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Quebec's Star and Canada's First Chansonnière

This story was initially published in 2005

On June 4, 1894, Mary Travers, better known as 'La Bolduc,' a beloved singer-songwriter in the 1930s, was born in the fishing town of Newport in the Gaspé region of Quebec.

The troupe
The troupe, les veillées du bon vieux temps, December 1928
© Library and Archives Canada / Music Collection / nlc-4605
Mary’s French-Canadian mother and Irish father fostered her musical talents from a young age. She learned the traditional folk tunes and instruments of both parents. In 1907 she joined her sister in Montréal to work as a domestic servant and, in 1914, married Édouard Bolduc.

Bolduc was frequently out of work so his wife supplemented their income by filling in for a folk violinist in a musical troupe that promoted French-Canadian traditional music. One night in 1928 she was ‘discovered’ after she sang a short piece she had written. Roméo Beaudry offered a recording contract and she quickly became a great success. Her musical signature was her use of turlutage or “mouth music” in the Irish and Scottish traditions. 'La Bolduc' did this by flicking her tongue behind the upper teeth or against the upper palate. 

Mary Bolduc
Publicity photo of Mary Bolduc, 1932
© Library and Archives Canada/Philippe Laframboise fonds/Mus281/nlc-2547

When the Great Depression hit she used her music to address the social issues, and even commented on the new government of 1930 led by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. She also wrote about other memorable current events.  However, her songs are best known for their appeal to the working class of French-speaking Canadians and Americans. 'La Bolduc' recorded close to 100 songs and toured across Quebec, the Maritimes, French-speaking Ontario, and New England where many French-Canadians had moved in hopes of work. She used humour and frankness to speak of the daily problems and struggles of life while using familiar melodies and folksongs. 'La Bolduc's' songs promoted traditional female roles, although she herself was an independent woman and demanded expanded freedoms for all women.

Unfortunately, a car accident in 1937 damaged her memory and the doctors who were treating her discovered a cancerous tumour. She died on February 20, 1941.  'La Bolduc' has many well-known peers and successors in her style including: Roland (Le Soldat) Lebrun, Félix Leclerc, Gilles Vigneault, and Clémence Desrochers. Her name was given to a Montréal park in 1991 and a Canadian stamp was printed in her honour in 1994. She is still commemorated in the works of many musicians and visual artists.

Mary ‘La Bolduc’ Travers was designated a national historic person in 1992 and is commemorated by a plaque in Newport, Quebec.

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