Chansonniers | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Félix Leclerc and Raymond Lévesque were the originators of this new species and of the movement it generated, though some historians point to La Bolduc and even Rolland (Le Soldat) Lebrun as its predecessors.


 Chansonniers. Singer-songwriters of the indigenous popular songs of Quebec, especially after World War II. Their songs served a common social ideal and shared a style of utterance and manner of performance whose simplicity and intimate character were conducive to poetic expression.

Félix Leclerc and Raymond Lévesque were the originators of this new species and of the movement it generated, though some historians point to La Bolduc and even Rolland (Le Soldat) Lebrun as its predecessors. Even the singer Emmanuel Blain de Saint-Aubin, who came to Canada in 1857 and composed his first song, words and music, in 1865, could be considered a chansonnier. As early as 1842 T.F. Molt, through newspaper announcements, called upon 'the chansonniers of Canada to send him Canadian chansons' for inclusion in an anthology.

In the years following Quebec's Quiet Revolution, which began in the 1960s, the chansonniers remained an inspiration to the collective phenomenon of writer-composer-performers whose outlook was aesthetic before it was social or political. 'We were voices,' declared Gilles Vigneault, 'it was their hands that changed everything' (Passer l'hiver, Paris 1978). Jacques Blanchet, Hervé Brousseau, Pierre Calvé, Clémence Desrochers, Georges Dor, Jean-Pierre Ferland, Jean-Paul Filion, Claude Gauthier, Sylvain Lelièvre, Pierre Létourneau, Claude Léveillée, Raymond Lévesque, Monique Miville-Deschênes, Marie Savard, Gilles Vigneault - all these and many others were preceded, and in many cases influenced, by Félix Leclerc. Leclerc had prepared the way for this popular vogue of the solitary singer who would play his or her own accompaniment on the guitar.

In its initial sense of a writer of popular songs, the word 'chansonnier' (ie, 'songer' or 'song-maker') has retained over the years a meaning closely linked to the spirit of the poet-singers of the time of the Crusades - the troubadours and trouvères. In France, the term has designated performers in cellar bars who have based their lyrics on current events.

In the 1940s Jacques Normand continued this Montmartre tradition in the Montreal cabarets, assuming the role of a singing commentator, and treating the events of the day in a style marked by political and social satire. In the same way, certain other chansonniers subjected everyday events to close scrutiny, notably Jean-Pierre Ferland ('Les Journalistes'), Robert Charlebois ('Marche du président'), and Gilles Vigneault ('Lettre de Ti-Cul Lachance à son sous-ministre'). Others, such as Raymond Lévesque, Jean-Guy Moreau, and Yvon Deschamps, also developed an alert and incisive style in both their songs and their monologues.

The 1950s, with Charles Trenet in France, invested the word 'chansonnier' with a more particular meaning, one which affected Quebec: that of an individual who becomes identified with his or her own works. The CBC French network's 'Concours de la chanson canadienne' (1956), in reality a competition for Canadian popular songs in French, allowed the Quebec public to hear compositions by its own writers on a considerable scale.

In 1959 Jacques Blanchet, Hervé Brousseau and others formed Les Bozos. Their commitment, like that of all the chansonniers of that time, was at first apolitical. The commitment, if indeed there was one, was personal, founded on traditional human values: friendship, love, justice, freedom, communication, and so on.

The rise of the poetic song was chiefly the work of the early chansonniers. Its proliferation, its quality, its performers (Renée Claude, Louis Forestier, Pauline Julien, Monique Leyrac, Danielle Oderra), and the themes found in its lyrics made it the vehicle, however, for a young generation eager for community and liberation. A brief survey, conducted in 1965 among owners of clubs and boites à chansons, revealed that at one time or another some 2000 young persons had requested auditions as chansonniers.

Stéphane Venne in Parti-Pris draws a vivid picture of the typical would-be chansonnier: 'The chansonnier must be young, must not have chosen to sing for a living but rather to have a kind of vocation for it. He must perform ''without artifice,'' in the plainest of surroundings, with a minimum number of musicians, ideally with no other accompanist but himself, on the guitar or the piano. He appears somewhat clumsy on stage and, above all, he must have composed the words and music of the songs he performs and in them display a preference for the first person'.

The role of the chansonniers, in view of the profound changes that society was undergoing, was essential to social evolution and gradually assumed a collective meaning: that of presenting the spirit of one's native environment in song. To quote Gaston Miron speaking of Georges Dor, the chansonnier 'is a new person that we are all struggling nowadays to become' (preface to Si tu savais...). The chansonniers of the 1960s and 1970s represented a new instance of the self-assertion of the people of Quebec, one linked to the discovery of their own identity. Thus the chansonniers were in the forefront of a general historical process: from that time on, most inhabitants of Quebec would see themselves no longer only as French (or English) Canadians but as québécois. In 1960 the chansonniers were tangible evidence of an exclusively 'québécois' phenomenon. They represented a peculiarly 'québécois' point of view and life-style. The boites à chansons where they played offered the first evidence and were the first symbols of this new approach; they sprang up everywhere in Quebec. The chansonnier vogue arose from a need for self-expression and self-recognition on the part of the poet-songwriters. Their rise created a new force, a market corresponding to a cultural reality and given unconditional support by the CBC, which broadcast almost all the chansonniers of the day. The movement then took on an unexpected dimension: lyricists and musicians such as Paul Baillargeon, Paul de Margerie, François Dompierre, André Gagnon, Marcel Lefebvre, Pierre Nolès, Luc Plamondon, and Stéphane Venne entered its ranks.

Women occupied a large place in this movement of assertion. Clémence Desrochers, Monique Miville-Deschênes, Marie Savard, Monique Brunet, Jacqueline Lemay, and Suzanne Jacob were among the pioneers, expressing from the outset, a sensitivity and concern at once universal and strictly feminine. 'The songs of women are thus of every holiday, of all events, and they cling more than ever to the reality and the struggle of the québécois,' states Cécile Tremblay-Matte. Several performers (Pauline Julien, Louise Forestier) gradually discovered the power of words and began to perform their own compositions, at times of feminist inspiration.

The chansonniers with something to say could find no outlet on the commercial circuit. A cold war had developed between them and the singers who employed a style borrowed for the most part from the French or US song tradition. In about 1967-8 came the realization that the boites à chansons and the old chords repeated over and over were no longer sufficient. To lessen the differences between the two groups, such writer-composers as Marc Gélinas and Stéphane Venne turned to such pop performers as Renée Claude, Emmanuelle, Pierre Lalonde, Donald Lautrec, Isabelle Pierre, Ginette Ravel, and Ginette Reno. It was thus that the pop movement became aware of more pressing realities than the contemplation of self. Of the writer-composer-performers on the scene, Robert Charlebois was the one most disposed to musical change. His delineation of a genuinely contemporary and québécois chanson, starting with L'Osstidcho (1968), remains the major achievement in the genre in the 1970s. He was the first chansonnier, acknowledged as such, to be accompanied by the electric guitar or to sing with a group, and he was succeeded in this by Claude Dubois, Jean-Pierre Ferland, and Jacques Michel and a new generation of singer-songwriters.

Stimulated by the demands of the recording industry and the opening of large concert halls (Comédie-Canadienne, PDA), the chansonniers moved from a cultivated amateur status to a professional one. Several of them, unable to write music, sought the services of professional musicians. The French school of song-writing (Brel, Brassens, Ferré) was the matrix of the first generation of chansonniers. The influence of certain Californian currents, however, became apparent in the second generation: Charlebois, Dubois, Francoeur. Younger chansonniers of the group type of the 1970s, such as Harmonium, Les Séguin, Jim et Bertrand, Beau Dommage, and Garolou, recalled the early chansonniers by their vitality and abundant skills in performance.

The poetic and musical creativity of the chansonniers preserved the essential qualities of Quebec folk music while at the same time renewing it. Some never moved in the direction of rock. What Georges Dor, Claude Gauthier, Félix Leclerc, Raymond Lévesque, and Gilles Vigneault were offering their audiences in 1980 was similar in style to what they had presented 10, 15, or 20 years earlier, and songs such as the 'Hymne au printemps,' 'Mon Pays', or 'Quand les hommes vivront d'amour' continued to be performed in many countries, defying fashion.

Indigenous and unsubsidized, the chansonnier movement was initiated by the public, which nourished and supported it. According to Georges Dor in his book Si tu savais..., 'The people here were looking for new songs and the poet-chansonniers delivered them by the cartload... though some were, admittedly, very rough-hewn. This all coincided with the arrival in Quebec of the consumer society and the chansonniers quickly became the standard-bearers for art in Quebec; they even at one point summarized the whole of Quebec art'. All contributed in an original way to the creation in Quebec of what is generally known as the 'chanson d'auteur'. Moreover, as the sociologist and chansonnier Pierre Bourdon believes, the chansonniers raised the lid of a political conscience in Quebec. They enabled the people of Quebec to identify themselves, to reveal themselves to one another, and, through a personal means of expression, to become fully aware of who they are. To conclude with the words of Roger Fournier, 'the chansonniers are all that can be done to save a country' (Liberté, July-August 1966).

See also Chanson in Quebec.

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