|« Cecil McKenzie||Lois Bettesworth »|
By A. Trae McMaken
I quite fortunately stumbled upon a description of early 19th century Detroit today containing passages about music and dance in the French community in the city. It was written by one Orlando Willcox Shoepac, a native of Detroit born in 1823. The whole selection can be read right here at the website of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. The Clarke Library website refers to the work as a "fictionalized autobiography," but this does not invalidate the descriptions of Detroit at the time. Afterall, he titled it Shoepac Recollections: A Way-Side Glimpse of American Life, which may indicate that his intent was to depict the environment through the use of a fictionalized character. It was published in 1856. Shoepac would become a general in the Civil War.
Shoepac's descriptions are remarkably interesting for those fascinated by Great Lakes history as I am. The selection depicts not only interesting aspects of early 19th century Detroit life, but also displays the social perceptions of the author who injects his interesting perceptions into the descriptions. But, here I will only quote passages of particular interest in terms of music. The first section:
"But as settlers from New England began to thicken among us - Bostonians they were indiscriminately denominated - it gradually came to light that our lively little community were scarce a grain better than the wicked, nay than the very heathen; witness the fiddling and dancing on Sunday evenings (and pleasant Sunday evenings they were deemed by us, in our dreadful ignorance), wherever there was any little neighborhood of French people - on the great wide porch, or beneath the trees on the grass; or, if in the house, with the doors and windows thrown wide open. And there were the prettiest and most mischievous-eyed French girls, dancing away for dear life with the good-looking, frank-mannered voyajeurs, or courreurs de bois, in their red, yellow, or green sashes, long black hair, and blue calico shirts. Such abominations attracted the "growing attention" of the strict sober-sides from the land of Jonathan Edwards, as he passed these dens of Apollyon, on his way to the place where prayer was wont to be made."
In the above passage and in the sentences that follow it, Shoepac draws attention to the Great Awakening and the way a certain Protestant culture of Christianity at the time censured activities such as fiddling and dancing on Sundays. In some cases, the censure may have been more general. In Michigan we know that at least in late periods, Catholic fiddlers would also come under censure by priests for any fiddling, or at least particularly on Saturday nights (see Medicine Fiddle). For those of us who are Christians and love to fiddle and dance, this is a sad thing to read. At the same time, it is always easy to criticize different social milieus and perceptions of the past. Today, the fiddle might actually be associated more with a conservative social milieu than with a "party" culture, as it was in the past. The fiddle was the instrument of dancing and carousing -- hence, the censure by those who did not support such activities. Now, many Christians would disagree with each other on the topic of what is acceptable "celebration" and material enjoyment. Jesus, himself, was called a glutton and a drunkard by the religious elite of his time because of the company he kept. As someone who maintains a perception of right and wrong according to my faith, I can not only mourn the censure of fiddling in the past, I can also understand and or in some cases affirm the impulses which might cause such censure.
It is important to understand that there were likely those with similar beliefs on both sides of this historical perception of the fiddle. Often, something associated with the negative draws censure on itself. The issue is fairly obviously not the instrument itself, but associations with frivolity and licentiousness, and concepts of frivolity and licentiousness are often culturally defined. To understand the condemnation of fiddling, it is important to understand the historical events and what was involved, the culture of the time, and how Christianity interacted with these other elements. I occasionally fiddle for dances for Christian groups, simply according to who hires me at any given time. Recently, I fiddled for a graduate Christian school of religion. Obviously, Christian perception can vary considerably. To understand this change, one must try to understand the changes in culture and in the spirit of the event in order to understand how that interacts with Christian belief.
Another interesting passage from Shoepac reads as the following:
"The French gave a tone of gaiety - the military, both elevation and hospitality. There were balls, where everybody danced with everybody's wife and daughter. There were theatricals, where the most dignified gentlemen took parts."
It amazes me that, nearly two hundred years later, it is still the perception of many that the French are still characterized by a certain joie de vivre. Having fiddled quite a bit with French-Canadians, I find this to be a strangely consistent impression, and I have heard it elsewhere. Quebecois musicians are, in fact, some of my favorite people to fiddle with, listen to, or watch perform for the lively energy often displayed.
And what description of Great Lakes music could be complete without the music on the water? Shoepac does not let down:
"But hark! you hear the sound of distant voices come stealing over the water. Turn towards the river. See a long pirogue, or more ample Mackinaw boat - perhaps a little fleet of them in a single line, manned by voyajeeurs, or courreurs de bois, and loaded with packs of peltries. The oarsmen have fitted out at Mackinaw, to appear in style at Detroit - the greater station, and nearer civilization. Probably the present is the glad occasion to which they have looked forward, and they have talked over their plans concerning it for many, many months. Each garcon has a sash around his waist, and pulls a red oar. They keep perfect time - and it is joyous quick time - with the notes of a French song which was chanted in France a century ago:
"Malbrooks s'en va t'a guerrah!"
Or perchance the air is one you may not recognize:
"A Lon-don day.
S'en va coucher!"
No music could be more lively or inspiring. It comes over the water - is accompanied by the plash of oards. It is roared out with the utmost spirit, too, by that most glorious of all instruments, the human voice. It has pealed through the woods, and over the river and lakes, for thousands of miles. It has animated those brave adventurers in camp, at portage, through summer and winter, rain and snow, sickness, peril, and death; and now, joy! joy! it greets the steeples of St. Ann! The children run out of the houses, down to the river shore, to hear it; the maiden turns pale, and blushes, and hurries to the door; the old man hobbles out and waves his hat. Troops of people rush down to the wharves to see them land; and such shouts of welcome and rejoicing never were known before."
The French songs of the voyageurs and coureur des bois are one of the treasures of the Great Lakes and continue to captivate my imagination. The voyageurs and coureur des bois were the paddlemen and tradesmen of the fur trade who plied the waters of rivers and lakes across the territories of Canada and the United States well before and after those respective countries existed. These adventurers are some of the ancestors of the Metis people and the Metis fiddling tradition. Not only did they carry furs, muskets, and paddles, they carried fiddles, tunes, and chansons (songs). Shoepac also includes mention of "half breeds" in Detroit as well as the music and instruments of the Native Americans. For those interested, I recommend reading the entire selection, here.
The French on the Great Lakes would continue to influence music. For those interested in learning some of the text and music to some Franco-English dialect songs, a handful have been included in Walton and Grimm's Windjammers: Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors.
So thanks to Orlando Willcox Shoepac for a lively and valuable description of early Detroit and some of its musical experience.
Shoepac Recollections: A Way-Side Glimpse of American Life. Walter March. New York: Bunce & Brothers, 1856. From the Clarke Historical Library Website at Central Michigan University.