Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Erskine Morris (1913 – 1997)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"My Donegal Shore" - Norma and Debbie (Happy Belated St. Patrick's Day)

Dear readers,

It is my pleasure to share a special treat courtesy of Norma McDonald (Douglastown) and Debbie Sams (York) for this St. Patrick's "season." I had wanted to share this on the 17th but I was so swamped with school work that the post didn't materialize until today.

On February 11, 2014 Debbie and Norma spent an afternoon and evening recording more than a half dozen Irish and sentimental songs with just voice and piano using a recorder borrowed from the Douglas Community Centre. I had written them about a month earlier to see if they would consider recording a couple of the Irish songs in Norma's large repertoire. The idea was inspired while listening back for the first time to a recording of a party we had in Debbie's basement during a visit Laura Risk and I made to Gaspé in April 2012. During the recording there was one of those special musical moments where time seems to stand still. Norma had begun singing an old Irish song "The Rose of Mooncoin" when, during the first verse, Debbie sat down at the piano, found the key, and began delicately accompanying Norma. I found the blend of Debbie's piano and Norma's voice incredibly moving; it was sincere, direct and uncluttered, and I thought to myself, we need to hear more of this sort of music. Between Laura Risk, Brian, and I, we have been digitizing old cassettes and reel-to-reels made around Gaspé for the last four years and one of the things I realized recently is that we have very little music from the people who are still making music in the area today. It was with this in mind that I asked Norma and Debbie if they would consider making a home recording of songs with just voice and piano.

And with that, I'm pleased to share with you one of the tracks they recorded that day, their version of "My Donegal Shore."

Malin, Co. Donegal - July 2005 (Photo: Glenn Patterson)
Hear "My Donegal Shore"

This song was written by the Irish country singer Johnny McCauley (1925-2012, born Fahan, Co. Donegal) for Daniel O'Donnell in 1983. One of the things I really love about Norma and Debbie's version is that, despite the song being only 31 years old, they make it sound as if it came out of the 1920s or 30s. The use of piano or pump organ to accompany songs—something I feel makes this piece sound like an old song—was once very popular in Douglastown. As Norma told me last year:

Everyone made music and they visited more that time, the people.... They always had a fiddle, an old organ, or a piano. And people would gather together and visit in the evenings and they would make music. It was a lot of that in my time, back in the 40s and 50s, it was all that.

Norma and Debbie both frequently volunteer their musical talents for local charity events, at seniors residences, and at the Ross Sanatorium for the shut-ins in Gaspé. I really admire how generous they are with their music and how they use it to improve their local communities. They have also been extensively involved in the music and activities during the Douglastown Irish Week in the concert series, taking workshops, and helping with the Saturday night fish supper.

I wanted to thank Norma and Debbie for taking the time to put these songs together and for allowing me to share this selection with you. They did a wonderful job and I'm personally grateful—as I'm sure lots of people will be—that they indulged my special request for a home recording of their music. 
The author on a Donegal Shore - July 2005, Malin Head beach, Co. Donegal (Photo: Glenn Patterson)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hommage à Neil MacKay

I know many of the Gaspesians from Montreal know Neil MacKay, the great Chateauguay Valley fiddler, from his days playing with Bob Fuller and Jeannie Arsenault for the Gaspé parties around Verdun and NDG.

The folks at the Saint-Urbain cultural committee recently paid homage to Neil and all the music he has provided his community over the years.

Here is their text

I generally keep politics out of this blog but I was really touched by their hommage which I think serves as an example to all Quebecers in the present day as divisions over language and culture are being sown and intensified in provincial politics. Amidst all the negative press Quebec has been getting, Saint-Urbain shows us our ability as Quebecers to unite through music, how musicians of all stripes can serve their communities across linguistic and cultural lines to contribute to a common cultural resource for all residents of the province. Although Neil is an anglophone (though perfectly bilingual), Saint-Urbain has proudly claimed his family as une famille souche de Saint-Urbain (a dyed-in-the wool Saint-Urbain family) and recognized him as a bearer, teacher, and builder of the community's musical traditions. This sort of disposition is one of the things I love about the Chateauguay Valley and the province's musicians more generally.

I was especially inspired by all the work Neil has done with the local school kids, providing music for their plays and events.Ultimately, doing the good work that Neil does comes down to being a generous and empathetic person who is a gentleman before all else, someone who never lets differences or ego get in the way of helping everyone have a good time through his musical talents. I'll close with this extract which I found particularly evocative and apt:

Il a fait danser des milliers de pieds, a suscité l’émerveillement par son jeu toujours juste et rempli d’émotions, a raconté tant d’histoires du bout de son archet.
(He has made thousands of feet dance, sparked wonder through his playing, always true and filled with emotion, and told so many stories from the end of his bow)
Congratulations Neil!