Chanson in Quebec

Chanson in Quebec. It is through the oral folk tradition, deriving its essential qualities from European folklore, that the Quebec chanson has carved out its privileged position.

Chanson in Quebec

Chanson in Quebec. It is through the oral folk tradition, deriving its essential qualities from European folklore, that the Quebec chanson has carved out its privileged position. Perhaps one Quebec folksong in 20 originated in Canada; the rest were imported: Irish and Scottish rhythms thus merged with French ones, and popular songs with folksongs. Still current, the folksong remains the great forerunner of the Quebec chanson (formerly known as 'la chanson canadienne d'expression française').

Since the beginning of the century, popular artists such as La Bolduc, Paul-Émile Corbeil, Eugène Daignault, Lionel Daunais, Conrad Gauthier, Ovila Légaré, Charles Marchand, and the Alouette Vocal Quartet continued the folksong tradition in an urban and industrial context, seeking to entertain French-Canadians at a time (1920-45) when living conditions were difficult.

La Bolduc and Lionel Daunais were among the first to seek inspiration in the reality of Quebec life. Drawing on both folk music and the chansonnette, the art of Daunais changed the face of the popular song, stamping it with a new delicacy and optimism. In his book La Chanson québécoise Benoît L'Herbier relates the singer's words: 'I wanted to do Canadian songs, not French ones. I tried to give them local colour by using words or expressions from these parts but without slipping straight into folk music. I used the structure of folk music because I wanted there to be something ''québécois'' about them'.

The humour, the jigs, and the comic ritornelles of La Bolduc were in sharp contrast to the out-and-out sentimentality, the maudlin radio serials, of the 1930s. Alain Sylvain wrote in La Chanson française: 'La Bolduc not only has an innate and probably unconscious sense of verbal fantasy; she manages to surprise us still, after several hearings of the same song, by her off-hand alignment of words, and by the most hilarious juxtapositions, all of which most certainly would delight a Jacques Prévert, for example, presuming, of course, that the author of Paroles was familiar with her recordings'.

The Veillées du bon vieux temps, 1921-41 at the Monument national in Montreal, allowed folk music and popular song to become a part of the city, when French and US songs had dominated radio and cabaret since 1930: Fernand Perron (pseudonym Le Merle rouge) was the counterpart of Tino Rossi, and Jean Sablon, of Bing Crosby. Wishing to be universally recognized, Quebec artists performed their pop songs in a Paris or New York manner. With an altogether different idea in mind, in 1937 Father Charles-Émile Gadbois determined, through La Bonne Chanson (a society publishing and distributing songs), to popularize folksongs and songs of religious and patriotic inspiration, both those of French and those of French-Canadian origins.

From Albert Larrieu to Théodore Botrel (two French composer-performers who toured Quebec several times between 1910 and 1925), the Bonne Chanson served as a guide to popular values, as the beauty of the most-favoured works attests. Then in 1938 came the French singer-composer Charles Trenet, who was to become famous and whose influence in Quebec was enormous. His songs, eg, 'La Route enchantée,' 'Le Grand Café,' and 'Les Oiseaux de Paris,' were a familiar part of the Quebec singer's repertoire.

A little later, Fernand Robidoux organized the competition 'La Feuille d'érable' (Maple Leaf) to promote Canadian songs on the radio. Radio station CKVL Verdun's 'Parade de la chansonnette française,' with the Quebec singer and entertainer Jacques Normand as host, helped re-establish the French popular song interrupted by World War II. However, singers were not interested in singing original works, being content to translate US hits into French or to copy the chansonnettes françaises. At the same time, the country song should be viewed as the perpetuation of a certain lyricism whose first and last representative was Roland (Le Soldat) Lebrun. In Lebrun's wake, in the sombre post-war period, came the western music phenomenon with its essentially US influences. With Willie Lamothe, country and western music in Quebec came into its own; it translated into French the developing trends of American westerns (see also Country music).

The advent of TV in the early 1950s, which introduced new singer-songwriters to the public, brought a fresh outlook to the Quebec scene. As the host at Montreal cabarets such as the Au Faisan doré and the Au St-Germain-des-Prés, Jacques Normand promoted the emerging talents of Aglaé, Clémence Desrochers, Serge Deyglun, Raymond Lévesque, and Monique Leyrac. Between the Montmartre nightclubs and the music-hall, the singers at the Faisan doré attracted an audience different from that of the more traditional cabarets. Radio began to broadcast programs devoted to the so-called 'Canadian chanson,' including 'Baptiste et Marianne' with Guy Mauffette in 1951. The CBC's 'Concours de la chanson canadienne,' organized in 1956, gave a first chance to those who would soon be called the 'chansonniers'.

The particular achievement of the chansonnier of Quebec - the Quebec chanson - was a synthesis, stemming from the fusion of folk music, Quebec poetry, and inspiration from the songwriters of France (Brassens, Brel, Ferré). Many chansonniers at first published collections of poetry (Félix Leclerc, Gilles Vigneault, Georges Dor). In 1959 new voices already were making themselves heard: Aglaé, Hélène Baillargeon, Jacques Blanchet, Lionel Daunais, Jacques Labrecque, Ovila Légaré, Raymond Lévesque, Monique Leyrac, Pierre Pétel, and, the most distinguished of all, Félix Leclerc. It was through Leclerc that the newly created Quebec chanson was to serve as the natural channel for the collective identity of the people of Quebec and the first ambassador of a society undergoing profound change. The Bozos were among the first chansonniers; Jean-Pierre Ferland's lyricism, Claude Léveillée's musical experimentation, Clémence Desrochers' vernacular-based poetry, and her liveliness already illustrated the energetic forces of a new cultural movement. After 1960 the boites à chansons increased in number concurrently with Quebec's Quiet Revolution, a powerful movement of economic and cultural emancipation, swept over Quebec. At the same time many pop stars such as Michel Louvain, Joël Denis, Fernand Gignac, Pierre Lalonde, Donald Lautrec, Margot Lefebvre, Ginette Ravel, GinetteReno, Michèle Richard, Ginette Sage, and Pierre Sénécal were highly successful.

Rhythms novel in the world of pop music shook traditional thinking in several ways, and the arrival on the scene of the Beatles, who performed in Montreal in 1964, heralded the revolution which would strongly affect popular music around the world. Along with many other places, Quebec experienced a rash of musical and vocal groups. Most of these groups, however, lacked composers to provide them with material, and though they tried at times to compensate for lack of musical originality with outlandish disguises (Les Gants blancs, Les Classels, César et ses Romains, Les Sultans, and others), they did not survive.

The wild explosion of American music, especially in California, was not lost on Robert Charlebois. His stage show L'Osstidcho (1968), in which Louise Forestier and Yvon Deschamps participated, hastened the end of one era and the beginning of another. For the first time, original compositions, French poetic texts (by Péloquin, Ducharme, Charlebois) often mixed with local expressions, were set to essentially American rock rhythms. French-Canadian rock was born.

While Californian and British rhythms were spreading all over, songwriters used them as a source of inspiration in the metamorphosis of Quebec folklore. The Séguins, Jim (Corcoran) and Bertrand (Gosselin), Jocelyn Bérubé, Breton-Cyr, Louise Forestier and Garolou attempted to take a fresh approach. A new folk movement grew up around Jim et Bertrand, François Guy, Plume Latraverse, Paul Piché, Fabienne Thibeault, Guy Trépanier, and Gilles Valiquette.

The Quebec chanson then mixed electronic and traditional music. Many singers performed light rock with simple lyrics in the vernacular. Their spontaneous, anecdotal songs dealing with city life (like those of Beau Dommage), recall the simplicity and freshness of approach of the early chansonniers and even of Félix Leclerc and a little later of Jean Lapointe in his use of lyricism. A whole generation coming out of the colleges, including Paul Piché, Marie-Claire Séguin, Richard Séguin, Pierre Flynn, Jim Corcoran and Michel Rivard burst forth from the profusion of pop groups from the beginning of the 1970s. Their more aggressive music explored the fields of rock and jazz.

Describing pop groups in La Presse, 29 Mar 1975, Georges-Hébert Germain wrote: 'Their music is effecting a radical and fundamental transformation of all popular music, for the very reason that it appeals to the musicians and chansonniers themselves in precisely the same way as pure science appeals to the applied sciences'. While expressing themselves differently and with quite distinct philosophies, groups such as Aut'Chose, Harmonium, Héritage, Maneige, Octobre, and Offenbach, along with a number of English and US groups, engaged in original research in language, rhythm, timbre, and sonority, while assimilating various existing genres into their own individual styles.At the same time, the Quebec chanson was not only interested in the national cause; a mouthpiece of counter-cultural movements, it also became, with Pauline Julien, Marie-Claire Séguin and others, a reflection of the women's movement which swept all society. At the end of the 1970s, Diane Dufresne, with her explosive and provocative style, paved the way for all the women who wanted to sing: Marjo, Marie Carmen, Jo Bocan and more recently, Lindy Lemay, Mara Tremblay, Ariane Moffat, Coeur de pirate (Béatrice Martin), Pascale Picard.

As early as 1965 Stéphane Venne observed in Liberté, 'The Quebec chanson has been loaded down with an impossible burden; that of being for Quebeckers what jazz is for the American blacks, opera for the Italians and so forth. A pivot of Quebec culture; a passport to all the countries in the world'. At the beginning of the 1980s, after the defeat of the 'yes' vote in the 1980 referendum on the constitutional future, in a state of economic crisis, overwhelmed by new American production, the Quebec song went through a dry spell, which was partially offset by the arrival of MusiquePlus (1986), a channel specializing in music. The emergence of video clips also revolutionized the music industry and favored a rapprochement, even an intimacy, between the artists and their audience. Previously, in 1978, the record industry was structured with the founding of ADISQ (Quebec Association of the record, entertainment and video Industry) which was mandated to "work for the survival and development of an independent music production." Forced to redefine itself outside of a political project which seemed to have been postponed, it became more international in form but nevertheless continued to express all the facets of a modern, francophone, North-American society. Luc Plamondon, whose songs represent the fusion of the pop song and of poetic texts, best represented the energy of a song, which while remaining Québécois, is meant for the whole French-speaking world. 'It seems that Plamondon's Québécois can be heard from now on as much in Paris as in Montreal,' stated the writer Jacques Godbout (Plamondon, un coeur de rockeur, Montreal 1988).

With the development of a real francophone entertainment network (Festival de la Rochelle, Francofolies, TV5, etc.), which also brought French, Belgian or African stars to Montreal, Daniel Lavoie, Roch Voisine and such productions as the rock musical Starmania have given Quebec its first real great popular successes in France, where they are no longer appreciated just for their exoticism but are considered on an equal footing on the French scene. Many artists have made their careers there: Diane Tell, Robert Charlebois, Fabienne Thibeault, etc. Quebec artists can depend on an industry, which although vulnerable, is made up of important production firms and various professional associations.

In return, the fusion of musical and poetic tendencies of the French-speaking world also have influenced many Quebec writers, from whence come Jean Leloup's Maugrahbin sounds and the related style of Vilain Pingouin's French rock groups. Others, such as the groups The Box and Men Without Hats, attempted to break through the English market with recordings and shows comparable to American productions. To this day, Céline Dion remains the only Québecois artist who has fully realized this "American" dream. Finally, such groups as Kashtin (Montagnais), Taima (Innu) and signer Elisapie Isaac, Paul Kunigis, les Frères Diouf, Lynda Thalie and Monica Freire show the growing cultural diversity of Quebec. In multi-ethnic Montreal, there are communities of musicians from around the world that integrate into Quebec's cultural life. With the numerous festivals of classical music (Festival international de Lanaudière), folk music (Festival mondial de folklore de Drummondville ), ethnic (Festival[A1] International Nuits d'Afrique) or contemporary music (Festival de musique actuelle de Victoriaville), and especially the phenomenal success of the Festival International de Jazz De Montréal, the Quebec song now welcomes the most diverse influences and shows a radiant face. Its first source of inspiration nevertheless is firmly anchored in Quebec culture, as can be attested by the success of Richard Desjardins, Daniel Bélanger, Pierre Lapointe who, in expressing with vigor the reality of their milieu, become universal.

After a second referendum on the future of Quebec was held in 1995, several veterans "committed" to the Quebec chanson became more discrete and new musicians renewed the art of political song: Les Cowboys Fringants and young artists with a hip hop background, including Loco Locass and Samian.

While Gilles Vigneault, father of the chanson, nearly completed 50 years of artistic life, he recorded an album with the traditional music group Les charbonniers de l'enfer, thus getter closer to the folklore that transpires through all his work. As we enter the 21st century and in the wake of the group La bottine souriante, Québec is experiencing another folk revival with groups such as Mes Aïeux, La Volée d'Castors et Le Vent du Nord, which have some success abroad. In a context of globalization and dematerialization, it is by being local that we become international.

'We are interesting,' explained Gilles Vigneault, 'as a symbol of America's cry of liberty and, in an exactly opposite sense, of the people she oppresses' (Propos de Gilles Vigneault, Marc Gagné, Montreal 1974).

See also Chansonniers; Folk music, Franco-Canadian; Rock.


Further Reading

  • Giroux, Robert. 'Des fonctions mobilisatrices de la chanson lors de la "revolution tranquille" au Quebec (de 1959 a 1972),' 1789-1989: Musique, histoire, démocratie, vol 1 (Paris 1992)

    Giroux, Robert, ed. La chanson prend ses airs (Montreal 1993)

    - La chanson: carrières et sociétes (Montreal 1996)

    Giroux, Robert, Havard, Constance, and Lapalme, Rock. Le guide de la chanson québécoise, 2nd rev edn (Montreal 1996)

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