French Canadian Musical Traditions and Traditional Adirondack Music
The North Country’s proximity to Quebec, and their shared economies based on forestry, hunting, fishing, trapping, and the St. Lawrence River has led to much mingling of cultures over the years. In nineteenth and early twentieth century logging camps, the “Frenchman” was a familiar and highly valued member of the teams. Many people from Quebec chose to permanently settle in the North Country, leaving a clear legacy of French surnames. While some families gradually lost touch with their French Canadian roots, music continued to serve as a marker of their Quebecois ethnicity for others. Music also plays an important role in the preservation of culture in Canada: the traditional music of Quebec has fostered cultural pride, and numerous young musicians have deliberately sought out the tunes of their forefathers in order to preserve these treasures.
French-speaking Quebec is one of the oldest regions to be colonized in North America. The first European colonists to join the indigenous people in Quebec were primarily French fur trappers, woodsmen and farmers from the Normandy, Loire, and Breton regions of France. They established the fortified cities of Montreal and Quebec City along the St. Lawrence River, and these two cities are still the centers of Quebecois culture today. In the 19th century, the relatively homogenous French-speaking population was joined by waves of immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Aspects of the music of these Anglo-Irish people were readily assimilated into the Quebec musical style, as the styles share much common ground, especially the use of the fiddle in country dance music.
secular songs and dances of Quebec were a popular means of entertainment for
their communities, functioning as a sustaining force in a difficult, isolating
environment. People would often get together for informal house parties called veillées (prayer evenings and
wakes that became impromptu kitchen dances) to pass the time. Although some
tunes were collected and transcribed for publication in songbooks, most were
passed down through word of mouth or through relatives. Family music-making is at the heart of this
tradition. French Canadians often kept family songbooks over several
generations and brought them out at gatherings so everyone could sing the old
La Famille Ouimet, French American Traditions
music from Quebec is quite similar to traditional music of France and Ireland.
They are in fact all quite closely related.
Like in Irish traditional music, the fiddle, guitar, mouth organ
(harmonica) and accordion are key instruments, and dance tunes make up a large
part of the repertory. The Quebec style
features a combination of French contra dances and minuets mixed with reels,
jigs, and airs from the early Anglo-Irish country-dance styles.
aspect characteristic of Quebec music is its use of foot clogging. During
certain tunes, the performers will use their feet as rhythmic accompaniment as
they play and sing, adding a heel-toe tap that alternates from one foot to the
other in time with the beat. Legend has it that foot clogging developed during veillees,
where the tight quarters made real step dancing impossible. Other
distinguishing aspects of the instrumental style include frequent double stops
on the fiddle, fast tempos, asymmetrical phrase lengths (“crooked tunes”), and
highly accented musical phrases.
Quebec song style shares many characteristics with French traditional folk songs, including monophonic
songs and ballads with short, simple tunes in strophic form. A special feature
in the Quebec style is to have a soloist begin the first line of a song in an
open full voice, which is then repeated by others in a robust chorus, often before the soloist
completely finishes the phrase. This
hearty a capella style is
unmistakably associated with the tradition, and it has great appeal. The North Country Ouimet Family’s version of
the tradition French folksong “Vive la Compagne” is a good example of this
style. - North Country Public Radio
The songs from the Quebec repertoire explore a variety of subjects. While some are serious, many more are bawdy, humorous, and full of joie-de-vivre, speaking for instance of the charms of a pretty lass and a full bottle of whiskey, or making jokes at the expense of a cuckolded husband. According to Bernard (Bernie) Ouimet, traditional music is gradually disappearing from North Country French Canadian communities because the family music-making tradition is fading, and young people aren’t learning the songs.