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Québec: French Culture, First Nations & Folk Music

Québécois Music

Musique.1932. Photograph of a 16th century French tapestry. Library of Congress Digital Collections.

The music of Québec reflects its complex history and the various cultures that have inhabited the land. Over the centuries, indigenous music from the First Nations and Inuit traditions has developed along side of the French traditions brought by settlers from Brittany, Normandy, Picardy and other areas in the north of France. First Nations created their own unique music, often making their own instruments from surrounding items such as gourds and animal horns which they carved and painted. Traditional percussion instruments such as drums were made of carved wood and animal hides. Unfortunately, First Nations peoples were often prohibited from practicing the dance and song that they considered sacred to their ceremonies. Later in the 19th century a large number of immigrants from Ireland brought Celtic traditions to Québec, although there was already some Celtic influence derived from the close connections between the British Isles and France over the preceding centuries. This traditional folk music of the French settlers went hand in hand with dances such as the quadrille and the jig (especially making rhythms with the feet, called podorythmie). There was also a partiality toward certain instruments such as the fiddle, the harmonica and the accordion that feature prominently in Québécois music.

One of the most unique aspects of Québécois music are the wordless vocalizations known as turlutte. Usually associated with the working classes, this form of popular song is decidedly in the style of the French chanson tradition that was popular in the middle ages and Renaissance. Troubadours and Trouvères (poet-composers) spread this style of song (chanson) throughout history and it has served as inspiration for later iterations such as the nouvelle chansons of the 1990s-2000s that denote songs with especially poetic or political elements. Turlutte is sometimes compared to Irish and Scottish lilting or Scandinavian trall. Some describe it as the vocalization of the sound of an instrument. One of the most skilled individuals in this art form was Mary Rose-Anne Bolduc, or La Bolduc. In the 1930s Madame Bolduc was a household name. Known as the Queen of Canadian Folk singers, she combined the Irish melodies and French Canadian folk tunes learned from her parents to excellent comedic and musical effect. She especially enjoyed employing the dialog song which is from the French tradition and requires two singers answering to one another.

One of the first Québecoise singers to gain international recognition was Alys Robi (born Alice Robitaille) who rose to fame during WWII. She is also credited with bringing Latin American sounds to Canada after her time spent in Mexico. Another well-known singer-songwriter, poet, novelist and actor is Félix Leclerc. Leclerc was popular in the mid 20th century and is seen as a revolutionary artist who started the chansonnier movement in Québec. He was a vocal Québécois nationalist who was among other things, a Chevalier of France's Légion d'honneur. Leonard Cohen and Gilles Vigneault are other song writers active during this period in the 1960s when Québecois nationalism was taking shape. Edith Butler, a Folk singer of Acadian decent; René Lussier, jazz guitarist; Renée Martel, country musician and of course the famous Celine Dion demonstrate the range and diversity of Québécois music.

Music in modern Québec is a strong industry with renowned artists in all variety of genres including hip-hop, jazz, classical, pop and rock. Some pop musicians complain that French-language artists have privileges over their English-speaking peers due to laws that protect the Francophone culture. The 1977 Charter of the French Language has become controversial in this regard with white Catholic Francophones who identify as Québecois being seen as tacitly nationalistic in a manner that excludes others. This debate is seeping into other areas of life in Québec as factions develop in the political sphere. Montréal is a diverse city and many artists want to create music using multiple languages but the subsidies are awarded to music projects with at least 70 percent French content. Meanwhile the radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) requests 65 percent of content be in the French language. This issue continues to be debated in the Canadian music and cultural scene.

The Library of Congress collections are strongest in the area of traditional and folk music in the form of sound recordings, musical scores and concert series. Search the online databases (onsite only) for journals such as, Les cahiers de la Société québécoise de recherche en musique External. Sound recordings should be requested in advance in the Recorded Sound Research Center (Madison, LM113). This page in the guide has digital resources on Québécois & Contemporary music.

To search the Library's collections use the following Library of Congress Subject Headings in a Browse search "SUBJECTS beginning with":

Music--Québec; Folk music--Québec (Province); Folk dance music--Québec (Province); Folk songs, French--Québec (Province)

Books on Québécois Music

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional digitized versions are included when available.

Sound Recordings of Québécois Music