April 3, 2014 by The Editor
Learning what I could of traditional French Canadian music before I began the fiddle, I knew right away when taking lessons that I wanted to learn something from the canon of Voyageur songs. It is said that having a good singing voice was a job requirement to join the canoe brigades in the 18th and 19th century fur trade. Songs were vital to breaking up the monotony along the thousands of miles rowed from Montreal to the interior and back.
Singing also served another purpose: the music helped the paddlers keep pace by timing their rowing to the songs. Song also undoubtedly helped maintain a spirit of levity and camaraderie. Some voyageur songs evoked ‘home’ – either Quebec or France. Songs would have been learned by ear and kept in memory.
The culture of the voyageurs, including their songs, tales, and memories, was an oral culture – and their oral tradition was passed on to us generations later through the forethought of scholars who ensured the survival of their songs as the fur trade ended and the world changed irreversibly.
Yet French Canadian culture and that of the Voyageur Metis has also survived because of the continuation of storytelling down to the modern-day. Our modern identities are formed in part by the legacy of family, cultural, and historical stories left to us by previous generations. In that way, we maintain an oral tradition that will benefit generations to come.
The first voyageur song I have learned is “C’est L’aviron,” a jolly song with a catchy tune. It is a wonderful example of an upbeat tempo and a funny story. You can almost hear the paddles splashing into the water as the voyageurs ply their way to the Sweet Water sea. You can hear this song in Norman McClaren’s 1944 vignette for the National Film Board of Canada and on You Tube.
Le violon: C’est l’aviron