Saturday, February 16, 2013
Today at the Scratchy Attic I'm pleased to present some classic and hard to find recordings by yet another great Canadian fiddler, the legendary Adalbert "Ti-Blanc" Richard. Perhaps I should say "Canadien" as Ti-Blanc was born in Martinville, near Sherbrooke, Quebec on August 13th, 1920 and became a Québécois icon while remaining relatively unknown to English speaking Canadians.
Richard was the youngest of eight children and in 1933 the family moved to Sherbrooke where young Adalbert worked as a delivery boy for his father's butcher shop. Legend has it that one of his father's customers offered to pay his bill with a violin and this became the budding violoneux's first instrument (he had previously played the accordion). Within a few years he was playing local dances and events, and participating in radio broadcasts with various groups, all the while supporting himself at a variety of day jobs. He married Germaine ("Mignonne") Bouchard in 1945 who the following year gave birth to a daughter, Michelle. His first 78 was released on RCA Victor Bluebird Series' French Canadian line in 1949 and by the fifties he was touring regularly not only in Quebec, but in francophone communities in New Brunswick and Ontario, as well as northeastern U.S. states such as Maine and Vermont. His career thrived and in 1956 he began a series of fantastically successful television broadcasts from station CHLT, Sherbrooke. Throughout the remainder of the decade he would broadcast from many different cities and stations in the province, but Sherbrooke always remained his home base.
By the sixties however, the rise of Rock and Roll and the decline of traditional music led to a career slump. His daughter Michelle had become, through appearances on her father's shows, a major Quebec pop star, and her career eclipsed that of her father. Ti-Blanc's resentment of his daughter's success, along with other personal and marital problems combined with increasing dependance on alcohol further diminished his popularity. By the end of the decade he was no longer broadcasting regularly, instead relying on club dates and other personal appearances for income.
While Richard's career was languishing, a change was happening in Quebec society that would once again bring his name to prominence. Termed the "Quiet Revolution", a wave of nationalism had swept the province's culture and politics and among other things, revived a great deal of interest in the folk culture unique to its francophone population. New opportunities arose for Ti-Blanc to perform for appreciative audiences, and throughout the seventies he was featured in many festivals and television shows dedicated to Québécois music and culture. Highlights of this period include appearances in films including "Je suis loin de toi Mignonne" (1976) in which he played a fiddler, and a 1977 appearance at the Olympia in Paris as part of a troupe of performers bringing traditional Québécois music and dance to the mother country. Although busy, Richard continued to be plagued by financial and personal problems, and in 1980 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Adalbert "Ti-Blanc" Richard died in hospital in Sherbrooke on February 22, 1981 at 60 years of age.
Ti-Blanc Richard's style was definitely a transitional one. A marked influence of American Country Music is present in his music and he was clearly picking up tunes from Don Messer and other fiddlers playing in the Pan-Canadian style that was incredibly popular among English speaking Canadians at the time. Nonetheless, many of his tunes have distinctly Québécois traits, in particular the odd measures that distinguish French Canadian tunes from the more "square" tunes of Scotland and Ireland from which they partly descend. Richard used fingerboard ornaments comparatively sparingly, and his bowing is clean, employing use of a near constant "jigging" or bounce, breaking up passages into single notes where other (especially non-French Canadian) players might not. While certainly not technical in the manner of a player like Jean Carignan, Ti-Blanc's playing has a liveliness and joyous drive that is infectious and endearing. I fondly recall an older Acadian women I met at a flea market some years ago who had requested I make her a tape of old Ti-Blanc Richard records. She wanted the tape to step dance to, as she complained "them English guys don't play fast enough."
This collection of recordings consists of twelve tunes Richard recorded between 1949 and 1960. The first five were first released as singles on the RCA Victor Bluebird Series label, the next six were first singles on the Meteor label, and the final track is a live recording from a Meteor LP. Details are given below:
Reel de Sherbrooke - RCA Victor Bluebird Series 55-5327 (78 rpm), 1949 - The A-side of Ti-Blanc's first record is named for his home base where he remained throughout his career. The same melody appears on the flip side of Ward Allen's 1956 hit single "Maple Sugar" as "Back Up and Push" (not the American hoedown piece of the same name). I'm not sure where the melody originates. To hear Ward's version of this tune click here.
Reel du mardi-gras - RCA Victor Bluebird Series 55-5334 (78 rpm), 1950 - This melody is commonly known across North America as the "Flop Eared Mule" (Long Eared, Lop Eared, etc.). Don Messer made a very popular 78 rpm recording of the tune in 1944, to hear it click here.
Reel de la maison blanche - RCA Victor Bluebird Series 55-5418 (78 rpm) 57-0172 (45 rpm), 1951 - Here is a really great example of how convoluted tracing the origin of tunes can become. This is a Québécois tune which was originally titled "Le bonhomme et la bonne femme". The low and the high strains are meant to represent the heightening argument between an aged couple, and a French vocal version expressing such a row was recorded by Madame Bolduc in 1930 (click here). The tune may also have been recorded in the early 78 era by Joseph Allard and/or Jos Bouchard. Don Messer recorded a version as "The Old Man and the Old Woman" in 1948 that featured vocalist Charlie Chamberlain reprising Bolduc's chorus (a live version from Don Messer's Jubilee is here) and the piece became a signature of the great Canadian fiddler Ned Landry (click here). How the tune wound up as "Reel de la maison blanche" ("White House Reel") is beyond me. Incidentally, this tune is not to be confused with "The Growling Old Man and Growling Old Woman" which is also of French (probably Acadian) origins and may come from the same common root as the previous tune (Don Messer's 1950 recording of the latter tune can be heard here).
Reel de la Georgie - RCA Victor Bluebird Series 55-5514 (78 rpm) 57-0318 (45 rpm), 1954 - While I cannot say for sure that this tune has a specific American antecedent, it is clearly a result of the influence of Ragtime music from south of the border. The same type of influence resulted in similar sounding Texas tunes such as "I Don't Love Nobody."
Valse des fleurs - RCA Victor Bluebird Series 55-5514 (78 rpm) 57-0318 (45 rpm), 1954 - The flip side of "Reel de la Georgie" is a waltz of unknown provenance. It is played at a much quicker, choppier pace than that favoured by Don Messer and his ilk and shows a strong Gallic influence.
La raspa - Meteor MET 501 (45 rpm), 1956 - Better known to anglophiles as "The Mexican Hat Dance". I'm not exactly sure why, but this tune (it's effectively become a Mexican cultural stereotype) has long had currency with dancers (and therefore dance musicians) in Quebec. "La raspa" is actually the name of one of the two Latin American folk tunes that comprise the melody, the other being "Jarabe Tapatío". To read more on the topic click here.
Le reel du sucre d'érable - Meteor MET 508 (45 rpm), 1957 - This is of course the huge Ward Allen hit "Maple Sugar". Ward's version came out in late 1956 (to hear it click here) and would have been at the height of its popularity when Ti-Blanc waxed the tune for the francophone market. It's interesting how any tune in duple meter seems to qualify as a reel in the French Canadian tradition. Ward considered this tune a Two-Step.
Le reel Bowing The Strings - Meteor MET 515 (45 rpm), 1958 - Once again we have a tune that was recently (at the time) composed by a major Canadian fiddler, in this case Ned Landry. "Bowing The Strings" is one of Ned's most well known compositions, and was the title track from his first LP in1956 (to listen click here).
Le reel du palmarès - Meteor MET 517 (45 rpm), 1958 - This melody is best known as "My Love Is But A Lassie Yet" and is a Scottish tune of antiquity. As "The Fiddler's Companion" notes "The title was fixed on the tune because of two songs composed to it, one by Robert Burns and the other by the "Ettrick Shepherd," James Hogg, although the tune seems to have first appeared in print in Bremner's Scots Reels" of 1757 as "Miss Farqharson's Reel." Richard christened it "Le reel du palmarès" or "The Winner's Reel."
Le reel de Mexico - Meteor MET 518 (45 rpm), 1958 - The first strain of this tune bears some resemblance to "Bill Cheatham", one of the most ubiquitous fiddle tunes of the American South. It's odd measures, however, are distinctly Québécois.
Le reel des quatre coins de St-Malo - Meteor MET 520 (45 rpm), 1958 - Known abroad as "The Four Poster Bed", this tune crosses many traditions and has many variants. "The Fiddler's Companion" notes "This tune's 'B' part dramatizes the four poster bed by giving four taps with the frog‑end of the bow on the each of the four quarters of the belly of the fiddle, interspersed by a right‑hand pizzicato. The melody is popular in the Shetlands, though probably not of Shetland origin." The tune has been recorded by many Québécois musicians as "Le reel des quatre coins de St-Malo." St-Malo is a walled city in Brittany in the northwest of France, it is to be assumed this title references the four corners of the fortress. Ti-Blanc can be seen playing this tune, which stands out to me personally as the highlight of this collection, on a 1959 film clip here. Isidore Soucy recorded the tune in 1959, for an interesting comparison hear his version here.
Raggin' The Fiddle - from the LP "2e Grand concours annuel violoneux championnat province du Québec", Meteor MET-8002, 1960 - Yet another example of a contemporary Canadian tune, this is a cover of King Ganam's composition originally titled "Ridin' The Fiddle" (to hear Ganam's 1954 version click here). Richard first recorded the tune as "Raggin' The Fiddle" for the London label in 1956 (click here). This version comes from a 1960 LP comprised of a live recording of a fiddle contest organized by (and I'm assuming broadcast over) CHLT-TV in Sherbrooke. Ti-Blanc is not a competitor, but rather a featured performer. He plays this piece after the winner of the contest (Tex Fortier) is announced. Interestingly neither the London or Meteor versions of this tune nor the records of the Ward Allen or Ned Landry tunes credit the the original composer. Whether this was an oversight or not is unclear. It may have been a deliberate attempt to avoid paying performance rights, or perhaps Richard heard these tunes on radio or jukeboxes but due to a language barrier assumed they were traditional.
1. Reel de Sherbrooke
2. Reel du mardi-gras
3. Reel de la maison blanche
4. Reel de la Georgie
5. Valse des fleurs
6. La raspa
7. Le reel du sucre d'érable
8. Le reel Bowing The Strings
9. Le reel du palmarès
10. Le reel de Mexico
11. Le reel des quatre coins de St-Malo
12. Raggin' The Fiddle