There are two main French speaking groups in Canada: the Québécois and the lesser-known Acadians, who have a fascinating but tragic history in Canada. After failing to establish a post on St Croix Island (present-day Maine) in 1604, the Acadians became the first French colonial group to settle on Canadian soil in 1605 (in present-day Nova Scotia), three years prior to the arrival of the Québécois. When the British took control in 1713, Acadian colonizers suddenly became the colonized, and found themselves in a precarious political situation. Asked to pledge allegiance to the British Crown, the Acadians refused, preferring to remain neutral. Unfortunately, the British believed they might still side with the French, and began to deport them in small groups to various places starting in 1755. One such place was Louisiana where the term Acadiens—because of how non-French speakers understood the word to be pronounced—became known as Cajuns. This colonial history—filled with family separation, death, and economic loss—continues to shape the Acadian story to this day.
After seven years of exile, some Acadians returned to Canada but had to live spread out over four different provincial territories. Unlike the Québécois, who have been able to develop a sense of national identity because they inhabit a common provincial territory, the Acadians had to rely on language to unify them. Folk song is not only emblematic of this language-based sense of nationalism but is a site in which to remember an idealized place called Acadie where Acadians experienced better times. Today, Acadie is understood to be a nation by those who inhabit it, despite its lack of geopolitical borders. Folk song—with references to place names, cultural traditions, and the old patois (dialect)—serves as a cultural identifier that connects this community (often called Acadians of the Maritimes) through time and space.
My father was Acadian and faced tremendous social disadvantage. Born to devout Catholic parents, he was one of ten children. Though he was the sole child to learn to read and write, he only completed grade eight before being sent up north to fish and trap with his brothers. He also encountered a lot of discrimination as an Acadian speaker. For instance, due to language stratification among French speakers, he was told by a nun from Quebec to stop speaking French at home because he spoke a “low-class” form of French. Because he lived in an Anglo-dominant society he—like many linguistic minorities in the twentieth century—had difficulty finding work until he lost all trace of his French accent. This of course resulted in a deep sense of cultural inferiority, something felt by most Acadians in his age group.
While folk song was and is part of Acadian social life, the Catholic Church also employed folk song as a social tool in Catholic educational institutions inside Acadia during the first half of the twentieth century. Aiming to develop a sense of Acadian national pride, the clergy promoted upbeat tunes to encourage the Acadians to move beyond the past to a more promising future. During the 1960s and 1970s, Acadian folk song was also used as a political tool to fight for French language rights in Canada’s Maritime provinces, while in more recent years folk song helps shape the Acadians unique identity in the wider Canadian mosaic.
Marie Madeleine or “Une petite vache noire” is a well-known folk song in French Canada. It is a lively, humoristic piece that provides an excellent example not only of the percussive style of the Acadian language, but of the characteristic stylistic elements of the Acadian folk song tradition: podorythmie (seated foot-tapping), diddlage (mouth music), and the spoons. Never a group to take themselves too seriously, this song harkens back to the Acadians’ agrarian past and tells the story of Marie Madeleine who, while ill-advisedly dressed in a pretty skirt and petticoat, encounters a rather mischievous black cow who ends up throwing her into a pile of manure.