Folksong Proper

Impersonality is of the very essence of the folk-song. C. Ce livre,” says Mr. Gagnon, “n’est pas du tout mon oeuvre. C’est 1’ceuvre de ce compositeur insaisissable, qu’on appelle le peuple.” And Signor Pitré tells us that the Sicilians will not sing a song at all if they know who the author is. Even in the case of songs, usually of a humorous nature, where the author devotes the last verse to revealing or hinting at, his identity

Qui a fait cette jolie chanson ?

the impersonal note is the dominant one. The author, instead of trying to impress his own point of view upon others, simply gives voice to the thought and feeling of his folk. And even in the love-song—though love is personal before all else—the impersonal note is clearly struck. The lover sings of his own joy and pain in his own way, but never without an undertone which tells of the burden common to his folk at large. It is partly a cause, partly an effect, of this impersonality that the folksong is often so vividly dramatic, yet without showing the least touch of self-consciousness. There is neither the desire nor the opportunity for an artificial pose. The Grimms declared that in the whole range of folksong they had never found a single lie ; and, indeed, there is no folksinger who, if asked the reason of his singing, could not truly answer in the words of Goethe’s minstrel,

Ich singe wie der Vogel singt, Der in den Zweigen wohnet ; Das Lied, das aus der Kehle dringt, Ist Lohn das reichlich lohnet !

It is this very truth to life that gives the note of melancholy. Children know this well and, when they want to be amused, never ask you to sing them songs, but to tell them stories ; for in the folktale the hero and heroine, after the fearful joy of wonderful adventures, generally get married and live happily ever after ; whereas in verse they are more often united only by death. The folk-song is, indeed, a “melancholy strain.” “Songs are the words spoken by those that suffer ” says a Greek folksinger in words of which Shelley’s ” Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought” seem like a literary paraphrase. If the folk cultivate poetry as a gay science in any tongue at all, it is in the French, and, if French folksongs are sung with a lighter heart in any one land more than in another, they are so sung in Canada. Yet Mr. Gagnon has to quote the Grimms’ dictum in prefacing the wedding-song A la santé de ces jeunes Mariés; and he is certainly justified in doing so, whilst drawing our attention at the same time to another true saying, “La crainte est de toutes les fêtes,” for we find these words in the very middle of the toast ;

Je puis bien parler De tous ceux et celles Qui se prennent sans s’aimer Et meur’nt sans se regretter.

In another place he gives us the rollicking song of the Trois Capitaines, who are going off to the tavern on their return from the war. This is an occasion of more certain jollity than even a marriage feast. And the verses certainly have the ring of jollity in them. But the air to which they are sung is anything but gay. ” Pourquoi ces couplets si gais se chantent-ils dans le mode mineur ?” asks Mr. Gagnon, and quotes Chateaubriand for the answer : “dans tous les pays le chant naturel de l’homme est triste ; lors même qu’il exprime le bonheur.” When Brizeux wrote the following lines he was thinking only of his own romantic part of France, but I should like to quote them here, as they seem to me almost equally applicable to our Canada; Hélas ! je sais un chant d’amour Triste ou gai, tour à tour.

Cette chanson, douce à l’oreille, Pour le coeur n’a point sa pareille.

J’avais douze ans lorsqu’en Bretagne On me l’apprit sur la montagne.

Avec un air, une parole, Toujours l’exilé se console.

Ce chant, qui de mon coeur s’élève, D’où vient qu’en pleurant je l’achève

Hélas ! je sais un chant d’amour Triste ou gai, tour à tour.

“Triste ou gai, tour â tour,” that is just what Canadian folksongs are. But the general burden of the folksong all the world over is more nearly sad than. gay. Though, perhaps, it was not in sadness that the Highland reaper sang, yet, “whate’er the theme,” the melancholy undertone was there, and that the listening poet caught its meaning we know well from his haunting lines :

Will no one tell me what she sings ? Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow For old, unhappy, far-off things, And battles long ago. Or is it some more humble lay, Familiar matter of today ; Some natural sorrow, loss or pain, That has been, and may be again ?

Sympathy, truth and melancholy, these three prime qualities give a mighty power to the folk-song, alike in the world of action or of art. It is said that at the battle of St. Cast, as a Breton regiment was advancing to the attack, it suddenly halted in amazement : the opposing regiment of the British army was a Welsh one and the men were singing a song heard daily in Brittany itself ! The order to fire was given ; but both sides gave it in the same tongue ! In a wild transport of enthusiasm discipline was thrown to the winds, the ranks were broken, and the long-lost Celtic kinship was renewed upon the field of battle ! Even the faithful Swiss Guards were not proof against the intense longing aroused in them by the sound of their native airs, and it was found necessary to forbid the playing of the Ranz des Vaches altogether. The folksong is everywhere the home of fancy in a far-off land, and Canadians have never been without it wherever they have been. It went out to the new Far West in the pioneering days when the Red River Settlement seemed to be at the end of the Earth, and it went in our own day with the same hardy class of voyageurs to the banks of the ancient Nile. It was taken into exile by the Acadians. It was sung into battle by the heroes of Châteauguay. And the story is told of the quick response made by the 65th Battalion in the North-West campaign to General Strange who, on hearing a soldier complain of the weary march, said, a Ah i mes braves !

Malbroucke s’en va-t-en guerre, Ne sait quand reviendra.

In an Instant the men took up the refrain, and the march continued without a murmur.

Little wonder that the poets and composers of all times have acknowledged the power of the folksong. The collections of the “grand siècle ” were filled with the ” airs de cour,” and the separation of town and country songs was then complete. Yet the insight of genius prompted Molière to choose which comes nearest to the folksong, for the “vieille chanson,” of which le misanthrope says;

Ne voyez-vous pas que cela vaut bien mieux Que ces colifichets dont le bon sens murmure, Et que la passion parle là toute pure ?

And, at a time when folklore was still more dis-credited in high places, we find Voltaire himself exclaiming

On court, hélas ! après la vérité, Ah ! croyez-moi, l’erreur a son mérite.

In the present century, French writers, from George Sand to Pierre Loti, vie with each other in doing honour to the folksong. Readers of “Pécheur d’Islande ” will remember how Sylvestre and Le gros Yann, while fishing throughout the endless Iceland day, sang

Jean-François de Nantes, Jean-François, Jean-François.

Those who have read “Mon Frère Yves” must have noticed the fine effect with which an invocation to La Bonne Sainte Anne-the Guardian Angel of the Sea—is given in the very words of Les Trois Marins de Groix

La maman qui s’en est allée Prier la grande Sainte-Anne-d’Auray : “Bonne Sainte, rendez-moi mon fils !” La Bonne Sainte-Anne, elle lui a dit “Tu le ?trouveras en paradis.” Il vente, C’est le vent de la mer qui nous tourmente.

And it must have been with a burden of some love-song of u La Belle France ” in his mind that Fréchette wrote to La Louisianaise :

Je sais un ville rieuse, Aux enivrements infinis, Qui, fantasque et mystérieuse, Regne sur ces climats bénis ; Ville où l’orange et la grenade Parfument chaque promenade ; OQ, tous les soirs, les amoureux Chantent la sérénade Sous des balcons heureux.

But poets have done more than acknowledge the power of folksong. They have felt its inspiration and transformed its spirit into their own creations. Its influence may be seen throughout the whole of Homer. One of its saddest tales has been retold by Victor Hugo in the story of “Petit Paul,” who, with Dante’s Anselmuccio and Shakespeare’s Arthur will live forever in the poetry of pity. Its ballads of the Borders have inspired Scott, Rossetti, Swinburne, William Morris, Mr. Kipling and many another. The ballad of Chevy Chase stirred Sidney —the flower of Elizabethan chivalry–more than the trumpet-call to arms. And the greatest writer of the last century bears witness to the hold its vivid simplicity had upon his imagination. a The unsophisticated man,” says Goethe, “is more the master of direct, effective expression in few words than he who has received a regular literary education.” Everyone knows the folksong which in dialect begins

Min moder de mi slach’t,

that Gretchen sings in prison ; and it is not hard to see that Goethe has poured the essence of the true German volkslied into her spinning-song —

Meine Ruh’ ist hin, Mein Herz ist schwer; Ich finde sie nimmer Und nimmermehr.

We may find plenty of apt examples of the comparative treatment of a common theme by folksong and by lettered poetry in France. The Lovers’ Metamorphoses is an interesting case in point ; for here we can set our Canadian variants beside the French ones, and then compare both with the poetry of Mistral and the music of Gounod.

But we need not push our investigations on this head any further, especially as no one denies the influence which folksong has always had upon the poetry of art. Before leaving this part of my subject, however, I should like to recommend any-one desiring an object lesson on the inspiration of folksong to read the last six pages of Part I in M. Tiersot’s ” Histoire de la Chanson Populaire,” for in them he will find all that rs necessary to prove that the Marseillaise, both in words and music, is, in reality, nothing else than a folksong cc writ large.”

Turning now to the different forms of folksong we naturally begin with the nursery. Here we find the truest of all conservatives in the children, who hand down the traditional rhymes from generation to generation, with a marvellous fidelity unknown to their elders. The most primitive forms of folkverse are probably of onomatopoeic origin; and the little folks, who could almost make a whole nursery rhyme out of this one portentous word, preserve the traces of this origin at every turn. With their poets the sound is an echo to itself—

Un i, un l—Ma tante Michel; Tin i, un um-Cagi, Cajum Ton pied bourdon,—José Simon ! Griffor, Pandor,—Ton nez dehors.

Other primitive forms survive in the refrains of more modern ballads, like the slogan of Hawick

Teribus y teri Odin

which is a curious Pagan invocation and now be-longs to a famous Border riding-song. Others again are to be found in all kinds of trade-songs, like the ancient songs for grinding, weaving and reaping, or those specially composed to be sung by the rowers in the galleys. These last were doubt-less like those in vogue among boatmen all the world over. The Sonaris when wading and hauling sing a sort of ” Cheerily, my boys,” with a chorus of ” Yoho Ram ” ; the Malagasy canoe men chime in with an equally meaningless chorus of u Hé I misy vâ ” at regular intervals ; and our own voyageurs have plenty of choruses like ” Ma, luron, lurette,” which have no pretension to any definite meaning at all, and several others whose meaning it is hard for the non-elect to understand ; for instance, Tortille morfil, Arrangeur de faucilles, Tribouille marteau, Bon soir, lutin !