Transcript of podcast episode 28
Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
In this episode we explore the story of Mary Travers Bolduc. It 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."
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We sit down with LAC Music Historian and Archivist Rachelle Chiasson-Taylor to discuss who La Bolduc was, what her influences were, who she influenced, and how her career, that started out of simple economic necessity and building on the music of her own roots, became the stuff of legend.
Hi Rachelle, thank you for being here today.
Rachelle Chiasson-Taylor: My pleasure.
JO: Mary Travers is considered to be Quebec’s first female composer-singer-songwriter. Can you explain what that means?
RCT: It means many things. In fact, when I thought about La Bolduc’s career and body of work, I had to give full consideration to the fact that she must be looked at from many different angles. Not only was she the first female composer-singer-songwriter in Quebec, but possibly also the first in Canada! She really was a pioneer, in the true meaning of the word. She was in fact the first Quebec woman to earn a living as a singer, writer, composer and performer in Quebec. In addition to all that, she was also called the Queen of female singer-songwriters because she was truly the most popular artist of the late 20s and the 30s, 1930, for sure. She was also an ordinary person, who, through her music, became the voice of her time. And her output was astounding: over 300 songs, and a discography of over 90 records. Even today, it is still quite a considerable accomplishment.
JO: Yes, of course.
RCT: So, for all of these reasons, she must be viewed as a great singer, a great social figure—still known today as the Queen of Quebec music, the very first, in fact: a true pioneer.
JO: So, who was Mary Travers before she became La Bolduc? Where did she come from?
RCT: Where did she come from? Well, she was born Mary Rose Anna Travers (an English name) on June 4, 1894, in Newport, in the Gaspé Peninsula. That year, 1894, was a year when famine struck, which explains to an extent the dire poverty of the Travers family. She was the child of a twice-married Irish father and a French-Canadian mother, whose last name was Cyr.
So, she was born in this small village in the Gaspé Peninsula. She came from very humble origins. She was also physically very strong. Remember, this was a time when children helped their parents so that they could all survive.
JO: Yes, of course.
RCT: So, she helped her father, who was a lumberjack. She would walk through the woods with him. And we believe that this led her to develop a great sense of observation, which she used when writing her lyrics for her songs. It’s fascinating.
JO: Yes. And did she have any formal musical training?
RCT: Oh, none whatsoever!
JO: None at all?
RCT: We really need to ignore any idea of musical training in the, um …
JO: Traditional sense.
RCT: Traditional sense.
JO: Involving teachers…
RCT: That’s right, classical, and all that. The village of Newport in the Gaspé Peninsula is truly cut off from all musical trends. So she learned—from whom did she learn? From her father, growing up in the family, using only traditional instruments: the fiddle, accordion, harmonica, spoons, mouth harp, and anything else the family played. It was a big family, by the way.
JO: How many children?
RCT: Well, there were six children from the first marriage …and I believe five children from the second marriage. So, almost a dozen. And what they played were melodies, dances, jigs and reels. They would learn music by heart and play by ear, as they say; it was an oral tradition, not even a piano. There was no record player, no sheet music, so it all boiled down to a process … that’s a big word, “process”! What I mean is that …
JO: It’s a more organic way of learning music, more …
RCT: That’s right, almost by osmosis. And it’s really obvious given that, from the age of 12 she was playing at the major events in the village, and was considered a child prodigy. She obviously had a great deal of natural talent.
JO: Ok. So how did her stage career begin?
RCT: Her career undoubtedly really began in Montréal, after she moved there at the tender age of 13. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Today, 13 is still so young …
JO: Yes, still a child.
RCT: But at 13—precisely because of very difficult economic conditions—she left home, so to speak, to live in the city, the big city. At 13 she became a servant in a bourgeois household in Outremont. And she was there to work, to earn a bit of money, which she would send home. So, while she was in Montréal, she had the opportunity to meet people through activities at the church, during evening receptions in the communities. And then, at that time, she began to play again, playing music at those events, during those receptions, and that’s actually where she met the brother of her future husband, Édouard Bolduc.
RCT: So that’s why she’s called La Bolduc, because she took his name. But that’s a bit later on. However, during those receptions, people began to notice her. However, while this was still before things began to take off, it was then that she met Édouard Bolduc, whom she married when she was 17.
JO: At 17?
RCT: Yes, at 17. She got married and had two children in a short space of time—she was barely in her early twenties. The family then moved to New England, as did many families at that time to try to earn a bit of money, but it didn’t work out. In 1922, they returned from Montréal and it was really somewhat out of desperation that she got involved in music, and she got herself noticed—she got her “big break,” as the saying goes. It was truly … an opportunity came up. She got herself noticed because she replaced a musician … In fact it was actually at a party, at one of those parties they had in the evening back in the good old days; they were partly commercial—it has to be seen in context, musicians didn’t make a fortune—but these were traditional parties in Montréal that had a structure to them. Then there were people who went to concerts; so it was like a combination of vaudeville, comedy and singing.
And so, she replaced a musician—a singer from all of this … this type of show—and she got herself noticed. She was probably better than the other musician [laughter]. And from that moment on, she got hired again because they could see that she was … she brought in the crowds …
JO: … the audience …
RCT: … the audience, people wanted to see her more and more. And people would talk about Mrs. Édouard Bolduc—people would call her Mrs. Édouard Bolduc, they wanted to hear Mrs. Édouard Bolduc on stage. And so that’s why … you could say … it snowballed.
JO: Ok. What were her musical influences? Which musicians inspired her work?
RCT: As a musicologist, I’d say that what we have here is a phenomenon—a true phenomenon—and we can hardly speak of La Bolduc as having any formal musical influence.
She drew her inspiration, rather, from her family, traditional folk culture from her village, her ability to assimilate, and her great talent. But they really aren’t influences. When talking about La Bolduc, we need to refer more to inspiration … to the influences … that had an impact on her.
She tended to be inspired by particular phenomena, like the variety show, which includes actors and vaudeville. And the concept of these shows was, I believe, really innovative. And afterwards she put together a vaudeville troupe herself. And vaudeville and the folk tradition … it’s really a combination that is quite a hybrid form …an interesting mix. We’re talking here about Jean Grimaldi, Armand Lacroix (an actor known as Boniface), and they went on tour. I can sum it up by saying her approach was profoundly creative and original. The power of words inspired her—everyday words, and oral traditions that were enhanced, I’d say, by the show. And I should also point out the resilience and creativity of women in this context.
JO: What did she do differently from other singers and entertainers of the time?
RCT: Yes, that’s an excellent question. Because, what sets her apart is in fact … Why, why is she such an original phenomenon? Well, because she did things that others didn’t, and it probably came from inside her, from her own creativity. She began reading newspaper articles as a source of inspiration. It’s not based on ideals; there were no what we could call elitist influences—it’s the everyday realities that inspired her.
And she composed a lot of her music herself. And that—she wasn’t just a performer; she composed a lot of music, she was highly productive. That’s the true sign of a creative spirit. You know, creative people can’t help creating.
JO: Yeah, that’s it, there’s such an outpouring.
RCT: That’s right.
JO: And it took off.
RCT: That’s right. So, despite the lack of training, the humble origins, there’s a creative force that is truly indicative of a great talent. She couldn’t really have chosen to do anything else because that’s who she was. So that was what really set her apart. She tried to find a way to get closer to her audience. For her the audience was paramount, and that, I believe, came from her generosity, her generosity as a person. A great person. And her lyrics also spoke to people, about the reality and the society in which everyone—almost everyone—lived, except for the elite, of course. So it’s not all just a form of entertainment. That’s what set her apart.
JO: She really spoke about people’s everyday problems.
RCT: Yes, and problems with which they could identify. It’s really … We’re not talking about idealism … it’s not, I mean, a form of escapism.
JO: Of course not.
RCT: When we talk … we are talking about something else that’s much closer to people.
JO: Down to earth.
RCT: Yes, and that was new.
JO: Yes. Why were audiences so taken with La Bolduc? Was that part of it? Was it because of that connection?
RCT: Yes, it’s part of the same thing, and … But I think I’d like to quote a biographer. There have been several biographies of La Bolduc, because people look at her also as a social phenomenon [laughter]. And this biographer, David Lonergan, wrote—and I find what he says very beautiful, so I quote: [translation] “She became the idol of the destitute, of all the victims of the crisis, of all those who slave away in factories, for a pittance, for all those women raising a large brood of children in miserable conditions.” That’s what’s truly—in a nutshell is the reason for her dazzling popularity.
JO: Did she become famous outside Montréal and the province, or was it purely regional?
RCT: No, it wasn’t purely regional. Yes, her fame grew—especially after the end of the 20s, in the 30s. In 1930, she released her third record. I’d like to introduce the notion of discography, because that too sets her apart. From the time sales of her third record began to really take off—we’re talking here about 10,000 records sold in one month … that is huge, really huge!
JO: Yes, of course, considering that people didn’t have a lot of money, or had no money, had no record player …
RCT: So when we talk of borders, there’s the physical border. She went on tour, she began touring with her troupe, which she had put together and consisted of performers, doing that sort of hybrid show. And she did shows throughout Quebec, Ontario and New England. That … that really is one parameter. But that’s solely the live performances.
With her records, however, she transcends all borders, that’s for sure! And we’re talking here … from the moment she had her first success—her third record, in particular, really well-known songs such as La cuisinière and Johnny Monfarleau—we know them, we still recognize them today.
JO: Oh yes!
RCT: We know those titles. People would line up in front of Archambault, on Sainte-Catherine Street, to get her record. From that moment … she really did have an instinct … a business instinct. And she said to herself: “I want to make one record a month.” This really helped to make her art more widespread, inevitably. So she came up with tunes in her kitchen, melodies. And her career really went up a notch with her 1934 tours in New England. So it really didn’t start … it didn’t just start … it truly … she was at the top.
JO: She was established.
RCT: She was established and making money as well.
JO: How did her career progress? What happened next?
RCT: The next steps … it was really, in fact, a continuation of her sound recordings. We’re talking about a total of more than 90 records, so the “one-a-month” became a reality. But there was a hiatus when she was touring more. So, we’re talking about the tours in the years, um, mid … 1935, until, well, until the end of her career.
But really, it was when she set up a fairly permanent troupe, in 1936—that was the time of her collaboration with an expanded troupe consisting of a number of actors and singers, including Olivier Guimond, who was part of her company. We should also mention that she sang with Ovila Légaré. These are … very big names. And, there was also the Star record company that had a considerable reach and was very commercial.
So those were successive steps in her success, that coincided with greater record production, and more tours with an established troupe that was really well-oiled. So it was really … they were on the road. It’s like today’s rock stars who are constantly on the road.
JO: What was La Bolduc’s influence on the musicians who came after her?
RCT: Yes, that’s an interesting phenomenon. It’s true she had a great influence, but, as I already mentioned, it was a musical influence, the influence of a message that had social significance. So it’s … we should also know … I want to take a step back, because her songs, which are extremely topical, also pack quite a punch.
Not all of her songs were played on the radio, so these are things that have been picked up by current artists who admire this … and it really is worthy of admiration … this courage. So this global influence … we can really talk about it with some authority … on many of today’s artists. We can mention, goodness gracious, André Gagnon, Dominique Michel, Marthe Fleurant, Lise Lemieux, Denyse Émond, Ti-Gus and Ti-Mousse, who are characters in her songs … Angèle Arsenault—I could go on—La Bottine souriante … traditional groups. And there’s also mouth music, which became synonymous with her. We haven’t talked about that yet, but it’s … it’s a form of expression. I can talk a bit more about it, if you like. But we just need to think about Gilles Vigneault, with his “tam ti delam.” The influence is, let’s say, very, very widespread. But it is still within the realms of … more in the area of Quebec folk music.
JO: Could you talk a bit more about mouth music then?
RCT: Yes! Mouth music is fascinating. Some people say that La Bolduc may have invented it, which isn’t altogether true. But she personified it and made it incredibly popular because she used it in many of her songs—in a large number of her songs actually.
Historically, mouth music is a—we can see the popular roots in this as well—a voice technique. It’s a technique using a succession of syllables such as “tam ti delam tam ti dela dite dela ditam” …like that. So, then … and, historically, it could be found among oppressed peoples, whose instruments, fiddles, for example, had been taken away from them.So it took the place of instruments. For example, it was to replace the fiddles that had been taken away from them. Why were people’s instruments taken away? The Acadians, for example—their fiddles were taken away because it was an instrument that gave them a certain resilience with respect to their identity. That’s what it was. If their music could continue and survive, so would their culture—so taking their instruments away was a way of damaging the social fabric of the people who had been conquered.
So, all that to say that mouth music existed among the Acadians, of whom she—among the Irish as well—from whom her father descended. So I think it’s an ethnomusical phenomenon.
JO: Yes. And, so, was it the style of music that La Bolduc played, or was it her presence that made her so unique?
RCT: I’d say it was both. In fact, La Bolduc was a truly original person. She didn’t have any classical training. She always, let’s say, assimilated and integrated her musical know-how, which was very instinctive. And she used it as a tool, I think, to get across her true message, which was a social message—a message of caring for one another, a message of encouragement during hard times, because we were in the midst of …
JO: It was the depression.
RCT: an economic crisis.
JO: Yes, of course.
RCT: So, and—but what we noticed, to get back to your question—what we noticed was the content, the humour, the ease, and the … direct simplicity of the way she got her message across. And then, what’s more—it’s difficult to say because we don’t have anything on film, we don’t have any images—we have photographs, but we don’t have … we never filmed her performances. But she must have certainly had extraordinary charisma and stage presence.
JO: Could you talk a bit about La Bolduc’s personal life?
RCT: Yes, without speculating too much, of course, because the documentation is really—it actually comes to us from testimonies, and word of mouth—the people who knew her, biographers who drew conclusions about her, there’s no doubt about that.
But we must say that, for La Bolduc (and this is perfectly in line with her cultural heritage), her family, and the extended family, were vital. There’s a reason why her successes, her most successful songs, had their origins in the kitchen. In fact, one of her biggest hits is La cuisinière [The Cook], in which she herself says she composed in her kitchen. So, while we could say that, today, it’s a bit old-fashioned having a woman in the kitchen, we should actually see this as a victory.
She had four children. Her eldest daughter, Denise, accompanied her on the piano. Because, as you know, Mrs. Bolduc didn’t grow up with a piano. She was too poor; they were too poor. They had other instruments. But her daughter Denise was able to learn the piano thanks in fact to the wealth her mother’s activities generated. And she was able to make a living with it. She accompanied her mother on tour.
Her other children performed with her on stage throughout her career whenever it was possible—when the opportunity arose, she would really involve the family. She was also the breadwinner. Her husband was sick and couldn’t work, so she was the breadwinner.
And we truly feel her devotion to her loved ones. And that too is perfectly in keeping with the generosity of her message. “Don’t get discouraged, don’t get discouraged, you’ll get there, don’t get discouraged.” That’s the message from one of her songs. It’s from the title of a song and it truly applied to her personal situation. And I believe it was a source of . . . the family was a source of inspiration for her. Besides that, she was very strong physically. She practically worked as a lumberjack along with her father. She had this physical strength, and mental strength. And we also get the impression, because—personally, it’s purely a deduction on my part, but I’d say that the fact that she drew exclusively on what she had within herself in order to be able to externalize and achieve such great success, truly shows a … an unmistakable strength of character. A strong, admirable woman, who had practically no doubts about what she could do—a woman who accepted herself for what she was. So …
JO: At a time when women did not necessarily perform on stage, or, eh …
RCT: Exactly. And I don’t believe it was necessarily solely because of ambition. It was really who she was. You get the impression that it was natural and that she was actually giving voice to her personal qualities, ironically, in the middle of a crisis …
JO: … the Depression.
RCT: The Depression. Exactly. Was it paradoxically something that truly inspired her? Yes, there are people who are inspired by adversity, who say: “Are these tough times? Well we’re not going to get discouraged. We’re going to press on!” That’s the message, and it’s also a message, I believe, that can be related to by … by people who are truly oppressed. It’s an extremely strong message of resilience—that word again! [laughter]
JO: After a career spanning 10 years, La Bolduc is still a very familiar household name in Quebec. But how has her music survived after 70 years?
RCT: That’s also a very good question, and I think I can ultimately say with—not only do I think I can say—I can say with certainty that Library and Archives Canada has had a lot to do with the long-term survival of her musical heritage.
There’s no doubt that our grandparents and their parents have a very strong collective memory of those times. And it’s true that the economic crisis really, really raised that—it was really a great social upheaval that we still talk about and that we associated with La Bolduc’s message: a message of resilience. So she was someone who helped people get through it, as they say.
However, you have to realize that her discography has not been very well preserved and that it took a great deal of research to retrieve it and give it a certain … cohesion, control; to acquire intellectual control, as we say in archive administration, of her discography, which is really quite considerable.
In terms of original, authentic records put out by Star and its affiliates, and which were—with which she had a contract, it’s really Library and Archives Canada that has the collection. Also, Library and Archives Canada played a large role in the establishment, cohesion and collection of her original recordings, which are saved on our site called the Virtual Gramophone. There is a good, comprehensive biography of La Bolduc on that site, and all of her recordings are saved there, several of which are contextualized. And it’s a tool—it really is the best tool.
There are certainly sites dedicated to La Bolduc: you can find her on YouTube—it has everything you need—there’s a movie, there’s … but it’s really Library and Archives Canada that has done all the work and research, on behalf of Library and Archives Canada, Robert Therrien and putting together the Virtual Gramophone, which remains the number one international resource for that repertoire—for La Bolduc’s repertoire, among others, and for the record, for the sound recordings that are part of our heritage.
JO: Do you think we can hear her influence in contemporary Quebec music?
RCT: Yes, of course, undoubtedly! There has been a lot recently—from the 90s up until today, let’s say—of interest in Quebec’s folk heritage, and we’ve seen the success of groups like La Bottine souriante, and other groups as well that have gone a bit, what we call “electro-folk-pop,” as well.
JO: Yes, of course! [laughter]
RCT: And, really, La Bolduc continues to be played. Her repertoire is still played and her musical style continues to be an inspiration today. So it’s become very contemporary. And of course we could get into all those contemporary professional folk musicians. And it’s associated with identity; folk music always is. It’s identity-based. There is a focus on resilience.
I use that word a lot, but music is a tool for resilience. Therefore, the more we are concerned about identity, the more those roots will be brought up. There is, therefore, all of that influence. And La Bolduc is very inspirational because of the large number of songs she produced. And there was that side I touched on—I don’t think we should overlook it: it’s the social side, the message—namely the presence, the quality of the message, whatever it may be.
But the fact that she is an inspiration because she was able to pass on a message that inspires today’s creators to imitate or take the essence of that creative strength. It’s inspiring. It’s actually inspiring for all musicians.
JO: To learn more about La Bolduc and Library and Archives Canada’s music collection, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. On our home page, select “Discover the Collection,” then click on “Browse by Topic” and select “Music, Films, Videos and Sound Recordings.” On this page, you will find links to multiple online resources, including the Virtual Gramophone Database.
Thanks for being with us. I’m Jessica Ouvrard, your host. You’re listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” I’d like to thank our guest today, Rachelle Chiasson-Taylor.
For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.