Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Summer Updates


Thought I'd update you on what this summer has in store for the Gaspe fiddle project. Tomorrow morning, I am leaving for Mexico for work for two and a half weeks. I'll be back on July 7th just in time to prepare for the Douglastown Irish Days (August 1 to August 6th).

I'll be giving both beginner and intermediate fiddle workshops during the week. The goal of this is of course, to get people from Gaspe interested in their own traditional music again.

In the beginner class, I'll teach how to hold the instrument and bow comfortably, produce a clear sound, and have you playing a few simple tunes by the end of the class. Anyone interested in learning the fiddle, even if they have never played before, is welcome to attend this class and a fiddle will be provided by the community centre if you don't currently own one.

In the intermediate class, I'll be focusing more on the techniques used by the old time Gaspesian players like Erskine, Cyril Devouge, and the Drody's. We'll look at some fairly straight forward tunes which demonstrate these techniques. I would recommend at least one year of experience with the fiddle if you are are considering the intermediate class.

On, Wednesday, August 3rd Brigid, myself, and friends and family of Erskine's are going to be hosting a get-together where we talk about the life and music of Erskine's and his neighbors growing up. Everyone is welcome to come out and share a story, song, dance, or tune that they remember from growing up on the coast.

Brigid and I will also be participating in the concert under the big tent on Thursday, August 4th, featuring the tunes we have learned from the old timers from Gaspe.

Hope to see some of the readers there.

Here's the site for the Irish Week.

The Bois-Brulé Jig

Here is a great tune Brian sent me last year that I have been meaning to share on the blog. Its a rather mysterious sounding 3 part tune in the key of Em (this one of the few recorded example we have of Erskine playing in this key). Erskine played this on an old reel-to-reel recording made in the 1960's where Erskine recorded a lot of the old tunes he learned in his youth.

Hear the Bois-Brulé Jig

Erkine's playing on this tune is really powerful and carries great emotion. For this reason, I've always considered this tune one of Erskine's masterpieces along with tunes like Tommy Rooney's Jig, Reggie Rooney's Tune, the Shannon Reel, and Fat Molasses.

This tune again seems to represent a great mix of the Irish and French influences in Erskine's style. The harmonic content has strong echoes of many Irish tunes in minor keys and this tune also features a really nice key change to Bm. The phrasing in the middle section also has a smoothness I would normally associate with Irish players, especially those from Sligo. Erskine even uses a few Irish-style rolls thrown in on some of the notes. In the other two sections, the rhythmic setting has a strong French Canadian character and the jaggedness of these sections really makes a lovely contrast against the smooth middle section.

We have talked a lot in previous posts about how important string crossing are in getting that highly characteristic syncopation so important in the Gaspe fiddle style around Douglastown.  Except for the middle part, this tune is almost entirely composed of string crossings and so, this tune is a great way to work on your syncopated string crossings.  Without these, the tune wont come to life. The prototype for this syncopated lick would be to downbow on a lower string, upbow on the higher string, go back with a downbow on the lower string, then upbow the higher string again. However, the trick to getting the syncopation is to play the third note in the string crossing (the second downbow) a little softer, just sort of letting your bow glide over the string, not putting any weight on the bow.  This syncopated bow lick seems to be something that the Gaspesian players shared with older Acadian players.

Anthony Drody once told me that the Spruce Knot was the original name of the Bois-Brulé Jig although Erskine played a different melody under the Spruce Knot title.  Cyril Devouge also remembered this tune being a favourite around home and was commonly requested for step-dancing.  Though Erskine's tune has 3 parts both Anthony Drody and the great Chateauguay Valley fiddler, Neil MacKay play a tune with the same first two parts.  Neil remembers his father playing this tune and despite being from an area very far from the Gaspé said that his dad called this tune both the Bois-Brulé Jig and the Spruce Knot.  Its very possible then that this tune is the "real" Spruce Knot.  As always, determining the correct tune titles in Quebec is a very elusive pursuit.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Murphy Reel

Here's another nice half-tune, with a really lovely and hypnotic rhythm. We currently have two recordings of Erskine playing this tune on separate occasions:

Hear Erskine play the Murphy Reel from a home recording he made in February 1978

Based on the contour of this melody and the fact that it is another half-tune, my best guess is that this is another tune local to the Gaspe coast. The low part of this tune really has a strong French or Acadian character, relying on a heavily accented bow and syncopated string crossings to bring the tune to life. The high part on the other hand features a heavy dose of Irish-style left-hand ornamentation with these rolled out triplets which really provide a smooth contrast to the syncopated, jagged contours of the other phrases.

I'm not sure which Murphy this tune was named after. Generally, tunes on the Gaspe coast were named after the fiddlers that played the tune or stepdancers that liked the tune for dancing. Despite this tune's obviously Irish name, it seems unlikely to me that this would be a tune brought over from Ireland. The combination of the Irish and French Canadian elements suggest that perhaps this was a tune forged out of the interactions of the Irish and French settlers of the Gaspe coast, many of whom often intermarried. There were several Murphy families on the Gaspe coast, but quite far from Douglastown further down the coast in the Bay de Chaleurs region at places like Chandler, Pabos, New Carlisle, and Carleton. Here is a great map of the coast. I don't think there were any Murphy's around Douglastown. So perhaps this was a tune Erskine or another Douglastowner picked up from a fiddler from the Bay de Chaleurs area. However, one of Erskine's ancestors in Ireland was a one Ms Mary Murphy, who was the mother of the first Morris to settle the Gaspe coast in 1785, Thomas Morris of Wexford County, Ireland. So who knows, its possible that this tune traces its way all the way back to Ireland and evolved through the generations to acquire an essentially French Canadian character.

Here is another recording of Erskine playing at a family reunion in 1984 in Douglastown.

This one was recorded at a somewhat legendary Morris family reunion held that year at Erskine's brother Manny's place in Douglastown. Erskine's playing here is really electric and has a much harder driving edge. I really love the recordings from this session because you can feel the excitement in the room on that day. Brian recently told me that he remembers at one point during this reunion his uncle Watson leaned over and said to him something to the effect of, "jeez, I've never heard Erskine play like this before". Depending on the setting, Erskine would use a different attack and feeling in his music. From what Brian and others have told me, when Erskine played for party's where there was almost always some step dancing and spirits were high, he would play really hard and driving. Cyril Devouge remembered playing with Erskine under a big tent in Douglastown many years ago and told us that Erskine was playing and clogging his feet so hard that the sweat was just dripping off of him. However, when Erskine would get alone with his fiddle and record some tunes on his own he would often use a more measured approach at more moderate tempos like we heard in the 1978 recording of this same tune.

Here is a fascinating article written about Thomas Morris and Douglastowns early settlers.

Also, an excellent resource for genealogical information is the Our Gaspe Roots website.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Spruce Knot - Teaching Files

I've posted a link to a folder of me breaking down the Spruce Knot for anyone interested in learning it over in our "Learning the Music" page.