History Hunt: Mary Travers Bolduc

This week’s featured musician on History Hunt was actually suggested by my mother! Since it was her birthday yesterday (Happy birthday, Mom!), I thought that sharing her idea today would be a good idea.

Incidentally, if you have an artist you’d like to see featured and you’re not my mother, Patrons who pledge at least $3 per History Hunt post can submit an artist for me to research and write about. Check out the above link for more information!

And now here’s our artist of the week, who, like Chiquinha Gonzaga, is not as well known in the English-speaking world as she ought to be.

Mary Rose Anne Travers Bolduc (known as Mary Travers at birth) was born June 4, 1894 in the small Québec village of Newport. Her mother was French-Canadian and her father was Irish-Canadian, and so she grew up immersed in both cultures.

Her family was very poor, not the least because she lived with five siblings and six half-siblings. Her parents couldn’t afford music lessons, but luckily, her father knew how to play many of the traditional instruments of Québec: the fiddle, accordion, harmonica, jaw harp–and spoons! As Bolduc’s first and only music teacher, he shared all he knew. She also learned to sing, including in a particular style known as turlutage, or “mouth music.” Nonsense words are used as part of the song being sung, a bit like scat singing in jazz. Turlutage later became Bolduc’s trademark–but not at this point in her life!

Bolduc only went to school long enough to learn to read and write in French and to study some of the basics of her Catholic faith. Soon enough, she needed to leave school to help her parents with their chores. She also helped out in a different way–by the time she was twelve, she was not only cooking at her father’s lumberjack camp, but she was playing the accordion in the evenings to help keep everyone’s spirits up.

Not long after that, though, Bolduc needed to follow in the footsteps of her older siblings. Twelve children were far too many for her parents to feed, and so as each child reached their teenaged years, they would leave home and take a job somewhere else to support themselves. Bolduc was only thirteen when her older half-sister, Mary-Ann, found Bolduc a job as a maid in the big city of Montréal.

Though Bolduc was used to working hard, that didn’t mean her new life was easy. She worked very long hours for very little money. After a while, she left her job and found another one in a textile factory. Her new job was no easier than the last, but here she made four times her previous salary–which unfortunately still wasn’t much money at all.

When she was twenty, Bolduc married Édouard Bolduc, a plumber who played the violin. Over the next fifteen years, Bolduc was kept busy with caring for the children they had together, though she never forgot her music. When she could, she would entertain them with the music she had learned as a girl–and at least two of them must have been paying attention, because her daughters Denise and Lucienne later became musicians as well.

She and her husband also hosted get-togethers where she and her friends would all play music together. It was thanks to one of these evenings that Bolduc had her first big break. When a fiddle-player in the show Veillées du bon vieux temps (An Evening With the Good Old Days) couldn’t make it, Bolduc was asked to fill in. She was so popular that she soon was playing regularly for the show, not only on fiddle, but on the jaw harp and even as an actor!

Mary Bolduc and her fiddle

Mary Bolduc and her fiddle, courtesy of Gérard Dicks Pellerin.

The next year, she had her first radio appearance, singing folk songs with the Monument-National orchestra. She was so popular, the audience asked for multiple encores, and after that, in 1929, she made her very first record with the song “Y’a longtemps que je couche par terre” (“I’ve Been Sleeping on the Ground For a Long Time”) on one side and a dance on the other.

Unfortunately, this record wasn’t a success, but Bolduc didn’t give up. She wrote a comic song called “La cuisinière” (“The Cook”), and with it, she became a star. She sold 12 000 copies of the record in Québec alone! It might not sound like much by today’s standards, but this was a tremendous achievement, as this was during the Great Depression, when poverty had hit many people hard. Bolduc’s music let people laugh and forget for a little while all the hardship in their lives, and so it seems many people put together what money they could to share in Bolduc’s music.

Suddenly, for the first time in her life, Bolduc had enough money–more than enough money! Below is a dramatisation of what that meant for her, produced as part of the CBC’s Heritage Minutes series:

After the success of “La cuisinière,” Bolduc’s record company expected her to produce a record every month. That meant she needed to write a song every two weeks! But Bolduc was more than up to the challenge: she wrote about all kinds of subjects that ordinary citizens could identify with. She also wrote about the politics of her day and about her own opinions, which included the subject of women’s rights. Strangely, for such an independent and determined woman, she seemed to believe that a woman’s place was in the home, and she wasn’t shy about telling people what they should do!

Her first concert where she received top billing was in November 1930, and not long after that, she went on tour throughout Québec, Ontario, and even the United States! She travelled with a group that included not only another musician but comedians as well, and was very popular. It was at this time she earned the nickname “La Bolduc” (“The Bolduc”). While nowadays it’s used as a term of respect, it was seen as only partially complimentary in her time. Mary Bolduc actually hated the nickname and even wrote a song about how displeased she was by it.

As the 1930s went on and jazz and pop replaced folk music as public favourites, Bolduc’s popularity began to fade. She still was able to make a good living touring, though, and now she’s very highly regarded as either the first or one of the first of Québec’s chansonnières (singer-songwriters). Many folksingers have credited her with influencing their style, and even with creating this entire variety of Québec folk music. I very much doubt Bolduc would have expected that!

Here’s one of the songs she wrote to encourage people during the Great Depression, “Ça va venir découragez-vous pas” (more or less, “It’s Going To Happen; Don’t Be Discouraged”). In it, she talks about all the things that are going wrong in her life, but adds that she’s still happy anyway.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Madame Édouard Bolduc (Mary Rose Anne Travers) on Library and Archives Canada
Madame Mary Travers Bolduc at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame
Mme Ed. Bolduc at Québec Info Musique.com (Site in French)
La Bolduc at Historica Canada (Note: References to sexism in link.)
La Bolduc at Wikipedia.org

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