French Canadian Folksong

COLLECTORS of folklore so often lament that they have begun their work too late, and they so often find themselves mere gleaners of the little that has escaped the natural decay in fields once white with a harvest which no one ever thought of reaping, that some sort of a prose variant of the chanson des regrets is usually expected to form a part of every well-conducted preface. Just now, folklore is quite one of the proper things to dabble in, and, as the general reader is nothing if not fashion-able, it will be a consolation for him to know that, in turning his attention to Canadian folksongs, he will be sure to find enough irreparable loss to give him plenty of the dainty sweet of melancholy. As we read in Mr. Gagnon’s delightful book—Chansons Populaires du Canada—of the difficulties of collection fifty years ago, we find only too convincing a proof of that state of rapid transition from the old order to the new, when the folk begin to be self-conscious and the collector realizes that opportunity is bald behind.

It is chiefly to the collection of Mr. Gagnon that student and general reader alike must turn for information. He has given us of his best, and that best is so good that it is hard to see how anyone working on the same lines can ever better it ; but then, as he says himself, ” le nombre de nos chansons populaires est incalculable” and “ce volume en contient juste cent.”

It is, of course, too late now to make any approach to an ideal edition, so far as collection is concerned; but a good edition for the student is still within reach, if only it is taken in hand at once and carried out with thoroughness. To be complete, such an edition should have maps of France and Canada in the time of the Grand Monarque, showing, as nearly as possible, the old and the new homes of the emigrants : it should also have folklore maps of both countries at the present day. An index, a bibliography and a glossary with philological introduction are quite indispensable. Verse and music being inseparable in the folksong, their mutual relations should be explained in a preface; but to ensure full justice to each, separate introductions should be written, that to the verse showing the place of the folksong in the beliefs, manners and customs and general life-history of the people. Besides this, every song should have its two foot-notes, one on the verse, the other on the air, where all variants, Canadian, French and foreign, should be cited with exact bibliographical references. It is fortunately unnecessary, nowadays, to insist upon a faithful text, that being taken for granted. But there are degrees of faithfulness, and nothing short of perfection should be accepted. When a song is taken down from oral tradition, not only should every musical feature be exactly reproduced but every appropriate gesture noted as well. Then, after the perfect authenticity of the manuscript version has been proved, the editor should see that the printing follows it line for line, word for word and letter for letter. Even this is not enough to ensure absolute fidelity in all cases, for it is sometimes very hard to withstand the temptation to make up a complete editorial version out of authentic fragments : finding all the materials is not the same thing as the discovery of the building.

One word as to the collectors themselves. If there is one thing more than another which needs sympathy, tact and an insight into human nature, it is the collection of folksongs. The mere patience required is no small thing, as we can see from the difficulties Mr. Gagnon met with here in Canada, where, as in old Normandy, the songs were as plentiful as the apples. But the chief difficulty to overcome is the shyness and suspicion of the folk when they know they are being observed. Their first instinct is to deny all knowledge of superstitious practices, out-of-the-way customs or curious legends. And so, perhaps, the best collecting of all is done, as it were, by accident, by living among the people and gathering up the songs and stories they let fall from time to time. Mlle. Hélène Vacaresco, to whom we owe the splendid collection of Roumanian folksongs published in England under the title of The Bard of the Dimbovitza, “was forced to affect a desire to learn spinning, that she might join the girls at their spinning-parties, and so overhear their songs more easily ; she hid in the tall maize to hear the reapers crooning them ; she caught them from the lips of peasant women, of lute-players, of gipsies and fortune-tellers , she listened for them by death-beds, by cradles, at the dance and in the tavern, with inexhaustible patience.” Another successful collector is the Rev. Elias Owen, who turned his position of inspector of schools to admirable account. a At the close of his examination he asked the first class, ‘ Now, children, can you tell me of any place where there is a buggan to be seen, or of any one who has ever seen one ?’ Instantly every hand in the class was stretched out, and every child had a story to tell. He then asked,’ Which of you can tell me of a cure for warts ?’ with like results, greatly to the discomfiture of his friend, the clergyman, who had fondly imagined that there was no superstition in his parish 1 The clergy are very liable to this illusion, because the people are apt to keep superstition out of their way, which in itself is a not uninstructive folklore item.” But, perhaps, the best of all collectors was old Wilhelm Mannhardt. ” It is on record that he was once taken for a gnome by a peasant he had been questioning. His personal appearance may have helped the illusion ; he was small and irregularly made ; and was then only just emerging from a sickly childhood spent beside the Baltic in dreaming over the creations of popular fancy. Then, too, he wore a little red cap, which was doubtless fraught with supernatural suggestions. But, above all, the story proves that Mannhardt had solved the difficulty of dealing with primitive folk ; that, instead of being looked upon as a profane and prying layman, he was regarded as one who was more than initiated into the mysteries—as one who was a mystery himself.”