Portland musician finds, researches decades-old family notebook of Acadian songs ‘on the verge of extinction’
PORTLAND, Maine — There’s good news and bad news when it comes to the survival of many traditional folk songs, Portland musician Robert Sylvain learned.
They’re oftentimes orally passed down from generation to generation, and as such, they carry tremendous nostalgic and familial value. That’s the good news. The bad news is, without widespread recordings to catalog the songs, they can disappear fast as families move, modernize and adopt new cultures.
Five years ago, Sylvain discovered a notebook in which his grandmother, St. Francis native Elisa Thibodeau, wrote down the lyrics — in her native French tongue — to more than two dozen traditional songs she sang to her children and grandchildren.
Thibodeau had written down the songs nearly 50 years ago. She passed away more than a decade ago, Sylvain said, and the notebook was stored in the possession of his Aunt Trudy ever since.
That treasure trove of cultural material started Sylvain and a distant cousin, fiddler Steve Muise, on a hunt for the melodies to go along with the long lost words. The labor of love led them to the northernmost corners of Maine and, in some cases, may have saved the lives of Acadian ballads. They will perform the resurrected songs — included in what they’re calling the “Memere’s Notebook” project — in public for the first time at a concert 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Blue on Congress Street in Portland.
The restoration of the songs is Sylvain’s latest project in an ongoing effort to get back in touch with his Acadian roots. The singer and guitarist for the bands Boreal Tordu and Sylvain’s Acadian Aces began teaching himself French 12 years ago to allow him to write songs in his family’s native language.
“My father’s first language was French, but I was raised in a totally English world,” said Sylvain, who lived most of his life in New Hampshire, Minnesota and Massachusetts before returning to Maine about 15 years ago. “High school French didn’t do me much good.”
Now, he said with a laugh, “I can speak marginal French, but mostly only topics you would sing songs about — love lost, drinking, going off to war. When it comes to politics or ordering off a [French] menu, I have trouble.”
Sylvain said his Aunt Trudy died just a few months ago, and said he wished she would have lived long enough to be a special guest at the Wednesday night show.
“They’re the old ballads from the St. John River Valley and before,” Sylvain said. “Are these songs alive? I would say these songs were on the verge of extinction, many of them. Most of them just aren’t sung any more, so the real voice behind them was a bit of a mystery.”
Sylvain reached out to the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, where after tediously sifting through hundreds of lists and files — many of the old songs went by several different names or included multiple lyric variations — he discovered some field recordings that provided tunes to match up with the words written in his meme’s notebook.
Other songs he learned more about from interviews with family members. In nearly all cases, Sylvain and Muise were faced with the challenge of constructing instrumental parts to accompany the lyrics, as most of the songs had been passed down over the years a capella.
Sylvain said he sometimes made other adjustments to contemporize the ballads as well. On one occasion, for instance, his father recognized the title of the song “Petite Aurore” and began recalling its lighthearted, uptempo melody. But after reading the lyrics, Sylvain discovered the song was about a young girl who is starved and tortured to death by her stepmother.
So he made his version of the song more solemn to reflect the content.
Making changes to almost-extinct traditional songs was not something Sylvain did lightly, he said. But he felt the minor mutations could be the key to helping the ballads live on beyond his Wednesday night concert and, potentially, subsequent record of the material.
“I don’t want to present them as mummified remains of songs,” he said. “I want to present them as living, breathing aspects of our culture, because they can still resonate today.
“In order to bring these songs back from the grave, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just bringing them back as museum pieces,” Sylvain continued. “I wanted to bring them back in a way that would be consumable for today’s audiences. I wanted to honor them, but I wanted them to be understood as well.”
The singer-songwriter added that his quest is not yet complete. He still needs to find melodies for more than a dozen songs in his memere’s notebook. Then he’s got his Great Uncle Edmund’s notebook to work through.
“This really is American folk music,” Sylvain said. “Acadians have been here since 1604.”