find any information on in the tune databases with the titles Erskine supplied, strongly suggesting they could be of local Gaspesian origins or settings. We feel this collection of tunes might offer one of the most extensive recorded glimpses into the oldest Douglastown area tunes and the pre-20th century old time style which had been handed down for over 150 years in the Gaspé. As well, this tape includes many more well-known fiddle standards like Dusty Miller, Money Musk, Devil's Dream, and Fisher's Hornpipe, but played in non-standard settings with a very old Gaspé style with the fiddle tuned to either AEAE or ADAE.

Here are a few cuts from this tape.

The first is a tune that Erskine would have learned from his main fiddling mentor, Joe Drody (Sr), who was Brigid's father. The tune is "Joe Drody's Jig" and the fiddle is tuned AEAE, what Erskine referred to as Double Tuning. Erskine would walk many a night from his home on the main road in Douglastown (now the Route 132), on a trail through the woods to Joe Drody's homestead up on the 1st Rang road where Joe would teach young Erskine the old time tunes from the area. This tune is perhaps the most intense and powerful playing I've ever heard from Erskine. Its a simple tune but played with so much fire and conviction its almost unbelievable. Erskine also takes the footwork into the stratosphere on this one.

Hear "Joe Drody's Jig"

The second tune is a haunting and highly syncopated D modal tune in ADAE tuning. The source for this tune was a relative of Erskine's who was a parish priest up in Fox River (Rivière au Renard), a Father Elias Morris. Brian remembers people saying that Father Morris was quite musically talented. There is a footnote about Father Morris in the appendix of this article from the GoGaspe site which also attests to his musicality as a "great singer and musician, a real descendant of the Irish Minstrals of Erin". We are going to try to find out more information about Father Morris and we'll update the readers if we find out anything. This playing really captures both the Irish and French Gaspesian influences. The melodic content is very Irish but the delivery and phrase structure has Erskine's classic Gaspé treatment.

Hear "Father Morris' Tune"



The third tune also ranks high among Erskine's most powerful performances. This tune is an A modal tune called "The Blue Shannon" and is again a beautiful melding of Irish and French Gaspesian influences. The title suggests that this might be a tune from Ireland named after the Shannon river that flows there. However, searches through tune databases have yielded no tunes by this title. It could be possible that it was brought over with the early Irish settlers in the Gaspé or was composed by one of them to pay homage to that river.

Hear "The Blue Shannon"

Brian and Erskine's ancestry (indeed all the Morris' of Douglastown) can be traced back to a one Thomas Morris who came to Douglastown from County Wexford in South East Ireland with the British Navy fighting against the American Revolutionaries in the Siege of Quebec and the Battle of Valcour Island. An amazing account of Thomas Morris' voyage can be found here at the Douglastown Historical Review.

We have 35 tracks recorded on this tape. As Brian and I feel the music is extra special on this tape, on account of how rare many of these tunes are and how authentically they are played, we are in the process of investigating ways to put together a little cd of this recording so that this music can reach a wider audience. We'll keep you all updated as this side-project develops.

In the meantime, enjoy these tunes

Monday, September 6, 2010

Pembroke 2010

I just got back from the Pembroke fiddle and step dance festival today. It was my first time there for the festival. I went up on the bus Saturday morning and arrived in the early afternoon. Having walked from the bus depot into town, I stopped into the Giant Tiger to buy some food. The town seemed to have come alive for the fiddle festival; there was a family group inside in the cafeteria singing a Carter Family song and when I went out into the parking lot, there was Peter Dawson, Jim Beatie, and some friends putting on a show there. Jim treated the audience to four or five traditional songs from Pontiac County, which is just across the Ottawa river from Pembroke on the Quebec side. He was soon joined by Peter Dawson on fiddle, and soon enough there were two step dancers, a Ms. Dewar and Mr Hughes.



I walked into the park along the riverside and once inside wandering amongst the RVs, heard my friend Jeannie's voice. At this point, I knew that I had found the famed blue Gaspesian tent. This is pretty much where I stayed the whole weekend. I had two great nights of fiddle tunes and country songs and met some new friends along the way too. Brigid and I played many of Cyril Devouge's and Erskine's tunes during the weekend. Roland White's son, Gavin was there and he especially appreciated Cyril's tunes and had Brigid and I record a bunch of them in his camper the next day. Roland was Cyril's best friend growing up and taught Cyril many tunes, so Gavin hadn't heard a lot of these tunes in many years and was excited to hear them again.

Saturday and Sunday afternoons I spent trading tunes with the Drody brothers and Gary Snowman which was a lot of fun. Anthony played a great version of the Cultivator Reel which he called the Turkey Farmer and had learned from a busker in Perce. Joseph played a great version of the Gaspe Reel, not the better known tune these days by this title, but a great funky little G tune with a characteristic plucked E string in the last phrase of the tune.



Saturday night at the tent was really magical. Michel Mallette joined us and played some really incredible French style fiddle music with Brigid. Later on, Derek Wilson showed up and gave us some top notch Ontario style fiddling which was also just incredible. Gary Snowman got up several times and shook the floor boards with his lively and powerful step-dancing. At the end of the night, Derek was joined by a fiddler from London, Ontario named Carmen. They were really on fire and played a medley of about eight Bb tunes and then a bunch of waltzes in Bb and F. Here is a picture of the Saturday night session:



And here are two tunes from the same night. The first one, I'm playing one of Cyril's old tunes he learned from a fiddler from York in the Gaspe named Arty Savidant. We call it Arty Savidant's Tune.

Listen to Arty Savidant's Tune

And here is Michel Mallette burning it up on two great reels, Bailey's (composed by one of the fiddler's who hangs out at Pembroke) and St. Anne's.

Listen to Bailey's Reel and St. Anne's Reel

Sunday had another real treat in store. A nice elderly French fiddler from Valleyfield named George showed up in the tent, initially playing guitar. Eventually he moved on to the fiddle and I switched to guitar as people began leaving for dinner. He is in his late 70's and is originally from the Huntingdon area in the Chateauguay Valley and learned fiddle from his Dad who he said was very good. He really blew me away, playing these elegant old French style reels as well as a lot of modern waltzes. He had amazing bow control and intonation and was just as comfortable in Bb or F as G and D. He seemed to enjoy the way I played backup guitar because I used a few jazzy passing chords on the waltzes as well as some nice old-fashioned bass walks I picked up from Brigid and old Doc Roberts records. I also tried using some Missouri style backup on some of his driving French reels and I like the way they turned out. In addition to being a wonderful player, he was such a perfect gentleman. So polite and considerate and willing to help me out with a melody or chord whenever necessary.



I really like Pembroke because its not just an ordinary music festival where people go to watch big name acts, but a place where people come together to see old friend, socialize, play cards, share songs and tunes, and dance a few steps. I think that's pretty special thing and its really wonderful to be around people who love great fiddling and step dancing. I really had a blast and will be back in the years to come.