Excusez-là! – Excerpts from my endless trip through the universe of traditional Québécois music
This episode expands upon on articles I first wrote for German magazine Folker, updated for the magazine of the Country Music & Bluegrass Association of Italy, and adapted as a series for the bulletin of Folk Alliance International. The transcript also appears on medium.com.
Episode 1 : Excusez-là – Excerpts from my endless trip through the universe of traditional Québécois music.
Born and raised in New England, I never suspected that I would one day be an immigrant, a legal alien, living on foreign soil, speaking another language and (for all practical purposes) devoting my life to a form of traditional music that I hadn’t heard of until the day I became best friends with the late, great Franco-American singer and cultural activist Martha Pellerin. Although I’d been a musician for most of my life, even while holding down day jobs, and had been active on the folk and bluegrass scenes for a good portion of that, somehow I had never crossed paths with Québécois music. Maybe because I was a guitarist and singer, rather than a fiddler. Maybe because I went to university in upstate New York and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Whatever the reason, my fate was sealed when Martha and I formed Jeter le Pont in the late 1980s. Not long thereafter, we made our first recording (a cassette), with help from musician friends in Québec. One thing led to another, and I eventually found myself married to Québec fiddler Claude Méthé (Martha introduced us, of course) and began what has become a lifelong trip through the unique culture and music just over the border from my Vermont home. Thank heavens for my eight years of French in the American public school system, which finally came in handy.
In July 1997 I drove across the border (well, actually I made at least seven trips, one in a 32-foot truck with five-month old Béatrix), leaving behind my tiny, rural Vermont town and bringing along my three young children and an eclectic menagerie of farm animals plus one guinea pig, to a tiny, rural Québec town located about an hour and a half north of Montréal, in the Lanaudière region, an area famous for its living musical traditions. We moved here because we knew so quite a few local musicians already and had recorded several albums there in a studio famous for recording traditional music. Lanaudière is often referred to as the “nombril” (bellybutton) of Québec trad. Once you climb the hill to our village, except for the power lines, cars, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, life hasn’t visibly changed much over the last two centuries.
Québec might be the most homogeneous society in North America today. While there are francophone communities sprinkled throughout Canada (where 9.5 million people speak French), Québec is the largest, with about 7 million French-speakers, roughly 95% of the population. It is the only province where French is the official language. If you spend time here, you’ll discover that for French-speaking people of my age and younger (I was born in 1956), “French-Canadian” is a term that is rarely used. “Québécois” is how they think of themselves. Those older than I, on the other hand, might call themselves a Canadien, their way of saying that they are ethnically French-speaking Québecois. In Québec, the term “national” refers to the what you all know as the province of Québec rather than the entire country of Canada. We even use the expression “Rest Of Canada” (or ROC) on a regular basis. Confused yet?
In case you didn’t already know, many Québécois (there is even some evidence that it is a slight majority) are still hoping to separate from Canada and becoming a sovereign nation, and the province has long behaved as if this is already the case. There are Québec government offices, sort of “consulates”, in at least twenty major foreign cities, I believe that there are six in the US alone). Lanaudière is purported to be the most separatist region of the province. The complex issues of language and sovereignty make life very interesting. While I’m not a highly political person and not sure if I can qualify myself as a full-on separatist, I was ready for the adventure of living in a newly-minted nation and held off applying for Canadian citizenship for an embarrassingly long time, but I finally resigned myself to the idea of swearing allegiance to the Queen of England (Canada is a Constitutional Monarchy). As a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I had to resist crossing my fingers behind my back, but the ceremony was actually very moving and I’m proud to be both Canadian and American… and Québécoise, in my own unique way.
As a newcomer to Québec, I was immediately struck by how useless a phonebook was unless you already knew the precise street address of the person you were searching for. It is not unusual for there to be five, ten or more pages of the same name in the “bottin” (phonebook). Nearly everyone is related either by blood or by marriage and both of us stand out like the proverbial sore thumb with our extremely unpronounceable foreign (“foring” in colloquial French) names. I am regularly addressed as Madame “White”. Even my Québécois husband’s last name inspires looks that tell him “You