Boîtes à chansons

Boîtes à chansons. Name given to the intimate rooms which sprang up in the mid-1950s outside the normal entertainment circuits and in which most young Quebec chansonniers made their start.

Boîtes à chansons

Boîtes à chansons. Name given to the intimate rooms which sprang up in the mid-1950s outside the normal entertainment circuits and in which most young Quebec chansonniers made their start. Usually seating 50 to 100 on uncomfortable chairs, these smoke-filled rooms were casually decorated, often with a fishing net. Coffee - and rarely liquor - was served on rickety tables which were bare or sometimes covered with checkered cloths. The audience generally was made up of students, and despite the surroundings great enthusiasm was generated. In these intimate rooms, Pierre Calvé, Claude Gauthier, Sylvain Lelièvre, Pierre Létourneau, Raymond Lévesque, Monique Miville-Deschênes, and Gilles Vigneault were discovered.

Several people claim to have opened the first boîte à chansons. Some consider nightclub owner François Pilon the probable inventor of the term. In the early 1950s he opened a boîte à chansons beside the Café St-Jacques in Montreal. In 1959 six young chansonniers (Les Bozos) founded the boîte Chez Bozo, and its success prompted Gilles Mathieu to open one in Val-David in the Laurentians. La Butte à Mathieu provided several young artists with an opportunity to try out their songs and gave chansonniers like Raymond Lévesque the chance to perform regularly. It went bankrupt in 1974 and was eventually transformed into a summer theatre. (On 23 Jun 1989, the date of the 30th anniversary of the founding of La Butte à Mathieu, the new owners inaugurated a Musée de la parole québécoise, écrite et chantée, which closed its doors the following year.) In Quebec City, Renée Claude drew her first audiences in 1960 at the room which actually bore the name Boîte à chansons, and Gilles Vigneault sang his first song for the patrons of L'Arlequin. These first clubs spawned a movement that spread over the entire province. Their proliferation represented an artistic, cultural, and social phenomenon. Most of these establishments, however, were short-lived. Claude Léveillée opened at least 50, including Le Chat noir in Montreal. Other chansonniers who became owners of boîtes are Tex Lecor (La Poubelle) and Raymond Lévesque (Le P'tit caporal) in Montreal, as well as Raoul Roy (Le Pirate) at St-Fabien-sur-Mer. Félix Leclerc, who had introduced the idea of performing his songs alone on stage accompanied by guitar or piano, also sang in boîtes à chansons.

In its original form the phenomenon gradually lost momentum and for all practical purposes petered out by 1967. Once they became stars, the chansonniers needed larger halls and more complex sound equipment. Yet it was towards the end of the boîtes à chansons era that Le Patriote began operating in Montreal's east end. Larger than most, it featured the big names of Quebec song, and several French artists, and welcomed newcomers.

Over the years the repertoire of the boîtes was broadened. Jazz ensembles, folk groups, singer-instrumentalists, and others, as well as the original singer-songwriters, were heard in them. In the 1980s, L'Évêché and L'Imprévu (Montreal); Le Créneau, Le Gaulois, and L'Ostradamus (Quebec City); Le Café Virgule (Sherbrooke); Le Théâtre de l'Île (Hull); Le Chat gris (Eastman); La Lucarne (Rimouski); Le Café Carcajou (Baie-Comeau); Le Mouton noir (Baie St-Paul); and L'Épave (Cap-aux-Meules) perpetuated the tradition of boîtes à chansons. The Bistro d'autrefois, the Butte St-Jacques and La Licorne, all in Montreal, still have something in common with the boîtes of the 1960s, even though their clientele has changed. Most Cegeps and some universities have similar places. The coffeehouse in English Canada is to some extent the counterpart of the boîte à chansons. See Coffeehouses.


Further Reading

  • Beaulieu, Pierre. 'Le renouveau des boîtes à chansons,' Montreal La Presse, 23 Dec 1978

    Guide du spectacle et du disque (MACQ 1978)