En roulant ma boule

Traditional French paddling song, 1600s

What activity of the fur traders would this song help? 

What’s happening in this song? Are they singing about a real event? What do these make-believe words remind you of? Nursery rhymes.

Why would big, burly frontiersmen sing a song like this? Listen again. How many people are singing? Listen for patterns for who sings when. Leader sings a solo, chorus responds.

Clap out the rhythm of the song. Where is the strong pulse or emphasis (accent)? If you were to “march” to this song, where is the strong beat?

For what task would it be useful for the fur traders to stay in rhythm? How did they travel? Paddling canoes. When would the paddle enter the water? (Have class act out the paddling motion in time to the music.) Who would sing the first line? A leader would sing the first line to set the pace. Why would it be important to use music to set a regular rhythm? Canoes wobble if everyone doesn’t paddle together. How fast were we paddling? Not very. Why paddle so slowly? They set a pace that allowed them to paddle all day.

Where did the French travel by canoe? Great Lakes, Ohio River Valley. How long were the trips? How would singing help? Stay synchronized, relieve boredom. How would lighthearted lyrics help? Where did the lyrics come from? They made up verses.

How is this song similar to a military march cadence (“Sound off … one, two …”)? Leader-chorus, sets pace; nonsense, racy lyrics; morale-boost. How are they different?

"En roulant ma boule" performed by Anne and Ridley Enslow on Music of the American Colonies, Berkley Heights: Enslow Publishing [EP1-CD1614], © 2000. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

This recording uses the same style the voyageurs would have used. The lead singer/rower introduces the text, then the others repeat it. The idea behind this and other work songs is for the rowers to paddle together and to concentrate on the song and not on their labors.

View the music and lyrics for "En roulant ma boule."

A famous French-Canadian paddle song, this song is also known by the name of “Les trois beaux canards.” It originated in medieval France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and came to the New World through the voyageurs in the 1600s. As many as 107 versions have been found, including one recorded in 1916 by Edouard Hovington, a 90-year-old canoeman of Tadoussac, Quebec. This popular song may also have also served as a dance song. Other versions have different refrains. For example, “v’la l’bon vent, v’la l’joli vent, v’la l’bon vent, m’amie m’attend” (here is the good wind, here is the pretty wind, here is the good wind, my girlfriend waits for me).

The text, a medieval story of princes and princesses, isn’t relevant to paddling, but the structure of the text is. The songs of the voyageurs typically included significant repetition, and call and response between the lead rower and the other men in the canoe. For example, the lead man would sing the first line and the other men would chime in with the responses. This is similar to the call and response of the cadences today’s military uses to foster teamwork.

Francis Anne Hopkins "Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall," 1869

Francis Anne Hopkins "Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall," 1869.

Compare this song to:

"Round the Corn, Sally" (Unit 1)

"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" (Unit 2)

"Shenandoah" (Unit 3)

"Mule Skinner Blues" (Unit 5)

What repetitive tasks that you do would benefit from a song? Write one! Teach it to the class.

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