Rare Vinyl Finds from Québec
Each year for the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be invited out to Montréal for the festival La Grande Rencontre. When I was a kid, I visited Montréal a few times to visit my grandmother Colombe Leblanc, and those are some of my best memories. A world of French opened up to me, where everybody spoke the language, and spoke it with a lilting drawl similar, to my ears, to what we non-Southern Americans hear in Appalachian accents. We’d stroll along the older quartiers of Montréal looking for old bookstores to get Tintin comics in French, and snacking on jambon et beurre baguettes. Now, when I go to Montréal, I’m as enchanted by the multi-cultural diversity of the city, for though most still do speak French, now the French is tinged with African, Haitian, Vietnamese, and American accents. I go each year to La Grande Rencontre at the behest of Gilles Garand, the boisterous leader of the World Trad Forum (Forum Trad Mondial). The goal of this organization is to spread an awareness of the power of traditional music. I’m on the board, and I’ll tell you that I made the decision to join the board after a particularly long board meeting that Gilles ended by telling a tearful story about how he first discovered traditional music, then launching into a rousing rendition of “Devil’s Dream” on a harmonica he had in his pocket. I thought, “This is my kind of organization!” Gilles is the kind of festival director that opens a festival by singing a traditional Québécois call-and-response drinking song with a full glass of wine in his hand.
All this aside, the idea for this column came from a side trip I took at La Grande Rencontre this year to hit up L’Echange, a used record store in one of the nicer quartiers of Montréal. I came away with a literal stack of old French-Canadian vinyl, then got a chance to show it off to all these great older musicians on the scene who told me some wonderful stories about the artists. So here are three rare Québécois vinyl records I picked up in Montréal this year, and what I like about each is that they each show different facets of the Québécois spirit.
Jean Carignan. Fantaisie pour violoneux et cordes/ Fantasy for fiddler and strings/ Hommages.
Select Stereo Compagnie. 1977.
In my mind, Jean Carignan was the greatest fiddler of the 20th century, bar none. Luminaries like classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin might agree with this, as Menuhin was a fan of Carignan and Carignan was recognized by many classical artists as one of the greatest fiddlers. This is ironic, for Carignan had always wanted to be a classical musician. Growing up he was too poor or perhaps just wasn’t part of the right social class to be able to take classical lessons. But he was a fantastically brilliant musician who learned entirely by ear. Listening to old 78 rpm records from legends like Irish fiddler Michael Coleman or Scottish fiddler J. Scott Skinner, Carignan mastered not only both traditions, but their exact styles of playing. No small feat, as Coleman was renowned as one of the greatest Irish fiddlers and played in the fantastically complex Sligo style of Irish fiddling that featured cascades of tricky ornaments.
In my mind as well, Carignan is somewhat of a tragic figure, a romantic and sensitive artist who was powerfully charismatic. Pete Seeger fell in love with him, and invited Carignan on to his Rainbow Quest show for a great performance and even recorded an album with Carignan where Seeger backed him up on 5-string banjo. At that time, Carignan was touring in the States and playing key festivals like Newport Folk Festival, so he had become something of an ambassador of Québécois culture. But he never felt welcomed in Québec. There his music was out of step, not in line with the more nationalist “chanson” artists like Gilles Vigneault or Léo Ferré. Carignan was a taxi driver for most of his life in Montréal and it galled him, and many others, that one of the great lights of the tradition would be forced to work these long hours without the recognition he deserved.
That’s why I love this vinyl album I found of his from 1977. It feels to me like I’m listening to a dream of his being realized. It’s a collaboration between Carignan on fiddle and Québécois composer and McGill professor Donald Patriquin. I thought at first that it would entail the McGill Chamber Orchestra accompanying him passively on a number of fiddle tunes, but it’s actually quite a lot more complicated. Patriquin weaves Carignan’s inimitable fiddling into larger compositions, and offers the maestro a chance to play fully classical compositions alongside his own fiddling. When the chamber orchestra does join in, there’s such a taste for the chordal structure of the tune, that they almost manage to keep up with Carignan (no small feat, since Carignan filled his fiddling with so many ornaments that he can be impossible to copy). The highlight, as always, is the great Reel du Pendu, Carignan’s signature number. Played in a fiddle tuned to A-E-A-C# (what we call “calico” tuning), Carignan fills this tune with so many improvisations and turns of bow that it was his most famous piece.
Fantaisie/Hommage is a chance not only to hear a traditional master at work, but to hear him realize one of his fondest dreams: to perform classical music as well. It’s a glimpse into one of the most romantic traditional artists and one of the most brilliant fiddlers that ever came out of Québec.
Réal V. Benoit. Voilà.
Polydor Records. 1971.
Another somewhat tragic figure, Québécois songwriter Réal V. Benoit, like Jean Carignan, was a brilliant artist who was also chewed up and spit out by the Québécois music industry. Voilà is his debut album, and it’s a delightfully informal bit of country and folk songwriting from rural Québec. In his songs, Réal mixes humor, satire, and gritty observations to split the difference between French-Canadian country music and the political songwriting that was popular in this era. Benoit was originally a miner (gold or copper), and the subtitle of this album is “Chansons pour mineurs et adultes” (Songs for Miners and Adults). He came from the mining districts of Abitibi in Western Québec and his father was a miner before him. But from a young age, he recognized a love for great songwriting and has said that he was inspired by artists like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and continental French songwriter Georges Brassens. Realizing that he could write songs in French, rather than translating the popular American or English songs of the time, he began his songwriting career. He was rapidly swept up into the Québécois music industry in Montréal, though he never was comfortable with his career from that point on. Voilà was his first album and was conceived almost like a demo album, recorded in a basement in Montreal. Benoit talks after some of the tracks, and gives long, rambling intros to others in a funny kind of voice. It’s super raw and stripped back, but full of life. There’s a great article online that’s an interview (in French) with Réal V. Benoit, and he talks about the first time he got a copy of his first album. “ I remember that day as if it was yesterday. It was pretty outside and I came back from my work at the mine, and my wife gave me a package she had went to get from the post office. I listened one time through and I thought it was extraordinary. That evening, I made my wife and four of my buddies listen to it with me! I was so happy, that I didn’t recognize myself!” Sadly, Benoit came to realize that the album was poorly recorded, and for some reason the studio had put the voice to one side of the stereo and the accompaniment to the other, so no radio station wanted to play it. Still, his popularity rose in Québec, but he continued to chafe at the way he was portrayed. He was forced to wear a miner’s helmet when performing, something that galled him. Eventually, after two more albums in 1975, he gave up in disgust, hung up his guitar, and went back to the mines! It must take a pretty rough go in the music industry to make someone want to go back to mining! I think in a way, Gagnon saw himself as a poet or a writer, which he truly was, but the industry saw him as an oddity, and couldn’t seem to get past that.
Benoit was later rediscovered in the early 2000s and made a bit of a comeback, recording two more albums, but what I’ve heard is that he wasn’t much happier in this period and he hasn’t recorded again in a long time. I believe he’s still alive, but don’t have much info beyond that. Still, there’s a kind of youthful, working-class Woody Guthrie to the songs on his debut album, a kind of devil-may-care satire that clashes with the photos on the front and back of him in the mines with his helmet and stooped back.
Philippe Gagnon. Mon Québec, c’est mon désir.
Le Tamanoir. 1977.
I bought this disc because it was on the Tamanoir label, which was the main label for Québécois folk music in the 1970s and ’80s. I recognized a bunch of the tunes played on the album and saw that it was a fiddle album. I listened a couple times after I bought it and couldn’t figure out why his fiddle sounded so weird, then I read closer and saw that he was, strangely enough, playing a steel fiddle (violon en acier)! Reading up more, I discovered that Philippe Gagnon was one of the stranger figures of the Québécois nationalism movement and remarkable individual. He was a fine fiddler who knew the tradition well, played while accompanying himself on seated clogging (the traditional way), and composed lovely new fiddle tunes. He was also a carpenter who built beautiful cabinets and was a woodworker, and he made the steel fiddles that he played himself. He traveled in a strange caravan and was seen as a rambling storyteller, kind of a Québécois gypsy. When I posted to Facebook about the album, my Québécois sources, especially Marc Bolduc, who runs the excellent radio show “Tradosphère” on Montréal radio station CIBL, told some stories of Gagnon’s fame in the larger Québécois cultural movement. For one, the story goes that Gagnon was on the infamous Festival Express, the 1970 train tour of Canada undertaken by The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and The Band. I don’t think Gagnon is in the documentary (let me know if he is!), but he was on the train as the fiddler for the famed Québécois singer Robert Charlebois. Evidently, Philippe was a big favorite of Janis Joplin’s, and she’d sit on his knee begging him to play a traditional tune for her on his steel fiddle!
I believe Gagnon was in his sixties at the time (he passed away in 1980), so he was kind of the grandpa of the trip. A roving Québécois gypsy, Gagnon’s remembered with great fondness, partly because of the unusual nature of his music and the fact that it somehow fit so well into the fabric of the Québécois nationalist movement which was, at the time, ignoring Jean Carignan’s more adept and technically brilliant fiddling.
This is the only audio sample I could find of Philippe Gagnon!