March 5, 2004
Thanks to the talent and devotion of traditional singer Rachel LeBlanc and a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, the art of ballad singing is making a comeback in the Valley. The project, sponsored by the Commission's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program, brings together a multi-generational group of eight daughters, mothers, friends, and neighbors from across the St. John Valley to learn some of Rachel LeBlanc's vast repertory of chansons traditionnelles.
The idea for a ballad singing apprenticeship project was developed by Lisa Ornstein, director of the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, who also wrote the grant proposal for the project.
"Encouraging community initiatives to keep heritage arts alive is part of our mission of cultural preservation," said Ornstein. "I got to know Rachel LeBlanc and her daughter Lucie in the early 1990s when I was doing a folk arts survey in the Valley as part of my work as director of the Archives. At that time, there were still a small number of traditional French-language singers living on the Maine side of the Valley, but most were quite elderly. Mrs. LeBlanc stood out because although she had a very rich repertory of traditional family songs, she was considerably younger than the rest of the singers I recorded. Equally striking was the strong bond of love and a delight in singing which she shared with her daughter."
In 2002, Ornstein, on behalf of the Maine Acadian Heritage Council's Educational Resource Development Committee, wrote a grant proposal to the Maine Arts Commission to sponsor a rug-braiding apprenticeship project in which a multi-generational group of eight women from four Valley communities learned the art of rug-braiding from the then 89-year-old Bertha Voisine, the Valley's last living master rug-braider. The Maine Acadian Heritage Council committee, inspired by the success of that project, pledged to try to sponsor another heritage arts apprenticeship.
"We decided to focus on ballad singing because of its importance in the Valley and because this once-popular heritage art is on the verge of disappearance," said Ornstein. "Ten years after the folk arts survey I did in the 1990s, all of the local singers I interviewed were either no longer alive or no longer able to sing, with the notable exceptions of Mrs. LeBlanc and her daughter."
LeBlanc responded enthusiastically to the idea of leading a ballad-singing class and the Maine Arts Commission showed equal enthusiasm, awarding a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant in December 2003.
Rachel LeBlanc has been singing for as long as she can remember. The youngest of eight children born to Joseph Ouellette and Alma Bergeron, she grew up on a farm in St-François, N.B. Both her father and mother came from singing families and enjoyed traditional dance music.
When Rachel was growing up, there was no television at home, so the family entertained themselves. Every evening after supper, Joseph would sit in his rocking chair and sing song after song. Rachel took a shine to singing very early on and spent many evenings at her father's knee, writing down the words to his songs and practicing them on her own.
The Acadians and French-Canadians who settled this area brought with them a remarkable treasure of French songs, some of which date well back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Mrs. LeBlanc knows many such songs. Her family repertory also includes 18th and 19th century songs which made their way over from France (one of the songs Rachel is teaching describes the Napoleonic Wars which took place 1792-1815) as well as songs made up by Acadians and French-Canadians about the rigors of life in the lumber camp.
"We are so fortunate to have a gifted, devoted teacher like Rachel LeBlanc to lead this project" said Ornstein. "She and her daughters Lucie Ouellette and Jody Hager are helping to teach a whole new generation of singers, one song at a time." Participating in this project are Babs Cote, Roseanna Gendreau, Lisa Bernier, Melanie Saucier, Diane Nadeau-Saucier, Melissa Jandreau, Lila Cancelarich, and Samantha Boutot.