One of the names Brian Morris kept mentioning was Brigid Drody from Douglastown, now living in Howick, in the Châteauguay Valley. Brigid is Joe Drody's daughter and is a well-loved guitar player in the Châteauguay Valley and at the Pembroke Fiddle and Step Dance Festival. She is regarded as one of the best backup guitarists for the old-time tunes and is famous for her ability to play non-stop for fiddlers in marathon sessions sometimes lasting up to sixteen hours. If anyone knew about the old-time Gaspesian fiddle music that Erskine Morris was steeped in, surely the daughter of Erskine's fiddle mentor would.
Brian took me to meet Brigid at her home in May 2010, and during the seven-hour jam session that followed, she shared with us a seemingly endless store of stories, jokes, and genealogy concerning many of Douglastown’s and Gaspé's best fiddlers, step dancers, and colourful characters. Brigid and her husband Jimmy's generous nature, patience, and easy-going attitude is really inspiring and I have since been fortunate to have spent many hours and late-nights making music with Brigid and enjoying the company of her family.
During our first visit with Brigid, Brian and I played a tune we had learned from a recording of a fiddler from L'Anse à Brillant, Cyril Devouge, who was 95 years old at the time and living in a seniors’ residence in Châteauguay, Quebec. Brigid had met Cyril while they were both working at the Murdochville mine in the 1960s and they had played lots of music together throughout the years both back home and around Montreal. Although he could no longer play the fiddle, Brigid suggested that Cyril would love to hear us play this tune, especially as we had apparently played the tune very close to the way Cyril had.
In June 2010, Brigid had arranged for Brian and I to go with her to visit Cyril at his home. During our first visit, I was met with an exceptionally sharp and entertaining gentleman. Throughout the afternoon, Cyril effortlessly told jokes and spun stores about old-time Gaspesians and all the fun they used to have. He had a tireless sense of humour which had us laughing throughout our visit.
Cyril was born in 1915 to Leslie Devouge and Ruby Leggo in L'Anse à Brillant (or Brilliant Cove, as he and other older Gaspesians sometimes called it). His father, mother, and two brothers, Denzil and Glenn, also played. As Cyril described it, "there were four fiddles hanging on the wall back home, and the four of them were never all there on the wall at the same time.”
Like many older Gaspesians, Cyril's father, Leslie, fished the shores during the spring and summer and worked in the bush in the winter. While fishing, Leslie would return home every weekend and play the fiddle around the house. Cyril learned tunes from his father during this time. He also learned many tunes from his best friend, Roland White, of Bois-Brulé, who was from a family of well-respected fiddle players.
Cyril was perhaps the first person I met who demonstrated the deep emotional response many Gaspesians have when hearing the old fiddle music. He spoke of being so moved by his father's fiddle playing growing up that he would often start to cry and have to run up to his room so that his father would not see this. At ten years of age, Cyril played for the first time in public at a "tea meeting" in Seal Cove. "All of Seal Cove and half of L'Anse à Brillant were there," he recalled.
Cyril was touched that we had come out to play music with him and that we were interested in his music. He became very emotional at times during the afternoon, and was nearly in tears several times – tears that he described as "tears of joy." He told us that he liked nothing better than to hear a fiddle and guitar play the old tunes. However, it was clear during our visit that Cyril was very sad to have lost the use of his hands in old age and that he could not join us on the fiddle.
Although no longer able to play, Cyril treated us to several tunes expertly played on the harmonica that he had learned from his father and from Roland White. He also sung or lilted the melodies to several other Gaspé fiddle tunes including the quirky "Golden Rooster" that he learned from Roland White. For the “Golden Rooster,” he claimed, "no one in the world knows this tune anymore except me" (note: this tune is not the same melody recorded by Don Messer under the “Golden Rooster” title).
This video clip of Cyril Devouge and Brigid Drody performing in Pembroke, Ontario, dates to the early 1990s. (Courtesy of Jimmy Allen)
We visited Cyril several times after our first visit. I also had several pleasant phone conversations with him. On subsequent visits, Cyril helped me to understand the intricacies of the Gaspé style, particularly in the manner of using the bow to give the tunes the old Gaspé touches. Although he could no longer play, Cyril had many of the old Gaspesian tunes so firmly in his mind and was so skilled at singing the melodies, that he would always stop us when we played a wrong note or needed to add an extra "jiggle" or "hook," as he often put it. After our second visit, and having worked hard on the bowing techniques Cyril had helped me with, he gave me a most encouraging compliment by turning to Brigid and saying, “he has that Gaspé sound.”
Sadly, Cyril passed away in March 2011, a few weeks after what would turn out to be our final visit. Cyril had a charming, comical personality, and was a prankster and a natural entertainer up until the end of his life. He was a notorious teller of tall-tales. This was never so much about deceit as out of a love of entertaining people and stretching their imaginations. As a child, Ernest Drody from Douglastown remembers Cyril coming back home from Montreal on a motorbike that he and his friends greatly admired.
Cyril would always brag to the younger Ernest that he was going to get rid of the motorbike because, as he put it, “it takes the speed wobble when I get it up to 150 mph.” On a phone conversation with Cyril in September 2010, I asked Cyril about his motorbike, and he told me the same story that he had told Ernest over seventy years earlier. Like Brigid and her family, Cyril struck me as one of those special people of the older generation that understands the value of music, family, friends, and laughter in a well-lived life.
In the summer of 2010, I cycled from Campbellton, New Brunswick, to Douglastown with my touring bicycle and camping gear. I met many great friends along the way in Shigawake, Barachois, Malbay, and finally, Douglastown, where the town was holding its annual Irish Week festival during the first week of August. I met up with Brian Morris (and my fiddles) in Douglastown where he was visiting family.
Brian showed me how strong the love for fiddle music still is among the people of Douglastown by arranging a series of musical visits throughout the week with different friends and family who wanted to hear us play the old Gaspé tunes. It seemed like Brian and I played in at least two different kitchens every day and I was struck by how much people appreciated hearing this music. As a fiddler performing at the festival described it to me, people in Douglastown seem to follow every bow stroke. Special highlights included meeting Brigid's brother, Joseph Drody, at his cottage in L'Anse à Brillant, playing for Brian's aunt Phyllis, his friends Norma and Brian McDonald, Marguerite Rooney, and swapping tunes with one of Douglastown's last old-time fiddlers, Ernest Drody, Charlie Drody's son.
Brian and I were also happy to meet Gaspesians who had been following our blog and who had offered encouraging feedback. I was especially touched when Brian's aunt showed us the binder she had containing every article we had posted on the blog that her niece had printed out for her. Seeing the positive response to fiddle music during the festival, it was clear that the fiddle could "still pull the whole town together."
I returned to Douglastown in August 2011. Irish Week organizer Luc Chaput had offered me the chance to be do a performance, lecture, and fiddle workshops for the festival, which I had gladly accepted. On the Wednesday evening, I was scheduled to give a presentation on the life and music of Erskine Morris at the community centre with Brian Morris and Brigid Drody. Although I had feared attendance would be low since Erskine had left Douglastown so long ago, people started flooding in about five minutes before we started and it was soon standing room only in the classroom with a few people even poking their heads in from the hallway. We had a warm response from the mostly local audience as we played tunes and detailed the life of Erskine and the Gaspé fiddle style. It was rewarding to see the audience participating in the presentation, openly sharing stories and insight into their musical culture. The audience especially enjoyed hearing Norma McDonald lilt while we played two local tunes and having a mini-concert with fiddlers Joseph and Anthony Drody.
Towards the end of the presentation, the energy in the room soared when a renowned step dancer and caller from Saint-Eustache, Jean-Francois Berthiaume, got up and treated the room to some high-octane footwork. It was clear when our presentation ended that people still wanted to hear more fiddle music and I suggested we all go to the dining hall after a short break for air. What ensued was a three-hour jam session of Gaspesian and French Canadian tunes including a 40-minute set of non-stop square dancing that lasted until two in the morning. I also had a great time teaching two fiddle workshops for beginners and intermediate players wanting to learn about the Gaspé style.
Other highlights were two unplanned late-night music parties in Phyllis Morris' kitchen, with myself, Brian Morris, Brigid and her brothers, Joseph and Anthony, and Montreal-based fiddler Laura Risk providing the music to a packed house of appreciative fans. During the 2011 Irish Days, there was a tangible sense of cultural pride and it was great to see that more attention had been given to local Gaspesian culture around Douglastown. The town seemed to come together over their culture, and people would find any excuse to start a square dance set, especially when the Drodys were providing the music.
Throughout 2010 and 2011, I was fortunate to meet and play music with more Gaspesians and learn about their musical heritage. I made pilgrimages to the famous blue Gaspé tent at the Pembroke Fiddle and Step Dance Festival, where I made new friends and shared lots of late nights with Brigid, Joseph, and Anthony Drody playing and listening to fiddle music. I was impressed by how dedicated to expressing their culture the Gaspesians are during this festival, which a core group of them have been faithfully attending annually since the late 1970s.
The Drody family of Douglastown performing the Saint-Omer Reel at the Fiddle and Step Dance Festival in Pembroke, Ontario. (Courtesy of the author)
The Drodys performing in Pembroke, Ontario, in 2011. (Courtesy of the author)
Our blog has continued to grow and now contains over 80 posts detailing various aspects of Erskine and his neighbours' music, including tune analysis, history, and reports of various events Brian and I have attended. Throughout, we have always had lots of help from various members of the Gaspesian community, several of whom have contributed articles. A great help came in the form of a new contributor, Laura Risk, a respected Scottish-style fiddler who performed at the 2010 and 2011 Irish Days festivals, and who had taken a keen interest in this music after discovering our blog in the spring of 2010.
Recently, I started a channel on Youtube (www.youtube.com/gaspefiddle) where we have been adding videos from our collection. So far, we have added footage of several of our visits with Gaspesian musicians and have lots of donated footage from friends at the Pembroke Festival that we are currently processing. Soon, I will be posting some great footage including an afternoon I spent with Romeo "Tunny" Hottot of Shigawake, who is from a family of fiddlers and step dancers whose legacy extends back several generations. We are also considering putting some of the best music we have collected from Erskine and other Gaspesians on a CD with extensive liner notes.
Tunny Hottot, an old-Time Gaspesian Fiddler. (Courtesy of the author)
It is interesting to note that there are a growing number of fiddle music enthusiasts in the United States and Europe, including some well-known fiddlers, who are using our blog to listen to music that was once little-known outside of the Gaspesian community. I am hopeful our work will help to bring about a renewed interest in Gaspesian fiddle music among people from Gaspé and elsewhere and that this music will not be lost in generations to come. So far, the response to our work has been touching, and I extend my heartfelt appreciation to all the Gaspesians who have helped us along the way.
*Glenn Patterson is a Montreal-based old-time fiddle player. He plays fiddle and old-time banjo with several Montreal area groups and is interested in local North American fiddle traditions. He is the co-founder of http://gaspefiddle.blogspot.com , a website devoted o documenting the older fiddle traditions of the Gaspé coast.