Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

The Cult of the Folk: Collecting Strategies after Ernest Gagnon

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

The Cult of the Folk: Collecting Strategies after Ernest Gagnon

Article excerpt

Pervasive in folk music studies from the beginning of the nineteenth century virtually through to the present has been the attempt to define what folk music is. Very briefly, and I have no intention here of reviewing this history or entering any of the definitional debates, folk music was, and for some still is, a Western concept. Its interface in the last twenty or so years with a variety of disciplines, notably certain of the social sciences, and of course, ethnomusicology, has led to an ideological widening out. Nonetheless, resistance to music of non-Western cultures, and a refusal to acknowledge forces and realities of modern society has perpetuated what Philip Bohlman has called "the conservative undertow" of folk music scholarship: "idealizing and revering a community of folk music that was just out of reach and then fretting over the best ways to rescue folk music before it disappeared."1 This perspective is at the basis of this conservatism and its four corresponding ideological stances: collection, classification, revival, and canonization.

In my research on Ernest Gagnon and his Chansons populaires du Canada (Quebec, 1865-67, 1880), I am increasingly struck by two topics: the first is the actual song repertoire in the Chansons populaires (collection and classification to use Bohlman' s terms), followed by the dissemination of this repertoire in subsequent collections, performances, and recordings (i.e., revival and canonization). The second topic is how Gagnon's idealized view of "le peuple" resonates with later collectors' ideas. In one interpretation, for example, one could say that Gagnon manipulated his resources in the Chansons populaires, using a certain popular song repertoire as a nationalist metaphor and identifying the French Canadian people as rustic, hardy, God-fearing, and morally superior. In a current context, one could also say that this imperialistic - even racist - approach is not that far removed from the thinking of a number of Gagnon's successors in both the French and English traditions. In this paper I examine the historical framework of the Gagnon repertoire, subsequent responses to Gagnon's work in the writings of later song collectors, and images of the "folk" within the contexts of these collectors' works. Gagnon's ideas about the "people," as he referred to them, serve as a foundation of what can be regarded as the preservationist, elitist "cult of the folk" movement in this century.

Within an historic context, Gagnon's Chansons populaires du Canada anticipated later developments in folksong scholarship, particularly in his awareness of different purposes and levels of detail in transcription. For example, Gagnon's removal of the appoggiaturas from the first edition, ostensibly to make the songs easier to sing, foreshadowed what Charles Seeger later distinguished as "prescriptive" and "descriptive" transcription; Gagnon also foreshadowed a Bartók-like distinction between two types of rhythm, "poétique" and "prosaïque" or "oratoire," in folksong.2 Further, Gagnon anticipated a later trend of separating rural and urban song repertoires with a view to identifying the "authentic" product and establishing hypotheses on issues of origin. And his precise approach to establishing concordances with contemporaneous published sources anticipated the theme of text and tune dissemination which has been the focus of a number of folksong scholars in this century up to and including Bertrand Bronson in the post-World War II period.

THE GAGNON REPERTOIRE IN ITS HISTORIC CONTEXT

Histories and accounts of French Canadian folksong studies usually acknowledge Gagnon as the precursor of Marius Barbeau and the emergence of serious folklore studies in Quebec in the post-World War I period. However, it is important to situate Gagnon's work accurately as both a product of ethnographic work and a songbook to be used for entertainment. Aside from the fact Gagnon collected about one third of the 100 songs in the Chansons populaires in the field, and notated the rest because they were pervasive songs of the day, he was selective in his choice of songs mainly because he was seeking, in his words, "a certain type" - songs which demonstrated modal features, a characteristic he associated with plainchant and homologously with moral virtue. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.