Academic journal article Ethnologies

The Songs of Their Fathers

Academic journal article Ethnologies

The Songs of Their Fathers

Article excerpt

Cet article se base sur un corpus de trente-trois chansons chantees par les femmes metis de la region de la Riviere Rouge durant la fin du XIXe siecle et le XXe siecle. L'auteure porte principalement son attention sur les paroles des chansons, afin de comprendre les pensees et les preoccupations des Metisses alors qu'elles devaient s'adapter a la vie dans des societes non-amerindiennes, et explore l'adoption de, et l'amour pour, la chanson folklorique faisant partie de la tradition canadienne- francaise.

This article is based upon a corpus of thirty-three songs sung by Metis women in the Red River area during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The author focuses mainly on the song lyrics to understand the thoughts and concerns of Metis women as they adjusted to life in non-Native society and explores the adoption of, and love for folksong that is part of the French Canadian tradition.


During 1989-1990 I collected Metis songs across the northern plains for the Saskatchewan Music Educators, who then published a songbook (Whidden 1993). This paper offers opportunity to reflect upon the songs sung by the thirty-three Metis women whose songs are in the collection (see Appendix). Some of these songs are unforgettable. For example, two singers, Mme Jean Lafreniere and Mme Alphonse Carriere, both in their seventies when they were recorded, had clear lilting soprano voices. Their songs, passed through the generations, were honed to polished beauty after decades of singing for the pleasure of their families. But the songs offer us much more than beautiful sounds. The songs the Metis women sang in the nineteenth century Red River area until the mid-twentieth century show us the dramatic culture change which they experienced.

The Metis are the descendants of Aboriginal mothers and European fathers and in 1982 were identified as an Aboriginal people under the Canadian constitution. During the nineteenth century they developed a group identity and in the Red River area of Manitoba, declared themselves une nouvelle nation [a new nation]. Scholars such as Jennifer Brown (1980) and Sylvia Van Kirk (1980) have begun to write the long neglected history of the Metis. The songs of the Metis leader, Louis Riel, are in print as are the songs of Pierre Falcon, the "bard of the prairie Metis" (Macleod: 1959). Moreover, most of us have heard of the fiddle tunes and voyageur songs of the men, but less well known is the large repertoire of songs sung by the women who were their partners in the Metis settlements. Women sang during the long hours of working hides to mend and make jackets, moccasins, harnesses and snowshoes. The sources of the tunes were eclectic: many are old French folksongs; a lesser number were popular tunes of the day; and "ditties" of no particular origin but known by everyone, such as the following variant of the tune and words to "Twinkle, twinkle little star":

   Je voulais vous dire chere maman
   Que l' couvent c'est ennuyant
   On se couche a l'heure des poules
   On se leve a l'heure du coq

   On se rend a la chapelle
   Pour geler comme des grenouilles
   (Appendix, #28)

Brown and Van Kirk have shown various causes of cultural change among Metis that are due to non-native contact, and they document the visible effects of such acculturation. Less well known are the thoughts, feelings and expectations of individual Metis, particularly women. In this paper I want to explore nineteenth-century Metis women's history through their songs. The lyrics of these songs provide unique insights into their inner lives. Concerning the value of ethnomusicology, Alan Merriam wrote, "... music may be useful as a means of understanding other things (than the music itself) about other cultures. In music, as in other arts, basic attitudes, sanctions, and values are often stripped to their essentials" (1964: 10). Although we cannot be sure the song words and music express the particular feelings of the individual, we do know that folksongs tend to express the thoughts and concerns of the community. …

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