The Sunday Magazine

La Bolduc still steals the show, decades after her short, brilliant career

88 years after her first hit record, Quebec's music superstar is making a comeback.
Debbie Lynch-White in the new film La Bolduc. (Caramel Films)

This segment was originally broadcast on February 18, 2018.

In December 1929, just a few weeks after the Wall Street crash that launched the Great Depression, a 34-year-old Montreal seamstress named Mary Bolduc recorded La Cuisinière — a song about working in her kitchen.

Her husband was sick and unemployed, and the family needed money.

The record went on sale just before Christmas, and it took off.

Quebec's first singing superstar — La Bolduc, to her fans — was born.

A stamp honouring La Bolduc (Canada Post)
Aficionados of high culture snubbed her; everyone else couldn't get enough.

Eleven years later, on Feb. 20, 1941, Mary Bolduc died of cancer, at the age of 46. Her career had barely lasted a decade.

Yet at Christmas and New Year's and in steaming maple-sugar shacks in the spring, Quebecers still gather round to sing and listen to her songs.

This spring, there is something of a La Bolduc revival in Quebec. Producers have released new remixes of her songs. You can study her work at university. And a biopic, simply called La Bolduc, will put her story onto big screens in a few weeks.

Mixed descent

Mary Rose-Anna Travers was born in 1894 in Newport, a dirt-poor fishing village on Quebec's Gaspé coast.  

Her father was an anglophone of Irish descent, her mother, a French-speaking Acadian and Mi'kmaw.

At 13, Mary was sent to live with a relative in Montreal. The city was growing in leaps and bounds, a magnet for tens of thousands of rural Quebecers desperate to improve their lot.

Bit by bit, Mary Travers improved hers, starting as a maid in a doctor's house, then becoming a seamstress.

In 1914, she married a factory worker named Édouard Bolduc, producing the first of 13 children a short time later. Nine died of childhood disease.

She was our first French folk singer — the first person to speak the ordinary language of ordinary people.- Monique Jutras

"She was a very Catholic woman," says Francine Saint-Laurent, who is finishing a children's book about the singer. "She believed that we had to believe that something better is going to happen to your life."

For pleasure, Mary Bolduc got together with friends to play the violin and the accordion. She was topnotch, and people started to notice her abilities.

Mary Bolduc on the harmonica with fellow musicians in 1928 (Library and Archives Canada)
The Good Old Times troupe

In 1928, Bolduc she got a lucky break replacing an ailing fiddler at a big show in Montreal. A music producer in the audience asked her to make a record. It flopped. So did the next three instrumental recordings.  

Then the producer asked Bolduc to write and record one of her own songs.

Within weeks, her two-song 78 RPM record sold more than 12,000 copies.  

Bolduc began releasing a record a month.

She hired burlesque comedians and went on the road with a stage show called La Troupe du bon vieux temps — The Good Old Times troupe. It toured Quebec and French-speaking communities across Ontario, the Maritimes and New England.

They played church basements, splitting the profits in each parish with the local priest.

No one had ever seen anything like it.

Mary Bolduc was a traditional wife and a doting mother. She was also a groundbreaking artist who controlled a booming business at a time when women in Quebec didn't yet have the right to vote or to have their own bank account.

Yet there she was, her smiling picture on posters, standing in front of microphones, playing the fiddle, harmonica and accordion, singing in her heavy Gaspesian accent.

The 92-year-old Fernande Bolduc-Travers is Mary Bolduc's only surviving child. (David Gutnick/CBC)
Language of ordinary folks

Bolduc sang about the unemployed, about day-to-day money troubles, about the trials, tribulations and joys of ordinary Quebecers.

"That was revolutionary at the time," says singer and folklorist Monique Jutras. "She was our first French folk singer — the first person to speak the ordinary language of ordinary people."

Ça Va Venir, Découragez-vous Pas
Mes amis, je vous assure
Que le temps est bien dur
Il faut pas s' décourager
Ça va bien vite commencer
De l'ouvrage, y va en avoir
Pour tout le monde, cet hiver
Il faut bien donner le temps
Au nouveau gouvernement
Ça va v'nir puis ça va v'nir mais décourageons-nous pas
Moi, j'ai toujours le coeur gai pis je continue à turluter

​​It's Coming, Don't Be Discouraged.
My friends, I can tell you
That these are tough times,
Don't be discouraged,
Things are going to turn around quickly,
There are going to be jobs
For everyone this winter
Just give the new government 
A bit of time
It's coming, it's coming, don't be discouraged,
My heart is always gay, and I will continue to turluter.

(translation David Gutnick)

Monique Jutras is a well-known folk expert who performs La Bolduc's music. (
Actress Debbie Lynch-White plays Bolduc in the new movie. Lynche-White spent months with a voice teacher in order to master the art of the turlutte, a  tongue-twisting, improvised melodic riff that La Bolduc used in almost all her songs.

Lynch-White, 32, is a hip, millennial feminist who sees herself as one of many standing on the shoulders of La Bolduc.

"We're in a good period, if we compare with the '30s," she says. "She was talking about her times, but it still echoes now."

Jutras says La Bolduc was unique in the way she made every song personal, starting with "I": "I am going to tell you the story, I am going to tell you what happened.'"

Debbie Lynch-White spent months learning how to sing the turlutte. (David Gutnick/CBC)
An unwitting feminist

There have been many attempts to launch the 1930s superstar into the 21st century, from film documentaries, to book-length biographies, to exhibitions and covers of her songs.

La Bolduc has been portrayed as a music innovator, as a true Quebec patriot, and as a fierce promoter of the French language in America. No doubt, many find comfort in this troubadour who harkens back to an older, more traditional Quebec.

She was talking about her times, but it still echoes now.- Debbie Lynch-White

The new feature film La Bolduc casts her as a pioneering role model for Quebec women, an unwitting feminist. It's a rethink of La Bolduc that suits today's Quebec.

"She opened the way to the women," says Jutras, "She never said, 'Get out of the house and be independent and go work.' She did it."

Jutras says that when you listen to La Bolduc sing, you cannot help but tap your foot.

"At the same time, you say to yourself, 'This is not correct: this is vulgar. This is not the right way to speak French.'"

And therein lies a contradiction that Jutras says may point to the heart of why Mary Bolduc is still admired, and why her story and her music will be selling cinema tickets, CDs and digital downloads in 2018.

La Bolduc, says Jutras, "is a guilty pleasure."

The movie La Bolduc will be released this spring.

Click 'listen' above to hear David Gutnick's documentary, "Our Guilty Pleasure."

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