Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Life and Music of Cyril Devouge - Part 1

Cyril Devouge - Truro, Nova Scotia, 2007
Today I will begin a two-part series about the great Gaspesian fiddle player and all-original character, Cyril Devouge. We wrote about Cyril previously, but as I've come to know him better over the past half a year, and studied his tunes and fiddle style, I thought it was due time to go into a little more depth on the man, his life, and his music. The first part of this series will focus on the man himself, his beginnings, and his family and community. The second part will focus on his music. I'd like to thank Cyril's daughter Trena Devouge-Stirling for supplying the wonderful photos.

Brian and I met Cyril last May (2010) for the first time at his senior's home in Chateauguay on Montreal's South Shore. We were immediately struck by a truly amazing person and a great spirit. At 95, he is still able to spend a whole afternoon telling jokes, riddles, and stories about his life and Gaspesian roots. Though he can no longer play the fiddle, Cyril is a natural entertainer in the full sense of the word. He has an unbeatable old-time sense of humour, great disposition, and can still sing songs and play several of the great fiddle tunes he learned growing up on the mouth organ. In all, he is just a really joyful person, and I feel that people like Cyril are really a rare-breed these days.

Leslie Devouge - Siscoe Mines
Cyril was born into a musical family in 1915 in L'Anse à Brillant (Brilliant Cove) on the Gaspé coast, not far from Douglastown. Both his father and mother, Leslie and Ruby Devouge played the fiddle. His brothers Denzil, Glen, and Herzil also learned the fiddle growing up. Cyril tells us that his mother would say "There were four brothers and there used to be nails to hang up the four fiddles on the wall, and the four of them were never all hanging there together at the same time. And that's what finally drove me crazy". His father, Austin "Leslie" Devouge in particular, was a very big influence on Cyril's sound and a source of many of his tunes. Cyril's grandfather, Elias Devouge, also played fiddle. I'm not sure how far back fiddle playing goes in Cyril's family, but the Devouge's originally came over from Normandy, France about 1830. As Cyril's grandfather would have been born in this same century it is not to hard to imagine that fiddling entered the Devouge family very early after they settled in Quebec.

Cyril's grandfather and father were both cod fisherman based out of the wharf at L'Anse à Brillant and like most fisherman, would be gone during the week and only return on the weekends. They were known to venture as far as Anticosti Island in search of the cod. Due to the rigours of life as a fisherman, Cyril's father would only play the fiddle on Sundays.

Elias "Gappy" Devouge
Though originally from France, soon after settling in Quebec many of Gaspé's Devouges became assimilated in the strong English-speaking culture of the Gaspé coast. I recently asked Cyril if he ever spoke French and in his classic manner he quipped, "I can only speak two languages: English and Profane".

Cyril knew most of the older generation of great fiddle players local to the Gaspé coast. Talking with Cyril and Brigid during our visits, it has become clear the English speaking communities along the coast at villages including York, Haldimand, Douglastown, L'Anse a Brillant, Bois-Brulé, Malbay, and Barachois were once a hotbed of old-time fiddlers and step-dancers. Most families seem to have had at least one family member who played the fiddle or step-danced. Some of the names he has mentioned to us include Captain Bill Lucas, Mervin Hudgins (step-dancer), Arty Savidant, James Henry Connelly, Roland White, and Adolphus and Elias McKay. Cyril recalls that many dances were held at Haldimand Hall, though spontaneous square-dances were known to happen during house parties. When the weather was amenable, sometimes the locals would just throw down a few boards of wood, grab one of the local fiddlers, and have a dance outside.

Roland White of Bois-Brulé
Another big influence on Cyril's fiddle playing was that of his best friend growing up, Roland White of the White family of Bois-Brulé. Cyril and Roland would get together and swap tunes with one another. Many of Cyril's tunes that we have on recording come from Roland White. Cyril told us that once married, he would take the wife and kids over to Roland White's place where they would fiddle and have a get-together every Saturday afternoon.

Cyril Devouge
Cyril often talks about how much laughing there used to be among his community growing-up. It seems there were some real characters out on the coast. In particular, Hansen McCauley, Cyril and many others will tell you was the funniest man they ever met, "If he couldn't make you laugh, he wouldn't talk to you". Cyril himself is renowned among friends and family for his devilish sense of humour and he will have you buying right into many a tall-tale. When he left home at age sixteen to go work in the Siscoe Gold Mine (on an island in the middle of Kienawisik Lake near Val-d'Or, Quebec), his grandmother teasingly told him before leaving, "Cy, I want you to know that wherever you go, you will always be a tormenter".

Highly intelligent, Cyril is a man of many talents. In addition to his music and story-telling skills, throughout his life Cyril has been a superb carpenter and mechanic. He has secret remedies for just about any mechanical woe you could imagine and was responsible for maintaining the snow plows at the Kahnawake reservation on Montreal's South Shore. He recently told me how after they bent apart one of the shovels, he bent it back in place and spot-welded it back together so well that they are still using that shovel to this day. He even fashioned his own fiddle bridge by whittling down a beef bone that he reports, "the dog brought me one day". An old man in Douglastown once told him that the best material for a fiddle bridge is bone. Cyril's dear friend and amazing Chateauguay Valley fiddler, Neil MacKay now owns Cyril's bone-bridge fiddle. Having seen this fiddle myself I can attest that the bridge was cut just perfectly.

To hear many more of Cyril's stories and jokes, you can follow this link that we posted last year after first meeting Cyril. Cyril has a seemingly endless supply of stories and jokes and we are looking forward to future visits with him where we hope to capture more of this precious culture. In Part 2 of this article, we will take a closer look at Cyril's unique Gaspesian fiddle music.

Finally, here are some more great photos of the Devouge Family from Cyril's daughter, Trena.

The Devouge Homestead - Top of the Hill at L'Anse a Brillant
Cyril's grandparents, Angelina and Elias ("Gappy") Devouge
Cyril's parents, Leslie and Ruby Devouge

1 comment:

  1. I learned "Cyril Devouge's tune" from Laura Risk. She learned it from her travels in Douglastown. I never knew he was 10 minutes away from me, in Chateauguay. His obituary, from the Montreal Gazette: