Madame Édouard Bolduc was a superstar in French Canada in the 1930s, well before that phrase was coined. A traditional folk musician and songwriter, she went from being an unaccredited accompanist to being the star of her own travelling show and the toast of all Quebec.
Mary Bolduc began her stage career as a fiddler, performing traditional French-Canadian music with Conrad Gauthier's troupe, Veillées du bon vieux temps, at Montréal's Monument-National around 1927 or 1928. As she gained experience, she gradually moved to centre stage, and began writing and recording comic lyrics to fit traditional dance tunes. She had a few hit recordings, with Montreal's Compo Company, which led to an invitation to sing at Lachute, Quebec, in November of 1930.
Out of her experience at Lachute, where she beguiled the audience with her folk music, Bolduc conceived the idea of concerts that focused on her own songs. After April 1931, she ceased appearing with Gauthier's troupe and accepted a lucrative offer to perform with a burlesque company at the Théâtre Arlequin de Québec in March 1931 as the main attraction. This engagement quickly led to an offer by Juliette d'Argère (the comic known as Caroline) to sing with her company for a three-month tour of Quebec.
Bolduc found herself in a dilemma. As a performer, she was undoubtedly pleased that audiences wanted to hear her. As a traditional mother, she felt guilty about leaving her children behind while she travelled the province. Still, times were tough, and with her husband chronically out of work, she could not afford to pass up an opportunity to feed and clothe their family. Music was the only way she knew of earning a decent sum of money quickly. She decided to try the travelling show.
Madame Édouard Bolduc's first tour began in May 1931 in Hull, Quebec. The ensemble toured western Quebec and Montréal, and then turned east, to finish in Sept-Îles in July.
After the tour with d'Argère's group, Bolduc found fewer opportunities for writing and recording. At the height of the Great Depression, Montréal's Compo, like other recording companies, suffered severely from the economic crisis. Between July 1932 and March 1935, Bolduc made not a single recording.
During this time, Montréal audiences were treated mainly to high-profile performances by artists such as Vladimir Horowitz, Henrietta Schumann and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The Canadian Opera Company performed Roméo and Juliette in May 1931; and the McGill Operatic and Choral Society put on the Pirates of Penzance. Since she was not part of this classical music world, Bolduc needed to find a niche more suited to her brand of Irish-French folk music. During this hiatus from recording, she turned to personal appearances in small towns in Quebec and other French-speaking areas.
Drawing from the Conrad Gauthier model, she formed her own travelling troupe, calling it La Troupe du bon vieux temps ("the good old times troupe"). She gave the position of tour director to Jean Grimaldi, and they planned the shows, which were part vaudeville, part folk music. Rehearsals took place at the Bolduc home; there were few props, no sets and no microphones.
Denise Bolduc travelled with her mother, as pianist and comedienne; sometimes Édouard and their other daughter Lucienne participated too. At first, so that Mary and Denise could return home each evening, the tour concentrated their itinerary around Montréal, giving 50 shows between August and December 1932.
The act the audiences saw rarely varied. Mary Bolduc would open and close the show singing her newest songs, looking refined and respectable in a home-sewn long black silk dress and a long single strand of pearls. She was followed by ensemble numbers, folk songs, vaudeville and comedy sketches, all presented without microphones or amplifiers. Often there would be an amateur contest, for which Bolduc would donate a cash prize. (Her 1936 recording "Gédéon amateur" deals with the popularity of amateur hours on radio.) During intermissions, Mary sold a book of lyrics to her songs. She also favoured her audiences with her harmonica playing and with topical songs such as "Le Nouveau Gouvernement" ("the new government") and "Si je pouvais tenir Hitler" ("if I could get hold of Hitler"), which she never recorded. Each show gave the audience about two and a half hours of entertainment.
Bolduc recognized that many facets of society still looked down on a stage career as unfitting for a woman. In addition, it was rare for a woman to manage such a show. To counter hostile attitudes, Bolduc made sure to portray herself as a respectable married woman, always appearing under her married name, Madame Édouard Bolduc. As she continued to tour and record, she made every effort to include her family in her activities, as much because she wanted them with her as to avoid unwelcome gossip. Her husband participated in the 1932 and 1934 tours, and by 1935 her eldest daughter Denise became her piano accompanist.
The undertaking of concert tours was a heavy responsibility for Bolduc. She and Jean Grimaldi had to hire musicians and actors, arrange bookings, make and hang posters, and arrange publicity. She had to calculate and pay travelling expenses and musicians' salaries from the gate receipts. Admission for an adult was usually 50 cents, of which the parish or theatre received between 20 and 40 per cent (Bolduc often made donations to the churches' poor boxes, as well). Despite her lack of experience with financial management outside the home, Bolduc's first tour was a financial success. She received around $2 000, on top of the $500 to $1 000 royalty she received annually from recordings.
The tours were often challenging in other respects as well. Mary and the musicians travelled everywhere by car, which the tour director drove, since Mary did not have a driver's licence. Their route often took them through harsh weather to rural villages on poorly maintained dirt roads. By September 1935, they were venturing as far as the French-speaking populations in Northern Ontario, with tours that year and later on to Kapuskasing and other remote locales.
Mary Bolduc's successes in Quebec led her, by autumn of 1933, to the idea of touring the French-speaking populations in the northeastern U.S., where she and her husband had once lived. She organized the first of several concert tours of Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, accompanied by Denise and Édouard Bolduc. They were away from April to June 1934. Franco-Americans loved the folk act, and Mary and her troupe returned to New England that fall, as well as in 1937 and 1939.
As Bolduc grew more experienced at managing her career, she became adventuresome. She took part in such publicity stunts as renting an airplane to fly over a village where she would be singing -- the aircraft trailing a banner that read "C'est La Bolduc qui passe" ("La Bolduc is going by"). Other firsts included singing, in February 1937, at a cabaret in Montréal and at a gala hosted by the mayor of Montréal.
In June 1937, the touring that had made La Bolduc a household name in French North America, brought about a precipitous halt to her career. Leaving a concert in Rivière-du-Loup and heading for the Saguenay and her native Gaspé, her car collided with another vehicle. Mary Bolduc was the most seriously injured and as she was being treated for broken bones and concussion, the doctors discovered cancer. Radiation treatments, the concussion and a slow physical recovery prevented the singer from resuming her concert schedule. Though limited in her musical activity after the accident, Bolduc capitalized on her bad luck by writing and recording new songs including the comic autobiographical song, "Les Souffrances de mon accident" ("the sufferings of my accident").
Mary Bolduc made a brief final tour to Abitibi, Quebec, in 1940, but was hampered by weakness, pain and memory lapses resulting from her concussion. In December of that year, she made appearances close to home in Montréal theatres, until she was hospitalized for the last time.
The concerts that began as a modest entrepreneurial venture had launched Mary Bolduc on a wildly successful career. Despite the depressed economy, lack of business experience and her responsibilities as a mother, she succeeded in finding a niche for her traditional music in the villages and rural areas of French Canada. The unlikely star "La Bolduc" achieved fame that far outlasted her concert career.
Lonergan, David. -- La Bolduc : la vie de Mary Travers, 1894-1941 : biographie. -- Bic, Québec : Issac-Dion Éditeur, . -- 212 p. -- AMICUS No. 11349098
Montreal music year book 1931. -- Montreal : Montreal Music Year Book Registered, 1931. -- AMICUS No. 1139625