Robert Sylvain, Mémère's Notebook  (Non-fiction/Music)
Review by David Vermette

ROBERT SYLVAIN, Mémère’s Notebook, Volume One: Acadian Folk Songs from Maine. Portland, ME: Kitchen Party, 2020. ISBN: 978058648897

reviewed by David Vermette

Over the course of the early to mid-20th century, Elisa Sylvain neé Thibodeau (1906-1998) wrote down, in a spiral-bound notebook, the French-language lyrics to dozens of songs. She wrote, in a legible cursive, the title of each song, and then penned the lyrics in stanzas labeled with Roman numerals, occasionally indicating a block of lyrics as a refrain. She left no indication regarding the corresponding melodies. The repertoire in Elisa Sylvain’s notebook, with few exceptions, comes from the traditional music of Acadie. Born in New Brunswick, Elisa grew up in the St. John River Valley region of Maine, the state’s Acadian heartland. She married Henri Sylvain, a man of Québécois origin, and moved to Waterville, Maine, one of the larger Franco-American centers in that state. 

Elisa’s songbook eventually arrived in the hands of her musical grandson, singer, guitarist, and educator Robert Sylvain, Jr., who set about searching for the melodies to match his mémère’s lyrics. Working through archives that included field recordings and other primary sources, as well as contacts with people familiar with the Acadian repertoire, Sylvain was able to recover Elisa’s tunes. More than just rediscovering them, Sylvain has renewed the songs by adding harmony, arranging them for the guitar, adding additional instrumentation, and then recording them, not only in French, but in his own English translations.

The Mémère’s Notebook project, with equal debts to the mind, the heart, and the ear, assumes the form of a book and two CDs, one CD in the original French, the other in English. The accompanying songbook records and preserves the lyrics and melodies, while placing Mémère’s songbook in an historical context.


The Music

As Sylvain mentions in his book, the songs have a remarkable range of styles, from the dance music of Veux-tu m’aimer to the dramatic ballad Un soir d’hiver. They include music for several occasions including the chanson à boire (drinking song), the chanson à répondre (call-and-response song, performed in group settings), and la complainte (a lament). Mainly, these are songs of love and love lost that seem to speak to a rural milieu where marriage and family were the center of life.


The deep roots of this music are in the modal melodies of Europe, in a tradition before large instrumental ensembles forced melodic development into the narrow grid of regular bar lines. Some of the melodies in this musical tradition are “tordu” (“twisted” or “crooked”), in that they do not always conform to strict time signatures. The melody follows the text, or the dramatic reading of the text by a singer, rather than a prescribed phrase-length. These ancient roots are evident in tunes like Je me suis levé.

Sylvain delivers his material in a baritone that blends well with the mid-range of his guitar, and it’s his voice and guitar that drive almost all of the performances. However, the CD employs the talents of some twenty or so musicians, including Sylvain’s long-time collaborator Steve Muise on fiddle, guitarist David Surette, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Shipman. Sylvain uses this additional instrumentation sparingly and subtly. Where the songs have instrumentation beyond the guitar, it is often featured in a duo or trio with Sylvain. The additional musicians add accents that address the repertoire’s range of styles. For example, Dis-moi donc adds fiddle and accordion, which lends the tune an air à la louisiane; Quand je demeurais en ville has the traditional step-dancing providing a rhythm track, while Sylvain’s vocal delivery has echoes of the chansonniers of 1960s Québec.

In singing the French songs, Sylvain sounds like a Mainer who has recovered his French. His accent has a charm that sounds authentic to the hybrid Franco-American ethos. It is parallel to PEI Acadian singer-songwriter Lenny Gallant’s French-language work. Gallant’s material is original, while Sylvain’s comes from the notebook, yet the French vocals of both are entailed in a process of recovering the language. Both artists have had to craft a French voice to sing their respective repertoires, and both artists acknowledge the debt they’re paying to earlier generations in doing so.

There is an illusion that music called “folk” must be static, that it must be the music that admits the least degree of change, but folk music is in fact the most flexible idiom. It is “open-source” and takes subtly or dramatically different expressions as it is not only performed but also transformed by musically skilled people in a local context. Sylvain’s renderings, like others in the folk idiom, are a local interpretation, in this case an expression of Acadian/Franco-American Maine culture, while also reflecting the taste of our times. The result is an authentically modern, and at the same time innocent and open-hearted, response to folk material.

The Book

The book, Mémère’s Notebook: Acadian Folk Songs from Maine, is structured around the 12 songs on the CDs. For each tune, Sylvain presents a picture of the corresponding page from his grandmother’s notebook. He then provides a lead sheet capturing the melody and chord changes to the tune, with notes as to his sources. There then follows a printed transcription of the lyric in its original French, side-by-side with Sylvain’s English translation. The author also includes a couple of paragraphs of commentary on each selection, discussing peculiarities in the language of the piece, its style, or its themes.

Sylvain’s brief introduction to the book is a straightforward account of the notebook’s background and how he came to acquire it. In a few words, written with remarkable thoughtfulness and honesty, he sets the notebook in its Franco-American context. “For my father’s generation in the mid-century melting pot,” writes Sylvain, “French heritage was a liability, and he did his best to assimilate into the Anglo monoculture. Even so, card games, the rosary, and the off-color jokes were still in French when I visited Waterville as a child.” (7) About his Francophone grandparents, Sylvain says, “They seemed to live in another, ancient time.” Those of us who can remember Elisa Sylvain’s generation of Franco-Americans will concur with this sentiment.

To round out the book, Sylvain includes some photos of his grandmother and her family, of the author at work, and of his fellow musicians. He also includes a map and a genealogical chart.

Reading Sylvain’s translations and commentary one can quibble, at the edges, about a small number of his interpretations. For example, “Je me suis levé” means “I got up”; Sylvain’s rendering “I woke myself” is a bit literal. But his achievement overshadows such details. He has produced an impressive and enduring artifact of Acadian/Franco-American culture. In his recordings, he has transformed traditional material he received into a modern musical expression that stands with the best of French North American Néo-trad music. While in the accompanying book, Sylvain not only documents his research but also puts the music in context and ensures its survival. The entire package, book and music, radiates warmth and beauty in simplicity. It is an illumination of the profound ordinary.