French Canadian Folksongs – Non-popular Songs

Before coming to the folksongs proper it would be as well to consider shortly some intruders, which, though occasionally naturalized among them, are none the less instruders still.

The Lyric is so obviously non-popular that the merest mention is sufficient to put it out of court. Still, no hard-and-fast line can be drawn even between the lyric and the folksong, so insensibly does each sometimes approach the other. A lonely lyric may be born in an unhappy time, perhaps during an exile shared by many beside its single singer, and then—so sweet are the uses of adversity in the realm of song—all the exiles will adopt it, cradle it in their sorrow, and bring it home at last as their very own. Who has not heard and laid to heart the song of

Un Canadien errant, Banni de ses foyers ?

But this is an exception which proves the rule.

The Vaudeville, that product of the bourgeois versifier and joy of the bourgeois heart, is, in France, the greatest enemy the folksong has to fear. It has no recognized place in Mr. Gagnon’s book and is not yet a power in Canada ; but it is not likely that the inter-communication between town and country and the exodus to the United States can go on much longer without profoundly affecting French-Canadian popular life and song. II only the vaudeville and its offshoots were entirely products of the bourgeois wit they would not bt half so dangerous as they are. But, while all is fish that comes to their net—political and historical songs, the poetry of the day, love-songs and drawing-room ditties, together with parodies of psalms, hymns and all sorts of religious verse—their choicest quarry has usually been the words of a folksong and the air of a popular dance. It is to such an origin that many vaudevilles owe their tremendous vogue. Like the Janissaries the folk-song is kidnapped from its early home, reared among the aliens, and finally sent back to destroy its own kin.

The Noel is another strictly non-popular form. It is, at best, an adaptation, composed under the direct or indirect influence of the priesthood, and made up of the most heterogeneous materials. Some noëls are simply versified accounts of the birth of Christ and are almost entirely of Christian origin ; the beautiful one given by Mr. Gagnon is of this nature and is a remarkable example of the fusion of the noel and folksong into a real poem. But most are composed of whatever was handiest to the adapter. So we find noëls derived from folksongs, from Christian hymns and Pagan formule, from vaudevilles, from love-songs, from drinking-songs, from rounds and rhymes for dancing, from fairy-tales, hero-tales and drolls, from mystery-plays, and from events of real history. All doubtless contain popular elements—the dramatic element, for instance, which they borrowed from the folksong, usually by way of the mediæval mysteries, fêtes des fous and fêtes de l’âne. But they are not themselves popular, because they never came directly from the lore of the folk itself.

Their popularity in Provence proves nothing ; for the Provençal noel is most popular when it is least essentially a true noel. A convincing proof of their non-popular character is the well-known fact that, from the sixteenth century on, they have been so common in printed collections. Moreover, in these collections the authors’ names are often given, and we find them to have been mostly those of priests, organists and men of letters, who all had some learning to boast of and who generally show unmistakable signs of having looked at their theme through the spectacles of books.

Less popular than the Noel or the Vaudeville, and not much more so than the Lyric, is the Drinking-song. The French-Canadian so-called drinking-song, like its fellows elsewhere, is really not a drinking-song at all. It may be a specimen of pot-house jingle, like Vive la Canadienne, or a maid’s lament that her lover prefers the company of his boozing companions to her own, or a gallant’s toast to his mistress, or the expression of a rejected lover’s determination to drown his woes in the bottle, or a versified account of a rollicking adventure in which the singer takes a conscious pride in saying

On dit que je suis fier, Ivrogne et paresseux ;

and does not scruple to send this very unabashed confession to M. le Curé :

Dis-lui que sa paroisse Est sans dessus dessous, Que dans le P’tit Bois d’Aille On n’y voit qu’ des gens sails :

it may be any one of these, or something of the same kind; but it is not a drinking-song. A drinking-song, pure and simple, is a song in praise of wine, and whatever else is said in praise of love, or war, or other gallant delights only serves ,to enhance the importance of the theme. Perhaps the somewhat gross imagination of the folk cannot take flight except upon the wings of love and other of the finer passions, and perhaps an educated fancy and an allusive wit are necessary to give the more material things of life the little power of flight vouchsafed to them. But it is certain that such folksongs as this one, which is still sung by the harvesters in the remoter dales of Craven, are rare exceptions to a general rule :

This ale it is a gallant thing, It cheers the spirits of a king, It makes a dumb man strive to sing, Ay, and a beggar play !

Take almost any collection of drinking-songs and you will find most of them are lyrics of clever verse with a spice of real, or at least mock, learning in them. Adam Billaut, who wrote as his own epitaph

Ci-gît le plus grand ivrogne Qui jamais ait vu le jour,

declared, in another place, his intention of going

…dans l’Averne, Faire enivrer Alecton, Et planter une taverne Dans la chambre de Pluton.

In Boileau’s account of a famous drinking-bout, though

Un docteur est alors au bout de son latin,

wine is still the best aid to knowledge, for

On est savant quand on boit bien, Qui ne sait boire ne sait rien.

Old Dr. Fischart, of bibulous memory, invokes the spirit of wine in a way quite alien to the Canadian folksinger:

Nun bist mir recht willkommen, Du edler Rebensaft ; Ich hab’ gar wohl vernommen, Du bringst mir susse Kraft ; L sst mir mein G’miith nicht sinken, Und stiirkst das Herze mein, Drum wbllen wir dick trinken, Und aile frbhlich seyn.

And Goethe, in writing

Drum, Brüderchen ! Ergo bibamus,

was only following the time-honoured custom of in-numerable versifying scholars in mixing dead and Iiving languages together in the praise of wine. Gaudeamus, laudamus, vivarus are words constantly occurring in the refrains of drinking-songs ; so are Bacchus, Venus and many more ; and all are used with an evident knowledge of their proper sense and fitness. What M. Tiersot says of the French drinking-song may be said with even more truth of the Canadian—” la chanson â boire n’est pas un genre de chanson populaire.”