By Glenn Patterson with contributions from Aimee Toner, Bonita Annett, Linda Miller, and Bill Miller
In 1941, pioneering American folksong researcher, Laura Boulton, passed through the Gaspé area as part of a larger project filming and recording traditional musicians in Quebec. Her film “Le pays de Québec” was released in 1944 and is a portrait of rural life in the province during the 1940s. Like any film, much of the video and audio was left on the cutting room floor. However, being a researcher, Boulton was deeply aware of the archival value of her recordings and they ended up in various archives.
Last summer, I was contacted by two researchers at Columbia University in New York City where the Boulton recordings had ended up. Aimee Toner is a student researcher at the university and Dr. Aaron Fox is the director for its Center of Ethnomusicology. Together, they are leading a project to reconnect communities in Quebec and Canada with the recordings that Laura Boulton made nearly 80 years ago. Ms. Toner and Dr. Fox and identified a series of performances of unaccompanied singing by two Wakeham-York residents, Charlie Languedoc (1868-1950) and William Eden Patterson (1875-1960) from 1941. These are quite likely the earliest known audio recordings of English-speaking Gaspesians, and almost certainly the earliest musical recordings. They predate the oldest recordings in the Gaspesian Community Sound Archives by 17 years. Charles Languedoc and Eden Patterson knew one another (Eden married Charles’ mother-in-law, Laura Jane) and ended up as neighbours. It is likely that one of the two led Laura Boulton to record the other.
The voices of Eden Patterson and Captain Charles Languedoc come to us from another time and place. They sing songs of leaving distant ports in South America, California, and England; or toiling in the lumber shanties of Michigan and Wisconsin; fur traders crossing the Missouri river; and songs of Irish labourers in England. This was music rooted in labour and brief moments of joy in lives were defined largely by manual labour and seasonal migration. Sea shanties sung slowly with repetitive refrains existed, in part, to ease of arduous task of hauling anchors. Long, narrative songs helped pass away evenings in winter lumber camps. In the era these singers lived, it was still commonplace to sing songs without instrumental accompaniment, it being fully expected the songs and the stories they tell could be fully conveyed by simply by the conviction in the singers’ voices.
If there is a common thread, it is that these songs speak to an age before radio, when the Gaspé Coast, for all its geographic isolation, was deeply enmeshed in global maritime and lumber economies. The songs Charles Languedoc and Eden Patterson knew were sung all over the globe wherever English-speaking sailors and lumbermen went to work: England, Ireland, Scotland, Newfoundland, New England, California, Australia, South Africa, South America and beyond. These songs were born on the move and never belonged to a single place, even though they paint vivid pictures of all these places and points between.
During my field research around Gaspé Bay in 2015 and 2016, it was the older community members who had a living memory of these kinds of unaccompanied songs being sung around Gaspé. Like other parts of Canada and North America, this tradition was largely eclipsed by American commercial country music which began reaching these communities by radio beginning in the 1930s. Indeed, in my work digitizing dozens of tapes from home recording collections in Gaspé, I only found a few examples of this singing older tradition (Claude Rehel and Bob Doolin can be found in our archives).
As a result, the singing style is sometimes difficult to appreciate for those brought up on commercial country and popular music. In this older unaccompanied singing style, the delivery is full-voiced without striving for a smooth and pure vocal tone. In the nearby Miramichi woods of New Brunswick, for example, this singing tradition was especially rich and was documented by New Brunswick folklorist Louise Manny who went on to found The Miramichi Folk Festival in the late 1950s. Helen Creighton, MacEdward Leach, and Kenneth Peacock, were 20th century contemporaries who collected similar music elsewhere in Canada’s Atlantic provinces.
To fully understand these songs and their presence among English-speakers in the Gaspé area, it is necessary to understand the lives from which these 1941 recordings came to us. And so, I reached out to Andy Patterson on behalf of Ms. Toner and Dr. Fox. As a result, we were quickly put in touch with Bonita Annett, Linda Miller, and Bill Miller, descendants of both William Eden Patterson and Captain Charles Languedoc. They provided us with valuable information, anecdotes, and context about the lives of these two singers. Aimee Toner of Columbia University provided a biography of Laura Boulton and a description of her collection and how it ended up at the university.
From Linda Miller
Thanks so much for sending me the recordings of Eden Patterson (my mother’s uncle) and Charlie Languedoc (My dad’s uncle). Uncle Eden and Uncle Charlie lived very close to me and Eden often visited and I remember playing cribbage with him. He often recited poems or stories at local concerts – “Jiggs and Maggie” (an Irish-American comic) were his favourite. I have attached a photo of Eden. He died in 1960, I enjoyed listening to the recordings. I did not know Uncle Charlie as well but can remember visiting him with my mom.
From Bill Miller
I am the great nephew of William Eden Patterson and I barely remember him as he passed away when I was four years old. I live in the home that he built in Wakeham, just outside the town of Gaspe. Ms. Miller called me about these recordings and aroused my curiosity. My parents moved into this house to care for him in his old age after his wife died. I do recall my mother saying that he liked to sing in church. The fact that he was recorded in 1941 comes as a total surprise, however. It would have transpired well before my parents lived with him and I do not believe they knew of it.
I don’t have a lot of info regarding great uncle Eden but I do know that both he and his younger brother Frank (my grandfather ) worked in a sawmill in Golden, BC when they were young. My mother used to tell that my grandfather fell sick with what they referred to as ‘cedar asthma,’ from exposure to cedar sawdust and that his brother Eden feared they might lose him at one point. He recovered and lived to 83 however. Apart from some small scale farming I don’t know what his employment was in Gaspe.
As for Mr. Languedoc, I do not remember him at all but my mother spoke of him and his wife quite often. Apparently they lived in a small building which was situated on the front part of this same lot that I now own. The structure was gone before I came along in 1956 but obviously Mr Patterson and Mr Languedoc were very close neighbours. I don’t know about Mr. Languedoc, but my Uncle Eden certainly wasn’t a celebrated singer in these parts and I am curious as to how Ms. Boulton came to be associated with him and even more so, what led her to record him.
… [these recordings are] such an interesting link to the past. It leaves one with questions that can never be answered, all of the participants having passed on long ago. My mother, who was the last person left who may have had direct recollections of the circumstances leading up to these unlikely recordings, herself passed away just six months ago at the age of 98. She would have enjoyed listening to them and most definitely would have had a chuckle. She often told me of Uncle Eden’s propensity for singing at any opportunity. … She related how, while he had a fairly pleasant voice he was unable to sing on tempo with the church congregation and would habitually be several words ahead or behind everyone else. But of course Ms Boulton was not a talent scout but rather a musical historian and therefore more concerned with content and context than talent.
His singing voice seems strange to me. I hear an accent that I associate more with Irish Catholic communities in this area. But this may just be an affectation.
From Bonita Annett
The Languedoc family has been in Canada since 1709. The first one to come to Quebec in 1709 was from the province of Languedoc in France and his name was Jean Garique dit Languedoc. He did not like his name so he changed it to Jean Languedoc leaving out his last name Garique. So the name is quite unique. His grandson Joseph was the only Languedoc to come to Gaspe in 1819. We are all descendants of Joseph. He was Charles Languedoc’s grandfather. Charles’ parents were James Languedoc, and Jane Starnes from New Carlisle, QC. Charles had eight siblings: two brothers and six sisters. The family had a rich seafaring tradition and both his brothers, James and Francis, were captains who sailed all over the world.
Charles was born in Gaspe on April 21, 1868. As a child, Charles was encouraged to read and to attend school. Education was important to the Languedoc family. His father, a captain himself, inspired Charles and his brothers to sail. As a young adult, he left Gaspe and he sailed as a second mate all around the world. Later he became a captain. After he finished sailing, he returned to Gaspe, QC. Charles often told my relatives that he had sailed to many ports in the world and that the most beautiful spots in all the world were New Zealand and Cape Town, South Africa.
Charles married Alvina Robson, from Gaspe, in 1909. They had no children together. They both lived the last years of their lives in Gaspe. At first they lived alone and, as they aged, they moved in with a couple that kept them until they died.
Charles was a man that loved animals and he had many cats in particular. He had them all named and he cared for them daily. He also had a horse, a cow and a few pigs to do a bit of farming. He wasn’t much of a caretaker for his house and barn – those buildings were dilapidated and eye sores to many. He was also quite a contrary man to deal with. I guess if someone said it was cold out, he would reply that it was not cold at all. So to this day in our Gaspe community many people still say, ” You are as contrary as old Charlie Languedoc.”
I guess Charles was a bit gullible as well. One Halloween night a bunch of mischievous boys took Uncle Charlie’s white horse out of his barn and replaced it with a black horse from the other side of the river, probably 8-10 miles away. Charles was dumbfounded when he discovered the black horse in his barn the next morning. He thought that someone had painted his horse and he attempted to wash the black paint off. When he got no results he asked around for weeks, to try and find out who had done this exchange. Of course, no one owned up to this prank and it was several months before he had his white horse returned. The people of the community found this very amusing, much to Charles’ chagrin.
I unfortunately never met my Great Uncle Charlie Languedoc but I have heard some stories about him. And I would have loved to have met him.
From Aimee Toner
Laura Boulton, (born Laura Craytor on January 4th, 1899), was an avid vocalist in her early life and obtained a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from Denison College. She started her anthropological career as a member of the ornithological staff at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, where she embarked on her first expedition to Africa in 1929 with the intent of recording bird song. On this trip, Boulton found herself using her cylinder phonograph recorder for local music performances as well and became enamoured with the work. She ended up focusing on collecting music from around the globe, embarking on over forty international research expeditions and accumulating approximately 30,000 musical recordings over the span of fifty years. As her experiences abroad continued, she began to brand herself in the 1930s as a traveling anthropologist and music collector, and toured across the United States as a speaker at prominent universities and institutions as well as smaller local venues. Boulton began working for John Grierson and Canada’s National Film Board in 1941 as director and recordist for the “The Peoples of Canada” film series set across the provinces. Eventually, Boulton commercialized some of her recordings with the Victor and Folkways records labels. In 1963, Boulton sold her complete recording collection to Columbia University, where she was also hired to direct the archive and assimilate it into the institution. During her time at Columbia, Boulton also published her autobiography The Music Hunter (1969).
The Laura Boulton Collection at Columbia University is an archive comprised of hundreds of hours of recorded – or “collected” – sound made during Laura Boulton’s travels around the world. Currently, myself and Dr. Aaron Fox are working with the 434 primarily French-language songs recorded in 1941 by Laura Boulton in Canada’s francophone regions as part of the larger “Peoples of Canada” project with the National Film Board. The areas of Canada represented in these 434 recordings include Ottawa, Orléans, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Hilarion, Miscoutine, Baie-Saint-Paul, Saint-Paul-de-la-Croix, La Malbaie, Port-Daniel, Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, Gaspé, and Chéticamp, Nova Scotia. Marius Barbeau and Helen Creighton, both notable anthropologists in Canada and the US, were consultants who helped Boulton in these regions; they accompanied her on different legs of her trip and supplied both recording locations and singers for her to record. As an American and an outsider, Boulton relied heavily on these specialists to advise her in her work in these regions; these recordings would not have been possible without their guidance.
Out of this subset of recordings, the thirteen English language recordings from Gaspé are the only recordings in English (there also exist 58 French-language recordings from Port-Daniel and 85 recordings made in Saint-Anne-des-Monts), and were recorded when Boulton visited the Gaspé region in the September of 1941. Given that this section of the project was intended for the “Pays du Quebec” film that used only French-language recordings, it is remarkable that these particular English-language recordings, that are great relics of the region’s culture, were made.
The “Liner Notes”
The songs sung by both Eden Patterson and Captain Charles Languedoc are, in many senses, typical of their time and place and reflect the lives these two men lived along with many others across the North Atlantic region. Here are some song notes:
The Pride of Glencoe. This Scottish tale is well-known in Atlantic Canada and is found in both the Kenneth Peacock and MacEdward Leach folksong collections
Harry Bail (AKA Harry Vale, The Little Shingle Mill). This is a well-known lumber shanty ballad set in Lapeer County, Michigan and details a tragic accident at the sawmill in the Township of Arcade. This song was collected by Franz Lee Rickaby in “Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy” (1926)
The Shanty Boy and the Farmer’s Son. This also appears in Rickaby’s 1926 collection of lumber shanty songs.
Shenandoah. Perhaps the only song among these recordings which is still widely-known today. Of unknown authorship, this song dates from the early 19th century from the era of fur traders and voyageurs along the Missouri River and their interactions with Indigenous nations. By the mid-1800s it had become a well-known sea shanty.
Whiskey (for my) Johnny. From England, also known as “Whiskey is the Life of Man.”
The Dying Soldier. This song traces back to the U.S. Civil War and tells the story of a Union soldier from Wisconsin dying in southern lands beneath the shade of the palmetto trees leaving is sister to mourn. In the Western states, this song became “The Dying Ranger” or “The Dying Cowboy” where it is set in Texas.
Boney Was a Warrior. Another sea shanty which emerged from the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. Boney is the affectionate name for Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s not clear who the Jean François in the continual refrain is. In this version, Charles Languedoc incorporates a then contemporary reference noting how, like Bonaparte, Hitler also couldn’t get to Moscow.
Rio Grande. According to Duncan Emrich, writing for the Library of Congress in “American Sea Songs and Shanties” (1952), this song is “is one of the great outward-bound capstan shanties, sung as the men were heaving up anchor prior to leaving for the outward voyage. The Rio Grande referred to is not the Texas-Mexican river, but the port of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, a favorite with sailors the world over.”
The Banks of Sacramento. A rare example of a song jumping the language barrier. This song was originally half in “Low German” – a German dialect spoken in northern Germany and in various German diasporas from Russia, to Canada, the U.S., and Latin America – and half in English and was entitled “De Hamborger Veermaster” (The Hamburg Four-Master).
Here is the 1943 film Boulton produced for the National Film Board of Canada based on her recordings made in Quebec: Le Pays de Quebec
Le pays de Québec, Laura Boulton, provided by the National Film Board of Canada