Born: 1894, Newport, Quebec
Notable Songs: “La Cuisinière”, “Si Vous Avez une Fille qui Veut se Marier”.
La Bolduc, also known as Madame Bolduc and Mary Rose-Anna Travers was born in 1894 Newport, Quebec in the Gaspé to a very poor and large family. Her father taught her how to play traditional instruments of Quebec culture: the fiddle, accordion, harmonica, spoons, and Jew’s harp. Bolduc is considered to be Quebec’s first singer-songwriter and she is perhaps Canada’s first as well.
As a teenager, Bolduc offered casual public performances, playing the accordion, at the logging camp where she served as cook and her father as a lumberjack. In 1908, she moved to Montreal and worked as a maid then, later, at a textile mill.
She married in 1914 and her first child was stillborn. She had three successful births after that but two of them died before age two. Of her dozen or so pregnancies only four of her children reached adulthood. Her husband ran into difficulties securing work and they were very poor. Bolduc began to spend increased amounts of time entertaining friends with her music.
Her rise to fame began with her friend arranging for her to fill in for an absent fiddler in Conrad Gauthier’s troupe. Gauthier was impressed by Bolduc’s talents and requested her to return for subsequent performances. By 1928, she was a regular in the troupe. Her talent caught the attention of folk singer Ovila Légaré who recommended her to musical producer Roméo Beaudry who signed French musicians onto the Starr Records label. Bolduc signed a recording contract to make four 78 rpm records for the company and made her first recording in April 1929: the French folk song “Y’a longtemps que je couche par terre”. It was a commercial flop.
That Christmas, however, a subsequent recording was released: “La Cuisinière”. It sold over twelve thousand copies which, at that time, was unprecedented in Quebec. She became a household name in the province. Because of the success, Beaudry had her release a double-sided record every month. By the end of 1930, she had recorded more than 30 songs and collaborated with other artists. In 1931, she embarked on a three-month tour of Quebec with Juliette d’Argère. The following year, Bolduc formed her own touring troupe, performing around the Montreal area. Encouraged by the first set of 50 performances, earning $2000 (a lot of money in those days), the troupe expanded their tours into Ontario and New England through the end of the decade.
The successful formula the troupe used began with Mary Bolduc performing her newest songs. Then the troupe would perform comedy sketches, ensemble songs, folk songs and vaudeville routines. Most performances included a segment where amateurs would perform, sometimes for cash prizes. They would close with Bolduc singing some of her most topical songs. She often took melodies of folk tunes and wrote her own lyrics (a prelude to “Weird Al” Yankovic, perhaps). Bolduc wrote the song “Les Cinq Jumelles” about the famous Dionne Quintuplets which was set to the tune of “Little Brown Jug”. She also wrote “Les Américains” about Americans weaselling their way into Montreal to obtain liquor during their Prohibition.
In 1937, La Bolduc was involved in a head-on automobile collision which gave her a broken leg, nose, and a concussion. When she was admitted to the hospital for treatment, doctors discovered a cancerous tumour, and she began radiation treatment. This put her out of commission for a year. When she returned to the limelight, she made a couple of new recordings, one of which—”Les Souffrances de mon accident”—was about her accident.
La Bolduc died of cancer in 1941. Despite a life fraught with troubles, her songs were happy and joyful with lively rhythms.