|Les voyageurs du lac Supérieur au XIXe siècle|
I grant that the old French Voyageurs brought many a pretty song from France into these remote countries, and you may hear on the Upper Mississippi, and in the bays and wild rivers of Lake Superior, even at the present day, an old chanson sung two hundred years ago in Normandy, but now forgotten there.
The Voyageurs accompany and embroideur with song nearly everything they do -- their fishery, their heavy tugging at the oar, their social meetings at the camp fire; and many a jest, many a comic incident, many a moving strain, which, if regarded closely, will not endure criticism, there serves to dispel ennui. If even at times no more than a "tra-la-la-la!" it rejoices the human heart that is longing for song and melody. Besides, the temper of the social travellers in the open air gives a hearty welcome to much that, to the solitary reader, will seem scarce endurable.
Generally they designate their own most peculiar songs as "chansons de Voyageur", and exclude from them songs they have derived from France and elsewhere.
As the Voyageurs from here to the Rocky Mountains, to Hudson's Bay, and to the Arctic Sea, rarely travel otherwise than in canoes, the great majority of their songs are calculated from the paddling work which they are specially intended to accompany and enliven. Hence they are classified according to the nature of the work, and are divided into "chansons à l'aviron," "chansons à la rame," "chansons de canot à lège," and so on. But, as is natural enough, the difference is less in the character of the song than in the time and tact of the melody.
Their mode of life exposes them to countless dangers and wants, and though they all say that they will soon return to Lower Canada, their real home, very few of them carry this into effect. And there are whole families of Voyageurs here on Lake Superior, who, from father to son, have sung of the "return to Canada", but who have all perished here.
"Où restez-vous?" I once asked a Voyageur, who had taken a seat near us in a Canadian fishing-hut. In Canadian-French this means so much as, "Where do you live?--where is your home?" "Où je reste? je ne peux pas te le dire. Je suis Voyageur--je suis Chicot, monsieur. Je reste partout. Mon grand-père était Voyageur: il est mort en voyage. Mon père était Voyageur: il est mort en voyage. Je mourrai aussi en voyage, et un autre Chicot prendra ma place. Such is our course of life." I must remark here, in explanation, that my Canadian had some Indian blood in his veins, either on the father or mother's side, and hence, jestingly, called himself "Chicot". That is the name given in Canada to the half-burnt stumps, and has become a nickname for the half-breeds. They also call themselves, at times, "Bois brûlés," or "Bois grillés," in reference to the shades of colour that bronze the face of a mixed breed.
Frequently, too, pure-blooded French Voyageurs, if they live entirely among the Indians, and intermarry with them, are counted among the Chicots. How much these French Voyageurs identify themselves (261) with the Indians against the Anglo-Saxons, I had often opportunity of seeing. Then they spoke of the irruption of the Americans into the country round Lake Superior, they used nearly the same language as the Indians. A pure French Canadian, with whom I spoke about the old Canadian songs, thus expressed himself on one occasion to me: "Depuis que les blancs sont entrés dans le pays, nous n'usons plus de ces chansons-là. Formerly," he added, "when the white men were not so numerous here, we Voyageurs were always entre nous. Then there was a pleasure in singing, we knew that everybody was acquainted with any song begun, and would join in. But now, if a party of Voyageurs meet, there are often so many Britons, and Scotch, and Irish, and Yankees among them, that when one begins singing there is often nobody who knows how to join in. Hence we prefer remaining quiet. C'est bien triste à cette heure."
Complaintes are often made about tragical events, especially shipwrecks and deadly accidents, which become universally known. One of the most celebrated of these elegies is that in which the melancholy fate of Jean Cayeux, an old Voyageur, is lamented. It describes a thoroughly Canadian tragedy, and is characteristic of the Voyageurs and the country. This complainte is very long, and unfortunately I met with no one who knew it all by heart, though I took considerable trouble. But I heard many fragments at different places, and nearly every Voyageur knew a part of it, or was at least acquainted with its contents.
After enjoying our over-sweet fish meal with such kitchen discourses as these, Richard proposed to give us a Canadian Voyageur song, a "complainte." "Écoute!" he began:
"Je vais vous chanter
Une complainte, bien composée,
Une complainte bien triste" &c.
He had not, however, progressed far with this elegiac song, than he grew so affected by it that he began crying.
"Hélas! je braille," he sighed, " je ne peux pas chanter!"
Between the intervals of smoking and sobbing he began again once or twice, but I could only understand so much that he was singing about a drowned Voyageur and his dog, who discovered its master's body. In a trembling voice he sang:
"On a bien cherché son corps,
Sans avoir pu le trouver,
C'est son chien qui a fait apercevoir
Son maître noyé----
Hélas, c'est si touchant! Je ne peux plus!"
"C'est qu'il a connu personnellement ce Voyageur," our Voyageur Du Roy
remarked. "Ah, le bon Richard! Il a le coeur si tendre!"