Listening to the Past and Canada's Recorded Sound

A few months ago we discovered that Library and Archives Canada has a great site all about the history of recorded sound in Canada. It has pages on the creation of a Canadian recording industry and the Quebec music scene from 1915-1920, which sheds some light on the first years that Canadians were exposed to recorded music on a large scale. It’s a bit jumbled, but there are some really great stories hidden in its pages.

One is that of the Berliners. Emile Berliner opened the first Canadian gramophone store in 1899. After fierce court battles in the United States, Berliner needed to establish his Canadian copyright over the production and sale of gramophone discs. So he started his store in Montreal and began advertising the advantage of record discs over clunky cylinders. Berliner quickly became the dominant sound recording company in Canada. His son Herbert Berliner took over the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company of Canada in 1904.

In 1916, Berliner wanted to decrease its expenses and started his own record production company in Canada. He launched the first Canadian “recording studio” using His Master's Voice series as a label, also known as HMV, a trademarked record label owned by Victor Talking Machine Company. His Master's Voice referred to a painting of a dog listening to a gramophone that featured prominently on its records. HMV Series 216000 and HMV Series 263000 were launched focusing English Canadian and French Canadian music respectively. The numbers are the range for catalogue numbers of the songs released under that series. The Montreal factory was so successful that Herbert Berliner quit and started his own independent recording company, Compo Company Limited in 1921.

The Compo Company had two centres for record-making, one in Toronto and one in Montreal, or in other words, one for English Canada, one for French Canada. Both helped nurtured early Canadian musicians. Berliner started new record labels to produce their music, called Sun, Apex, Ajax and Radia-Tone. Apex would be the best known of the new labels and the Apex 500 series began releasing records for English Canadian artists. In Montreal, the Starr label produced French Canadian music using the Compo Company to create the records. The two labels helped record the music of many great Canadian musicians in the 1920s. They produced discs for artists like jazz great Willie Eckstein as well as French Canadian folk singer Mary Bolduc.

The final years of Berliner are sad ones. It's a bit hidden throughout several of the pages, but if you read it everything on the LAC site, you can figure out that the Compo Company founder Herbert Berliner thought he was about to die in 1951. So, he dramatically sells the company because he cared so much about this thing he had created from nothing that he wanted to make sure it could "live on" after his death. Then he finds out he's not going to die after all and has to live out the last fifteen years of life without his company. The man who built up the Canadian music industry, literally from nothing, was left with little by the time of his death in the 1960s.

Another story is that of Mary Bolduc, or otherwise known as “La Bolduc” and the subject of a Heritage Minute. Hopefully she is familiar to English Canadians. She was a pivotal figure in Quebec folk music history. Library and Archives Canada devotes a whole series of pages about the life and history of Bolduc, which we encourage you to go check out! Did you know that "Bolduc did not "compose" melodies in the usual sense of the word. Many -- if not most -- of her songs employed existing melodies from folk songs or folk dances; for others, she began with a well-known melody and created her own variant. Some other songs were based on American popular tunes known to both Anglophones and Francophones in Canada." This might sound like Bolduc was not as amazing as her Heritage Minute led us to believe, but imagine someone who could perform the popular music of the day (Bolduc was a skillful fiddler and harmonicist) and also update/invent lyrics to those songs. Kinda like the skillset of Weird Al Yankovich, but obviously without the parody aspect. She would have been a YouTube sensation.

Bolduc also essentially produced an oral history/musical history of Quebec in the 1930s. Folk music has had a long history in Quebec. Folk songs have been sung by French Canadians for centuries, often as a means of remembering French Canadian history. Some songs continue to be sung and adapted for present day audiences. One was “Vive la Canadienne,” the most popular French Canadian song before “O Canada,” and you can listen to a 1972 version by Bonnie Dobson on YouTube. “Un Canadien Errant” was written in the 19th century about the 1837-38 Rebellions, and also adapted for Acadians, since the song talks about the pain of exile and the “wandering Canadian.” It is sung today as well, just take a listen to this version from Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. Folk music continues to influence French Canadian musical culture – and by the way, if you haven’t listened to some modern Quebec music, you should start!

Mary Bolduc was fulfilling a long tradition when she became one of French Canada’s most famous folk musicians. She sang about the experience of her fellow French Canadians during the 1930s while the rise of radio and the expansion of the recording industry allowed her to reach an incredibly large audience. Her songs took old folk songs that were familiar to her listeners, and then updated them with lyrics about what was happening during the 1930s. So she sang about the economic collapse during the Great Depression, the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, and the Dionne Quintuplets. One unrecorded song titled “Si je pouvais tenir Hitler” – If I could hold Hitler – no doubt had some choice words about the German dictator. These songs were not just popular songs, they are oral histories of Quebec during the 1930s. Historians can use them to understand how Quebecois understood their world, what sort of events they may have learned about, and what they learned about them.

Unfortunately, La Bolduc’s tale is as tragic as Berliner’s. She suffered injuries after a traffic accident in 1937, and during her recovery the doctors discovered a cancerous tumour. A concussion impacted her ability to remember lyrics, which as obviously vital for a folk singer, and she died in 1941 from cancer at the young age of 46. Luckily, Bolduc is remembered as one of the most influential French Canadian musicians of her age. She has not been forgotten like Herbert Berliner.

We hope that these two stories lead you to check out the LAC site. We talk a lot about media here on Clio’s, and the work of Berliner and Bolduc are an important part of Canadian history.  They reveal how Canadians told stories about themselves through music, in the style of song they sang, or the companies that produced them.  It's also pretty cool that we can listen to some of these songs, or adaptions of them, on YouTube and through other websites like Library and Archives Canada. We can listen to the past like never before!