Guy Bouchard is a guitarist, singer and fiddler who lives in Val-Bélair, near Québec City. Although not primarily a performer, Guy has done, in his words, "everything you can do with traditional music" for twenty years. His involvement has touched all aspects of the music scene, from hosting radio shows and directing festivals to collecting and researching music, dance and song, as well as producing and distributing books, videos and recordings. Guy was a member of the well-loved group La Bottine souriante from 1979-1982, and played on their second album. This influential group (the name translates to The Smiling Boot) is still going strong, and recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
In the interview Guy mentions American fiddler and ethnomusi-cologist Lisa Ornstein, who lived for ten years in Québec and is a major figure in research, teaching, promotion and performance of Québec's instrumental music. Guy also talks about some of the great Québécois fiddlers he has known: André Alain (b. 1931), Jules Verret (1916-1982), Jean Carignan (1916-1988) and Louis Boudreault (1905-1988). Currently Guy runs a mail-order distribution company with his wife Laura Sadowsky, called Thirty Below, offering CDs, tapes, books and videos of Québécois traditional music, song and dance to people around the world.
How did you get interested in Québec's traditional music? Did you learn about this music from recordings?
I first learned about this music from other people. I had been playing folk guitar for many years, backing up French- and English-Canadian folk songs, when I met Aurel Quinn, a colorful accordion player from Sault-au-Mouton on the North coast. He was a man who had spent most of his life hunting and trapping. We worked together at that time (1974) in the same recreational outdoors center and I played guitar with him for all the participants after dinner every night. Just after that period, I moved to Baie-Comeau where I did some filming of traditional musicians. Among them was a lady who played "La Grande gigue simple," and I was astonished by the beauty and all the feeling in her fiddling. I told myself, if she can do that, I may be able to do it, too. I'm still trying...
There were not a whole lot of recordings available at that time, and I hadn't even thought of listening to old 78s. But many companies released records in the coming years, and my friends and I collected them eagerly. Like many traditional musicians of my generation, I had some direct contact with this music (which was really a part of everyday life for the generation just before ours) but I also learned tunes from recordings.
How did you learn to play fiddle?
After those field filming sessions, I flew to Montréal, bought a fiddle and flew back home. I didnt even know how to tune the instrument. I looked in books and discovered that it was tuned like a mandolin. So I started learning tunes on the mandolin and tried to finger them on the fiddle. I didnt know any other fiddlers at the time and it was only when I moved to the Québec City area a couple of years later that I met Lisa Ornstein and realized that I was using unconventional fingerings. So I started all over again. And I still use my little finger for G# on the D string! At the beginning, I was just trying to play tunes that were already in my head, and some of Louis Boudreaults repertoire.
Who were the fiddlers who influenced you most in your music?
First Louis Boudreault, André Alain and Jules Verret, but also younger friends with whom I was learning, like Martin Racine and Daniel Lemieux. Lisa Ornstein was always a source of inspiration. I shared a big house with Lisa and two other friends and we were often ten or more for dinner. Musicians travelling from everywhere just popped in and stayed for a couple of days. There was always music in that house.
Jules Verret, the great fiddler, was your fishing partner. Did you play tunes with him too?
For a long time, I never told Mr. Verret that I played fiddle. I was probably too shy to play in front of him. I used to play my guitar with him sometimes and I remember having a very hard time trying to back up his repertoire, which was so different from anything that I had heard before. He had an incredible memory and was able to play any of his 1,000 tunes off the top of his head. He was quite a fisherman, too!
How did you meet André Alain, and what was it like recording his music? [Guy helped produce Alains only recording, André Alain: Violoneux de St-Basile-de-Portneuf, in 1986.]
I cant remember exactly when I first met him but he was part of our lives for years. He had a little apartment in old Québec City not far from André Marchand, and we would spend our days around there playing music in the street or around a beer in his little kitchen. André Marchand, Danielle Martineau (who was directing a folk center at that time) and I realized that it was a must to record him. André Alain was quite a "wild" fiddler and we figured that it would be impossible to record him in a studio. At that time, he had spent a lot of time playing with Pierre Laporte. So we went to Alains house (he had moved back to his native St-Basile), invited Pierre and brought all the recording equipment. We recorded the whole thing in two days.
Did you ever meet Jean Carignan?
I first met him in his house near Montréal. We spent a whole day, sharing dinner and good wine with this simple man who had an incredibly strong character. It was very strange, because I had heard him on stage and on records before, and I was not a big fan of his, but the first time I heard him play up close in a small room I had to go out of the room -- it was so beautiful that it was impossible not to cry! I can't describe it. That has never happened to me again, with anybody. It was as if every note he played was tied to a star.
Another thing that I remember about him was that he stopped playing in public because he said that he was going deaf. But one time I was with Lisa Ornstein at his house and she was trying to practice some bowing that he had shown her that afternoon. He was talking with us in another noisy room when he suddenly stopped and shouted to Lisa that her bow was in the wrong direction in a certain place in the tune! Not bad for someone who said that he was going deaf!
How about Louis Boudreault?
I heard Louis Boudreault for the first time in Montréal at a festival around 1975. I was flabbergasted! An incredible storyteller, he had a fiddling style and energy that were magic. He played with such intensity that I could hear his entire life in his playing. Above all, he had an incredibly complex rhythm which came from the dancing in the Saguenay region, which almost always included step-dancing. His tone was not crystal clear, the notes and the scale he used sounded very strange (and even wrong to some ears) but his music was passionate and emotional.
Are there older fiddlers out there who have interesting styles or repertoires that are still unrecorded?
Yes, but probably not many of them. I am currently working with Yvon Mimeault, a great fiddler from Mont-Louis (on the Gaspé Peninsula), to help him record this coming winter. He has a unique style and many of his tunes dont have any known sources. Eddy Whalen from Stoneham, north of Québec City, is another one. They are both nearly 70 years old.
How has the button accordion affected the repertoire?
The accordion was adopted by many players, especially in and around big cities, around the end of the 19th century. The accordion became very popular, and today, it has become as important as the fiddle. In certain regions, you will find twenty accordions for one fiddle. If you go to contests and galas, you will probably hear about the same ratio. The music moved out of the kitchen, and because the accordion was louder and easier to play, it attracted more and more players.
I feel that the marriage between fiddle and accordion has not always been easy. The accordion has limited range and keys. Fiddlers have had to change notes, scales or keys in order to play together. The accordion is now so popular that its the fiddlers who learn tunes from the accordion players. Philippe Bruneau, Marcel Messervier, Yves Verret, Denis Pépin, Stéphane Landry and Sabin Jacques have a major influence on the music, and accordionists compose most of the new repertoire. There is rarely a dance without an accordion and its often the main instrument that people dance to.
Lets talk a little about the fiddle style. What kind of ornaments do fiddlers use?
It depends on the region and the player. Some use a big vibrato on longer notes instead of a roll, or tricky bowed triplets. Some use very few ornaments but emphasize the dance rhythm itself.
How about drones, do you use them most of the time?
Yes, especially for older tunes.
Is the bowing mostly single bows rather than slurs?
The bowing can be very unusual. I would say that there are more single bows than slurs but it varies. Sometimes we use two consecutive up-bow strokes for a repeated note.
The music is very buoyant in Québec. Do you get that sound by bouncing the bow right off the string?
That is certainly a characteristic of the style. Most of the players will take the bow off the string here and there, bouncing and playing with the dynamics of the instrument. Many certainly use the middle part of their bows to get that bouncing feeling in the music.
To better describe the style, I would say that the accent is not on the off-beat as it is in many other Celtic-based fiddle styles. Good players move the accent around to any eighth note of a group of four.
Can you describe the back-up style?
The piano and guitar back-up styles have developed in very different directions. First of all, before 1950, there was very little chordal accompaniment, only percussion [bones, spoons, feet] if anything. The complex chromatic style that is today considered the Québec piano style suits the modern repertoire very well, but, in my opinion, is not as good for the older Celtic repertoire.
The guitar style uses standard tuning and a lot of open strings. Like the fiddler, the guitarist does not emphasize the off-beat but the down-beat. The style was developed by a group of guitarists (myself included) who were only trying to listen to the fiddle tunes and follow them in the most respectful way. We sometimes feel the guitar doesnt suit the more modern quadrille repertoire as well as it does the old Celtic fiddle tunes.
Who are your favorites among the current generation of fiddlers?
Pierre and Rémi Laporte, André Brunet, Michel Bordeleau, Martin Racine, Daniel Lemieux, Jean-Marie Verret, Eric Favreau, Mario Landry... There are many very good players with different styles.
Do you have any advice for beginners to fiddling or beginners to Québécois music?
You have to be in love with the music. Find some friends to play with and the most important thing is to have fun. Some great fiddlers whom I have met were a bit shy to play Québécois music because they were not from here and they thought they were not doing it right. But I think it is always a pleasure to hear our music in a different way. Its a tribute to the people who have been playing it for centuries.
[Thanks to Laura Sadowsky for her help with this interview.]
Thirty Below (Québécois recordings): www.trentesouszero.com
[This article is from the Spring 1998 issue of Fiddler Magazine, which is out of print.]