Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Two Tunes From Isidore Soucy

Today I wanted to share two lovely tunes in the key of D that Erskine learned off LPs of Isidore Soucy who was one of his favourite fiddlers.  Erskine owned many of Isidore's records and would learn tunes from them but as always adapted them to his own native Gaspesian style.

The first tune we will look at is "The President's Reel", a somewhat mysterious sounding 3 part tune that has a bit of a march feel, not quite a conventional reel.  This is a really old sounding tune and is probably reminiscent of the sort of music one might have head in Quebec before the 20th century.

This recording comes from the tape Erskine recorded at his brother Manny's place in Douglastown probably in the late 1960's or early 70's.  This tape features some of Erskine's most beautiful playing we have found so far and showcases many old, mysterious sounding tunes.  You can compare Erskine's arrangement of the President's Reel (as well as the next tune) to Isidore Soucy's by checking out samples from the Isidore Soucy album here.

Isidore Soucy - Image Courtesy of Collections Canada
Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, Isidore's take on this tune has a lot more in common with Irish fiddling in the 20th century with its slurred string crossings and bowed triplets.  Erskine instead relies much more heavily on the older French-insprired Gaspesian techniques like repeated note "hooks" to fill out this tune.  My best guess is that these techniques were probably shared among French and English-speaking players on the coast at one time.  This use of the repeated note "hook" (a term Cyril Devouge used) where the same note is bowed consecutively several times in the space of one note is especially evident in the second section of this tune where Erskine hammers out the F# note four times in even succession.  It fascinates me how in a village that was over ninety five percent Irish before about 1960, their native fiddle music shared so much more in common with the older French and Acadian styles in Canada where many Francophone's throughout Quebec used left-hand ornaments and bowing techniques very similar to what fiddlers in Ireland had developed.  

The second tune we will look at today is a charming D tune that Isidore called "Le Polka Piquée" (the Stacatto Polka).  The first part rolls out the over the chord changes, while on the second part Erskine gets some great jaggedy Gaspesian sycopation as was often his custom.  Erskine really rolls this tune out in such a nice gentle way compared to Isidore Soucy's version which as the name implies, is played in a rather heavy, stacatto manner.

Isidore Soucy is one of my favourite French Canadian fiddlers and was once a household name here in Quebec..  If you are interested in finding out more about him, this article will give you a start.  There is also a huge collection of his tunes stored online that you can listen to or downloaded for free at the Collections Canada Virtual Gramophone website.  One of the features of Isidore's tunes was that they were almost all what fiddlers call "crooked".  These are tunes that have beats either added or removed from the phrases and therefore don't follow the typical 32 bar reel format.  Here is a great analysis of crooked tunes in recorded French Canadian music of the early 20th century and it turns out that Isidore was the King of the Crooked with a whopping 83% of his recorded repertoire being crooked..

Hope you enjoy these tunes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Little Boy's Reel

Here is a great, driving D tune that Erskine played on the 1990 Cassette.

Listen to the Little Boy's Reel.

I really like the great syncopated rhythm Erskine gets on the low turn of this tune.  Erskine was a master of rhythmic bow work.  When you listen to his playing, its really clear that he is in full command of all the rhythmic expression required to bring fairly simple tunes to a higher level.  Also, check out the really tight precision of his footwork which really kicks the tune into overdrive.

The fiddle is tuned with the bass string raised up to an A.  This was the conventional tuning for the old Douglastown-area tunes in the key of D.  It really makes the fiddle ring.  Erskine is tuned a fair bit higher than concert pitch in this recording, about a whole semi-tone putting the tune actually around a concert Eb.  In the era before the proliferation of electronic tuners, old-time fiddlers would often tune their fiddles to where they sounded approximately in tune with the standard A note (440 Hz) or where they had a "nice" ring to them. Sometimes, the fiddle just sings in a special way when tuned above or below the standard concert pitch.  Here I feel the slightly higher pitch contributes to the excitement and energy of the tune.

This tune has all the hallmarks of a local Douglastown tune:
  • Fiddle tuned with the bass string raised for the key of D
  • Strong syncopated string crossings (low turn)
  • Old-style melodic passages that don't quite conform to modern standard French Canadian reels (high turn)
  • Repeated note "hooks" (high turn)
This was the first tune Brian, Brigid, and I played for the presentation on Erskine's life and music in Douglastown this past August.  It seemed to get everyone either stomping their feet or clapping their hands.  This is the kind of tune that will get people moving.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

From Laura Risk

First, let me say how honored I am to be asked to contribute to this blog. I have been reading Glenn and Brian’s posts since spring 2010 and I have great respect for all the time and energy they’ve put into this wonderful project. Not to mention their deep knowledge of - and passion for - Gaspesian music!

Luc Chaput generously invited me to perform at both the 2010 and 2011 Douglastown Irish Weeks, and on both occasions I was really struck by the community’s love for fiddle music. I’ve played at lots of festivals but it’s not often that I have the feeling I had in Douglastown: that people are following every note and bowstroke. It’s the way fiddlers and dancers listen. And in fact, it wasn’t long before I realized that I was in a place where, until recently, that’s what entertainment meant: fiddling and dancing. No wonder I felt right at home!

I thought I’d start my contributions to this blog by posting a few video clips from a fantastic evening at the home of Phyllis Morris. This is the party that Glenn described in his Sept 2 post, so I won’t repeat all the details. I should say, though, that I hadn’t met Phyllis before this evening and I was really touched that she would welcome me so warmly into her home for this family party. We only had three fiddles between Glenn, myself, Joseph and Anthony Drody, and later Cecil Leggo, but that didn’t stop us from having a great party! We passed the fiddles around and with Brigid and Brian’s driving guitars and, at some moments, a whole row of foot tappers, the tunes seemed about ready to lift us out of our seats.

A huge thanks to Laura Holland, Phyllis’ daughter-in-law, who kindly offered to film the evening on my videocamera.

In this first clip of us playing “Joe Drody’s Jig”, you see Glenn passing his fiddle to Joseph Drody and then a nice close-up of Joseph and Anthony playing together. If you’re a fiddle player, you’ll probably notice that Joseph and Anthony are using slightly different bowing patterns, but both have a really driving rhythm to their playing.

Here’s a nice clip of Joseph playing “Peekaboo Waltz” – on my violin!

I thought I’d also include this clip of Glenn, Brigid and Brian playing “Tommy Rooney’s Jig”. Glenn has learned so many of the old tunes and really studied the old style – it’s fun to see him going full steam here!

One of the evening’s great surprises was getting to hear a few tunes from Cecil Leggo. I love the lift and swing that he puts into this version of “The Road to the Isles”:

That’s all for now. In the works: a post about Ernest Drody’s version of Eva’s tune. For the moment I’ll just say that if you’ve already learned the version that I played at Phyllis’ party (posted by Glenn on Sept 2), you will have a few bits to relearn...