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.

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