Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Caribou Reel - Teaching Files


The teaching files for the Caribou Reel are now up here.  I've broken the tune down into smaller phrases and played everything slowly so you can get every note.  Remember, the fiddle is tuned ADAE from bass to fine string.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Caribou Reel

Here is a tune that Erskine played that was composed by the great Metis fiddler from Manitoba, Andy Dejarlis.

Listen to Erskine play the Caribou Reel

Compare Erskine's playing with the original from Andy Dejarlis:

Erskine's setting of this tune is a really great adaptation of a tune out of a more commercial, radio-based setting and back into a very traditional, older style.  Notice the following devices Erskine has used to bring the tune into the old Gaspe style:
  • Use of jagged rhythms, often highly syncopated.
  • Use of an open fiddle tuning.  In this case, the bass string is raised from a G to an A.  More on this in a bit...
  • Use of complex foot clogging as accompaniment
  • Use of ambiguous, suspended-sounding drones.
It is very rare that Erskine played in minor keys on the recordings we have.  This tune in in the key of E minor.  What is unique here is that Erskine is using the fiddle tuning he and older Gaspesians traditionally used only for the playing in the key of D: ADAE from bass to fine string.  What this creates are these amazing, mysterious drone notes in the bass that create an ambiguous harmony at the end of each section.  When he finally lands on the low E note at the end of each part of the tune, rather than the drone underneath suggesting an E minor chord as the modern ear would expect, it instead echoes more closely to an A major chord.  This creates a slightly unresolved texture at the end that is very unusual in commercial fiddle music, but was at one time more prevalent among non-commercial fiddlers.

What I find fascinating is that Erskine had a great sensibility for adapting fiddle tunes of modern commercial records back into the older style he played in.  The tunes usually need to be significantly re-worked in order to achieve the results Erskine was capable of.  I often find Erskine's settings of tunes he got from commercial fiddlers more interesting than the originals, as great as they were played by Canada's fiddle stars on recordings.  Erskine would often add layers of complex rhythms and syncopations, drones, open fiddle tunings, and adapt the melody giving the tunes a much more ancient and evocative atmosphere.  Even though Erskine would play these tunes in an older style, that somewhat ironically his settings tend to be more timeless as they avoided the popular fiddle music clichés of the day (double shuffle bowing, excessive instrumental backup, lack of melodic and rhythmic variation) that would soon go out of style.

Despite their commercial success, I find Andy DeJarlis and other Métis fiddlers play in a style much closer to the older strains of Canadian fiddling which I really love.  Nonetheless, there was a tendency on their records to clutter the music with too much other stuff going on in the accompaniment with pianos, guitars, drums, and often spoons.  I suspect this was an attempt to make the music flashier and appeal to a wider audience which it was probably successful at doing.  However for my tastes, I find this distracts too much from the nuance and beauty the fiddler's music.  Still, it is the Métis fiddlers who are mostly to thank for the few strains of the older Canadian fiddling styles that we have left in Canada.