Fred Pellerin Proves the Power of Storytelling
I spend a lot of my time thinking about how traditional music and traditional culture is still relevant in our lives. I listen to a lot of bands that are putting new spins on old traditions, and I work as a publicist building a narrative for this work. But every now and then something comes along that absolutely floors me. Some aspect of traditional culture that had been made so incredibly vibrant for the present moment that I can almost hear my ancestors speaking to me through the generations. Today, Québécois storyteller and singer Fred Pellerin accepted the medal for l’Ordre national du Québec, The National Order of Québec, a knighthood. It’s perhaps surprising that a traditional storyteller could be given one of the highest honors for a French-Canadian, but after watching a key video of one of Fred’s stories, it’s clear that he’s a visionary for a new generation of French-Canadian artists.
This story is amazing for a number of reasons. He’s telling it before a crowd of thousands of Québécois at the National Holiday (St. Jean-Baptiste) celebrations, so you can’t get much more of a national stage than that. Only the finest performer can silence a crowd of this size, and I’ve never seen it happen with a single storyteller. And the audience is at rapt attention. But what’s really amazing are the layers of subversion that he folds into the story. On the surface it’s a remarkably patriotic story of the creation of the Québécois flag. But what he’s really telling here is a deeply powerful and inspiring parable about authority and government. A story of how the incessant fear-mongering of our times cripples not only the people but more importantly the government itself. Of how the spirit of a nation is held within only the bravest individuals, often the most oppressed individuals, and how these individuals can change the nation just through their own vision. This is everything in the Québécois spirit distilled into one story. And what’s amazing to me is that he can convey ALL of this from the vessel of a traditional story that one might have heard in the parlors of a tiny town in Québec. He’s taken a traditional form and made it vibrantly alive. I’m heartbroken that this isn’t in English, only because I think we Americans need this story now more than ever.
TRANSLATION: (loosely translated with my father)
This is story that Fred learned from his village of St.-Élie-de-Caxton. This story takes place at a time that is no more. When the sky was still a destination for our dreams. Where we dreamed more of the sky than of going South [to America]. At this time in the village of St.-Élie-de-Caxton, there was a major fire. The fire burned up the church, and because the old priest had poor reflexes, it burned him up too. To keep order, the bishop sent a brand-new priest to the village. The priest arrived in his brand-new vestements, not a crease to be seen. He arrived in the village with his nose up in the air, and the people of the village liked that because they thought he had his eye on the heavens, up in the sky. The priest calls a town meeting, and asks if everyone is there. When everyone is counted, they find that the village witch is missing. She’s an old lady living far on the edges of the town, suspected of causing the rain to fall and known to be able to read the future in tea. But not in the leaves, in the tea bags (which takes her hours). The priest begins to sow fear and distrust among the people, calling for them to watch out for the witch. So the witch retreats to her home and leaves the village alone. But even there the priest attacks her. When she waters her garden instead of attending mass, the priest tells them that people who do this will be poisoned by their vegetables. When she goes to the forest to chop wood in the winter instead of attending mass, the priest says that she’ll freeze. As time goes by, the priest begins to retreat inside of himself with all this fear-mongering and loses sight of the sky. The village builds telescopes and parabolic dishes to try to get him to look up, but he just can’t. They take him to a doctor, but can’t find out why he can’t look up to the sky and the heavens. Finally they call a large town meeting, and there, in a moment of silence, the witch speaks up. “If we can’t bring the priest up to the sky, we must bring the sky down to the priest.”
The next day, she goes outside of her home, walking under the large expanse of one of the sunniest days in Québec. She reaches up with her telescoping ice scraper, and hooks a corner of the sky. She pulls down this corner of the sky and loops it into her spinning wheel. Flooring the pedal of the spinning wheel, she begins to spin blue wool out of the sky. The spinning wheel starts spinning so fast that she starts pulling in chunks of cloud as well. Then when it’s all spun, she sits down in her rocking chair in front of her stove, breaks off two rabbit ears from her TV antenna, and knits a huge blanket. This wool blanket has four blue squares, two white stripes, and four splotches of cloud in each corner. [NOTE: at this point, everyone realizes he’s talking about the Québec flag, and the flags in the stadium start waiving and people start cheering.] The witch asks the village idiot to climb to the top of the highest tree in the village to attach the flag, which he does. The wind takes the flag like a giant sail as it flies over the village. Seeing this, the priest finally looks up at this miniature sky. He stares for a long time at all the folds and details of the flag. He clears his throat, and everyone waits for his sermon. He says “Is everybody here”? And they count and they count, and EVERYONE is there. The idea of the flag is so wonderful that everyone wants it. The movement spreads throughout the village to every home and to every village. “A sky for everyone.” All the houses fly the blue flag.
NOTE: Fred uses this phrase a number of times: “Est-ce qu’il y a du monde encore deboute au Québec?” which could be translated as “Are there people still standing in Québec?” but also has the second meaning of “Are there people still awake in Québec right now?”
Congratulations to Fred Pellerin on this honor. Here’s a link to a news story that has a video of his acceptance speech. Like this story, it’s a beautiful and heartfelt mediation on what it means to be Québécois.
Here’s a video of Fred and his brother, Nicolas, singing together. The song is “Le chêne” by the great Québécois songwriter Gilles Vigneault.
BUY FRED’S NEWEST ALBUM ON AMAZON
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog and Online Listening Lounge to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to presenting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.