Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Douglastown Brandy

The last two installments of Erskine's music here have been examples where he transforms tunes recorded by commercial Canadian fiddlers, recorded in a commercial style, and adapts them into the old Gaspesian style that he learned growing up in Douglastown.

Today, we are going to go way back and listen to a really old sounding tune that will give you an idea of the sounds that influenced Erskine's fiddle style even as he acquired more mainstream Canadian repertoire from commercial sources.. On many of the earlier recordings we have collected of Erskine, he played tunes that harken back to the older strains of fiddle music in Quebec and the New World.  These tunes do not contain the same somewhat predictable (albeit great) melodic stock that listeners have come to expect of more modern fiddle fare.  They often feature mysterious melodies and unusual timing and today's tune is a great example of this.  

This tune is an example of a Brandy, a very old dance in Quebec that is, roughly speaking, a reel in 3/2 time instead of 2/2 time.  Basically, instead of counting to four in each musical bar, you only count to three. It is likely that there were once many Brandys is Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, but their popularity waned perhaps as the group dances that went along with them fell out of fashion.  There were once many hornpipes in 3/2 time and one theory is that the Brandy may have evolved out from these, though there doesn't seem to be a consensus on this.

I have not heard this tune elsewhere and I don't believe it is a widespread tune in Quebec, though I could be wrong.  On the reel-to-reel discs and early cassettes that Erskine made before about 1965, we find him playing a wide variety of ancient sounding melodies with a hypnotic pulse.  Many of these have a certain similar melodic stock that is quite old sounding with lots of surprising jumps in the melody that you wont find in the modern Canadian old-time fiddle repertoire.  It is naturally closer to what you find among the older generation of French-Canadian players, but even then it seems a little different to me.

For listeners not accustomed to hearing fiddling of this vintage, it might be hard to "grab on" to this tune right away.  I personally find that if you close your eyes and give it a few listens, this tune can really transport you to another time and place.  It has a great pulse with many surprising twists and will taking your ear to some new places.

While I always recommend learning tunes by ear, I have provided a transcription of this tune with some nominal bowing suggestions.  Please listen to the tune many, many times before going into the transcription.  It will help you get the feel and hear the phrases better than the written page.  The entire melody is composed of two sections of six bars each making the whole tune twelve bars in length.  Again, each bar has three beats, with four notes grouped in each beat.  There is no repeat after each section.  Although this tune fits nicely into to sections of six bars in 3/2 time, I feel that the final phrase of the first section sort of "bleeds" into the next section.  That is, the first beat of the second section seems to be the culmination of the previous section.  This seamless transition is really unique and creates a cyclical feel.

Here is the transcription

We have featured several brandies on this site now namely, Fat Molasses, Tommy Rooney's Jig, and La Grande Rouge (aka La Grande Gigue Simple).  Based on the number of brandies in Erskine's repertoire, I would guess that these formed a respectable part of the older stock of Douglastown and local Gaspesian melodies.

There are a few resources on brandies in Quebec on the internet, but Pierre Chartrand is one of the more knowledgeable people in this domain.  He is a great step dancer and caller and has extensively researched the older dance traditions of Quebec and French-speaking Canada.  Here is an article where he explains the details of the Brandy dance among others.  I love this quote from the article when Pierre discusses our best known Brandy, "La Grande Gigue Simple":

"Any self-respecting fiddler had to include it in his repertoire so as to be able to satisfy his public""

If you want to hear more brandies, check out  is an album by two Montreal-based musicians that contains a plethora of brandies and many other tunes in non-standard time signatures:

Duo Boulanger-Duval