Category: Musings

Québec’s mysterious Grande Gigue Simple

In August 2013, in a garage surrounded by redwoods in San Anselmo, California, I got together with violinist Tuula Tossavainen Cotter and guitarist Colin Cotter, and recorded Fantaisie sur la Grande Gigue Simple,  an unusual arrangement of a very old and mysterious melody, perhaps Canada’s oldest home-grown fiddle tune. Later in this post, I’ll discuss in detail the history and origins of this tune as well as its daughter tune, the Red River Jig.

Listening back after six years (and a year after Tuula’s untimely death from brain cancer), I’m struck by the beauty of what we played. To my bass line played in drop-D tuning, Colin embroidered the guitar part with gorgeous harmonies, while Tuula interpolated her composition The Mesabi Range in the middle of the arrangement and brought both power and sensitivity to her contribution.

My approach in turning la Grande Gigue Simple– an instrumental tune to accompany step dancing – into a sort of fantasia was to start out by being in two keys at the same time. The guitar starts a repetitive, dreamy drone in the key of D (the original key), but then harmonica enters in the key of A, five scale steps higher, creating a floating sense of suspension. On top of this, the tune itself builds a sense of tension that resolves at the end of the B part, only the harmonica is still in the key of A.

By the way, for this part of the tune I’m playing a country-tuned Low D harmonica (G is raised to G# in the middle octave, yieldig an A major scale). Later, when backing Tuula, I switch to a country-tuned G harp, which has C raised to C# in the middle octave to create a D major scale. (If you’re not a harmonica player, don’t bother trying to make sense of this.)

As Tuula starts in, she gently floats the tonality back down to the ground of D major, adding to the dreaminess of the landscape with her composition The Mesabi Range, named after a range of mountains in Minnesota where her family used to vacation when she was a child. Then she starts to build the energy level again, engaging with La Grande Gigue Simple in D, replacing dreaminess with drive and power. Then she subsides into an echo of The Mesabi Range, while at the end, the harmonica hints at a return to the key of A.

We recorded this using a Zoom H2 to capture a live performance in stereo, so we had no opportunity to remix or to punch in to fix mistakes.

Earlier versions

La Grande Gigue Simple is played in many versions by fiddlers, accordionists, and harmonica players in Québec, and scholarly papers have been written comparing multiple recorded versions. My conception of the tune was largely formed by the version recorded by Québécois fiddler Isidore Soucy, with piano accompaniment, on March 22, 1927.


The tune has also been recorded by harmonica players, including one by Louis Blanchette, recorded under the title Reel des pêcheurs (fisherman’s reel), with piano accompaniment by Alphonse Roussel, on June 11, 1937.


(By the way, in eastern Canada the piano is a folk instrument, as shown in these recordings. The availability of pianos in parish halls may have something to do with its widespread use in folk music performances and recordings in the early twentieth century.)

Here’s a harmonica version recorded in 1975 by Wilbrod Boivin on the LP Quadrilles d’Autrefois. Note that the order of the A and B parts is reversed.


Gigue, Jig, Geige – what’s with these names?

The French word gigue derives from jig – the Irish dance-tune form in 6/8. But, at least in Québec, it has no specific meaning and simply refers to any type of tune for dancing. A tune designated a gigue in Québec might be in any time signature and tempo. A tune in 6/8, on the other hand, is called exactly that – a “six-huit.”

A seemingly related word is geige, the German colloquial word for the violin, akin to the English word fiddle. Dancing masters (i.e., teachers) used to carry small pocket fiddles that they could use to accompany themselves and their dance students. This word may be derived from jig/gigue, or from giga, a Scandinavian bowed instrument whose name derives from an old Norse word that means “to vibrate.”

Antecedents: The Hornpipe

La Grande Gigue Simple is played primarily, almost exclusively, by French Canadians living in Québec. Yet it has no known antecedents in France. Its rhythmic pulse resembles that of a British hornpipe in triple time (with beats grouped in threes). Hornpipes were first mentioned in a mid-15th century morality play, where they were deemed “a sprynge of lechery.”

Hornpipes are thought to have been named for instruments played by shepherds and made from animal horns, hence the name. Pictured below are some Welsh hornpipes, known as pibgorns.

Later, various types of smallpipes (a type of bagpipe) such as Northumbrian pipes and border pipes were used to play hornpipes, and by the 16thcentury, classical composers such a William Byrd were writing hornpipes for keyboards, as well. Those early hornpipes were often played in triple meter, with a recurring pattern of three beats that might be divided into a flow of two or even four notes per beat. English composer Henry Purcell incorporated two such hornpipes into the incidental music he wrote in 1676 for the play Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge. One of them, the Rondeau, was adapted by film composer Dario Marinellifor a dance scene in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. Here’s Purcell’s original version:

Here is the 2005 movie version, used in a dance scene with Kiera Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfayden as Mr. Darcy :


Around 1800, hornpipes underwent a change of meter from beats grouped in threes to beats grouped in twos or fours that were divided into an uneven flow of notes in dotted rhythms (where the first note in the pair is longer than the second). This new type of hornpipe was sometimes used to accompany a dance that mimed the work actions of a particular occupation, hence the well-known Sailor’s Hornpipe (although the tune associated with that name, thanks perhaps to Popeye cartoons, is actually the College Hornpipe).

 Daughter tune – The Red River Jig

In the 1840s, la Grande Gigue Simple was brought west to what is now Manitoba, where it was known as La Gigue du Bas-Canada (Bas-Canada, or Lower Canada, being the name for what is now the province of Québec). Adopted by the Métis population, whose people, heritage, language, and tradition were a mixture (métissage in French) of French, Scottish, and First Nations cultures, it was transformed into the Red River Jig, one of the emblematic fiddle and dance tunes of traditional Métis culture. Interestingly the Red River Jig, though it, like its mother tune, exists in many different versions, tends to go back and forth between the old 3/2 meter (usually in the A part) and the newer 2/2 meter (usually in the B part), as in this version by iconic Métis fiddler Andy DeJarlis:



My Moment with Muddy

As a teenager I became enthralled with the blues. First it was the bits of blues material I heard from British rock bands – the Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, and others. Then it was discovering young white American harp players such as Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield. Then the whole vista of modern blues opened up – Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, the King guitar triumvirate of B. B., Albert, and Freddie; Johnny Shines, Otis Spann, Little Milton, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, Jimmy Reed, and so many more!

When any of these guys actually came to town it was as if legendary beings had descended to Earth and graced us with their presence. In those days, touring performers often played weeklong club dates that gave them a deeper exposure to local audiences, and offered the true fanatics the chance to show up every night and develop familiarity both with the legends’ performing styles and with their (sometimes not-so-godlike) personalities.

One legend who lost no luster with exposure was Muddy Waters. As a young man, during my travels I’d meet harp players who would claim to have sat in with Muddy. I never doubted them, even the ones who were perfectly awful players. I believed them because of my own experience with Muddy.

Muddy had a great history of hatching new talent. Just look at the influential harp players whose careers were launched or furthered in his band – Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, George “Harmonica” Smith, James Cotton, Mojo Buford, Paul Oscher, Jerry Portnoy. Even the also-rans who for one reason or another didn’t make it into the band were illustrious, such as Paul deLay and Rod Piazza. It seemed like Muddy was a cultivator of developing talent and his band was the incubator.

So when Muddy started a weeklong engagement in my hometown, I approached him on the Monday night and asked to sit in. I’d made this request to other touring performers with names big and small and usually received the brush-off, sometimes gently and sometimes less so. Now, Muddy had no idea who I was or whether I knew which side of the harp was up (I did) or even if I could follow a 12-bar blues progression (I could). But without hesitation, he advised me, “Choose a Little Walter song, come back on the last night of the gig, and I’ll put you up.”

I showed up as directed, and before going on Muddy asked me what I’d chosen. I informed him that I wanted to play “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer.” He replied, “Oh that’s in the key of E natural.” Little Walter recorded it in the key of G, but I wasn’t about to gainsay the master, so I got an A-harp at the ready. Then he asked my name. When I said, “Winslow Yerxa,” his face flickered with a look of consternation (or maybe the look that some folks call “flustration”) and he remarked, “I can’t say that.” When the time came to announce my appearance, he simply referred to me as a young man but in a glowing tone of voice as if he knew and valued my playing.

I made it (a bit stiffly) through my slow-blues feature number, and suddenly Muddy launched into a mid-tempo shuffle, indicating for me to play along. I vamped along gamely for a few verses, when suddenly I realized what was going on – Muddy launched into the descending stop-time riff that comes in the middle of “Juke,” Little Walter’s most famous number! OK, now I knew what to do – why hadn’t I caught on before? We made it through to the end of the number and Muddy grabbed my arm, holding it up like he was announcing a victorious prizefighter and shouted, “Let’s hear it for a real harp player!”

Muddy Waters is one of the very greatest and most revered names in the blues, and behind that name is a man who was gracious and generous in encouraging talent. Some of lesser stature didn’t exhibit that spirit, and I sometimes wonder whether there’s a connection. Either way, it was certainly a thrill for me to receive such wonderful treatment from one of my heroes.

Into The Light

OK, my first actual blog post. I’m only now beginning to create a cohesive media presence after casually saturating the online world with my presence for a long time. The days are just starting to get longer, and at the beginning of any year, reflecting on change seems inevitable. Here are a few thoughts that float to the surface.

My nephew Matt cut out of the family Christmas party early for a big concert in the local mega-stadium. The odd part – for me at least – was that all the acts in the concert were DJs – not a live musician in sight. Between my generation and his, the idea of live music has shifted radically. Instead of performers generating the music by playing instruments, the performer assembles and processes existing recorded audio, choosing from a potentially vast repertoire of styles and periods to fashion an experience for the assembled crowd.

Is this bad or good? The audience still experiences creativity and personality in the way the DJ chooses and assembles material. They may even experience spontaneity and improvisation, depending on the working style of the DJ. But for musicians, the rise of the DJ has reduced opportunities to experience the joy of playing for audiences, while focusing their activities more heavily on recording. Audience contact recedes to the indirect venues of such online portals as YouTube, Spotify, and the various social media. Gone is that direct, real-time feedback loop – and the groove it can create – between the musicians and the audience of listeners and dancers. The DJ does get that audience experience, but the music he or she uses as source material may groove less as a result.

No, I’m not joining the eternal chorus of doomsayers muttering toothlessly through their long white beards. Human spirit is resilient and will express itself regardless of changes in media and culture. But as a player of a musical instrument (harmonica in my case) I have to wonder what the shifting landscape will do to my journey.

However, while live performing opportunities have dwindled, harmonica learning materials have blossomed. When I first started playing, teachers were pretty much non-existent, at least where I lived, and books were either old-fashioned works on how to play light classical tunes on chromatic harmonica, or Tony Glover’s Blues Harp, which was long on hip style and cultural information (who the great players were and how the music evolved) but short on playing technique and structure, at least compared to what’s out now.

These days, several full-time professional teachers are available on Skype, Facetime, and Google Video Chat (I’m one of them). Some great books are out there (including my Harmonica For Dummies and Blues Harmonica For Dummies). Harmonica teaching events are staged each year, including the Harmonica Collective (which I produce with Jason Ricci) and Jon Gindick’s Harmonica Jam Camp. Players can share information via multiple online forums such as harp-l, Modern Blues Harmonica, and Slidemeister, and a few content-rich teaching sites are available by paid subscription, including David Barrett’s and the Howard Levy Harmonica School. In addition, harmonica organizations such as SPAH have helped enormously in bringing harmonica players together.

So, does the world have more harmonica players than before, and do they play any better than they did in the past? Those things are hard to gauge, because so much more information is available. Before the Internet connected everyone, you might know about the famous pros and whoever was big in the local community. Beyond that, it was hard to know who was out there, let alone how well they played. Nowadays, serious harmonica players and teachers from around the world post their performances and lessons on YouTube, seeking listeners and students wherever they can be found. Even rank beginners post their efforts to the world, looking for encouragement and feedback. Still, I’d say that harp players overall are more proficient at playing the instrument and a higher proportion of them are serious, well-informed musicians.

One thing I can say is that the quality of harmonica information has gone way up. To be sure, bad harmonica information echoes down the channels of social media along with all the news hoaxes (shocking! outrageous! How dare they?). Right at the transition point between the print age and the online age, I helped spur a new surge in good information, first with my magazine, HIP – the Harmonica Information Publication and later via SPAH, various teaching camps and online forums and social media. Now, I’m concentrating and intensifying the flow of good, useful harmonica information with this new website and an expanded online presence.

Welcome to my world 2.0. I hope you like what you find and come to visit often!

December 2014