"I wouldn't trade my style...": An Interview with Manitoba's Carl Grexton
This is a longer version of an interview that was published in the Fall 2019 issue of Fiddler Magazine. It is an edited transcription of a conversation between the author Will Henry and fiddler Carl Grexton, who was 74 at the time. It was recorded at Grexton’s home in Grandview, Manitoba on March 13, 1984.
Did you have any one fiddler that you learned from the most?
Well, my dad, and my cousin Gordon. In fact, you learn from everybody that you hear, you know, really, but I admired Gordon more. Until this Grandy (Fagnan - a highly regarded Métis musician from Camperville, Manitoba) guy came into the picture. And of course he could play better than either one of them, too. So then I kind of tried to copy off him a certain amount.
Had you heard that Métis style of playing before you heard Grandy?
But you heard others when you went up to work at Camperville. You were about 19 then, but you had heard Grandy a couple of years before that?
I was 17 or so, when I first heard him. I think he was about the best of what I heard, excepting there was one older guy was better than him, but he didn’t associate much with the young punks. He was kind of by himself. He was a fiddler by himself. He was a real king pin, that old guy. Michelle Chartrand he was, an uncle of Grandy’s.
How would you describe the style or the way that you play, or would you?
Well, I don’t know. 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. 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.
But you would say it is a sort of Manitoba style.
Someone from Saskatchewan or Ontario wouldn’t play the way you do?
No. No. No they don’t.
So your influences are a combination of listening to the Métis tunes and then listening to whatever you heard on record and on radio and your dad and everything and it’s a Manitoba style because you heard all those things around here in Manitoba.
Yeah. I guess so.
There’s nobody I’ve heard that plays the style that you play.
Well that’s what everybody tells me. I don’t know. I can’t say. Partly because I don’t know and partly because I don’t hear myself and can’t compare it to other people’s fiddling. I do know that I’d rather have my style than almost everybody else’s style. I’d sooner have it than anybody that beats me in a contest. I wouldn’t trade them styles. They can maybe get the notes more accurate and all that stuff and get their tempo right and can beat me there and I kind of wish that I could, you know, maybe do that. But I never, never, never wish that I had their style. I wouldn’t trade my style for any because I like that style and that’s why I do it.
Would you change anything? Would you like to be able to do anything differently than the way you do?
No. No. If I did, I’d be trying to work at it and make if different.
When you were working up in Camperville in your late teens, was there music every night?
Every night usually. Somebody would come along. There was quite a few fiddlers and they could keep at it for hours. Almost everyone could play something.
Were there dances, and were they different from what you were used to?
The had a dance every week or every second weekend. There were a lot of square dances and a lot of six couple dances, and the Red River Jig. They would dance that for, I don’t know how long it would be, a good hour anyway. And they’d change off fiddlers and change off the dancers, too. Same tune, they’d never let up. They’d just go on continually. There’d be a guy come out to the centre of the floor and he’d be dancing all the way out there and he’d ho her down for awhile and then there’d be somebody else come out after awhile and this one would fade out into the background.
Your first music was at home with your family, on your dad’s fiddle. Did you play every day?
Oh, all the time. Every time I got the chance. He’d hang it up and I’d take it down. He wasn’t playing very much. He’d kind of let it go.
How long before you had a repertoire of tunes?
Oh, it’d be a couple years I guess, quite awhile anyway.
And when did you start playing at dances. How did that come about?
We had quite a thing going at home. Like, my mother used to play. We had an old pump organ at the time and so she would chord away. She used to chord to my dad and then she would chord to me. So that worked into something that sounded like music. That gave me encouragement and so I just kept at it. And my sister could play a bit too, and then we got a piano and then it was better, and my brother took piano lessons and from there it went.
How many kids were there?
There was eight of us all together. I’m the second oldest. None of the others played any fiddle. My brother had an old four string banjo he used to thump away on and kind of keep time.
So you started fiddling at about 14 and by 16 you had a repertoire. You played at dances, would they be house dances?
Did you go specifically to provide music or were you just attending?
Yes. I was supposed to be playing and well, we all went anyway. And some of the house dances were at our house and we would play. Every second dance would be a square dance, and then in between would be a waltz, maybe the one time, and then maybe the next time a schottische or a heel and toe polka.
What would those dances be like? Would it be a big crowd?
Well, all the house would hold, maybe 40 people or more. It wouldn’t be every weekend. In the winter time it’d be about once a week alright, but not (always) in our house. We’d take turns. There was about four or five different places that we went to. They had fun.
Was it always you and your family playing the music?
Yeah, pretty well. Pretty near always. There would usually be somebody that might play a few tunes, and then they would quit and you know we would have to take over.
What about other musicians, like Gordon Grexton, or others in the district. They had a different neighbourhood they played in?
That’s right. They would very seldom, come down into our area. Once in a while he would come and stay, for a week or more, my cousin, I mean, and we’d play tunes all the time, pretty well. But I can’t remember him going to any of these house dances and playing. He would usually be playing for some dance out in the country on a weekend. He was quite popular for the dances with his fiddling.
Your dad played too, do you know how far back the music goes in your family.
I don’t think it went any farther back then him. I think maybe he played when he was maybe 20 years old and up until shortly after I started. Then he didn’t play anymore.
Do you know why? Was he not interested?
Well, I think he was interested, you know, but there was was a time there, about five or six years, where he had sent his fiddle away to get repaired, to Winnipeg. And it was a quite awhile before he got it back. And when he got it back, well, he was pretty rusty and that was the beginning of the end. He played a little bit after that at home but he didn’t really go out and play.
Is it a tradition thing for you? If your dad hadn’t been a fiddler, do you think you would be playing?
No. I don’t suppose so, eh?
You started with your dad’s fiddle, when did you first get your own?
I didn’t have my own fiddle for quite a few years. It must have been five or six years. I used to take his to dances and he didn’t like me taking it either you know. Throwing it in a wagon box or something. Figured it’d get broke. It never did though.
My first fiddle, I got it from a guy that, we traded him something for it. Now I forget what it was. But it was pretty good. It was a good loud one and I used to take that to dances. That was a good one, you know. Really loud. For dances that’s what you needed at that time. But it got cracked up, so I traded that one for that black one there. I’ve had that one for a long time. This last one, I got that a few years ago.
Have you always played (often) or did you have spells where you quit for a while?
There was a time there I was too dang busy or too tied up with making a living. There must have been about 10 years there where I very seldom picked it up, from about 35 to 45 (years old).
Did you find you’d lost a lot of it. Did you have to work to get it back?
Oh ya. There was a lot lost and I don’t know whether I ever got it back. But you see, that’s when I developed a sort of a new style. Before that it was strictly dance type of tunes and get it over with. Something they wanted to dance to and so there wasn’t much effort put into the best way of doing it or wether it sounded the best this way or that way, you know, it was just a matter of doing it. That’s all.
I suppose in the meantime, I’d heard records and radio and things and I knew that there was a better way of doing it and so I worked on that. Tried to anyway.
So you wanted to add what you heard on the radio or the records to what you already knew?
Yea, sure. Try to fix it or make it a little better or something. I guess everybody did that.
How do you learn a tune?
You’d hear it a few times and then you’d try it and then you’d hear it some more and then you’d maybe get it right the next time, you know. You didn’t have anything else to go by, really.
Just your memory.
Yeah. And at that time, there wasn’t too many tunes in your head. It wasn’t bottled up with a whole bunch of other tunes that you could get sidetracked on. And it registered when you heard somebody playing and, you know, you remembered it. You see now, there’s so many tunes that sound a lot alike that you hear on records and radio that sometimes you get them mixed up. It’s kind of hard to separate them sometimes.
What were your tune sources, other than local musicians?
Radio, we got that fairly early, an old radio. We didn’t buy records. Mostly it was radio.
So the tune would come on the radio and it would be gone and you’d have to rely on your memory.
That’s right. Yes.
So how old would you be before you start taking a record and learning that way, listening to it over and over.
Oh, that wasn’t so long ago. That was only maybe 10 years ago or so that I got to that stage. Like now I can put it on that other tape recorder and slow it down so I can actually pick out the notes if I play it long enough. But that’s pretty hard, even.
So you are still learning new tunes?
Oh yea, I’ve got tunes on there now that I’ve got to work on. It takes me longer because now, I try to get it right, or as near to right as I can.
When you say right, do you mean the way whoever you’re listening to plays it, or do you mean right for your stye.
Well, I try to get it the way that I hear it. The very same. But of course sometimes I exchange one note for another one, unconsciously. There’s a lot of notes, you know, that I have trouble finding, really, on the thing. So you hear it, and you go over it and over it and there’s a note or two that you know is not right, but where is that note? I can’t find it for a long time. You know that you could substitute that note and it would be quite permissible, you know. It would pass. It would be alright, too. It would be alright, just as good as the one that’s in there. So those are the notes that I have trouble with.
So it takes longer because you’re trying to get it right?
Yeah. There’s some tunes that I had to discard. There’s a few waltzes where I didn’t stay with it long enough to get the right ones. So I quit. I left it alone, I didn’t go back to it.
When you were learning, when you were younger, or now, whenever, would you listen to other music that wasn’t a fiddle and then adapt it to the fiddle.
Oh ya. We used to have to do that in dances, you know. There’s all kinds of them round dances where the songs were popular for that day and they weren’t fiddle tunes at all but you’d get a call for them and people would want to hear them. Well, Wahoo and blues, you know, Wabash Blues and St. Louis Blues. That’s no fiddle tune. We used to play that. At that time there was a lot of new tunes that were really good tunes and they were good dance tunes and we played them.
Did you keep the best of them? Could you still play them if you could think of them?
Well, I could play them yet. After a bit of practice I could still play them the same as we used to play them. But there’s no call for them, really, and some of them are hard to find chords for so accompanists they can’t follow you very good, you know, and they don’t like it, so, well, there’s other ones. You take Wabash Blues now, that’s a hard thing.
How would they find chords for them back then?
My brother now, he was expert on the piano and when he was that age, he was really good and his note reading could help him some and if he didn’t have notes he could find them chords and a lot of times I would learn the tune off him as well. Those notes that are hard to find, in lots of cases I got them from him. And we had a good guy on the guitar, and he could find them alright.
When would this be?
Well, when we were going to dances around the country, starting in the early 1930s. That wasn’t the house dance era, that was later on. And they paid us to go and play these dances. I was maybe about 20 years old at that time and we formed this little group to play at school houses and halls. We played at Tamarisk Hall, and Ottawa Valley Hall and Hougton School and Pleasant Valley Hall, Duck Mountain, Mountain Gap. Every weekend we had a dance some place. That was just in the winter time. That wasn’t all year round at all. I was still playing at dances when I was married and I was 28 then, so it would be 10 or 12 years that we did this, pretty well every weekend.
How did your travel?
Horses and a sleigh. It would take an hour and a half to go out there, or close to two hours with a big team. They paid us about a dollar apiece, and sometimes they didn’t take in enough money to pay us and they would owe us then. They charged 25 cents and ladies free, if they brought cakes or something. Well, hardly anybody had 25 cents so they’d sneak in or get in some way. The needed three dollars to pay us, well that would only take 12 people paying to pay us and lots of times they didn’t have that.
But the place would be full?
Oh, yeah. It was quite a deal.
If you played in halls without electricity, how did you hear? Were the people quiet when they danced or how did they manage to hear?
Well, a lot of time they couldn’t hear. Now, I didn’t know about this, but (I heard) they used to run a copper wire down the centre of the hall, along the ceiling. From one end right to the other and they said that carried the sound down the hall. I thought that was BS and then I heard someone else say the same thing, so I don’t know. Maybe that does happen.
How long did those dances continue?
I kept at it for awhile after I was married and then we stopped, and it wasn’t just because I got married. In 1940 I went up to Flin Flon and I worked there for a year, and in the meantime my brother got a call for the army. My brother that played the piano. So he had to go to the the army and that split that up and I was working then so I kind of lost interest in it too. And there was two other guys went in the army, too.
When did you get back to playing dances again?
Never did really. Not until The Generations started up about four or five years ago. I might have got a call once in awhile to kind of help out at a dance or just the odd thing or the odd time we might get together and play at something.
What are the most popular tunes people ask for in this area … are there local tunes that are popular with both the players and the public?
Well, tunes like The Basket Social or certain waltzes. Actually what they wanted was a good waltz, they didn’t care too much what it was. Some of them wanted that Ranger’s Waltz. They remember that from way back. There’s the odd one like that, but not too many. They ask for different things alright but I can’t say there’s any particular one.
What about your favourites?
I like reels and I like waltzes about as good as anything. I seem to be able to put the most into a waltz. Reels would be my second I guess. But I like both. I like jigs, too, but I don’t have as many of them. I don’t learn too many jigs. I like the style you can get out of a reel. I get a kick out of trying to do the thing with the least effort and make it sound right, actually.
If you were to take your wild guess at how many tunes you probably could play if you started playing them all, how many would you play?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. At one time I bet a guy that I could play 100 reels, well, reel type things, you know. And I did and I had more to spare, too. My dad was there too.
What did you win?
I didn’t win anything. He just bet I couldn’t and I bet I could.
You must have played 50 here tonight.
Well, we played quite a few, ya.
(Photo: Carl Grexton performing at Bield, Manitoba, c. 1980, by Will Henry)