In the late 1950s in Quebec, a new musical phenomenon arose. Young songwriters, called "chansonniers" (or the feminine, "chansonnières") were singing their own compositions in small nightclubs, accompanying themselves on guitar. Their original material was both socially motivated and folk music inspired; most of all it spoke to Quebec listeners about their experiences and dreams. The chansonniers and their fresh means of personal expression became an important musical movement.
While many music historians identify Félix Leclerc as the first chansonnier, others feel that Mary Bolduc was his forerunner. It is difficult to state definitively whether specific aspects in a given songwriter's repertoire stem from La Bolduc, or simply from a common oral tradition. Nevertheless, many features of La Bolduc's repertoire can be identified as having influenced the songs of the chansonniers and chansonnières, even if indirectly. One could say that Bolduc acted as a musical conduit, freeing the way for the chansonniers and chansonnières to develop their craft.
Tracing common factors from Bolduc to the chansonniers
As the first singer-songwriter star in Quebec, Bolduc's impact on later Quebeckers performing in popular music genres was significant. Although several other folk-influenced musicians were recording in the 1930s, such as Ovila Legaré, Bolduc was by far the best known. The fundamental features of La Bolduc's style are now common modes of expression in Quebec "chansons." Her close connection to Quebec's folk-music traditions was shared by many chansonniers, as was her penchant for humorous descriptions of daily life. The realism of her voice in her depictions of social conditions, and in her character satires, re-appears in the work of many later chansonniers, such as Robert Charlebois.
A similarity can also be found in the fact that La Bolduc and the later Québécois singer-songwriters both took on the role of spokesperson for their times. In the same way, the patriotism in Bolduc's songs such as "La Gaspésienne pure laine" would have been attractive to the new politically-aware generation of the 1960s. As the Quiet Revolution and its search for cultural identity gathered strength, Quebeckers felt a new assertiveness -- a quality that Bolduc and her music possessed in abundance. American music had been predominant since the First World War, but francophone listeners found in Bolduc one of their own, musically, in her use of French, in the experiences she related, and in the geography and events she sang about.
The use of colloquial French, for which some condemned La Bolduc, is now accepted as a rich and realistic element in the music of Gilles Vigneault, Clémence Desrochers and other chansonniers and chansonnières. Listen to Vigneault's songs; his language, like Bolduc's, is often commonplace slang and he delivers his lyrics quickly, running words together as Bolduc did.
In her social awareness and concern for her working-class neighbours, Bolduc foreshadowed the concerns expressed by followers of the urban folk movement and the Quiet Revolution many years after her death. Here again, a comparison with Gilles Vigneault points out similarities. Both songwriters featured working-class characters, such as Vigneault's carpenter protagonist in "Quand tu vas chez l'marchand," while Bolduc's real-life husband was a plumber. As well, both singers portray marital spats in a humorous but realistic way. Later, in the early 1990s, Bolduc's lyrics to "Ça va venir découragez-vous pas" became newly relevant when the recession put workers on the streets.
For Quebec women, Bolduc's song lyrics and her career itself bore a special significance. Bolduc's strong female characters, and the fact of her huge personal success, may have appealed to women like the chansonnière Pauline Julien, who embraced the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
La Bolduc's successors
Despite the passage of years and the introduction of musical influences from around the globe, traces of La Bolduc's musical style can be clearly heard in the repertoire of the chansonniers and chansonnières. Among the Quebecois singer-songwriters and other musicians, who followed in La Bolduc's footsteps and were inspired by her approach, are (in approximate chronological order):
Roland (Le Soldat) Lebrun: This musical spokesman for the soldiers of the Second World War sang country music, in a simple style, to ordinary people with ordinary problems.
Félix Leclerc: Leclerc was the pioneer of the chansonnier movement in the 1950s. His work after 1970 featured social commentary. His style differed from Bolduc's in that his poetry contained a tragic vein and more imagery, but it still spoke to the people.
Oscar Thiffault: Thiffault was Bolduc's successor in the 1950s. Bolduc inspired his realist voice, humour and folk content.
Les Bozos: Les Bozos, also musical pioneers, were a collective of Quebec singer-songwriters who, following in Leclerc's footsteps in 1958, became well known as part of the chansonnier phenomenon.
André Gagnon: Affiliated with Les Bozos, Gagnon composed Les Turluteries, a set of suites in the Baroque style, based on the "turlutes" (or mouth music) of La Bolduc.
Clémence Desrochers: This early chansonnière was a member of Les Bozos. Like Bolduc, she wrote lyrics in vernacular speech, sparing neither humour nor satire.
Gilles Vigneault: This poet began singing his work in 1960, and became a nationally and internationally celebrated chansonnier. His music is informed by the same folk songs Bolduc favoured. Unlike Bolduc, however, Vigneault did not sing the old tunes, but created new melodies and lyrics in the traditional style, adding updated instrumentation and carefully crafted arrangements. Although he draws from the French chanson and sentimental ballad, elements that hark back to the 1930s recordings of La Bolduc and her folk contemporaries are still easily identifiable. Another significant difference is that Vigneault's lyrics are the literate, refined poetry of a chansonnier, compared to Bolduc's homespun rhyming ditties.
Vigneault's song "Quand tu vas chez l'marchand" ("when you go shopping"), recorded in 1992, recalls many of La Bolduc's favourite folk themes and stylings a full 60 years later. "Quand tu vas chez l'marchand" is a comic song, in the same genre as Bolduc's repertoire. Vigneault humorously extols the dangers of credit (as does La Bolduc's "La Grocerie du coin", recorded in the Depression year of December 1930). Under the humorous anecdotes of both songs, there is a moral aimed at the average consumer -- beware of fast-talking merchants.
In true French folk-song tradition, Vigneault, like Bolduc, also plays with enumeration, listing consumer goods that can be bought on credit.
A sound close to that of La Bolduc's can also be heard in other Gilles Vigneault songs. For example, the folk-dance rhythms of Vigneault's childhood (and Bolduc's) are clear in the songs "Tam ti delam", "Monsieur Ptitpas" and "Le Reel du portageur."
Pauline Julien: Julien achieved a national reputation as a singer in the 1960s and 1970s. Like Bolduc, this forthright woman sang of her political opinions and personal beliefs, and wrote lyrics in everyday French.
Robert Charlebois: A highly influential chansonnier and pop musician, Charlebois performed in Canada and France beginning in the late 1960s. His music is informed by French and Anglo-Saxon styles and his lyrics employ an everyday "joual" slang.
By following in the footsteps of Mary Bolduc, these and many more chansonniers and chansonnières have both honoured and enriched their French-Canadian musical heritage.
For more information on Madame Édouard Bolduc's recordings, please consult the Virtual Gramophone database.
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