‘Chansonniers’ of the Great Lakes: Preserving the Spirit of the Troubadours

by Michelle Thompson


In this study of French-Canadian songbooks I seek to demonstrate how medieval troubadours’ tradition of collecting folksongs in manuscripts called chansonniers accompanied early settlers, surviving in the songbooks of the minority French Canadian community, particularly in the Great Lakes area. An examination of these publications shows that the chansonnier tradition survived at least to the late 19th century in Michigan and Ontario. In addition, folksong repertoires collected by ethnographers and folklorists in the Great Lakes region confirm that the traditional ‘narrative’ style used by French troubadours was still alive in the 20th century and now heavily favored over the the ‘call and response’ folksong or chanson en laisse, popular in Quebec. My research shows that not only did the troubadour tradition live on in the Great Lakes, but also that folksongs in this region have tended to be narrative in form and have been used to document life events, much like the troubadour chansonniers in medieval France.


Having grown up French Canadian in Northern Ontario I often sang folk songs with my family during long trips, holidays and rainy weekends. As a University student, I was naturally drawn to Sudbury’s Franco-Ontarien folklore centre (Centre Franco-Ontarien de Folklore) and was lucky enough to work there in the summer of 1999. It was only later that I would reflect on my time spent with its founder Germain Lemieux, a renowned ethnologist, discussing music, culture and politics over lunch. I decided to research his work on folksong books called chansonniers to learn more about his work on oral traditions in the hope of better understanding French Canadian cultural identity in Ontario. [1]

Lemieux collected vast amounts of data on folk music and legends in the Great Lakes region throughout the course of his career. He produced several manuscripts and a large number of sound recordings on magnetic tape. These materials are preserved in the archives at the folklore centre in Sudbury. He also published a number of chansonniers in the French tradition, including his analysis of lyrics and musical form. His first songbook, Folklore franco-ontarien: chansons, was published in 1949 by the Societe historique du Nouvel-Ontario. In 1963, he published a series of historical documents including two songbooks entitled Chanteurs franco-ontariens et leurs chansons (Vol 44 and 45). And in 1974, he published Chansonnier franco-ontarien (Vol 1 and 2). In 1999, with the help of folk singer Jean-Guy Labelle he published a cassette-tape of original recordings from his research (Pichette).

This essay traces the chansonnier’s medieval roots, starting with the troubadour tradition and its eventual censorship. It examines how the voyageur culture in New France influenced the rebirth of this age-old tradition and the eventual publication of chansonniers in the Great Lakes region. Did 20th century French Ontarian chansonniers retain the original spirit of medieval French troubadour chansonniers? Have the form and reasons for writing these songbooks changed? Research will show that early French migration in New France allowed French settlers in Ontario and Michigan to preserve their oral traditions through song, while creating a cultural flavor distinct from that of modern Quebec. This research also shows that the narrative form of song favored by France’s troubadours in Northern France was preserved by Franco-Ontariens.


During the 12th to the 13th century, medieval chansonniers were compiled in France, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Germany (Zuchetto). Troubadours and trouveres had roles in the court as poet-musicians. Troubadours were master improvisers of the narrative style of song and poetry, often singing stories about virtuous women, historical events and court life. They used the more lyrical langue d’oc while the trouveres of Northern France used langue d’oil. Politically and geographically, troubadours became associated with the Huguenots and were eventually branded as heretics by the Pope, leading to their persecution between 1209 and 1244. The inquisition followed and by 1350 most troubadours had been killed or imprisoned. Comparatively, trouveres remained free to continue collecting their monophonic songs during this period [2](Leach).

Troubadours used chansonniers as a means of documenting events and bringing attention to political issues like religious persecution from the North. In this way, chansonniers evolved as political tools of resistance. Musicologist Elizabeth Leach’s research shows that at the height of Simon of Montfort’s campaign to suppress the protestant religion, as an act of resistance troubadours mocked him through song. Guiraut Riquier, a prolific troubadour in the 13th Century wrote in a song from his last chansonnier : “Je devrais bien me garder de chanter, car au chant convient l’allégresse, mais moi tant de soucis m’oppressent…”I should keep myself from singing since in song one finds joy but I have too many worries oppressing me.” These lyrics illustrate the misfortune of troubadours at the time (Zuchetto).

Several chansonnier manuscripts are preserved today in the national libraries of France and Italy. The Chansonnier Nivelle de la Chaussée, a collection of polyphonic French songs in manuscript form dated 1460 to 1470, showcases songs with three or four voices written by a variety of authors on parchment with ornate lettering. [3] The book is bound with leather and was donated by Pierre La Chaussee in 1754 (Christoffersen). The Chansonnier d’Urfé written in Languedoc around 1300 contains melodies from famous troubadours such as Berenguier de Palazol, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, and Guiraut Riquier (Zuchetto). One of the most beautiful chansonniers is the Cordiforme. In 1470, nobleman Jean de Montchenu compiled a heart-shaped codex with forty-four polyphonic songs in French and Italian written by a number of composers. The subject of these songs is courtly love and the pages have miniature illuminations with gold-flecked initials and flower and animal themes. The original piece is at the Bibliothèque Nationale in France however facsimiles also exist (Cooper).

Chansonnier de Jean de Montchenu. Source: http://scholar.library.miami.edu/facsimile/montchenu.html
Cordiforme: Chansonnier de Jean de Montchenu. Source: http://scholar.library.miami.edu/facsimile/montchenu.html

The tradition of compiling chansonniers’ manuscripts fell out of fashion in 16th century Europe and folk songs were mostly relegated to the collective memory of people as the Inquisition moved to censor literature. Researcher Clive Griffen states that at the time, Europeans faced growing pressure from the Catholic Church to eliminate any trace of the protestant faith which was considered heresy. He gives the example of Antonio de LaBastida, a French printer in the 1560s who was tried for having expressed pro-protestant sentiment. He confided fearing being burnt alive and was willing to wear a garment imposed on penitents, suffer two hundred lashes or serve as a galley slave to avoid death (Griffen). Similarly, in 1572 writer Fray Luis de Leon was imprisoned for four years for having translated the Jewish text Song of Songs from Hebrew to French (New World Encyclopedia).


In 1524, Frenchman Giovanni DeVerrazano began exploring the east coast of North America. Ten years later, Jacques Cartier was exploring the St Laurence River and by 1541, the first French settlement was established in New France and the French began to migrate (Commission de la Capitale Nationale du Quebec). Despite the early arrival of French explorers and immigrants, there are very few chansonnier publications in Canada until the 19th century, likely due to low rates of literacy among French Canadians and the practice of transmitting folk songs verbally.

A number of paperback books and pamphlets in folio format from the 19th and 20th century have been preserved. Le Passe-temps: Chansonnier du Canada, (A Canadian Songbook to Pass the Time) was produced on printing press and sold in Ottawa by JA Fraser, a local photographer. It has twenty-one pages of French songs (Canadiana). Le Chansonnier Canadien: Nouveau Recueil de romances, idyles et vaudevilles was printed in 1825 on printing press by the Montreal Herald. The preface states that publishers took care to remove songs where religion and customs were not respected so that even children and women could use it (Canadiana). Chansonnier des familles: Lyre Canadienne (A family songbook with Canadian lyrics) was printed on press in 1883 by Montreal’s JB Rolland & Sons for Canada’s Ministry of Agriculture, “according to federal legislation”, indicating the book was a government initiative. There was a clear distinction between French songs and French-Canadian songs in this book as the editor noted two songs popular in France had been added to this edition (Canadiana). Finally, the Chansonnier Canadien du Michigan ([French]Canadian Songbook of Michigan) was printed in 1886 by an unknown Michigan publisher. The songbook had three hundred and forty-one pages of French-Canadian songs. As with other chansonniers, only the lyrics were included (Canadiana). This particular book makes clear that French-Canadian culture transcended the boundaries of Quebec and Canada through the late 19th century.

Chansonnier Canadien du Michigan, published Michigan 1886. www.canadiana.ca
Chansonnier Canadien du Michigan, published Michigan 1886. http://www.canadiana.ca


Traditional French songs are the most well-documented aspect of Franco-Ontarien folklore, with an impressive number of songs collected and catalogued by many ethnologists. These songs continue to be an integral part of French-speaking family life across Ontario. Today’s traditional folk songs are remembered collectively thanks to yesterday’s voyageur and lumbermen choruses, an oral tradition in French Ontario and Michigan that survived into modern times thanks in part to 19th century printers from Montreal. Lemieux and other researchers have shown that Franco-Ontariens, notably in the Detroit-Windsor area and broader Great Lakes region have a slightly different folksong repertoire than the Quebecois (Bénéteau).

Researchers have shown that there is a strong relationship between the singing of French songs and French Canadian cultural identity in Ontario. In his Inventaire ethnologique de l’Ontario français (an ethnological inventory of French Ontario), Jean-Pierre Pichette refers to voyageurs travelling to the Pays d’en haut, the early French name for Ontario. Witness accounts show that the fur traders would sing to bolster their courage and physical efforts. Many 18th and 19th century historians and missionaries support accounts of this practice in their writings (Bénéteau). French politician Gustave de Beaumont passed through Sault-Sainte-Marie in 1831 and was quoted as saying he appreciated the ‘abundance of old French songs’ that they sang while paddling and that the ‘French character is not easily lost’ (Bénéteau).


Between 1947 and 1971, Germain Lemieux recorded legends, lore, and songs from the northern part of Ontario, over three thousand of which were versions of popular French Canadian folk songs, documenting the collective memory of French speaking Ontario. He concluded that these folk songs have subtle differences in terms of form, repertoire and lyrics when compared to their Quebec counterparts. Other researchers support Lemieux’s main conclusion. Ethnologist Felix Drouillard collected and analyzed folk songs in the Detroit area and concluded that the basic traditional song repertoire of French Ontario rarely uses the chansons en laisse commonly known as call-and-response songs. In geographical areas closer to Quebec, this form of song makes up the bulk of the repertoire. He argued that as with the Acadians and Métis, narrative songs with several verses are predominant in the Great Lakes region (Bénéteau). Furthermore, Lemieux himself argued that French-Canadians in the Sudbury area form a microcosm of numerous traditional cultures (Bénéteau).

Ethnologist Marcel Bénéteau states that some of the French Medieval and Renaissance repertoire survived in Canada. Pichette supports this by pointing out the account of a tourist from France who heard the song “Isabeau s’y promène” during a train stop in Sudbury in 1908. He was quoted as saying the ballad was comparable to a French victory hymn, proving the “French-Canadian race is there, and is peacefully conquering the Nipissing” (Bénéteau). Finally, Germain Lemieux argued that French pioneers settling around the Great Lakes during the New France era would turn to songs to remember their childhood, to rid themselves of the sense of isolation, or because they needed to express their joy or sadness (Lemieux, Folklore Franco-ontarien: Chansons).


20th century Franco-Ontario songbooks maintained by French-speaking pioneers in a predominantly English-speaking province retained the spirit of medieval French troubadour chansonniers as a means of documenting life and preserving their culture. As French pioneers in a predominantly English-speaking province they used the songs to document life and preserve their culture. The preferred narrative style of singing French-Canadian songs in areas like Detroit-Windsor and Sudbury, and the presence of chansonniers in Michigan, shows how medieval traditions managed to emerge and survive in the Great Lakes region.

Evidence shows that early French settlers in Ontario and Michigan preserved their oral traditions through songs, creating a cultural expression distinct from that of Quebec. For these early settlers, folksongs were used to break monotony and document travels and daily life among a largely illiterate population as compared to folksongs used by troubadours for the elite of France. French speaking Ontariens used chansonniers as tools for preserving their cultural identity, constituting a quiet political response to legislation preventing them from learning their language and religion in schools in the early 20th century. In these ways, they resemble medieval Chansonniers, which were used for documenting events among the nobles and as tools for resisting political and religious persecution. As a central component of Franco-Ontarien folklore, the song repertoires that are linked to the medieval troubadour tradition continue to exert cultural influence. Many French language schools in Ontario continue to teach traditional folksongs to new generations of students today.

[1] A Chansonnier is a manuscript or printed book containing a compilation of popular song lyrics, poems and music. The tradition dates back to 1420 when a separation from religious music occurred and authors began documenting oral tradition in France. The literal English translation is song-book (Centre national de ressources Textuelles et Lexicales). [2] Monophonic music has a single melodic line. Gregorian chants are monophonic. [3] Polyphonic music has two or more melodic lines.


-Bénéteau, Marcel. Traditional French Songs in Ontario. 2007. 12 June 2015.<http://www.ameriquefrancaise.org/en/article-726/Traditional_French_Songs_in_Ontario.html&gt;.
-Canadiana. Early Canadiana Online. 2010-2015. http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.11954/3?r=0&s=1. 17 June 2015.
-Centre Franco-ontarien de Folklore. Le Pere Germain Lemieux s. j. n.d. http://www.cfof.on.ca/le-p%C3%A8re-germain-lemieux. 11 June 2015.
-Centre national de ressources Textuelles et Lexicales. http://www.cnrtl.fr. 2012. 12 June 2015.
-Christoffersen, Peter Woetmann. Nivelle. 15 November 2013. http://chansonniers.pwch.dk/LISTS/NivDes.html. 12 June 2015.
-Commission de la Capitale Nationale du Quebec. Le site archéologique Cartier-Roberval. 13 Novembre 2014. http://www.capitale.gouv.qc.ca/realisations/parcs-espaces-verts/site-archeologique-cartier-roberval.html. 2012 June 2015.
-Cooper, Frank. Music for the Eyes – Manuscripts from the Frank Cooper Music Facsimile Collection . n.d. http://scholar.library.miami.edu/facsimile/montchenu.html. 7 June 2015.
-Griffen, Clive. «Inquisitional Trials and Printing Workers in 16th Century Spain.» The Library 7th Series 1, No. 1 (2000): 22-45. Electronic.
-Leach, Elizabeth. The Wonders of Gallica: Some Toubadour and Trouvère Sources. 17 January 2012. https://eeleach.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/the-wonders-of-gallica-some-troubadour-and-trouvere-sources/. 7 June 2015.
-Lemieux, Germain. Chansonnier Franco-ontarien, Vol. 1 & 2. Sudbury: University of Sudbury & Centre franco-ontarien de folklore, 1974.
—. Chanteurs Franco-ontariens Et Leurs Chansons, Vol 44 & 45. . Sudbury: Société historique du Nouvel-Ontario, 1963.
—. Folklore Franco-ontarien: Chansons. Sudbury: Société historique du Nouvel-Ontario, 1949.
-Medieval-Life.net. A Historical Overview of the Rise and Fall of The Troubadours of France. 2000. 7 June 2015.
-Pichette, Marie-Hélène. «Ce qu’ils m’ont chanté.» Liaison, n° 100 1999: 29.
-Zuchetto, Gerard. «Troubadour Arts Ensemble.» La Tròba 18 · vol. 5. chef d’orch. Gerard Zuchetto. De Guiraut Riguier. Toulouse, n. d. CD.


Michelle Thompson is a Master of Information student and archivist-in-training at the University of Toronto. She has worked extensively with the French-speaking population of Ontario Canada developing and implementing community programs and social services. In the near future, she hopes to study at the PhD level and research how French-language publications used by educators affect French-Canadian cultural identity.


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