“Canoes in a Fog” by Frances Anne Hopkins,1869


Sea shanties, sung by sailors on long journeys, have had great press lately — so you can see the tradition of work songs lives on!

But wait — there’s more. The technique worked with voyageurs as well.

Voyageurs, those jaunty hearty French-Canadian canoemen sang while they paddled their thin birch bark shells across North America. The old fur trade journals are full of comments by the bourgeois (the head partner) and their clerks. One commented that his brigade could canoe for 25 songs, or 5 pipes. With a pipe break every hour, that’s music for 5 hours, or about 20 miles (traversing lakes or rivers without portages).

Quote from an old voyageur: “… fifty songs could I sing …”

Why sing? 

unknown artist

  • One reason voyageurs sang was to paddle in unison. Picture 10 or 12 paddlers, each dipping into the water with their own rhythm. Big oops!! With every stroke, thos paddles would hit other paddles, and the men would probably whap each other as well. Singing kept them in time — it’s impossible to sing with one tempo and do something (paddle, march, dance…) to an entirely different tempo.
    By singing together they could speed up as needed — like near a rapids. 
  • They could paddle for long hours without noticing (as much) how sore their muscles were. Singing kept their minds on what verse came next, buoying their moods, increasing their stamina.
  • Doing all their other hard tasks — loading and unloading, portaging, towing (also called tracking) — they sang, just as did people around the world while performing hard physical labor (American slaves, coal miners, railroad workers, haulers of canal boats, prison chain gangs).

A lead singer might even be offered extra pay, like the steersman or cook, though I haven’t seen “singer” listed as a function on any contracts, like this 1801 contract of Charles Peloquin Filix.

How and what did they sing?

  • Usually one man sang the verses, echoed by the others on the choruses.
  • They sang in unison, though men who could sing in parts may have done so.
  • Their music ranged from sad to robust and drew from French traditional songs — love ballads, patriotic songs, dancing and drinking songs. Favorites included A la claire fontaine (At the clear running fountain) and Voice le printemps (In the gay spring time).
  • Canoemen added lamentations for the tragedies that occurred to fellow travelers: Petit Rocher (O little rock) tells of the voyageur Cadieux who saved his brigade from a band of warring Iroquois but became separated and died of hunger; in Quand un Chrétien se détermine à voyager (When a Christian decides to voyage), a priest cautions the potential traveler about the wild waters, the rapids, the portages, the mosquitoes and attacks from Indians. J’ai trop grand’ pour des loupes (They have me scared, those wolves) laid bare their fears.

    Image attributed to Frances Anne Hopkins

  • Repetitive songs had high value, like En roulant my boule (A-rolling my ball). Une perdriole (The op’ning day of May) used a pattern like The 12 Days of Christmas. Repertoires included rounds, which could be stretched for a looooong time. Leaders made up songs or verses to extend a song. Songs commemorated any occasion, like the weather, spring, bravery and the women they loved.

Up to 13,000 texts have been collected, but unfortunately most tunes are unknown. Grace Lee Nute provided the music with French words and English translations (or summaries) to 16 songs. 

Instrumentalists played only in the evenings, because during their days everyone needed to paddle. Musical instruments most likely were small and sturdy — a mouth harp, harmonica or flute. Somehow a few kept their fiddles intact, given the rough handling it must have received. Their Scottish bourgeois might have brought his bagpipes.

Get more now! 

Want to hear voyageur songs? “Songs of the Voyageurs” is a CD available through the Minnesota Historical Society. Sung by the 30-voice men’s choir from the University of Moncton, New, Brunswick, Canada, it comes with an illustrated 48-page booklet written in 1966 by Theodore Blegen, the then-superintendent of the Minnesota Historical Society and professor of history.

Or listen to the five voices of Les Fils du Voyageur. Their second CD is “Canot d’Ecorce” (their first, “Bien Travailler,” is no longer available except at libraries).

If you can read music and your French is good, check out this list from the Festival du VoyageurOr “Voyageur and French Canadian Folk Songs” arranged by Lois Samis Lund.

Sing along with them — and discover their joy. Maybe it’ll even help to make your work easier.

Final Thoughts:


Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade” by Carolyn Podruchny. University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, Nebraska, and London, 2006)
Songs of the Voyageurs CD” by Theodore C Blegen. Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, Minnesota)
The Voyageur” by Grace Lee Nute. Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, Minnesota, 1987)


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