The Traditional Music of Québec
As is the case for many Canadian musical traditions, the fiddle is the most commonly associated instrument with Québec traditional music. Despite this association, however, the violin did not travel over with the first colonists to New France. It came over first in the mid-17th century and then flourished in New France during the 18th century, animating the bals of society and folk alike. Though its presence excited the wrath of Québec’s clergy, it was clear even at such an early date that dancing and fiddling were essential components of the Québécois character. As a quote from 1767 attests: “Il est inutile de vous dire qu’il y avait des violons. On ne donne pas un repas au Canada sans violons. Quelle race de danseurs.” (Quoted in Joyal 2005)
The fiddle was used to animate dancers at the bals of Québec. These social dance events featured dances brought from Europe like the contredanse, the quadrille, the cotillon and in the late 19th century, the waltz and polka. Though the bals were based in high-society, people living in rural areas and/or lower economic classes adopted these dances as well. Québécois social dancing, inspired by European traditions, also drew from Celtic influences brought by early Scottish and Irish settlers. The gigue, a traditional Québécois form of stepdancing, derived from these Celtic precedents and inspired a host of tunes, often called gigues, that brought out the best in stepdancers. Instrumental dance tunes from this rich repertoire of social dance music are collected in the excellent book Danses d’içi by fiddler and scholar Jean-Pierre Joyal.
From the 78rpm Era of Québec Trad to the 1950s
By the late 19th century and early 20th century, a distinctly Québécois vision of traditional music had developed from diverse influences such as Irish instrumental tunes, Scottish stepdancing, European dance forms, old French songs and 78rpm records from the US and Canada. As the recording era dawned, the fiddle would rise to the fore as the premier instrument of Québec, followed closely by the accordion.
One of the early fiddlers was Isidore Soucy (1899-1963). Recording solo and with La Famille Soucy, he was a well known and popular Québécois fiddlers and one of the first recording stars of the fiddle in Québec. He recorded over 200 78rpm discs and he even had a television show, “Chez Isidore,” in the early 1960s. The CD, Violonneux Québécois, collects a number of his 78rpm recordings in a digital format. However, those looking for the maximum exposure to Soucy, should look to the Virtual Gramophone, which has hundreds of his 78rpms available for easy download.
Soucy shared the 78rpm fiddle spotlight with two other grand fiddlers of this early era: Jos Bouchard and Joseph Allard. Jos Bouchard (1905-1979) hailed from Île d’Orléans, a largely francophone island near Québec City. His fiddling is featured on the CD Jos Bouchard Violoneux d’Orléans. Unlike Soucy, he had a smooth, clean fiddle style that was clearly influences by Celtic sources. Joseph Allard (1873-1947) was an elegant fiddler with a similar style to Bouchard, it being heavily influenced by Irish fiddling styles. The Irish had arrived in Québec in the mid-19th century, fleeing the waves of potato famines in Ireland. Irish fiddling is one of the most heavily ornamented fiddling styles of the Celtic lands and features tunes with complex arrangements of notes. Irish fiddling styles and their tune repertoires would prove to be one of the strongest influences on traditional Québec fiddling. Allard was one of the first fiddlers to show this influence and in turn caused others to search out Irish fiddle techniques. Allard’s 78rpm recordings in the early 1900s can be easily found online at the Virtual Gramophone, on the CD Hommage à Joseph Allard and transcribed in the book Cinquante airs traditionnels pour violon.
Greatly inspired by Allard, Jean Carignan (1916-1988) is perhaps the best known of Québec fiddlers. With a fiddling style that bordered on classical violin, and an encyclopedic knowledge of 78rpms from the French-Canadian, Scottish and Irish traditions, Carignan melded all the music influences of 20th century Québec into one unique playing style. Carignan recorded throughout the 1950s and 1960s, paying hommage to his musical heroes, the Irish fiddler Michael Coleman, the Scottish fiddler J. Scott Skinner and Québécois fiddler Joseph Allard. Carignan was well known from his many performances at folk festivals throughout Canada and the US, but he was also acclaimed as a great violinist by some of the greatest classical violinists of his time. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1974. Though some of his recordings have been released on CD, they are usually produced for sale in Québec only. A 3 CD set, Archives, was recently released, drawn from private recordings in an intimate setting.
If Carignan was the best traditional fiddler of the 20th century, then his friend and musical partner Philippe Bruneau (1934-) was the best accordionist. Bruneau was a virtuoso of the one-row diatonic button accordion, a throwback to the first accordions brought to Canada in the mid-1900s. This instrument has ten buttons and plays approximately like a harmonica with bellows. In fact, the harmonica is as respected as the accordion in Québécois traditional music. Like many other cultures around the world, the Québécois had accepted the accordion as their own by the early 19th century, and recordings are available of this early style of Québec accordion. Alfred Montmarquette (1871-1944) is known as one of the great early accordionists and had a powerful affect on later players, especially Bruneau. His playing can be heard on a CD of his 78rpm recordings and many of these recordings are also available at the Virtual Gramophone. Bruneau drew inspiration from Montmarquette’s playing and the playing of other early Québécois musicians but Bruneau’s virtuosity is so far beyond most anyone else that he is in a class of his own.
Outside of the recording “mainstream” of Québec, many fiddlers and accordionists continued to carry on traditional music. Some of these artists wound up influencing a younger generation of Québécois who were looking for a national identity. Louis “Pitou” Boudreault (1905-1988) is an example of a rural musician who was highly influential on young traditional musicians in the 1960s. Born in Chicoutimi, Boudreault retained a large repertoire of very old tunes, especially tunes of a characteristic “crooked” nature. Departing from the usual structure of most Anglo-Celtic tunes, sometimes radically, French-Canadian tunes are often seen as crooked by other traditions’ standards. In fact, this predilection for crooked dance tunes was a musical trait that French-Canadians passed to other musical styles they encountered and had influence over. The art of crooked tunes is explored in depth by the Québécois/American group Les Têtes de Violon on their CD, Les Airs Tordus and in the book of the same name by Guy Bouchard and Liette Remon.
From the 1960s Folk Revival to Today
As Québec moved toward more radical self-definition in the 1960s, young musicians and fans created a folk revival of sorts that continues to this day. The group most famous for leading this revival was La Bottine Souriante (The Smiling Boot). Founded in 1976 in the musical town of Joliette, this folk super-group is still going strong 30 years later! Made up originally of young musicians and singers drawn from the Québécois folk revival of the 1960s, the band has seen many musicians move through its ranks and is currently made up entirely of the next generation of folk musicians in Québec. In the band’s first incarnation, lasting from 1976 to 1989, La Bottine set the template for all Québec trad bands to come with a main instrumentation of fiddle and accordion, a vast repertoire of traditional chansons à réponse or call-and-response songs and the immediate aural signifier of French-Canadian seated clogging, or la podorythmie. This period saw the seminal albums La Traversée de l’Atlantique and Chic & Swell. These two albums are the best introduction available to the traditional songs and dances of Québec.
In 1989, La Bottine switched to a radical new format, adding a large horn section and extensive arrangements of traditional material. Though they lost some of their more conservative fans, the new sounds of La Bottine garnered a huge international audience. They even incorporated sounds and ideas from hip-hop, as “Le Rap à Ti-Pétang” demonstrates from Rock and Reel (1998). La Bottine recently reformed once again for a new century, adding in two of the great players of a new generation, André Brunet on fiddle and Éric Beaudry on guitar/voice. No original members are left but the band is still blazing new ground as can be heard on J’ai jamais tant ri (2003). André Brunet is the best fiddler of this young generation and his incendiary playing can be heard on the CD 1,2,3… by Les Frères Brunet and the Celtic Fiddle Festival CD, Play On.
The hallmark of La Bottine Souriante and the prototypical song of French-Canada is the chansons à réponse. Many of these songs date back to a time before the colonization of the New World and can still be found in France today. Either brought over by Acadian settlers in Nova Scotia or by voyageurs and colonists in Québec, traditional chansons à réponse involve verses and choruses repeated by a group of other singers following a first iteration by a lead singer. Accompanied by the seated clogging or podrythmie that is so common to Québécois music, they have a distinct and wonderful sound. To hear more examples of chansons à réponse, as well as some of the old complaintes or ballads of medieval France, listen to CDs from the groups Ni Sarpe Ni Branche, Serre l’Ecoute and Trio Marchand/Miron/Ornstein. The best known singing group in Québec is the marvelous group Les Charbonniers de l’Enfer (Hell’s Coalmen). They sing totally a cappella with amazing harmonies and have a vast repertoire of traditional songs drawn from their families and other sources all over the province.
Though Québécois music is one of the least-known forms of North American folk music, it has had a lot of influence on American musical forms. Québécois brought to New England to work in lumberyards and factories brought the distinctive rhythms and joie-de-vivre of Québec fiddle, heavily influencing the native country or contra dances of the area. This influence lives on today, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where contra dance bands still favor French-Canadian tunes and rhythms and master fiddlers are brought from Québecc to Port Townsend every year for the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes. This influence can be found in two collections of contra dance tunes of the Pacific northwest, The Portland Collection, compiled by Clyde Curley and Sue Songer. In New England, fiddler Laurie Hart has compiled a definitive collection of French-Canadian tunes entitled Danse ce soir. Also in New England, Irish fluter Grey Larsen collaborated with La Bottine Souriante’s original singer, André Marchand for two sublime albums exploring the common roots of Québec and Ireland, The Orange Tree and Les Marionettes.
With new groups like Ni Sarpe Ni Branche and Le Vent du Nord bringing Québécois traditional music into the 21st century and garnering critical praise in the American folk music scene, this music seems poised for a breakthrough in the United States. Whether that happens sooner rather than later, one thing is for certain, the traditional songs and dances of Québec will always have a place in the New World.
Joyal, Jean-Pierre. “Une longue histoire d’amour: le violon et les québécois.” Mnémo Bulletin 9(2): Winter 2005.