Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Gaspé Fiddle Technique: the "Hook" with the Veteran's Reel

Today I would like to take a look at a tune which demonstrates a fiddle technique I consider fundamental to the Gaspé sound and is something I have observed among fiddlers from Douglastown down to the Chaleur Bay.

The technique is what Cyril Devouge referred to as a "hook".  This is an unofficial term of course, but I really like the descriptive language Cyril used to use to describe different bow techniques ("jiggles" being another one we will look at sometime).  A "hook" is a very straightforward way to ornament a melody and simply involves playing what would conventionally be a quarter note (one beat) in a tune as two eighth notes (half beats) of the same pitch.  Basically, you double up on a note by bowing the same pitch twice instead of once.

Let's jump straight in and have a listen to how Erskine approached the Don Messer tune, "The Veteran's Reel".

Hear Erskine play "The Veteran's Reel" from the 1990 Cassette

Note how Erskine is doubling up on notes throughout this tune, but especially during the high strain.

Here is a transcription I have prepared to demonstrate this device, which I have notated by putting a little "+" symbol above each "hook" note.  Don't worry if you don't read music, just notice how many notes have little "+" symbols above them.

See my transcription of "The Veteran's Reel"

For the non-music reading audience, here is a link to an folder where I break down the tune and demonstrate this technique.

"The Veteran's Reel" demonstrated (audio)
While this technique is very simple, it really drives a tune along giving it a hypnotic pulse.  This is an easy way to spice up your reels if you feel like changing up the rhythm a little. Although, Erskine and Cyril both used "hooks" in most of their tunes, Erskine's setting of "The Veteran's Reel" is the most extensive usage of this device I have encountered.

Some other thoughts about Erskine's setting of this tune:
  • Erskine has tuned up his bass string to an A so the fiddle is tuned ADAE.  This was the tuning Erskine frequently used when he played in the key of D.  For the key of A, many of Erskine's older tunes require the fiddle to be tuned AEAE.  However, Erskine plays the Veteran's Reel is in the key of A with the ADAE tuning.  Not tuning up the D string to an E is necessary to play Erskine's version of the melody.  Southern fiddlers also occasionally use the ADAE tuning for A tunes.  
  • As in the Caribou Reel, Erskine gets the occasional mysterious-sounding open D drone in this tune over what the modern ear would perceive as an A chord.
  • Erskine's fiddle is not tuned to concert pitch on this recording, but is about a half tone higher.
  • This is another example of Erskine taking a conventional reel, keeping its essence, then adapting it into his native Gaspé style.
This last observation might trouble some who might say that Erskine's structuring of this tune has strayed too far from the original Don Messer recording, from where Erskine likely learned the tune.  However, I feel that Erskine's surprising and perhaps ad-hoc restructuring of the tune's phrases in combination with his use of Gaspesian techniques  ("hooks", raised bass string, foot clogging, etc) transforms this tune from a standard reel with conventional rhythms and predictable structure into something mysterious and captivating.  Brian tells me that his father was never shy about adapting music into the Gaspé style, even if this meant reworking the melody and rhythm and occasionally the tune's structure.  In this case, Erskine keeps the tune's essence and shapes it into something new (or perhaps old) and beautiful.

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