, , , , , , , , ,

The Canoe, by Tom Tomson

Tom Tomson was a member of the Group of Seven, Canadian artists.

The Voyageur’s Repertoire

The voyageurs’ repertoire consisted mainly of songs inherited from the trouvères, troubadours and the folklore of France. Different versions of this songs were composed, but they can nevertheless be traced back to the motherland.

As I noted in my last post, The Singing Voyageur, we know for certain that three songs were genuine voyageur songs.

  • Épouser le voyage (To Wed the Voyage),
  • Les Bois-Brûlés (The Brullis),
  • Le Six Mai de l’année dernière (Last year on the Sixth of May).

To this list, Barbeau [i] adds a song entitled Les Roses blanches (The White Roses). However, because there is a French song, not a folksong, entitled Les Roses blanches, it was somewhat difficult for me to call it a voyageur’s song. But we know that the voyageurs sang Roses blanches. In fact, I few days ago, I heard a folkloric Roses blanches on the radio. The song I heard could be the Roses blanches Marius Barbeau deems a genuine voyageur song.

As well, in the Beaver, Anne Frances Hopkins, an accomplished artist and the wife of an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Edward Hopkins, writes that “[m]any old chansons from Normandy—‘À la claire fontaine,’ ‘Rose blanche—were popular canoe song.” [ii] Frances Anne Hopkins kept a record of a few songs, all of which are French folksongs, not voyageur songs. She travelled west in the ‘canot du gouverneur,’ when she journeyed west. She is a mostly reliable source. The eleven songs collected by Edward Ermatinger are folksongs brought to Nouvelle-France. [iii]

I also reread a paper I wrote on the voyageurs and I listed Rose blanche. To avoid confusion, I will add it to the three songs I listed yesterday.

Marius Barbeau’s authentic voyageur songs are:

  • Les Roses blanches (White Roses),
  • Épouser le voyage (To Wed the Voyage),
  • Les Bois-Brûlés (The Brullis),
  • Le Six Mai de l’année dernière (Last year on the Sixth of May).

We then have two songs discussed in Nute’s Voyageur, [iv] the first of wich could be a logger’s song or both a forestier and a voyageur song.

  • C’est dans la ville de Bytown (It’s in the Town of Ottawa)
  • Parmi les voyageurs (Among the Voyageurs)

We therefore know of six authentic voyageur songs, i.e. songs composed by voyageurs. If we do not include C’est dans la ville de Bytown (Ottawa) which could be a forestier song, the number goes down to six.

North West Company Coin


A Brief Look at Historical Events

In 1874, the Quebec Act made French-speaking Canadians into full fledged British subjects and Canada was named Quebec. Guy Carleton, 1st Lord Dorchester  (September 3, 1724 – November 10, 1808) was then Governor of Quebec. Later, in 1791, Canada was divided into the Upper Canada and the Lower Canada under the terms of the Constitutional Act. It was no longer Quebec. There were English-speaking Canadians in Lower-Canada, but the majority of citizens were French-speaking Canadians

However, in 1837-1838, both Canadas rebelled against England because the Crown was helping itself to money levied in the Canadas. There were reprisals in both Canadas and Britain asked John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham (1792-1840), the governor-in-chief of British North America, to investigate the matter, particularly as it presented itself in Bas-Canada. In his Report, Lord Durham proposed that the two Canadas be joined, but he also stated that French Canadians did not have a literature and that they also lacked a history. For Canadiens, this was an insult, and some have yet to recover.


La Patrie littéraire or The Literary Homeland

In her superb selection of voyageur songs, twenty songs notated (musical notation) and translated, Nute includes:

  • Petit Rocher (also known as La Complainte de Cadieux or Cadieux’s Lament, and
  • Mon Canot d’Écorce or Le Canotier (My Birchbark Canoe or The Canoeman).

It seems unlikely that these are voyageur songs. First, they were written in the 1860s when the voyageur had ceased to transport fur. Second, and more importantly, these two songs are part of the literature which, according to Lord Durham, French-speaking Canadians did not have. As soon as the Union-Act was passed (1841), French-speaking Canadians gave themselves the history and the literature which, according to Lord Durham, they did not possess. That period of French-Canadian literature is known as The Literary Homeland or La Patrie littéraire.

Antoine Gérin-Lajoie composed his lovely and famous Un Canadien errant or Un Acadien errant. We have heard this song, but I will nevertheless include it at the bottom of this blog. In theory, the melody is from the French-Canadian folk tune “J’ai fait une maîtresse.” I do not think this is the case. Moreover, French-speaking Canadians quickly endowed themselves with two literary schools, one in Montreal and the other, in Quebec city.

In  the wake of Lord Durham’s Report, François-Xavier Garneau [v] published his three-volume Histoire du Canada (1845-1848) and added a supplement, published in 1852. Canadiens, later called Québécois (1960) were also writing poetry and novels.

Le Canotier and La Complainte de Cadieux

Le Canotier was published in Casgrain’s Légendes canadiennes et Œuvres diverses (1861). L’abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain [vi] (December 16, 1831 – February 11, 1904) was a prolific and excellent writer. Consequently, although some would like Le Canotier to be a folksong, it is a poem by l’abbé Casgrain.

However there are sixty-five (65) versions of Le Canotier or Mon canot d’écorce. Therefore, although l’abbé Casgrain’s wrote Le Canotier or Mon canot d’écorce poem, it was incorporated into the anamnesis, Plato’s theory, that followed the loss of the Canadiens’s Bas-Canada. The concept of anamnesis suggests remembrance and reincarnation. French-speaking Canadians started remembering and gave the voyageur mythic dimension.

The brothers Grimm collected folklore, thereby reaching into the past. As for Richard Wagner, he gave Germany a mythology and in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, he remembered Hans Sachs. He brought him back to life .

La Complainte de Cadieux, or Petit Rocher, it is a legend told by Joseph Charles Taché [vii] (December 24, 1820 – April 16, 1894) a nephew of Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché (5 September 1795 – 30 July 1865), in his Forestiers et voyageurs (1863). Cadieux’s Lament is a legend dating back to the seventeenth century. It had been passed down orally and was now entering a learned tradition. According to Marius Barbeau, it is not a voyageur song, but a forestier song.

As the legend goes, Cadieux “died in May 1709 after defending his family against the Iroquois at the Sept-Chutes portage on the Ottawa River. Cadieux diverted the Indians’ attention while his family, protected by the Virgin Mary, managed to navigate the rapids in a canoe. Prior to dying of exhaustion, he dug his own grave and lay in it.” [viii]

For Taché, [ix]

The mind of man can no more live on realism than his soul can live on the natural truths it perceives; [the mind] must venture into the unknown, [the soul] must find repose through faith in mysteries. Hence the need for our imagination to feed on magical notions. Herein lies the charm of legends and tales.

In short, the voyageur is now larger than life, but I am fascinated by the fact that he turned miserable circumstances into a source of pride and into pleasure. He had a job. He was un homme engagé, rather than unemployed. And he endeared himself to his employers. Besides, he was busy naming rivers, lakes, forts and he was taking explorers all the way to the Pacific Ocean.


Grey Day, by Tom Thomson

I have a recording of songs Voyageurs sang but I do not know how to incorporate it into a blog.


[i] Marius Barbeau, “The Ermatinger Collection of Voyageur Songs (ca. 1830),” The Journal of American Folklore (New York:  Kraus Reprint Corporation, Vol. 67, 1966 [1954]), pp. 147-161. 

[ii] “Hopkins Book of Canoe Songs,” The Beaver, (Outfit 302.2, Autumn 1971), pp. 54-58.

[iii] Marius Barbeau, “The Ermatinger Collection of Voyageur Songs (ca. 1830),” The Journal of American Folklore (New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation, Vol. 67, 1966 [1954], pp. 147-161

[iv] Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageur (St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society, 1987 [1931]).

[v] Pierre Savard, François-Xavier Garneau” http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/francoisxavier-garneau

[vi] Henri-Raymond Casgrain                                         http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri-Raymond_Casgrain

[vii] “Joseph-Charles Taché”                                                                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph-Charles_Tach%C3%A9

[viii] Hélène Plouffe, “Petit rocher de la haute montagne,” Canadian Encyclopedia http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/emc/petit-rocher-de-la-haute-montagne

[ix] Jean-Guy Nadeau, “Jean-Charles Taché,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?BioId=40576.