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Bolduc, Marie (1894–1941)

Bolduc, Marie (1894–1941)

French-Canadian singer and musician who was Canada's first great chansonniére. Name variations: La Bolduc; Mary Travers. Born Marie or Mary-Rose-Anne Travers in Newport, Gaspésie, Quebec, Canada, on June 4, 1894; died in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on February 20, 1941; married Édouard Bolduc (a plumber), in 1914.

Left home, age 13, to earn a living in Montreal (1907); multitalented as a musician, began to perform professionally (1927); composed more than 80 songs and made many recordings (1930s).

In 1994, Canada issued a postage stamp to commemorate the centenary of the birth of La Bolduc, one of the great chansonniérs of the French language. Marie Travers was born on June 4, 1894, in the town of Newport in the Gaspé region to parents of French-Canadian and Irish origins. At age 13, she left her large family to support herself in Montreal as a maid. In August 1914, she married Édouard Bolduc, a plumber, and the couple soon began to raise a large family. In her spare time, Marie Bolduc revealed that she was an excellent musician, equally adept at playing an accordion, harmonica, violin, and the Jew's harp.

In the mid-1920s, the Bolducs found themselves in economic crisis due to the temporary incapacitation of Édouard. To make ends meet, Marie began to accompany the famous French-Canadian singer Ovila Légaré on his recordings. Her reputation grew, and soon she was performing as a violoneuse at the Veillées du bon vieux temps concerts at the Monument National Theater in Montreal. In 1927, she was asked by the concert manager Conrad Gauthier to sing in public. After an extraordinarily successful debut, he asked her to compose some songs. Although she had had little formal education and was technically only semi-literate, La Bolduc, as her fans now called her, possessed great intuitive insights into the emotional lives of people like herself and her family and friends; over the next dozen years, she wrote songs that addressed the hopes, joys, fears, and tragedies of ordinary working people. Some of her first recordings, "La Cuisiniére" and "La Servante," became instant hits, selling 12,000 copies, an unprecedented accomplishment in Quebec.

Bolduc's songs were often sharp-edged in their criticism of economic exploitation and defended the rights of working women in simple words grounded in the experience of real life. The contemporary distress of economic depression often was reflected in such songs as "Le Commerçant des rues," "L'Enfant volé," "Les Cinq Jumelles," "Les Colons canadiens," "La Grocerie du coin," "Les Agents d'assurance," "Les Conducteurs de chars." Of an optimistic nature, La Bolduc's songs were sharply satirical but avoided spite. She enjoyed meeting her many fans throughout Quebec and parts of Ontario and New Brunswick, as well as the French-speaking towns of New England, and performed before audiences in rural parish halls or on spacious concert stages in Montreal. After her tours, she would return to her east-end Montreal home to resume a life as wife and mother of a large family.

Her fans enjoyed knowing that La Bolduc had not been spoiled by her success. Even the poorest among them could reasonably expect that her concert tours would eventually bring her to their impoverished and isolated Quebec communities. Highly popular among working-class and rural folk during the Depression, Bolduc's singing was often sneered at by Quebec's educational and economic elite, who saw her as a "vulgar" and "common" entertainer of the masses. Determined to maintain the ideals of high culture, the programming executives of Radio-Canada adamantly refused to broadcast her recordings. Bolduc, amused by such class snobbery and puritanism, found them proper subjects for her song lyrics. Reflecting the struggles and dreams of the poor farmers of Quebec and the unemployed of the Montreal tenements, her songs were rooted in the musical traditions of her native region of Gaspésie. La Bolduc's turluttes (mouth music) were derived from her Irish origins, while her unsophisticated, but rich, poetry came from the popular language of French Canada.

In 1938, Marie Bolduc was diagnosed with cancer. After her death in Montreal on February 20, 1941, her influence continued to grow. Her recordings remained in print, inspiring numerous singers and composers of a younger generation. Now universally acknowledged to be Canada's first chansonniére, La Bolduc has taken on legendary status. Marius Barbeau spoke admiringly of her songs, with their "reckless verve and unique twist of the tongue in the manner of the singers of the true soil."

sources:

Benoit, Réal. La Bolduc. Montreal: Les Éditions de l'Homme, 1959.

Day, Pierre. Une histoire de la Bolduc. Montreal: VLB éditeur, 1991.

Laframboise, Philippe. "Bolduc," in Helmut Kallmann, Gilles Potvin and Kenneth Winters, eds., Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, pp. 137–138.

——. La Bolduc: Soixante-douze chansons populaires. Montreal: VLB éditeur, 1992.

Lonergan, David. La Bolduc: La vie de Mary Travers. Bic: Isaac-Dion éditeur, 1992.

Thério, Adrien. "On revient á la Bolduc," in Lettres québécoises. No. 67, Autumn 1992, p. 48.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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