The story of Mary Travers Bolduc ("La Bolduc") is a rags-to-riches tale of a Quebec housewife who rose from impoverished obscurity to become a major 1930s recording phenomenon. This ordinary, traditional woman became a most extraordinary musical spokesperson for her time and her people, earning the title, "Queen of Canadian folksingers".
During her short musical career, Madame Édouard Bolduc was known across French Canada and the northeastern U.S. as a highly successful recording artist, performer and writer of popular folksongs. Her career, begun through simple economic necessity and built on the music of her own roots, became the stuff of legend.
The woman who is regarded as Quebec's first "chansonnière" (singer-songwriter) had not a formal music lesson in her life. She was born into subsistence-level poverty in the tiny Atlantic fishing village of Newport, Quebec, in Canada's Gaspé region. Mary Travers was one of six children born to Lawrence Travers, an Anglophone of Irish heritage, and Adéline Cyr, a French-Canadian woman. There were also six other children in the household, from Lawrence's first marriage. Mary and her eleven siblings spoke English at home, but also spoke French fluently, in their regional dialect.
Mary briefly attended school, learning to read and write French, and studying her Catholic catechism. However, the strong, tall girl was needed to help her father hunt and cut wood, and to help her mother with household tasks. Her life, like that of most girls of her station, revolved around family and home.
The isolated villagers of Newport rarely travelled and had little knowledge of big cities or modern music. Lawrence was Mary's first and only music instructor, teaching her to play the traditional instruments found in most Quebec homes at the turn of the 20th century: fiddle, accordion, harmonica, spoons and Jew's harp (this name comes from "jaws-harp"). They played mostly traditional folk tunes and dances such as jigs, performed by memory and by ear, since the Travers family had no record player, piano or sheet music. Mary's repertoire consisted of Irish melodies from her father's heritage and French-Canadian folk tunes from her mother's side -- shaping the distinctive style for which she later became famous. By the spring of 1908, Mary was playing accordion in the evenings at the lumberjack camp where she cooked for her father and the other woodcutters, and where entertainment consisted of the folk tunes and dances that the men performed themselves.
To ease the burden of feeding twelve children, each of Mary's siblings left home while in their early teens. In 1908, when Mary turned thirteen, her half-sister Mary-Ann, who was a maid in Montréal, arranged for Mary to join her. It was the younger girl's first experience of independence, of life outside Newport and of travel. Her first train journey took her out of her rural village of 1 500 people, to Montréal, with its 350 000 people.
Mary began work as a domestic servant in the home of a Doctor Lesage, for $15 per month plus room and board. After a few years, she left for a better job in a textile factory. The new job required an arduous eleven hours a day, five and a half days a week, for $15 weekly.
Mary followed the pattern for a girl of her time, marrying when she was barely twenty. She married Édouard Bolduc on August 17, 1914, and found herself pregnant almost continuously thereafter. Her first pregnancy ended in a stillbirth in 1915; Denise was born in July 1916, Jeannette in July 1917 and Roger in August 1918. Édouard's factory job did not pay much and his salary seemed less with each additional mouth to feed. Mary had ceased working in the factory, but sewed piecework at home to contribute to the family income. Still, their poverty was no different from what she had known in Newport.
The Bolducs, like other urban poor in the early 20th century, knew the hardship of inadequate living conditions. There was little medical attention and communicable diseases like scarlet fever, were still a scourge on the population. In the early 1900s, one in every four Canadian children was expected to die before reaching adulthood. Still, when her baby Roger died at ten months old, while Mary was pregnant again, it hit her hard. Jeannette too, died within two years. Mary also suffered a miscarriage and lost another infant born prematurely.
Édouard Bolduc had become a plumber, but had difficulty finding employment. In 1921, the Bolducs left Montréal for Springfield, Massachusetts, where they joined Édouard's sister and 10 000 other French-Canadian emigrants, all seeking prosperity. Édouard failed to find a job there and the following year they returned to Montréal. Another baby was born in 1922, and a daughter in March 1925. Mary also experienced several miscarriages, the last in 1929. Of 12 or 13 pregnancies, only four of the Bolduc children survived into adulthood.
Despite constant poverty, the Bolduc family was relatively happy. To amuse their friends and the children, Mary played traditional jigs, reels and lullabies, on the violin and harmonica. The Bolducs entertained friends from the Gaspé with "at-home" evenings of singing and music making. Many of these friends were amateur folk musicians who performed at the Monument-National with Conrad Gauthier's troupe, the Veillées du bon vieux temps (meaning "an evening with the good old days"). (See The Music Scene in Quebec, 1915-1920)
These contacts led to Mary's being "discovered" when she was asked to fill in for an absent folk violinist. With Édouard out of work, she was happy for the opportunity to make a few dollars when Gauthier asked her to return. By 1928, Mary Bolduc was regularly accompanying the troupe's singers on violin or Jew's harp; and later, she was featured as an instrumentalist and comic actress. The wife and mother who had once performed only in her living room thus became accustomed to an audience of hundreds.
Mary developed confidence as a performer, even in unfamiliar situations like her first broadcast with the Monument-National orchestra from radio station CKAC. One night, she ventured to sing a short folk-tune, and the audience demanded several encores. Folk-singer Ovila Légaré recommended her to the Compo Company's Roméo Beaudry, who was in charge of French-language recordings released on the Starr label. Beaudry promptly offered her a recording contract for four 78-rpm discs, at $25 per side.
The timing was right for Bolduc to establish herself as a professional singer-songwriter. She would have been aware that show business was one of the few arenas in which a woman could earn the same amount as, or even more than, a man. (In the factory jobs she was qualified for, women were routinely paid less than their male counterparts.)
Madame Édouard Bolduc's first recording for Starr, in April 1929, was of the French folk song "Y'a longtemps que je couche par terre" ("I've been sleeping on the floor a long time"), and an instrumental reel. With these traditional selections, she announced her musical allegiances loud and clear. The recordings, today considered of historic interest, were commercial failures at the time, but since Bolduc still needed material to fulfill her contract, she created the lyrics for the comic song that launched her to fame: "La Cuisinière" ("the cook"). For the other side she recorded "Johnny Monfarleau", using an English folk song as a basis. She recorded these two songs in time for Christmas release. They became best sellers and earned her family $450. From that point, Madame Édouard Bolduc became a household name in French Canada.
The compositional process by which Mary Bolduc created "La Cuisinière" and its companion pieces was simple: sitting at her kitchen table, she hummed a tune based on a folk-song or perhaps a jig or reel, then worked it out on the fiddle and improvised a simple accompanying poem of rhyming couplets, which she dictated to her daughter Denise. Since Mary Bolduc could not read or write music notation, she memorized and demonstrated the melodies she created. (See An Analysis of "La Cuisinière".)
Building on the success of these recordings and an offer from Roméo Beaudry to record a double-sided 78-rpm disc every month, Mary Bolduc churned out numerous songs following the same successful formula. She adapted existing folk or popular tunes for the music and added her own comic words in realistic working-class French slang. She described characters and events with which her listeners, poor French-Canadians with traditional family values, could identify. Her songs had lively rhythms and a happy tone, and most featured comic vignettes and humorous working-class characters. A few were traditional instrumentals. Many recordings, such as "Ça va venir découragez-vous pas", feature her playing the harmonica between verses.
To distinguish her recordings from those of other folk musicians, Bolduc began to add sung refrains built of vocables, or nonsense syllables, called in French "turlutes" and in English "mouth music." Mouth music, which was sung for dancers when no fiddle was available, was a tradition with her father and their Irish and Scottish neighbours in the Gaspé. "Les Maringouins" ("the mosquitoes"), provides an excellent example of Mary Bolduc's "turlutes."
Creating two songs per month was a challenge for Bolduc. For fresh material she turned to current events, simultaneously discovering an opportunity to comment on unsatisfactory social conditions that "little people" like the Bolducs endured. (See La Bolduc -- Recording Career.)
Mary Bolduc's first public appearance as a headliner was at a costume ball at Lachute, Quebec, in November 1930. The audience reception surpassed her wildest dreams and she conceived the idea of a show that would focus on her own songs. She accepted a lucrative offer as the main act for a burlesque company at the Théâtre Arlequin de Québec in March 1931. This led to an offer by Juliette d'Argère (the comic known as Caroline) for a three-month tour of Quebec.
Mary Bolduc was a practical woman and she knew the value of an opportunity. Her husband was still unable to provide for their family, and the public wanted to see and hear the musician they began to refer to as "La Bolduc." (While today the title, "La Bolduc," is usually interpreted as a compliment, at the time, both fans and critics considered it a reference to her independent character. Mary herself considered the expression derogatory and wrote a forceful reply in the song "La Chanson du bavard.") Mary did not let her critics, false modesty or traditional gender-role expectations stop her. Just as she had seen the men in her native Gaspé do, Mary set out to work in order to support her family.
Mary Bolduc and Juliette d'Argère planned and organized their tour, and engaged a few performers to accompany them. Mary developed a formula that she kept to in later tours: herself as headliner, plus a piano player and comedians. The little troupe started out in May 1931 in Hull, Quebec for a week; they then travelled around west Quebec and Montréal, winding up in Sept-Îles. A few of the bigger towns had theatres, but often their stage was the Catholic parish hall or church basement.
Though Mary had good business instincts, she knew little about money beyond her household's needs. Within two years, her concert tours earned her what, in those desperate Depression times, must have seemed large sums. A music career had never been her dream, but she now found herself a star.
As a headliner, in 1932 she formed her own troupe, modelled on the others with which she had performed. She called it "La Troupe du bon vieux temps" ("the good old times troupe"). She engaged a director (first Jean Grimaldi and later Henri Rollin), and planned tours of Quebec and New England. Through the early and mid 1930s, Mary alternated concert tours around Quebec and environs, with time at home with her family. (See La Bolduc -- Concert Career)
As the 1930s wore on, La Bolduc's new records kept to the traditional French-Irish folk sound, resisting popular styles such as the sentimental ballads of Tin Pan Alley and the new sounds of jazz. Many listeners no longer wanted songs that reminded them of the hard times. Bolduc's records were not selling as well, but she still earned a steady income through concerts. She therefore continued to tour, although she felt the separation from her children and conflicts with her husband arose from the switch in their roles.
By 1936, Mary was so successful that she was able to hire a nanny to look after the children while she was on tour. She had already provided many luxuries that were out of reach for most people during the Depression, such as a new car in 1931, a cabinet-model radio and eventually a house of their own. When she was at home, however, she prided herself on being a good wife and mother.
Madame Édouard Bolduc's concert career abruptly ceased after a serious traffic accident in June 1937. Her troupe had performed in Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, and their car, driven by the tour director, Rollin, collided with another vehicle. Bolduc was seriously injured, with a broken leg, broken nose and a concussion. In hospital in Rimouski, doctors discovered a cancerous tumour. From that point on, poor health and frequent radiation treatments at Montréal's Radium Institute limited her musical activities.
Following the collision, Mary sued Rollin after her insurance company refused to cover the costs of the accident. She told the court she was unable to compose songs because of memory loss and inability to concentrate, arising from the concussion. Alarmingly, where she had always played from memory, she now mixed up song lyrics during performances. The suit continued through 1938, but did not go well because of Mary's old-fashioned habit of not depositing her earnings in the bank. This meant that she could not prove to the court what her income had been prior to the accident.
La Bolduc made no stage appearances for a full year, until summer 1938, and then only in and around Montréal. She rallied sufficiently to take part in a radio broadcast in January 1939 and to make her two final recordings (one about the accident) the next month. That year, the courts awarded her partial payment of $1 500. Mary Bolduc succumbed to cancer on February 20, 1941, at the age of 46.
Mary Bolduc's music career had lasted little more than a decade, but in that short time, she achieved unparalleled popularity in French-speaking North America. What began as a simple effort to support her family, resulted in a musical legacy. This traditional, uneducated woman would be astonished to know that she is now revered as Quebec's first popular singer-songwriter, or "chansonnière."
Mary Bolduc inspired such influential Quebec musicians as Clémence Desrochers and Luc Plamondon. (See La Bolduc's Musical Impact -- An Early Chansonnière.) Over a half-century later, her songs continue to be studied as the unofficial chronicle of French-Canadian life during the Great Depression. (See La Bolduc's Ballads -- A Sung Chronicle of Current Events in Quebec 1930-1940.) La Bolduc's life and music have been featured in numerous books, recordings and even on screen. (See Works About Mary Travers Bolduc and Her Songs.) In fact, La Bolduc is more widely respected now than she was at the peak of her popularity. She is now mythologized as a representative of disadvantaged groups of the 1930s, in particular, women, Québécois and the unemployed.
La Bolduc's musical style -- natural, unsophisticated, unrehearsed -- was her own. She remained true to her French-Irish song heritage, despite criticism from many who found her song lyrics vulgar, her French ungrammatical and mispronounced, and her tunes unpolished and repetitive.
Despite her fame, Mary Bolduc was at heart a traditional woman who saw her most important role as that of wife and mother. In the roughly 100 songs she left behind, she also gave birth to something equally important and lasting: modern Quebec folk music. As the unofficial poet laureate of her people, this queen of Canadian folksingers gave the working men and women of Quebec their voice in song.
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