French Canadian Music Traditions

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.

The 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 songs together.

La Famille Ouimet, French American Traditions

Meet the Masters Radio Documentary:

Since 1993, TAUNY has been recognizing individuals, families and community groups with North Country Heritage Awards their significant contributions to our living local cultural heritage. The major criteria include evidence of traditionality, mastery, and creativity; a commitment to the art form over time; and a commitment to the community and to the teaching of others.

During 1999-2000, folklorist Varick Chittenden and audio producer Lamar Bliss researched, wrote and produced a series of 19 half-hour documentary features on award recipients for broadcast on
North Country Public Radio.

The following is the program about La Famille Ouimet from that series.

Brothers Bernard and Normand Ouimet and their nephews Mark and Michael continue to keep the rich musical heritage brought to the southern Adirondacks from Quebec fifty years ago. 

In this feature, they talk about growing up with singing in their home and church, the role of French food and crafts at home, their musical instruments including the button accordion and reed organ, the significance of folk beliefs, satire and humor in their traditional music, understanding their English speaking audience, and the joy of sharing their music in their community, especially with older people.

Instrumental 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.

One stylistic 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.

The 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.