There is often talk of a real demographic hemorrhage. Since the middle of the 19the Between the 19th century and the Great Depression of 1929, a lack of farmland and a desire for a more comfortable existence prompted nearly a million French Canadians to migrate to certain industrial cities in New England, United States.
In Lowell, New Bedford, Woonsocket or Lewiston, they formed a veritable diaspora for years, with their newspapers, their churches, their neighborhoods. It is the American writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), whose parents had left their village in Bas-Saint-Laurent. Or it was Honoré Beaugrand (1848-1906), who in 1873, after being a confectioner in Philadelphia and a house painter, founded a weekly newspaper in Fall River, Massachusetts, The Echo of Canada.
This migratory reality has also nurtured a large body of artists who entertain this large demographic resulting from nearly a century of French Canadian immigration to New England, and in turn have nurtured the identity and cohesion of these communities. Continental trajectories studied by historian Pierre Lavoie in mile after mile. Celebrity and Migrations in the American Northeast.
Through the tangled tales of La Bolduc, the croon Rudy Vallée and burlesque theater touring director of Corsican origin Jean Grimaldi, three popular artists who are themselves migrants or descendants of migrants, which was somewhat subversive for Quebec at the time, the author examines the mobility, fame and public memory of Francophone Northeast Americans .
From Lowell to LA
The life and work of these three artists are determined by their movements and not by their places of departure and arrival, says the researcher, who specializes in transnational, cultural and migration history. A native of L’Isle-Verte, he has a PhD in history from the University of Montreal. His dissertation—and the resulting book—examines the interweaving of collective identifications, migrations, and artistic practices between the United States and Quebec.
“From the memory of the character of Mary Travers, we see that what has survived is largely linked to territorial and identity anchors,” notes Pierre Lavoie in an interview. Namely a French-Canadian mother singing in her own words and in an imaginative way, someone we associate with the idea of folklore and the word of the people. However, this way of describing her is not the one that best represents her at the time of her activities,” he believes.
“Even before she became a well-known artist, she was herself a migrant worker with her husband and children in the early 1920s. She was born in Gaspésie and followed urbanization and industrialization in Montreal, went back to Montreal in Springfield, Massachusetts. She follows jobs and opportunities. And as she begins her career as a professional artist, burlesque comedian, or singer, we also notice her constantly migrating from one artistic form to another. She is always adapting and reacting to what is happening around her to take the next step. “And not to solidify an anchor, contrary to the image that was conveyed of her afterwards.
Mary Travers’ episode as a migrant worker in the United States will be short-lived, but will have inspired her to cross the border again later and embark on lucrative tours of New England. For despite the great popularity of his records in Quebec, it was in New England, Pierre Lavoie recalls, that La Bolduc achieved greatest success on stage from the mid-1930s “by presenting variety shows that skilfully combined parody and nostalgia”. .
Cultivate the difference
The same goes for Rudy Vallée (1901-1986), the ancestor of croonerfamous from Broadway to Hollywood, raised in a Franco-American community in Maine, but due to the socio-cultural context of the first decades of the 20the In the 20th century – particularly the Americanization campaigns taking place in the United States – there was a progressive slide towards an American identity.
“Rudy Vallée really wants to distance himself from his otherness,” emphasizes Pierre Lavoie. Or he will use it in a superficial way, using the fact that he can speak a little French and Spanish to build his persona by charmer. But he never tried to limit himself to class identity, which is very working class, which is that of Franco-Americans. »
The historian is interested here in the careers of these artists, as well as in the thousands of Franco-American families who consumed these entertainments, in the conflation of influence and identity.
From church basements to community halls, from recording studios to film sets, through very special destinies, mile after mile leads us in the footsteps of artists who had the courage to cross borders and shows how migratory mobility was able to shape artistic and media mobility. Even if this transnational artistic “mobility” in Québec could sometimes encounter a certain resistance, from sometimes morally tinged criticism and a solid anti-Americanism.
“From a purely political point of view, we find that the socio-political elites of the time had no interest in emphasizing the departure, migration, on their own behalf. and A posteriori, We recognize that when we integrate into public memory figures like Mary Travers who evolved in this transnational space, we erase the traces of this mobility so that it can be more easily integrated into the national heritage. »
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