Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

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.

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