Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Something Different: Untitled Harmonica Tune

In addition to playing the fiddle, Erskine could also play solid old-time harmonica.  Brian doesn't remember his dad playing the harmonica very much at all and reckons that he may have picked it up when he joined the army in World War II.  It certainly is even more portable than the fiddle.

Hear the Untitled Harmonica Tune

This is a really lovely, rolling melody and has a real Victorian-era quality to it similar in flavour to some of the melodies that fiddlers from Southern Ohio and Northeastern Kentucky once played

Erskine's melody also makes a cute and simple little fiddle tune and you can hear what I've worked out here. Sometimes its difficult to discern the precise melody from harmonica versions of tunes as there is a lot of chord-work that fills out the sound and can hide the melody in spots.

It seems that it was once common for fiddlers to be able to play a little harmonica as well. Cyril Devouge also played some lovely, rolling harmonica tunes. I feel this fact speaks to the general musicality of the Gaspesian culture. It seems so many people either sang songs, lilted tunes (turlutage), whistled, played fiddle, harmonica, or step danced in the area around Douglastown. In fact, Brian mentioned that even when not playing fiddle Erskine would often be whistling tunes. In this sense, the music of the Douglastown area was more than only fiddle-music and really a wider ranging phenomenon.

Cyril Devouge at Pembroke

Jimmy from New Jersey has posted another great video of Cyril and Brigid at Pembroke in the mid-1990s.

Here we have Cyril playing a great driving tune he told me he learned from his best friend growing up, Roland White, of Bois-Brulé.

Cyril really gets into this tune and his bowing is just incredible. This is a great video to watch if you are trying to get a hold of those machine-gun-like string crossings that are characteristic of Cyril's and many other Gaspesians' style. These really sharpen the tune up and contrast with the smooth bowing in the other phrases.

Also, you can really here Cyril's strong footwork here and towards the end, you'll here him do a few double time foot steps to kick it up a notch.

This tune is another fine example of what we called a "half tune" in previous posts being only 16 bars in duration and composed of a few short, memorable phrases as opposed to the longer, more conventional 32 bars reels. You can imagine this tune would be great for step-dancing.

Yesterday was Cyril's memorial speech given by a church elder. A few years ago when discussing his speech with this elder, Cyril told this man that he wanted the following to be said "Cy was a good man. But we're still trying to figure out what he was good for". Leave it to Cyril to have the whole room erupting in laughter from beyond the grave. At first, the elder told Cyril that he wouldn't say this but Cyril was adamant and they reached a deal whereby this would be said but only if the elder could explain to everyone the things Cyril was good for. Needless to say, it was a lengthy speech and very inspiring.

Afterwards, Brigid, Brian, Neil MacKay, and myself went over to Kent Sutton's place for an afternoon of fiddle music to honor Cyril's life and music. It just wouldn't have seemed right any other way.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hermas Rehel and Gary Snowman - La Grande Rouge

Our good friend Jimmy from New Jersey has posted another stunning video of the Gaspé fiddle culture that takes place every year in Pembroke, Ontario at the Fiddle and Step Dance Week.

Here we have Hermas Réhel fiddling La Grande Rouge while Gary Snowman stepdances. I believe the step dancer at the beginning of the video whose face is not really shown is Hermas' son, Damien. We are really treated to some inspired step-dancing here.

This was such a nice treat because it is Hermas playing a local Gaspesian setting of a tune we posted from Erskine a short while back. It is great to compare Hermas' lighter French style to Erskine's hard-driving style on this tune. As we mentioned in our post on La Grande Rouge, this tune is known elsewhere in Quebec as La Grande Gigue Simple which evolved into the Red River Jig among the western Metis fiddlers. Check out Hermas' unique clogging pattern, where his beating foot is going in double time. You can see Cyril use this pattern in Jimmy's other videos that we have posted here and you can check out on his Youtube channel.

I especially like the wonderful communication that goes on between the two step-dancers and Hermas' fiddling. You really get the sense that they are having a musical conversation.  The vitality of the Gaspé fiddle culture really comes across beautifully in this clip. It was also a treat to see some friends in the video thoroughly enjoying the wonderful music being played. You can spot Joseph, Anthony, and Mary Ellen Drody with big smiles on their faces as well as Mary Snowman enjoying the show.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Miss Oliver Morris' Reel - Happy St. Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone (officially, its the parade day here in Montreal),

In honour of this holiday and the Irish roots of Douglastown, I thought I'd post a tune that really exemplifies the strong Irish influence in the music of Douglastown. This is a haunting tune in D (or D modal) that really echoes the sounds of many old Irish reels. However as we discussed in on our post on the Coleman Reel, this is a "half-tune", which is a very New-World tune-type being half as long as a traditional Irish/Scottish reel.

This tune was one from Miss Oliver Morris. There is a tradition around Douglastown of referring to a married woman by the title "Miss" followed by the husband's name. Miss Oliver Morris was a woman named Emily or Emilie Crotty and she was the second wife of Mr Oliver Morris who was related to Erskine's father. They had 15 children together. Apparently she was quite musical and would lilt this tune which is probably where Erskine picked it up.

Hear Erskine play Miss Oliver Morris' Tune in the 1980s

We also have a recording of Erskine playing this tune from a cassette made in 1978 under the title, "The Pride of Quebec". We're not sure if where this title came from and whether or not is the correct title

Hear Erskine play Miss Oliver Morris' Tune in 1978 (The Pride of Quebec)

As with most of the older Douglastown tunes in the key of D, the tuning of the fiddle is ADAE from bass to fine string, though you can get away with playing this one in standard tuning as the melody is on the three high strings. That being said, the fiddle will ring a little nicer with the bass tuned up.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Farewell Cyril

Dear Readers,

Our friend Cyril Devouge passed away peacefully this past weekend at the hospital in Chateauguay.

He was a good friend and wonderful teacher in the full sense of the word. As much as he taught me about fiddle music, getting to know him also taught me much about leading a joyful life and the importance of family, friends, music, and laughter. I'm hoping some of these lessons are captured in the stories and jokes we have posted of our visits with Cyril in previous months. I know Brian, Brigid, and I will really cherish the memories we had with our sessions at Cyril's seniors home. We will be posting more tunes and stories from Cyril as I go through all the recordings I have.

His tunes have been some of the most popular on this site and I'm glad that so many people are listening to them and the files where I teach his tunes.

Cyril (Right) cracks a joke. Denzil and Dorothy laugh.
On our last visit with him, I told Cyril how popular his tunes were here and that people had really been enjoying them and had begun learning them. The sense of pride this gave him was clear and palpable in the room. Brigid's husband Jimmy then told Cyril that he had kept his music alive for 100 years and that we were working to keep it alive for another 100. This remark really touched Cyril and as he often did, he shed a few tears of happiness. Knowing that his tunes were not going to be lost really seemed to give him a sense of contentment.

I wanted to say to the readers that in my mind, Jimmy's use of the word "we" includes all the people who have been listening to and learning from Cyril's tunes and stories, so thank you.

Here is another video of Cyril playing for his good buddy Hermas Réhel to step dance to. All I can say about this video is that it is old-time fiddle culture at its finest.

Farewell Cyril, we'll miss you.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Video: Cyril Devouge plays Roland White's Tune

Our friend Jimmy Allen from New Jersey was introduced to Gaspesian fiddling through Brigid's brother, Anthony Drody who moved to New Jersey a while back. Jimmy began going to the Pembroke Fiddle and Step-Dance Festival in the late 1980's and 90's and made recordings and videos of many of the great Gaspesian players who hang out at the legendary blue Gaspé tent.

Here is a video Jimmy has recently converted off an old tape and posted on Youtube. In this clip, Cyril and Brigid are playing Roland White's Tune that we recently posted.

Check out Cyril's graceful bowing and double-time footwork. This is the first time I've actually seen Cyril's bowing as he hasn't been able to play since before I met him. Needless to say, I have a lot of studying ahead of me with Jimmy's videos.

Keep and eye out on Jimmy's Youtube channel for more videos of great Gaspesian fiddlers and step-dancers.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Coleman Reel

Here is a great driving D tune that Brian, myself, and our friend Jack from Barachois were playing last night at my place. I thought I would share it with the readers here.

Like a lot of Erskine's older tunes in D, the fiddle is tuned ADAE from bass to fine string. This tuning gives the fiddle more growl on the low part especially. This was recorded in 1984 at a Morris family reunion in Douglastown at Erskine's brother Manny's house.

Hear Erskine play the Coleman Reel

I really love the way the two parts of this tune contrast. The low part has a linear, snaky melody and the high part has a more jumpy melody with really tight string crossings and "hooks" (a term Cyril Devouge uses for when you repeat the same note in quick succession). To encourage the fiddle playing readers out there to learn these tunes, on this and future posts I will try to post myself playing these tunes slowly to make them easier to pick up. I'm still learning this style myself so while I encourage you all to get the "notes" and the gist of the style from my recording, I want to highly recommend that you listen closely to Erskine's settings of these tunes many times to try internalizing his feel in this music.

Hear is a link to a folder with a few files of me teaching this tune

At first, I assumed that this tune must have come from the great Irish fiddler Michael Coleman who recorded in the 1920s in New York and whose records were very popular in Quebec. However, the character of this tune is very un-Irish, at least compared to our understanding of Irish music since the early 20th century. In my research, I couldn't find record of any tunes called the Coleman Reel. It could be possible that this tune was learned off of a recording of Michael Coleman but adapted to fit the Gaspé style. However, I do not believe this to be the case.

Really, this tune is a great demonstration of a tune-type that seems to have been very common among the older Gaspesian players. In a conventional reel as they are played in Scotland and Ireland, and many which were later brought into Quebec, the tunes almost always consist of two 8 bar sections that get repeated. Each section contains four distinct musical phrases. However, Erskine and other older Gaspesians had this large repertoire of what I call "half" tunes. These are tunes that consist of two 4 bar sections and so are half as long as a conventional reel (think St Anne's Reel or Soldier's Joy). In the Appalachian region of the southern United States, half tunes are also extremely common (Sourwood Mountain and Cripple Creek being the best known of these). However, in Northern fiddle styles they are much less common.

Researching the older Gaspesian tunes, it seems that a majority of their local tunes were in fact half tunes. I feel that the reason the older Gaspesian players had such a large store of these tunes is because of the huge step-dancing culture that was tied in with fiddling on the coast. There were probably at least as many step-dancers as there were fiddlers and because of this, its my guess that a lot of these tunes (many with Irish sounding titles) may have been composed back in the 19th and early 20th centuries around Douglastown. Why these half tunes are great for step-dancing is that because of their shorter structure, a dancer would be able to quickly internalize the tune and its rhythms. Also, due to their repetitiveness and the fact that there is half as many melody notes, the fiddler could really dig deeper into the hypnotic rhythms of the tune which would further rouse up the step dancers.

Indeed, it seems that many of the tunes that Brigid and Cyril said were good for step dancing are half tunes. I would guess that at least 60% of the old tunes that developed around Douglastown were half tunes. Below I have prepared a list of great half tunes played by the older Gaspesians (Morris, Drody, and Devouge families among many others) that I believe to be local to Douglastown and neighbouring villages. Some of these tunes we have already looked at on the blog and others we will be featuring in the coming weeks. Note that many of these tunes have Irish inspired titles further suggesting that these tunes may have been composed among the strong Irish communities along the Gaspé coast. We also have many untitled half tunes from Erskine and Cyril that obviously don't appear on this list.