French Canadian – Manners And Customs

In all times and places the folk have found a pleasant escape from the dulness of the daily round by singing at their work. In Russia they sing as they sew at the ” besyedy ” of a winter’s evening. In Roumania the best singer stands in the middle of the circle of spinners, the rest joining in the chorus. In Flanders—at Bruges, Steenvoorde and other towns—the lacemakers have songs called tellingen, which serve the double purpose of helping on the work and keeping tally of the- number of meshes done. I wonder how many songs go to the making of a piece of Canadian homespun—l’étoffe du pays. I am sure no spinner, CC en filant ma quenouille,” could truthfully say

Je le mène bien Mon dévidoi’, if she did not sing as she worked. As a rule, work-songs refer as much to other callings as to the singer’s own ; and most of them have nothing at all to do with work—except to lighten it— but are variations on the endless theme of love. Lord Dalhousie’s canoe men, as they paddled, used to sing the Ye le mane bien mon dévidoi’ just quoted, which is, of course, a spinning-song ; but only as regards the refrain, for the song itself is one of the many variants of Cécilia. So here we have a sea song adapted to the spinning-wheel, and then sung in this adapted form by voyageurs. The great thing always is to get a suitable rhythmical form. Tallemant des Réaux tells a story of a Huguenot arquebus-maker who sang as he worked,

Appelez Robinette, Qu’elle vienne ici-bas.

The well-known theologian, Pierre Dumoulin, happening to pass by, remonstrated with him and advised him to sing psalms instead. The man, however, knew his own business best ; Voyez comme ma lime va viste en chantant Robinette, et comme elle va lentement en chantant Lève le coeur, ouvre l’oreille.” It was more a matter of sound than sense with the worthy arquebus-maker, as it is with the Savoyard sweep, the words of whose cry, ” avec sa bizarre vocalise descendante,”

Ramonez-ci, ramonez-là—ah La cheminée du haut en bas—.

FRENCH-CANADIAN FOLKSONG 2+5 are not separated from even those of Who will buy my sweet lavender by anything like the immense difference separating their respective airs. In the words set to trumpet and bugle-calls the sense is even more an echo to the sound. In fact, the words owe their very existence to the call, as in la soupe, which has inspired ” le lignard ” to sing

C’est pas d’ la soup’ ;c’est du rata, C’est assez bon pour le soldat; Pour le soldat français,

and Tommy Atkins to make up his British variant,

Officers’ wives have puddings and pies, And soldiers’ wives have skilly.

Weddings, of course, come in for their share of attention in Mr. Gagnon’s collection. The folk-songs proper to the fêtes des noces are serious enough as a general thing, witness A la santé de ces jeunes mariés. But the other songs popular at weddings have been so universally distinguished for their non-Christian tone, that, together with the equally popular Pagan dirges, they have rarely failed to draw down upon them the anathema of the Church. In 650 the Council of Chalons had to threaten song-loving women with excommunication—to say nothing of the cat-o’-nine-tails and St. Augustin speaks of the “cantica nefaria” which were sung and danced to, even upon the tombs of the saints ! The strange mixture of gravity and gauloiserie at weddings is well illustrated in the Gascon songs, which are sung on the way to and from church, at the feast, and even in the bridal chamber itself. It is interesting to notice what an old-time view the Canadian songs take of the sanctity of betrothal: Petite Jeanneton evidently thinks that having her “petit coeur en gage ” is no light affair. But she does not take so stern a view of the situation as the Bretons, who say-” Quiconque est fiancée trois fois sans se marier va brûler en enfer.”

The Canadians have no dirges. This is natural enough ; for the popular dirge is pagan to the core ; and the Canadian folksinger takes an un-usually Christian view of death.

Nor should we suppose from Mr. Gagnon’s collection that they had any war-songs either. There are, indeed, scattered references to war but that is all. The universally-known deserter sings,

Un jour l’envie m’a pris De déserter de France.

“Les enfants sans souci” are soldiers ; but they are doing nothing more warlike than drinking “pots et pintes, vidant les verres aussi,” and doing it in barracks, too. In Gai le rosier, the singer’s lover is a prisoner of war in Holland, and Cadieux refers to the bush-fights with the Iroquois. But none of these are war-songs in any proper meaning of the term. Dr. Larue gives us two genuine Red River war-songs, both composed by Pierriche Falcon, who was one of the Bois-Brûlés of 1816, and fought the English as vigorously in arms as in verse. His songs are full of local colour, of the glory of the Bois-Brûlés, and of the defeat of the English—or rather of “les Arkanys,” as the Orcadians were called there. They have a spice of gauloiserie and the all-essential lilt. But nevertheless Pierriche Falcon, ” ce faiseur de chansons,” is many degrees below the Tyrtean level. As for military topical songs, like C’est la Casquette du père Bugeaud, which was composed in Algeria and sung at Inkermann, they are practically unknown in Canada. When Canadian troops sing in camp or on the march they choose a song like En roulant ma boule, which has a splendid swing, or one like Napoleon’s favourite Malbroucke, in which war plays little more than a nominal part.

Chivalry, as we might expect with the scions of a gallant race, has left its characteristic mark on some of the best-known Canadian love-songs. This is hardly surprising when we remember that the love-song, as we know it, owes its very existence to chivalry, and that true chivalry is the fittest theme of song :

Servants d’amour, regardez doucement, Aux échafauds anges de paradis ; Lors jouterez fort et joyeusement, Et vous serez honorés et chéris.

Knights, lords, princes and kings are all familiar figures to us. In En roulant ma boule the “canard blanc ” is shot by “le fils du roi.” Another ” fils du roi ” hears the shepherdess singing ” comme une demoiselle ” by the famous ” Pont d’Avignon.” “Trois filles d’un Prince” are asleep beneath the ” pommier doux,” and they wake to sing, in truly chivalric style —

Nos amants sont en guerre, Ils combattent pour nous.

“Trois cavaliers barons” rescue the distressed damsel, who rewards them only with a song, saying —

Mon petit coeur en gage N’est pas pour un baron.

Kings themselves—like Cophetua who married the beggar-maid, and Cormac who loved the Fair Eithne think rustic courtship by no means beneath them. When saw three ” filles à marier pass by, he hastened to join them, and then

Le roi prit la plus jeune, Dans la dans’ l’a menée ; A chaque tour de danse Il voulait l’embrasser.

Dans Paris ya-t-une brune Plus bell’ que le jour; Sont trois bourgeois de la ville Qui lui font l’amour;

and when they are planning how best to the youngest says—

je me frai faire une selle Avec tous ses atours ; Et j’irai de ville en ville Toujours à son nom.

Then we have a whole complainte, Marianson, breathing the very spirit of the Middle Age ; and, besides these, there are many other vestiges of the age of chivalry remaining, sometimes in a phrase and sometimes only in a single word. But perhaps enough has been said to show that in the songs of New France there still remains much of the picturesqueness of the Old.

There are very few songs in Mr. Gagnon’s collection, apart from those connected with fêtes and ceremonial customs, which contain any important remnants of popular myths. The dancing of the sun at Easter is not mentioned, nor are some other beliefs still, or up to quite recent times, current in the country. But Marianne, when her donkey has been eaten by a wolf, tries to pass off the one given her by the miller as the old one with a new skin ; for, in accordance with time-honoured custom, all good asses changed their skin at Michaelmas. Then, in Digue Dindaine, the sheep dance on the green in the most approved fashion ; and Pinson and Cendrouille, when at their wits’ end to furnish a wedding feast, are helped out of their difficulty by the dog, the crow and the rat, each animal bringing some suitable dish with him. There is no lack of talking birds; sometimes to tell inconvenient gossip-bilingual gossip, too, both in French and Latin—as in Cécilia. sometimes to recommend matrimony, like “le rossignolet” in J’ai cueilli la belle Rose ; and sometimes to help the weaker sex to abuse the stronger, like the quail in Mon beau ruban gris. The old belief in the materiality of the soul is satirically alluded to in the compendious Malbroucke:

On vit voler son ‘Arne A travers les lauriers.

And metempsychosis of a sort is pressed into the’ service of love in Si tu te mets anguille and 7’ai fait une maîtresse. The voyageur who sings “bon soir, lutin” may think twice before encountering the powers of goblindom. And perhaps some fishermen of the Lower St. Lawrence may have more than a suspicion that, in singing ” blanc, blanc loup-marin,” they are referring to mermaids or other uncanny beings far more dangerous than the timid seal. In En roulant ma boule there is the wonderful bird producing jewels from its eyes and gold and silver from its beak, just as mythical beasts do in all other countries. And we can hardly attribute the prodigious convulsion of Nature produced by a carpenter’s merely sitting down to purely natural causes —

En s’asseyant il fit un bond ; Qui fit trembler mer et poissons, Et les cailloux qui sont au fond.

Then there is the miller, who tricked the Devil into a flour-sack, which was tied to the revolving mill-wheel, much to his Satanic Majesty’s discomfort. But the only song the action of which turns entirely upon supernatural agency is that of the “plus savante” rival, whose power over the elements enables her to supplant u la fille du roi ”

Ell’ fait neiger, ell’ fait grêler, Ell’ fait le vent qui ventre ; Ell’ fait reluire le soleil A minuit dans sa chambre.

Turning to songs connected with Christian festivals we are at once struck by the persistence with which both song and fête have kept the form of pagan moulds. Usually, when a pagan custom was too strong to be killed it was adapted to Christian purposes ; and this practice became so universal, that Villemarqué’s saying that the cross was planted on the dolmen is as applicable to the whole of Christendom as it is to Brittany : he might have gone a step further, to say that the cross itself is almost as much pagan as Christian. The mixture of the two beliefs in folksong is very curious. No conversion to Christianity has ever succeeded in preventing paganism from living at least a legendary life, and often a life of real power. At the present day in Tinnevelly the Anglican missionaries cannot stamp out caste among the native Christians, nor prevent their wearing the tali, a golden wedding token, with the cross on one side and a figure of Lakshmi, the Hindoo goddess of Fortune, on the other. In a Portuguese ballad the king hearing a lovely song asks, ” Is it an angel in Heaven or a Siren in the sea?” Whole nations have adopted patron saints, not because of their sanctity, but from their real or imaginary likeness to popular heathen deities. No Northern folk would ever have had anything to do with St. George if his fabled fight with the Dragon had not resembled that of the mighty Thor with the Midgard-Serpent.

The adaptation of the old to the new is well seen in such songs as those till lately current in Canada in connection with La Guignolée. The Guignolée is of Druidic origin, and probably was in some way connected with the ceremony of cutting the sacred mistletoe at the winter solstice. At all events, it was part of a very popular sacred custom, performed by the high priest of an immensely powerful class, a class of immemorial antiquity even in the days of Csar. And it has come down to us in Canada, through centuries of Old-World change, with enough of its ancient form to re-mind us of its original office in the sacred forest rites. Among the superstitions alluded to in the songs of La Guignolee is the curious belief in the efficacy of warming a woman’s feet to give her a good child-birth ; a practice which Mr. Gagnon thinks originated from propitiatory sacrifices, for he quotes from the ” Soirées Canadiennes” “II est probable que ces vers étranges

Nous prendrons la fille aînée, Nous y ferons chauffer les pieds !

sont un reste d’allusions aux sacrifices humains de l’ancien culte gaulois.” In Canada La Guignolée has always been connected with Christmas alms-giving, the singers making a “quête” in search of all sorts of things, money included, which they afterwards distributed among the parish poor. Sometimes, if the ” quêteurs ” were unsuccessful at a house, they shouted uncomplimentary couplets, reflecting on the stinginess of the host and hostess. But they never sang, I believe, as the unsuccessful May Day “quêteurs” still do in Champagne–

J’vous souhaitons autant d’enfants Qu’y a de pierrettes dans les champs.

But, then, the children of Old France were never worth a hundred acres a dozen, as they recently were, by law, in the Province of Quebec !

The great religious round, II n’y a qu’un seul _Dieu, is even more interesting than La Guignolée.

It is danced as well as sung-” Les danseurs se comptent d’abord A. haute voix, de façon â ce que chacun d’eux se trouve être désigné par un nombre pair ou impair. Le chant commence ensuite et la chaîne se met â tourner. On tourne ainsi constamment, tantôt a droite, tantôt a gauche ; mais quand les chanteurs en sont au sixième couplet, et chaque fois que ce sixième couplet se répète, tout le monde s’arrête, et, pendant que l’on chante Six urnes placées, remplies,’ les danseurs désignés par un nombre pair se tournent, d’abord à droite, puis a gauche, et font â leurs voisins de profonds saluts. Ceux que désigne un nombre impair font la même cérémonie en sens inverse : le tout avec la gravité d’une cérémonie religieuse. Puis lorsque l’on chante : ‘A Cana, en Galilée,’ les danseurs recommencent â tourner.” This round is a French translation of a Latin imitation of a Druidic Series used in the education of novices. The Christian round, as given by Mr. Gagnon, concludes thus

Il y a douze apôtres, I1 y a onze cents mill’ vierges, Il y a dix commandements, Il y a neuf choeurs des anges, Il y a huit béatitudes, Il y a sept sacrements, Six urn’s placées, remplies, A Cana, en Galilée, Il y a cinq livr’s de Moïse, Il y a quatre évangélistes, Il y a trois grands patriarches, Il y a deux Testaments, Il n’y a qu’un seul Dieu.

The Druidic Series, as given by Villemarqué, is summed up thus ;

Douze mois et douze signes, Onze prêtres armés, Dix vaisseaux ennemis, Neuf petites mains blanches, Huit vents, Sept soleils, Six petits enfants de cire, Cinq zones terrestres, Quatre pierres à aiguiser, Trois parties dans le monde, Deux boeufs, Pas de série pour le nombre un ; La Nécessité unique, Le Trépas, père de la Douleur; Rien avant, rien de plus.

“La Nécessité unique” is identified with Death the Breton “Ankou,” the forgetting of all, not unlike the Nirvana of the Buddhists. “Les deux boeufs” are those of Hu-Gadaru, an ancient Breton god. In the “Quatre pierres a aiguiser” we have a Breton variant of the Welsh whetting-stone, which sharpened the swords of the brave, so that they killed an enemy with a single stroke, but reduced the swords of cowards to dust. The ” Six enfants de cire ” refer to the ancient and universal practice of witchcraft, not yet extinct, by which an enemy is made to fall sick and die through the melting of his waxen image. The connection of this with our modern habit of burning unpopular public characters in effigy is obvious. The number seven, like three and twelve, was peculiarly sacred. Here we have seven elements, seven suns and seven moons ; three beginnings and three endings, alike for man and for the sacred oak ; twelve months in the year and twelve signs in the Zodiac. The `” Huit feux, avec le grand feu ” refer to the seven sacred fires perpetually burning in the temples and to the great fire, the Bel-tan, which the ancient Irish lit in May in honour of the Sun-god. Here again we have a modern variant in the Feux de St. Jean, which were lit on the Island of Orleans as late as 1810. In the ” Dix vaisseaux ennemis” and the “onze prêtres armés ” we may have a reference to the naval war in Armorica, when Cæsar put the Senators and Druids to the sword. The respective ages of these two rounds cannot be determined. But the Christian must be later than the conversion of Armorica in the sixth century, and the Druidic somewhat earlier, and both must have their origin in a pagan past so dimly remote that we cannot now discern a single feature of it clearly.

I give Villemarqué’s notes as they stand for what they are worth, not supposing it necessary to warn my readers that the Barzaz-Breiz has fallen from its high estate of authenticity. If we want authentic Breton folksongs we must go to the Gwerziou and Sonniou of M. Luzel, where we shall find a scrupulous exactitude, not excelled even in Professor Child’s monumental collection of the English and Scottish ballads. The Barzaz-Breiz is something quite different from these. It is not a faithful collection of folksongs edited from unpublished manuscripts ; still less one that is faithful to oral tradition, for the Bretons repudiate all knowledge of its texts ; nor yet is it a trustworthy literary history. But it is not to be thrown aside as completely useless, because it is no longer found to be what it was once taken for by everyone. It is a store-house of information, picturesquely rearranged for literary effect ; in fact, a sort of historical novel on a large scale—belonging to the same class of Celtic literature as the works of ” Ossian Macpherson and Sir Samuel Ferguson. And if it had only been published in its true guise, like Ferguson’s poems, instead of in a false one, like Macpherson’s, its real value as an interesting and stimulating version of the genuine spirit of old Celtic poetry would never have been called in question.