Does the music jump as a foot firmly smacks the floor? Or is the tune’s lift instead just ahead of soft, swishing, more reserved tapping? Is this a man still on his magical way somewhere inside a tune or just now slipping gently back? And who might this old fiddler have in mind as he reaches back and probes again within a familiar melody?
I admit an obsession. I pursue the tunes myself. And this lifelong fascination with fiddles and fiddlers and the art in their playing has its root mainly in one man’s music and one tune’s story.
I first met Carl Grexton in 1977. The amiable, gentle fiddler known then by all of Grandview, Manitoba, as Grandpa Grexton made sweet, stirring, inimitable music in a humble, lilting style all his own.
A lifelong musician who played his first house dances as a teenager, Carl was quietly scornful of bowish trickery, so-called hot fiddling, or anything show-offish or “too perfect.” He encouraged above all else a respect for the tune, but wasn’t against “juggling the notes” a bit to, in his words, “make it a little better.”
In fact, like all fine fiddlers, Carl Grexton somehow made every tune his own.
Raised in a family of eight siblings, he began fiddling in 1923 when he was 12 years old, and played for dances, community shows, and fiddle contests throughout his life, although he never recorded his music commercially.
Carl farmed for his living on the edge of Grandview, where he and Vivian raised sons Keith and Conrad. Carl Grexton died in 1999.
Carl’s father, his cousin Gordon Grexton, and the Métis fiddler Grandy Fagnan, whom he met in his late teens, are among the main early influences on his music. He considered his music to be a Manitoba style of playing, but had difficulty describing his style.
“A lot of guys tried to describe it but I never heard anybody that really come out with what they figured was the name of a style that I played,” Grexton said during an interview I recorded in 1984.
“Some people have said, ‘I don’t know that style. You never hear that style. What is it that anyway?’ They’ll say it’s something like Métis style, but it’s not quite that way. And some of them will say it’s more like maybe a Cajun style, and no, it’s not quite that way either. And I say, well, I don’t know what it is. You name it. I don’t know.”
Carl also said that while he admired many great fiddlers, he wouldn’t trade his style of playing for any other.
“I like that style, that’s why I do it,” he said.
His music, to my ear, always had a quietly insistent inner rhythm, assisted by marking time using both feet with a softer, toned-down version of Québécois foot percussion.
Carl’s repertoire included some of his own quite wonderful compositions, his take on most of the best-known Canadian tunes, and his own versions of many recorded and popularized by both Don Messer and Manitoba fiddle legend Andy Dejarlis, the prolific player most associated with the Manitoba Red River fiddling style.
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