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Music and Celebration

Music was essential to the voyageurs' lives. Most of their songs came from early French colonists, who sang while threshing grain, washing clothes, spinning wool or weaving. They also sang at social gatherings. Over time, they began composing songs, using new lyrics, about life in New France. For example, about 90 variations of V'là l'bon vent derive from both France and New France. Today, French Canadian folk music counts between 7,000 and 13,000 songs. Nine in ten of these date from the early days of the colony.

Morale raiser

Voyageurs often sang to ease their harsh conditions. Rhythms were simple so that the men could paddle in unison. Singing not only made the time pass faster, but also helped speed up the canoe by synchronizing paddle strokes. Songs were also a source of courage during difficult portages, bad weather and long workdays. Imagine that these men often paddled for 16 hours a day!

Sing in harmony, paddle in harmony

Sing in harmony, paddle in harmony

The voyageurs sang together most of the time. Sometimes one would direct the group while the others responded, then all of them would follow in unison. They even composed new songs about their lives and travels. Since these songs were not always written down, many were forgotten. Fortunately, bourgeois and other passengers have transcribed some of them in their journals. These documents attest to the passengers' admiration for the musical talents of the voyageurs.

Musicians wanted

Brigade members greatly appreciated those who could play a musical instrument. Some of the men built their own, such as the guimbarde (Jew's harp), a small instrument of copper or iron with a vibrating metal band. Other voyageurs played the fiddle. Strings used to make these instruments have been found at many former trading posts.

Guimbarde (Jew's harp)

Guimbarde (Jew's harp)

Les compagnons du canot apprécient beaucoup ceux qui savent jouer d'un instrument. Certains voyageurs construisent eux-mêmes leur instrument, comme la guimbarde. Il s'agit d'un petit instrument de cuivre ou de fer muni d'une languette plate. D'autres confectionnent des violons artisanaux. Dans de nombreux anciens postes de traite, on peut voir des cordes ayant servi à fabriquer ces instruments.

Hard day's night

When voyageurs reached their destination, for example Fort William, they gathered to celebrate. They spent their evenings drinking, singing, dancing, betting and sometimes quarrelling. They sang the night away to the lively steps of dancers. Some activities, for example the circle dances, resembled games in which the men would act out a song. The voyageurs often danced together when no women were on hand.

Did you know?

The main difference between the voyageur's fiddle and the classic violin is the bridge. On the fiddle it is flatter, making chords easier to play.

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