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Caught Our Ears: Two French Songs from Maine

A woman sits at a table with papers in front of her, smiling.

Ida Burgoin Roy photographed by Lisa Ornstein. The photo log for this roll of film is missing. However, through comparing this with the photos in our collections identified as Ida Burgoin Roy, I believe this to be Mrs. Roy. Lisa Ornstein says in her notes that Mrs. Roy used typed song texts to help her remember the words to her songs, and these are visible in this photo. See the archival scan here.

Whenever one of our field collections goes online, those of us who work in social media for the American Folklife Center try to find ways of making it more accessible to audiences. Currently, my friend and fellow blogger Stephanie Hall is working on some projects relating to the Maine Acadian Cultural Survey Collection,  an eight-week study conducted in 1991 as a joint project of the American Folklife Center and the North Atlantic Regional Office of the National Park Service, which researched French-language culture in Maine. This collection includes traditional folksingers, and knowing of my personal interest in French and French-Canadian song, Stephanie suggested I pick a couple of songs with mysterious qualities from the collection, to try to clear up the mysteries. I accepted the challenge, and here we are–two songs that caught my ear!

The first song I looked into was sung by by Ida Burgoin Roy (1921-2007) of Van Buren, Maine. It was called “Fox Henry” by the collector, Lisa Ornstein. In her notes, Ornstein writes that Ida Roy learned the song from her mother, Alvina Marquis Bourgoin, and her father, Patrick Bourgoin. She also notes:

The complete absence of rhyme, and the somewhat awkward fit between lyrics and melody in this song, as well as the song’s title, all suggest that “Fox Henry” may be a literal French translation of an English-language song.

Listening to it with that in mind, I was interested that Mrs. Roy announces the song in English, and says a name that sounds more like “Fawkes Henry” than “Fox Henry” to me. The song is narrated by a young woman, and addressed to her mother. She tells her mother that she is dying, and relates the story of how she met Fawkes Henry at a dance, was seduced, became pregnant, and is now dying. She asks her mother to take care of her baby, and warns other young women about men, specifically dancers and “wicked companions” (“méchants compagnons”). She sings a verse about men who pretend to love women, which ends with her accusing Henry of leaving her “sick and dying, a mother but no wife” (“malade et mourant, une mère, non pas une femme”).

Given the song’s emphasis on Henry’s malfeasance, I wondered if the name “Fawkes Henry” could be a purposeful mispronunciation of “faux Henry,” the first word being the adjective that is cognate with “false” in English. This in turn reminded me of a somewhat obscure lyric lament called “False Henry,” which I had heard from the Scottish traditional singer Daisy Chapman. Sure enough, looking at Chapman’s text of “False Henry,” which you can see at this link, it is unmistakably similar to “The Song About Faux Henry.”

Immediately below, find the player for you to listen to the song. It’s the first song on side A. (If the player doesn’t work, try this link.) Immediately below that, I’ll put my own transcription of Mrs. Roy’s singing, and follow that with Daisy Chapman’s text of “False Henry.” I resisted the urge to correct non-standard features of her French, such as saying “mourant” for “mourante,” the usual feminine form. Keep in mind that one might argue this is merely a pronunciation difference, and that Mrs. Roy might have written “mourante” if she were writing out the words. A particularly interesting non-standard phrase is “les ceusses qui disent,” which is an idiomatic phrase for “ceux qui disent,” i.e. “those who say” or “the ones who say.” [See ceusses in Le Dictionnaire Vivant de la Langue Française.]

Since there are no other known versions of this song in French, in cases where I found Mrs. Roy hard to understand, I had few clues to go on. For that reason, there are a couple of lines I’m unsure about. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment on the blog!

The Song About Faux Henry

As sung by Ida Burgoin Roy for Lisa Ornstein, 1991

Il y a t’un an passé, ma chère mere,
J’étais dans un bal au soir
C’est là que j’ai connu Faux Henry
Il m’a demandé pour valser

J’étais jeune et j’étais folle
Mais il m’a volé mon coeur
Si j’vous aurais écoutée ma chère mère
Je n’serais pas mourant ce soir

Ouvrez la porte de ma chambre
Ouvrez aussi la fenêtre
Laissez le soleil briller sur mon enfant
Laissez-le briller pour toujours

Ma mère, prenez mon enfant
Ôtez-le à mes côtés
Laissez-le pas dans une autre main
Prenez-en donc grand soin

C’est à vous autres, tous les jeunes filles
Faire attention à tous ces garçons
Faire attention à tous ces danseurs
Et à tous ces méchants compagnons

Les ceusses qui disent qu’ils vous aiment
Plus souvent ils vous aiment pas
Mais ils vous laissent malade et mourant
Comme une mère, non pas une femme

Adieu donc mon enfant aux yeux bleus
Oh Adieu mon bel enfant
Jamais que j’oublie Faux Henry
Parce qu’il est le père de mon enfant

False Henry

As sung by Daisy Chapman for Rod Stradling, 1970

Just a year ago, dear mother,
Since you dressed me for the ball;
It was there I met false Henry,
‘Twas the saddest night of all.

For he told me that he loved me,
And from me he took my pride,
And he left me broken hearted,
A poor mother, but no bride.

Take my baby, dearest mother,
Take and bring him up in life;
Let him know he had a mother,
A poor mother, but no bride.

Fare thee well my dearest mother,
Fare thee well my blue eyed boy;
Fare thee well to you false Henry,
I am bidding you goodbye.

All you girls do take a warning,
And a warning let it be;
Never let yourself go roaming,
In a strange man’s company.

For he’ll tell you that he loves you,
And from you he’ll steal your pride,
And he’ll leave you, broken hearted,
A poor mother, but no bride.

As we can see, there are numerous similarities: both songs are addressed from a dying daughter to her mother. In both, the daughter is nursing a baby. Both songs begin by recalling a ball that occurred exactly one year previously, at which the narrator met Henry and fell in love with him. In both songs, the narrator asks her mother to raise her baby, warns other young women against men, and says farewell to her baby and mother. At the level of specific phrases, both contain numerous lines that can only be direct translations: “It was there I met False Henry” to “C’est là que j’ai connu Faux Henry;” “Fare thee well, my blue-eyed boy” to “Adieu donc mon enfant aux yeux bleus;” and, perhaps most tellingly, “a poor mother, but no bride” to “une mère, non pas une femme.”

The Roud Folk Song index lists only four known versions of “False Henry,” which it gives number 6817. Three of these versions are published: Daisy Chapman’s, which I’ve presented above; a text from Annie Shirer (also from Scotland) in The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, volume 6; and an American text from an unknown source, published in Frank Shay’s More Pious Friends and Drunken Companions. As it happens, I have all three of these publications in my home library, and checking the other texts confirms that most of the features I mention above are common to all three texts of the song. I think this evidence is enough for us to say that “The Song About Faux Henry” is indeed a vernacular translation into French of the English-language lyric lament “False Henry.”

Going back to the title, I’ve decided to call the song “The Song About Faux Henry.” We don’t know if Ida Roy normally pronounced the French word “faux” that way, if she was perhaps accentuating the Englishness of the “Faux Henry” moniker by stressing its origin in the phrase “False Henry,” or if she was indeed thinking of “Fawkes Henry” or “Fox Henry.” It’s notable, though, that she pronounces “Henry” as the English name rather than as a French speaker would pronounce “Henri.” In the context of Acadian culture, this may have had the effect of establishing that “Faux Henry” was an English-speaker, so the song may have been warning French-speaking women against romances with English-speaking neighbors. If so, this adds a new layer of meaning that the song did not have in English. It would be hard to say for sure that this was part of the song’s meaning, though, without being able to ask Mrs. Roy what she thought about it. As is often the case, answering one question about a song just leaves us with more questions to think about!

Five people sit around a table with papers in front of them, having a discussion

Lisa Ornstein, at far left, at a 1991 meeting of the Maine Acadian Cultural Survey field team. Clockwise from Ornstein are Alan Jabbour, Camilla Bryce-Laporte, C. Ray Brassieur, and David Taylor. The photo is by David Whitman. See the archival scan here.

The second song I investigated was sung for Lisa Ornstein by Connie Morin Desrosier (1930-2016) from St. Agathe, Maine. Mrs. Desrosier didn’t have a title for the song. Consulting Ornstein’s notes on the session, we find that Desrosier told the collector that she learned most of her songs from her father, but that this one may have been learned from her stepmother’s mother, whose name was Adele Ouellette. Mrs. Desrosier didn’t know very much about the song, but wondered if it might be purely local. She commented wryly that “it doesn’t come from the Cahiers de la bonne chanson, for sure,” referring to a series of books published from the 1930s through the 1950s that featured French-language songs from Quebec, including patriotic songs, religious songs, and traditional folk songs.

Listening to the song, we find that it’s about a young woman whose parents send her to a convent when she is 15 years old. She asks a bird to help her communicate with her lover, who is a voyageur. The bird carries messages between the lovers. The young woman chastises her parents for their cruelty and vows to break out and rejoin her lover.

On hearing the song, I didn’t think it was purely local. The themes of the song, including the lovers asking a bird to carry messages between them, and the young woman confined to a convent and wishing to escape to her lover, are present in many traditional songs from France and elsewhere in Canada. The identification of her lover as a “voyageur” suggested it came from the 18th or 19th century since the voyageur era ended by the 1880s.  Although it wouldn’t be impossible for a song to be composed on older French themes in Maine, and then to remain purely local for over a century, it seemed more likely to be an older French-Canadian song.

The song has a chorus, with a distinctive phrase: “Je briserai chambre et chaînes pour rejoindre mon amant.” This rang a bell with me, and I consulted my collection of published CDs. I found two versions of a song called “Chambre et chaînes” in my own collection, and listening to them confirms they are versions of the same song. One is by the band “Galant Tu Perds Ton Temps,” who state in their liner notes that they got their version from a field recording in the collection of Luc Lacourcière at Laval University. They don’t reveal the province in which it was collected. The other was by the band Serre L’ecoute, and comes from band member Robert Bouthillier’s own collection. Bouthillier, an ethnographer as well as a performer, collected the song from Pascal Leclair, of Haut-Sheïla, New Brunswick, in 1977. He identifies the song as a version of the song-type that Conrad Laforte called “La tourterelle, messagère des amours,” in his standard work of scholarship, Le catalogue de la chanson folklorique française, vol. II: Chansons strophiques. It may be worth mentioning that in some Canadian versions the lover helps the narrator escape, but her escape is only implied in Connie Morin Desrosier’s version. (This implication, and the narrator’s defiance of her parents and the church, is probably why Desrosier commented that the song was not from the Cahiers de la Bonne Chanson, which were compiled largely by priests and monks!)

Immediately below, find the player where you can hear the song. It’s the fourth song on the tape side represented in the player; it starts about 14:15 on the counter.

Feeling ambitious, I transcribed Desrosier’s song, doing my best to capture what she sang. Following the revival singers who have recorded versions of the song, I’ve decided to call it “Chambre et chaînes.” When a line proved hard to understand, I checked the corresponding parts of the two versions in my record collection, as well as a Newfoundland version sung by Josephine LaCosta of Newfoundland in 1981. I found that version in Gary Butler’s article “La tradition musicale des Franco-Acadiens de Terre-Neuve: une etude descriptive,” which can be downloaded as a pdf at this link. As an example, I didn’t understand “voir mes doux yeux” immediately, but the phrase “voir ses doux yeux” occurs in the Newfoundland version. I’m pretty sure “mes doux yeux” must be what Mrs. Desrosiers was singing, even though “ses doux yeux” (his sweet eyes) would make more sense in her song as well. This is a situation in which Mrs. Desrosier might have made a momentary mistake, saying “mes” instead of “ses”; singers (including me) make such minor mistakes all the time! But it’s also conceivable “mes doux yeus” could be the narrator’s nickname for her lover.

Some of the French is non-standard and may reflect Acadian dialect or Mrs. Desrosier’s own speaking style. For example, the verb form “d’avoir tîntes” is unusual; Standard French would be “d’avoir tenu.” But “d’avoir tîntes” is exactly analogous to saying in English “having took” instead of “having taken”; while it is not standard, “having took” is certainly part of the dialect of many native speakers of English. Naturally, when first-language speakers are speaking a non-standard dialect, it’s easy for second-language speakers of more standard dialects (like me) to misunderstand them, and it’s possible I made mistakes in my transcription; I welcome suggestions from readers!

My transcription and translation follows.

Chambre et chaînes

Sung by Connie Morin Desrosier for Lisa Ornstein, 1991

A woman sits in a carved chair, facing front, smiling.

I believe this to be Connie Morin Desrosier, photographed by Lisa Ornstein in 1991. Although the subjects on this roll of film are not identified, she strongly resembles other photos of Desrosier, including this one, which accompanied her 2016 obituary. You can see the archival scan of this photo at this link.

Père et mère m’ont mis au couvent
c’est a l’âge de quinze ans
pour gagner ma vie
Le reste de mes jours
Je briserai chambre et chaînes
Pour rejoindre mon amant,
Car c’est un voyageur
Que mon cœur aime si tendrement.

Petit oiseau du vert bocage,
toi qui voles au village
Toi qui voles voir
Mes doux yeux
Je briserai chambre et chaînes
Pour rejoindre mon amant,
Car c’est un voyageur
Que mon cœur aime si tendrement.

L’oiseau vu ce belle
Dans sa chambre en pleurant
Recevoir des nouvelles
De son fidèle amant
Je briserai chambre et chaînes
Pour rejoindre mon amant,
Car c’est un voyageur
Que mon cœur aime si tendrement.

L’oiseau pris la lettre,
Dans son bec il l’apporta;
Sur les genoux de la belle,
Il l’a reposa.
Je briserai chambre et chaînes
Pour rejoindre mon amant,
Car c’est un voyageur
Que mon cœur aime si tendrement.

Père et mère si cruels,
Vous regretterez un jour
D’avoir tîntes une jeune fille
Si longtemps captée.
Je briserai chambre et chaînes
Pour rejoindre mon amant,
Car c’est un voyageur
Que mon cœur aime si tendrement

Room and Chains

Father and mother sent me to a convent
At the age of 15 years
To earn my living
For the rest of my days
I will break free of my room and my chains
To rejoin my lover
Since it’s a voyageur
That my heart loves so tenderly

Little bird of the green wood
You who fly to the village
You who fly to see
My [his?] sweet eyes
I will break free of my room and my chains
To rejoin my lover
Since it’s a voyageur
That my heart loves so tenderly

The bird saw this beauty
In her room, crying,
Receiving news
Of her faithful lover
I will break free of my room and my chains
To rejoin my lover
Since it’s a voyageur
That my heart loves so tenderly

The bird took the letter
In his beak he carried it
In the lap of the beautiful woman
He placed it
I will break free of my room and my chains
To rejoin my lover
Since it’s a voyageur
That my heart loves so tenderly

Cruel father and mother
One day you will regret
Having taken a young girl
Captive for so long
I will break free of my room and my chains
To rejoin my lover
Since it’s a voyageur
That my heart loves so tenderly

Finally, there’s another mystery which readers may be able to help with. Listening to these two great singers and their songs made me curious: Lisa Ornstein contributed a roll of color film and a roll of black and white film that were missing logs, so we don’t know who is in some of the pictures. Hoping to identify them, I compared the two unidentified women in Ornstein’s pictures with known photos of Mrs. Roy and Mrs. Desrosier, and I’m pretty sure the photos in this blog are the singers of our songs. If you knew either of the singers or either of the women in the photos, and you’d like to confirm or correct me, please leave a comment on this blog!