Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

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.

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