Our new photo essay Song for the New Depression features the Montreal-based musicians Sabah Lachgar and Hassan El Hadi, performing Ă‡a va venir â€“ a song first made famous during the Depression years by Mary Travers. Known as La Bolduc, Travers attracted a huge following throughout French Canada with her catchy songs inspired by current events and everyday Depression life.
Born in 1894, she was raised in Quebecâ€™s GaspĂ© region, inheriting a rich folk tradition from her Irish father and French Canadian mother. As a child, working as a cook at a logging camp, she would entertain lumberjacks with her vocal and instrumental skills â€“ accompanying herself on the fiddle, accordion and harmonica.
By the time she was teenager, Travers had moved to Montreal in search of work, finding employment as a maid and factory labourer, and she was barely 20 when she got married and started a family of her own. She started making public appearances alongside other musicians in the 1920s â€“ and her easy rapport with audiences lead to a recording contract.
Throughout the early 1930s, she toured extensively with her own ensemble, La Troupe du bon vieux temps, performing throughout French Canada as well as in French-speaking communities in the north-eastern US. She developed a distinctive style â€“ writing songs that spoke directly to the everyday struggles of her audiences, embellishing her performances with â€śturluttesâ€ť â€“ a kind of folk vocalese. She often used existing folk melodies as vehicles for her own comic lyrics on subjects that ranged from FDRâ€™s New Deal to the birth of the Dionne Quintuplets.
La Bolduc died 1941, having recorded about 100 original songs â€“ a legacy thatâ€™s earned her an enduring place within Canadaâ€™s social and musical history. To learn more about the woman who was often referred to as the unofficial poet laureate of Depression-era French Canada â€“ visit the website of Library and Archives Canada.
Philip Lewis, writer-researcher