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La Bolduc -- A Musical Mirror of Canada's Heritage

    Mary Bolduc with her fiddle

The origins of Bolduc's tunes

Just as Mary Bolduc chronicled current events in her lyrics, she also mirrored the different musical influences found in the Quebec of her time. Features of the English, Irish and French musical traditions that she grew up with are mixed together to create her lively and distinctive form of quasi-traditional popular song.

A cursory listen to just about any of Bolduc's songs will reveal, even to unaccustomed listeners, how much her tunes owe to folk-dances such as reels. The reel, a type of folk or country dance music in a rapid 2/4 time, originated in Scotland and also became very popular in Ireland. Reels were usually performed on the fiddle; in Quebec, they were also performed on the harmonica. Bolduc was an accomplished performer on both of these instruments. In France, a similar custom exists of accompanying quadrille dances on the violin. The Virtual Gramophone website provides a traditional reel medley, recorded in 1919 by Albert Gerson, for comparison.

There is a simple explanation for these similarities: Bolduc did not "compose" melodies in the usual sense of the word. Many -- if not most -- of her songs employed existing melodies from folk songs or folk dances; for others, she began with a well-known melody and created her own variant. Some other songs were based on American popular tunes known to both Anglophones and Francophones in Canada.

Bolduc's lyrics are, however, of her own composition, although some -- like the tunes -- are parodies or adaptations of existing songs. This practice of borrowing existing tunes on which to place a new set of lyrics is an ancient and venerable one, common in British, French and North American song traditions. In Britain, the practice dates back to the English "broadside ballads" (songs printed on news-sheets) of the 1600s, and perhaps even earlier. In France, new songs were often sung to "timbres", or well-known melodies. As songs were passed on through oral tradition, people added their own texts, with regional stories or familiar local words and phrases, to tunes that they liked, thus giving the tune their own twist.

Bolduc's performance style also owes much to oral tradition. The significance of her reliance on fiddle and harmonica are discussed below. Her nasal vocal style is also traditional, as is her relaxed attitude toward pitch.

Borrowed melodies

"Johnny McFellow": The English song was the basis for Bolduc's early recording "Johnny Monfarleau".


"Yes! We Have No Bananas": This 1923 American popular song, by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, was itself based on pre-existing songs. Part of the melody and text are heard in Bolduc's "Le Commerçant des rues".

The original version of "Yes! We Have No Bananas"    

"The Music Goes Round and Around": This American popular song was written in 1935 by Red Hodgson, Edward Farley and Michael Riley. The tune appeared in Bolduc's "Gédéon amateur" the following year.

    Sheet music for the popular American song, "The Music Goes Round and Around", circa 1935


"Red River Valley": This famous English-language tune comes from a traditional Canadian folk-song, which refers to Manitoba's Red River. Bolduc borrowed the tune for her song, "Les Belles-mères".

Sheet music of "Red River Valley," a folk tune which Bolduc recycled    

"Little Brown Jug": Bolduc's comic "Les Cinq Jumelles", about the Dionne quintuplets, is set to this famous tune about drinking, which was written in 1869 and popularized in North America around 1911.

"La Légende des flots bleus": This tune, written by Christiné and Dalbret, was the basis for "L'Enfant volé", about the Lindberg kidnapping, which Bolduc's daughter Lucienne recorded in her place. A recording of the original song, sung by Hector Pellerin, can also be heard on the Virtual Gramophone website.

Interesting features of Bolduc's songs


Language in Bolduc's songs reflects the fact that in her Gaspé home as well as in Montréal, French and English lived side by side. Her song lyrics are predominantly French, but often include a few words or lines in English. Her audiences would have easily understood these anglicisms, which mirrored their actual speech patterns. Bolduc was criticized for including anglicisms, when in fact this mixing of languages in song has been known for centuries. It is particularly observable in cultures like Canada's, where different linguistic groups coexist.

Some of the Bolduc songs which include English words and phrases are: "Les Cinq Jumelles"; "Roosevelt est un peu là" (which contains the English phrase, "We do our part)"; and "Chanson de la bourgeoise" (which contains "watchait," a French conjugation of an English verb).

Enumerative songs

Listing (or "enumerating") elements such as foods, tasks or a character's physical features, is a favourite technique of Bolduc's, probably as much for the comic and rhythmic value as for the traditional genre. Enumerative songs, which came to Quebec from France, form an important category in French-Canadian folk song.

Among the many songs by Bolduc that contain enumerative elements are "Je m'en vais au marché", "Si vous avez une fille qui veut se marier" and "La Servante".

Dialogue songs

Another traditional type of French folk song, the dialog song is often in the form of a conversation or debate between a woman and man. Mary Bolduc recorded a comic dialogue song with Ovila Légaré, entitled "Mademoiselle, dites-moi donc", in which a man and woman banter and flirt -- a familiar and always popular comic theme.

Ballad form

Bolduc's practice of writing songs about current events dates back at least to the 1600s, when printers hired Irish and English poets to write songs on current events, which they then published in a newssheet format called a "broadside". These "broadside ballads" were usually meant to be sung to an existing well-known tune. Many of these ballads continue to be passed on through oral transmission and are still sung in North America. Commonly, first-person narration distinguishes the broadside ballad, with a typical introduction calling the listener's attention to the story that is about to be told (e.g., "Come all ye, listen to my story . . . ."). An example of this first-person introduction is found in Bolduc's song "La chanson du bavard": "Écoutez mes bons amis, La chanson que je vas vous chanter…."

Songs relaying local anecdotes or historical events are also found in the traditional songs of France.


This was Bolduc's trademark, distinguishing her recordings from those of other folk musicians. The technique clearly marks her music as derived from Irish and Scottish heritage. "Turlutage" adapts an instrumental melody for vocal expression. The singer creates a refrain from vocables (or "nonsense syllables"), in a technique that dates back to the old ballads of the British Isles. Turlutage sounds a great deal like the "fa-la-la" or "hey diddly-diddly-dee" types of refrain one might associate with Irish or English songs. In Scottish music, it is called "mouth music". It is often improvised, similar to scat singing in jazz. Bolduc often used "turlutage" to replace the harmonica solo between sung verses, or vice versa. Her "turlutes" take place mostly in reels, like the "Reel turluté".


Mary Bolduc and colleagues, 1928, with traditional folk instruments  

Surviving photographs of La Bolduc typically show her playing her harmonica, and this instrument certainly has pride of place in her recordings. The harmonica (in French, "musique à bouche") was and continues to be widely used by traditional folk musicians in Quebec (and by Cajun musicians in Louisiana), partly because of its portability, for dances such as reels and jigs. The harmonica is second only to the fiddle in importance among Quebec folk musicians. La Bolduc was known for her achievements on both instruments, which she learned by ear at the knee of her Irish father. The accordion completes the trio of traditional folk instruments featured in the recordings of La Bolduc.

A word on new influences

  Loggers making music in a camp near Gatineau, Quebec, 1946

Many popular musicians, yesterday as well as today, have readily absorbed new musical influences to refresh the sound of their music. Bolduc, however, did not venture far from her traditional Irish-French folk styles, despite waning audience interest and declining record sales. French "chansonnettes" (short songs), American jazz sounds and even country music from the American south, were ascending in popularity, but made few inroads into Bolduc's repertoire. To our ears, therefore, her songs can sound musically unvaried and lacking in complexity. To Bolduc and her faithful, however, the songs expressed an aspect of their heritage that stood on its own, without need of change.

An Analysis of "La Cuisinière"

Staff notation of "La Cuisinière" by Mary Bolduc  

Melody: The melodic structure of "La Cuisinière" contains four musical phrases, totalling 16 bars. The first ("A" phrase) is four bars long and is immediately repeated, for a total of eight bars. There then follows a "B" phrase, also of four bars, and a "C" phrase of four bars, which repeats a motif from the "B" phrase. The instrumental refrain repeats these phrases, with variants, an octave higher. This AABC, 16-bar format is seen often in Canadian folk and popular songs. It would have structured the tunes sung in lumber camps in Bolduc's native Gaspé.

  Pitch range: a musical staff showing a treble clef and the range from A below middle C to B above middle C

Bolduc's melody for "La Cuisinière" is based on a folk tune known particularly in Acadia. It uses a pitch range of a ninth (an octave plus one note -- from A below middle C to B below treble C). This range is common in folk and popular songs. The tune uses intervals of a second, third, and fourth, with the only occurrence of a descending fifth, this being reserved for the refrain at "Hourra pour la cuisinière". Repeated notes and triadic outlines (e.g., do-mi-sol) feature prominently, as do brief repeated melodic motifs. The singer sometimes inserts passing notes and other small embellishments of an improvisational nature into different verses, a typical folk-singing practice.

Text: This song presents a domestic servant's humorous encounters with suitors. Comic songs are a common category of the French and British folksong traditions. French comic songs in particular, tend to deal with rejected suitors.

"La Cuisinière" has five verses -- each of four lines, including the refrain. The text is set syllabically and uses few if any sustained notes. Bolduc's text lines generally correspond on a one-to-one basis with the melodic phrases, again, a common feature of English folk-song.

The fourth and final line of each verse has interesting features of its own. It consists of a short, two-bar line of text followed by a two-bar refrain ("Hourra pour la cuisinière"). As well, an internal rhyme or assonance occurs on the concluding syllable of each short French phrase; e.g., in verse 3, "prendre un coup" rhymes with "trouver ça doux." These features provide an interesting contrast with the regularity of lines 1 to 3, and highlight the conclusion of the verse.

Refrain: The refrain "Hourra pour la cuisinière" is repeated at the end of every verse. The harmonica phrases (which are themselves a repetition of the melody, played an octave higher) function as an instrumental refrain and also provide an instrumental introduction to the entire song.

Traditional features: "La Cuisinière" borrows several notable features from both French and Irish-English song. Some aspects of the broadside ballads, which Bolduc would no doubt have heard as a girl, are present here. Both the lyrics and the music of the song follow a very regular structure, consisting of verses of four lines and a melody of eight bars repeated, totalling 16 bars of music. The text begins with an announcement in the first person from the narrator ("Je vais vous dire quelques mots ... "), similar to the traditional broadside introduction "O come ye listen to my story". From French folk-song tradition comes the use of enumeration, as well as assonance.

Rhyme: The rhyme scheme of "La Cuisinière" generally consists of rhyming couplets (an aa/bb arrangement); although in the last verse, the last two lines no longer rhyme.

Time: The song begins with a preparatory upbeat, which is characteristic of many Bolduc tunes. Although overall the rhythm is predictable and regular, occasionally the poet divides or repeats notes to accommodate extra syllables of text, thus creating small melodic variants from verse to verse. The addition of an extra measure of music in verse 1, line 4, to accommodate an extra-long phrase of text, is a noteworthy example.

Metre: The song is in 6/8 time, which is commonly used in folk songs. Note that Bolduc adds a measure of 3/8 to allow an upbeat at the beginning of the instrumental refrain.

Tempo: The brisk tempo contributes to the light-hearted nature of the song.

Language: Some points about the language used in this song are interesting. For example, the occurrence of the English word "flask" in verse 3; and the use of slang or regional pronunciations in French (e.g. "vas" for "vais"). Mixing of languages is seen often in Canadian songs, especially from areas such as Montréal, where people of different language groups mingle.


Bolduc, Édouard, Mme ; Joyal, Jean-Pierre ; Remon, Lina. -- Madame Bolduc[musique] : paroles et musiques. -- [Compilées par] Lina Remon avec la collaboration de Jean-Pierre Joyal. -- Montréal : Guérin, 1993. -- 244 p. -- AMICUS No. 13434595

"Folk music, Anglo-Canadian". -- Encyclopedia of music in Canada. -- Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. -- 2nd ed. -- Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. -- xxxii, 1524 p. -- AMICUS No. 12048560

"Folk music, Franco-Canadian". -- Encyclopedia of music in Canada. -- Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. -- 2nd ed. -- Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. -- AMICUS No. 12048560

"France -- traditional music". -- The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians. -- Edited by Stanley Sadie. -- London : Macmillan, 1980. -- 20 v. : ill. -- AMICUS No. 973438

The great song thesaurus. -- Edited by Roger Lax and Frederick Smith. -- 2nd ed. -- New York : Oxford University Press, 1989. -- 774 p. -- AMICUS No. 8384394

"Harmonica". -- Encyclopedia of music in Canada. -- Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. -- 2nd ed. -- Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. -- xxxii, 1524 p. -- AMICUS No. 12048560

Ives, Edward D. -- "Lumbercamp singing and the two traditions". -- Canadian folk music journal. -- Vol. 5 (1977). -- P. 17-23. -- AMICUS No. 24967603

"Laisse". -- The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians. -- Edited by Stanley Sadie. -- London : Macmillan, 1980. -- 20 v. : ill. -- AMICUS No. 973438

Orenstein, Lisa. -- "Instrumental folk music of Quebec". -- Canadian folk music journal. -- Vol. 10 (1982). -- P. 3-11. -- AMICUS No. 123254

Madame Édouard Bolduc (Mary Rose Anne Travers), folk singer and songwriter (1894-1941)

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