Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

La Grande Rouge (La Grande Gigue Simple, The Red River Jig)

In this installment, we are going to look at Erskine's treatment of one of the most ubiquitous tunes throughout Canada.

Hear Erskine play La Grande Rouge from the 1990 Tape

Hear Erskine play La Grande Rouge from a tape made in the 1980's

I really love the contrast between these two settings. Erskine's 1990 version is much faster and sprightly with really sharp-sounding foot work. The version from the 1980s is played at a more relaxed tempo and has a really heavy, almost loping feel to it that is really different.

This tune belongs to a family of tunes that began in Quebec, perhaps even in Gaspe, and traveled west with the fur trade into the Prairies. In Quebec, this tune has been called La Grande Gigue Simple (Isidore Soucy, Jean Carignan). Out west, this tune evolved into the Red River Jig which is by far their most popular regional tune for Metis stepdancing.

Here is Isidore Soucy's beautiful recording of this tune.

Here is modern Metis fiddler Andy DeJarlis' wonderful setting:

Here is a great Metis fiddler Stanley Beaulieu playing an amazing version of this tune which is somewhere between the Quebec and more standard Metis versions:

As recorded versions of this tune by modern players (Carignan, DeJarlis, Townsend) are so widespread across Canada, I first assumed that Erskine must have learned this tune from a record. However, I could not find any examples of this tune family using the "La Grande Rouge" title. I have heard other English-speaking Gaspesian fiddlers refer to this tune as "The Grand Jig" a direct translation from the French title.  It seems that some other Douglastown fiddlers played this tune as well as Erskine so it is quite possible he picked it up there.  What is interesting to contemplate is that "La Grande Rouge" (literally "Big Red") seems to be referring to a "red" river and that perhaps this tune was brought back eastward from the Red River area of the Prairies by French Gaspesiens with the "La Grande Rouge" title.

This tune's popularity throughout Canada is somewhat surprising to me. Though a great tune it is, it is also highly unusual in that it is a reel in 3/2 time. In modern-day old time fiddle, reels are always in 2/4 time and waltzes are really the only form still played in triple time. However, there was a time when reels and hornpipes were commonly played in triple-meter time signatures like 3/4, 3/2, and 6/4. In fact, the local Douglastown tune Tommy Rooney's Jig that we looked at in earlier posts is another example of a reel in triple time. I was not aware of this fact until Laura Risk pointed this out to me and also noted the resemblance between Tommy Rooney's Jig and the Red River Jig family of tunes.

To modern ears, if one is not aware that this is a reel in 3/2 time then it can be very difficult to hear where the phrases start and stop. Tunes like these fell out of fashion at some point and most modern audiences, even those acquainted with fiddle music, would be very unaccustomed to hearing a reel in triple meter and would suspect that the fiddler was up to something mischievous to throw of his accompanist. In fact, the introduction of piano and guitar accompaniment to fiddle music may be one of the reasons that these forms fell out of favour. Playing a reel in triple time is no easy feat for the uninitiated guitar player. While in Quebec this tune is essentially in 3/2 time throughout the tune, out west the tune is really free form being a mixture of 2/2 and 3/2 time in different phrases. Here is a wonderful article on the history and development of this tune. This tune is the only example left of a reel in triple meter that is still in the repertoire of modern Canadian fiddlers.

This tune also must be played with the fiddle in either ADAE tuning or ADAD tuning. Erskine and most players in Quebec used the ADAE tuning. The practice of retuning the fiddle is also almost non-existent these days in Canada and this tune's popularity surprising in this respect as well.

I really feel this tune embodies the older aspects of Canadian fiddle music. At a time when the old practices of retuning the fiddle and playing in mixed time signatures were falling out of favour in Canada, even the modern fiddlers like Graham Townsend and Andy DeJarlis were recording excellent versions of this tune.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lord MacDonald's Reel

Happy New Year readers!

I wanted to say thanks to all the kind people who helped Brian and I out with the project in 2010 by sharing info, music, comments, stories, and their great company. We're really pleased with the response we have been getting from people from Gaspe to the U.S. and even Italy. The word is getting out about the beautiful music and culture of the old-time Gaspesians and people around the world are starting to notice. 2011 should see a lot of great stuff here. There is no shortage of material in the pipe-line.

Here is Erskine's wonderful setting of this old warhorse of a tune. This is originally a Scottish tune and can be found in Neil Gow's tune book from 1792. From Scotland this tune is found all over the New World and its rare to find an old-time fiddler on this continent who doesn't know a setting of Lord MacDonald's Reel. In the U.S. they generally call this tune Leather Britches and there are many fine versions of it from various regions down there.

This tune is originally in G and is almost always played in that key. Erskine also played it in the key of G, but on this recording he has devised a setting in the key of D with the fiddle tuned with the bass string raised to A. Again, this was common practice for the old-time Gaspesian players when playing in the key of D.

Hear Erskine play Lord MacDonald's Reel (ADAE)

I really love this recording because Erskine just gets so much emotion in his playing. Its performances like this that really show the beauty and emotional depths of the art of old-time fiddling.

One of the things that I really respect about Erskine's playing is that he really thought about his tunes and how he could improve them. He was always working out different bowings, melodic hooks, and would even try out different keys and tunings as is the case here. It is really the mark of someone absolutely devoted to their craft.

In the key of D with the fiddle tuned ADAE, Lord MacDonald's Reel has so much resonance and is really hypnotic. I especially like the way the low part really rumbles in this key. As usual, Erskine gets great syncopation especially in the middle part of the tune. In the 3rd and highest part of the tune, Erskine gets a lot of drive by repeating the same note consecutively, a technique we've discussed previously.

This comes from a tape Erskine made in Cambridge in the early 1980's. The playing on this tape is really nice, Erskine plays at a more relaxed tempo and really gets a lot of expression in his playing.

All the best in 2011!