Mary Bolduc's career as a recording artist began later, and was of much shorter duration, than the careers of many other recording stars. Indeed, for the first 30 years or so of her life, Bolduc never gave a thought to performing music for any other reason than an evening's entertainment at home. To her own great surprise, in late 1929, this uneducated amateur musician became an overnight recording success.
Mary Bolduc's talent and popularity with audiences at Montréal's Monument-National led to an offer from Roméo Beaudry of the Compo Company of Canada, a Montréal recording company, to make some recordings for them.
Her first three double-sided 78-rpm discs, made in 1929, were of traditional folk songs and none were successful. In December of the same year, she set her own comic poem "La Cuisinière" to an existing folk tune and met her first success.
As the market for broadcast and recorded music expanded, and more families owned radios and record players (even the chronically impoverished Bolducs had a crystal radio set), radio stations and recording companies needed new musicians. Consequently, in January 1930, Mary was asked to record four more songs, and another nine by April of that year. By the end of the first year, she had recorded over 30 songs. She went on to record 84 songs between 1929 and 1939, most in the first few years.
Files from the Compo company show that the Montréal studio was using the newer electro-acoustic recording method with microphones, instead of the older acoustic horns, to capture the sound, and that Bolduc usually only recorded two takes. In several cases, different takes of a song were released over the years. For example, "Le Bonhomme et la Bonne Femme" exists in three different versions.
Between 1929 and 1930, Bolduc collaborated on at least 56 recordings, mostly unaccredited, with artists such as Juliette Béliveau, Eugène Daignault, Ovila Légaré, Alfred Montmarquette and Adélard St. Jean. In these sessions, Bolduc might sing, vocalize (turluté), or play the harmonica or Jew's harp. Bolduc can be heard with the accordionist, Montmarquette, on "Reel comique" and "Fantaisie écossaise" and with accomplished folk specialist Légaré on the September 1930 recording of "La Bastringue", as well as other songs.
Some of Bolduc's earliest recordings were instrumental folk dances, which she performed on the fiddle or harmonica. Among these early instrumentals were the reels "La Gaspésienne" and "Gendre et Belle-mère". Bolduc's songs were also published in sheet music form. At first, they were priced at four for one dollar, but by the end of 1931 the price rose to three for one dollar.
Most of her recordings were comic songs, with lyrics composed by her and set to her own arrangements of folk or other popular melodies. Her harmonica playing was featured between verses. Her records were best known for the "turlutes" (mouth music or nonsense syllables), which became her trademark.
Mary Bolduc sang in French (although she occasionally inserted English phrases) and her records were marketed to the francophone population. Her audiences were French-speaking rural and small-town people with traditional values -- servants like "La cuisinière", factory workers, tradespersons and the unemployed. Her fan base extended well outside Quebec; many French-Canadian listeners in Ontario and Manitoba were among her fans, and people whose parents and grandparents played them at home remember her traditional recordings today. She also had a dedicated following among French speakers living in the U.S., where her records were distributed by Columbia.
Mary Bolduc was one of several successful French folk musicians, male and female, making recordings in traditional styles. This trend was partially paralleled in the English music world by ballads like "Wreck of the Number Nine", Vernon Dalhart's recording that stayed on the best-seller list from 1928 to 1930. English-speaking audiences also bought merry selections such as Dalhart's recording of the drinking song "The Little Brown Jug", the tune of which Bolduc borrowed for "Les Cinq Jumelles" (about the Dionne quintuplets). However, the Canadian Music Trades Journal did not include Bolduc's best-selling records in their lists for 1930; and music magazines such as La Lyre and Le Canada musical concentrated on high-culture music, snubbing La Bolduc despite her popularity.
Bolduc's daughter Denise began to accompany her on the piano around 1935, and became a familiar figure in the Compo studios. Another daughter, Lucienne, recorded the song "L'Enfant volé". The Bolduc children's voices can also be heard on several recordings including Christmas and New Year's songs. On all the recordings where her participation was credited, Mary used her married name, Madame Édouard Bolduc, according to the norm. This honorific also added respectability to her comic records, which upper class Quebeckers regarded as common and vulgar.
By July 1932, the bottom had fallen out of the record market, as the economic crisis deepened. Starr's production plummeted from around 116 records in 1930, to less than 10 in 1933. Radio sets and talking motion pictures competed with records for customers' precious pennies. La Bolduc was one of Starr's few successful singers during the Depression: in large part, the label survived through her. However, her record sales declined after 1932. Her songs were too similar to one another, resisting the jazz and popular music that audiences were turning to. Bolduc was unable or unwilling to part with the formula she had established for herself.
In 1930, La Bolduc recorded 18 double-sided records (36 songs). The next year, she made an additional 10 records (20 songs). In 1935, with the Depression crushing the record companies, she made only a single recording. An additional four double-sided recordings were released in 1936, but she made no records at all in 1937 and 1938, partly due to illness. She made her last two records in 1939, including the autobiographical "Les Souffrances de mon accident" (originally entitled "Les Avocats"), still in the musical style that had made her famous. She is also known to have written around eight songs that she never recorded, including several chronicling current events.
Despite the relatively short duration of her professional career, La Bolduc seems to have made up for lost time posthumously. Her fame is now legendary and her songs continue to inspire young Quebec musicians looking to their roots. No doubt Mary Bolduc would be astonished that, through digital technology, her traditional recordings are still being replicated 60 years later.