Marius Barbeau A glimpse of Canadian Culture (1883-1969)
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French Canadian Folk Songs

French-Canadian folk songs recorded on wax cylinders make up one of CMC's oldest audio collections. Approximately 2,270 recordings, mostly collected by Marius Barbeau, were digitally converted using a French custom-built player, the archeophone, one of the few devices able to coax sound from the aging cylinders. Recording quality varies; while some tracks are perfectly clear, others reflect the limitations of early recording techniques and bear evidence of damage to the support media.

We are delighted to present some tracks from this rich and varied repertory. To access a selection of more than 900 songs from the collection, along with digital versions of the original transcripts, please click on the following link.

Le couvent c'est ennuyant (It's boring at the convent)

This children's lullaby-type song gives a humorous description of the life of a convent boarder in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Marius Barbeau recorded two versions of the song in 1916 and 1917, the first sung by Édouard-Zotique Massicotte, who first heard it in Trois-Rivières and Montreal, and the second, sung by six-year-old Annette Tremblay in Les Éboulements, Charlevoix.

It is the latter version, recorded in 1916, that is presented here. It is one of only a handful of songs sung by children to be recorded on wax cylinders by Marius Barbeau. (Song MN306). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau "En roulant ma boule" p.515).

D'où reviens-tu, méchant ivrogne? (Where have you been, you horrible drunkard?)
(Reproches de la femme de l'ivrogne) (The reproach of the drunkard's wife)

This song explores a social theme often addressed with humour - the joys of everyday life. In question-response form, set to dance music, it presents a dialogue between a drunkard and his wife .

This version of D'où reviens-tu, méchant ivrogne? (which translates as "where have you been, you horrible drunkard?") was sung Louis Simard (alias the Blind Man) of Saint-Iréné, Charlevoix. It was recorded in 1916, when Mr. Simard was 64 years old. (Song MN157). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau Barbeau "Le Roi boit" p. 349.

La courte paille (The Short Straw)

"In our national repertoire, there are not many popular songs that appear to be as Canadian as this one. It is well-known throughout Québec, where it first appeared two or three centuries ago."

"Versions of this sailor's song, which probably originated in the Brittany or Poitou regions of France, crossed the ocean and washed up on many foreign shores far from its home country, including Scandinavia, Denmark, Norway and even Iceland. It also took root in Great Britain and French Switzerland. Spain also adopted it, especially in Catalonia, and Portugal adapted it to create a quasi-epic poem entitled A nau Cathrinetta, which is a tribute to the famous 16th century Portuguese ship Catherinetta". The song was already several hundred years old when it was brought to Canada by the French settlers in the 17th century. It was probably sung by boatmen and labourers performing rhythmic tasks."

The version presented here was recorded in 1916 by Marius Barbeau, and was sung by 80-year-old Élisabeth Tremblay of Les Éboulements, Charlevoix. (Song MN050). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau "En roulant ma boule" pp.49-55).

Faut aller chercher le loup (We have to find the wolf)

Sung as a lullaby for children, the wolf song is an example of a very old musical genre. A close relative, La randonnée du chevreau (The kid's walk) (also known as Biquette), appears in Jewish Easter manuscripts in Prague as far back as 1590. The genre's origins can be traced back to the 12th and 13th centuries.

As with other songs of the genre, new objects are accumulated and the stanzas become longer as the song progresses.

Have to find the wolf (bis)
To come and eat the baby.
The wolf doesn't want to eat the baby...
The baby doesn't want to sleep...

The song speaks of bringing the wolf to eat the baby, the dog to bite the wolf, the stick to beat the dog, the fire to burn the stick, the water to put out the fire, the bull to drink the water, and the butcher to kill the bull. However, the enumeration is incentive to encourage the baby to sleep. All is well that ends well. The baby sleeps and the exhausted singer is glad to reach the end!

The version presented here was sung in 1916 in Ottawa by author Louvigny de Montigny, who learned it from his father in Saint-Jérôme, Québec, around 1890. It was the first folk song recorded by Marius Barbeau. (Song MN001). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau "En roulant ma boule" pp.569, 609-610).

J'ai fait faire un beau navire (I've had a great ship built)
(The magical ship)

J'ai fait faire un beau navire is a variation on a well-known theme in France and Canada – that of the magical ship that appears to have been popular among sailors from the La Rochelle region of France. These fantasy songs about the magical ship, which sails early one morning for "Cytherus"*, was brought across the ocean by the New France settlers. Songs such as these are found throughout Québec, in various forms, each with its own charming melody.

The version presented here was sung by Édouard Hovington (who was 90 years old at the time) and was recorded in Tadoussac in 1918. Mr. Hovington was a former boatman who had learned the song in his youth from "the north Montreal drovers". The song was well-suited to the rhythm of the oars, and was used extensively by the North West boatmen. (Song MN460). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau "En roulant ma boule" pp. 125-126).

* A Greek island in the Aegean Sea, where people worshipped Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.

Francoeur, le mal faite (Francoeur the Ugly)
(Baptiste le forgeron)

This short satirical song is a good example of the ditties people used to write as insults to specific people. Songs such as this, including those written for elections, usually survived only as long as their subjects lived.

This version was sung in 1916 by 80-year-old Élisabeth Tremblay, of Les Éboulement, Charlevoix. It is about Francoeur the blacksmith. (Song MN038). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau "Le Roi boit" p. 425).

Je me lève à l'aurore du jour (I get up at dawn)

"This lyrical song is an example of the ancient dawn serenade or nocturne. In a nocturne, the suitor always stands under his lady's window at midnight. In the dawn serenade, however, the scene takes place at sunrise. This gallant custom of early-morning visits triggered a spate of these songs, which spread throughout most of Europe. They appear to have originated in the Midi region of France, or perhaps in one of the Latin countries further south."

"Here, the suitor arrives at dawn and asks his lady, 'My beauty, are you sleeping?' She opens the door and welcomes her lover. But sadly, it is the last time they will see one another for seven years. He is a soldier, in the regiment, and must leave for Orléans."

Je me lève à l'aurore du jour has a charming melody, although its text is somewhat clichéd for the genre.

Many different versions of the song were recorded throughout Québec. The version presented here was sung by 39-year-old Louise Simard (née Desgagnés) of Saint-Irénée, Charlevoix, and was recorded in 1916 by Marius Barbeau. (Song MN202). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau "Le Rossignol y chante" pp. 89-91).

Je ne veux pas d'un habitant (I don't want a settler)
(Le Mari que je voudrais)

"This song, sung by labourers or boatmen, probably originated in France. In France, shoemakers used to be an inferior social class." Some couplets, including that of the settler, "were probably added over time, after the song was introduced to New France."

Several versions of the song were recorded, including one by E.-Z. Massicotte in 1917-1918, sung by Vincent-Ferrier de Repentigny of Beauharnois, and another by Marius Barbeau in 1925, sung by Ermina Leblond of Orléans Island.

It is this latter version that we present here, sung by 60-year-old Ermina Leblond. (Song MN4030). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau "En roulant ma boule" pp.299-300).

Voici le printemps (Spring is here)
(La merveilleuse nuit de noce)

"'Spring is here' is a lively song that used to be popular throughout the Upper St. Lawrence region. In France, where it was also popular, it could be heard in the Loire Valley, in the Berry region, in Ile-de-Vilaine and elsewhere in Brittany, as well as in Franche-Comté and even Lorraine."

"It is a landlubbers' song, speaking of food and love and celebrating the return of spring."

"The song probably came to Canada from France at some point during the 17th century, with the immigrants who settled in Montréal and Trois-Rivières, rather than Québec City. Like the Montréal and Trois-Rivières settlers, it originated more from the Loire Valley region than from Normandy."

Used as a rowing song, it was first sung to Marius Barbeau in 1916 by Édouard Hovington of Tadoussac, who was a former boatman for the Hudson Bay Company. Édouard-Zotique Massicotte recorded a version sung to a different tune by Louis-Honoré Cantin in 1917.

The version presented here was sung in 1917 by 59-year-old Vincent-Ferrier de Repentigny, of Beauharnois. It is very similar to Mr. Hovington's version. (Song EZM 828). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau "En roulant ma boule" pp.95-99)

À Paris, dans une ronde (In Paris, in a circle)
(La vieille à la bourse d'argent)

This song tells the story of an 80-year-old woman who joins a circle of young girls in order to attract a suitor. Drawn by her silver dowry, the suitor marries her at once. However, the marriage did not last long; as the song says, "Married on Monday, Buried on Tuesday"..."Long live the old lady, the poor old lady, who didn't last long!". The grieving widower was then able to marry a 15-year-old girl, undoubtedly thanks to the old woman's money.

The song was sung "at work, for dancing or for rowing", and was known throughout France, but especially in the Dauphiné, Provence, Haut-Languedoc, Normandy and Cambrésis regions. In Québec, Marius Barbeau recorded a version sung by Élisabeth Tremblay in 1916 at Les Éboulements, Charlevoix, and a second version sung by 32-year-old Suzanne Lortie, (née Hamel). It is this latter version that is presented here. (Song MN008). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau "En roulant ma boule" pp.267-26; Marguerite et Raoul d'Harcourt "Chansons folkloriques française au Canada" pp. 379-380).

Ah! J'ai vu, J'ai vu, Compère qu'as-tu vu?; ? (Ah! I've seen, I've seen, Comrade, what have you seen?)
(L'anguille qui coiffait sa fille)

This song about lies or made-up stories is one of a genre that used to be popular throughout Québec. It was also well-known in France, in the Alps, Dauphiné, Val de Loire, Franche-Comté, Gascony, Lower Brittany and Nivernais regions.

The song's absurdity makes the listener laugh, but it also has a certain poetic quality, and according to Marius Barbeau was well-suited for use in the nursery.

The version presented here was sung by 65-year old Louis Simard (known as the Blind Man), and was recorded in 1916 by Marius Barbeau in Saint-Irénée, Charlevoix. (Song MN223). Listen.

(Source: Marius Barbeau "En roulant ma boule" pp.545-548; Marguerite et Raoul d'Harcourt "Chansons folkloriques française au Canada" pp. 359-361).