This innovative study by historian Pierre Lavoie significantly expands our understanding of the transnational space created by a century of migration between Québec and New England. Through the intersecting biographies of three popular artists who traversed this space – Mary Travers, Rudy Vallee, and Jean Grimaldi – Lavoie explores the complex evolution of national and ethnic identities on both sides of the border. His story takes place between the 1930s – the apogee of transnational “Franco-America” – and the 1960s, which witnessed the collapse of “the French-Canadian cultural and political project” (10) and the creation of distinct territorial identities (Québécois, Franco-Ontarian, etc.).
The emigration of about a million Quebecers to the United States between 1830 and 1930 forms the backdrop to Lavoie’s analysis. He emphasizes both the two-way mobility that created a shared transnational space and the gradual emergence of a distinct group identity among French Canadians in the United States in the early 20th century. This new “Franco-American” identity was built simultaneously on the dual ideologies of survivance and civic integration into American life, and those who embraced it tended to look to France, the culturally prestigious sister republic, at the expense of French Canada.
The period of the great migration ended with the Depression of the 1930s, but Lavoie shows that the transnational space linking Québec to the United States did not disappear overnight. With the development of celebrity-centered mass culture, mobile artists seeking their fortune in the United States became the new border crossers, in the absence of immigrant workers. The new world of mass entertainment challenges the idea, expressed by Gérard Bouchard and Yvan Lamonde,1 of a divide in French Canada between elite culture centered on France and popular culture inspired by the United States. Show business was transatlantic as well as transnational, involving popular artists from France like Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf, and French immigrant Jean Grimaldi. At the same time, impresarios like Grimaldi routinely enlisted the help of Franco-American elites to build their audience in francophone New England.
Mary Travers (1894-1941), known as “la Bolduc,” was born in Gaspésie to a father of Irish origin and a French-speaking mother. Her life bridges the eras of worker and artist migrations. In 1907, at age thirteen, she followed a half-sister to Montreal for work, first as a servant, then a factory worker, then, after her 1914 marriage to worker Edouard Bolduc, a home-based seamstress. In 1921, her young family moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, already home to Edouard’s sister, in search of work. Not finding any, they returned to Montreal where Mary embarked on her career as a musician. During the 1930s, she chose to make a life on the road, performing to audiences drawn from the Québec diaspora. Jean Grimaldi was her tour director. Her bilingual theater troupe was used to code switching from French to English and vice versa, and their physical humor suited the multiethnic and multilingual audiences of the industrial towns of the Northeast. Travers’s songs, which referred to current events while evoking the old country in a tone of affectionate parody, “made it possible to reconcile daily life in the United States with nostalgia for Québec” (94).
The case of Rudy Vallee (1901-1986) shows that the ethnic identity of migrants and their descendants was not homogenous. Raised in Maine by a Franco-American father and an Irish-American mother, Vallee learned to deploy American ethnic codes while simultaneously presenting himself as the archetype of the New England Yankee. (His orchestra, founded in 1928, at the highpoint of nativism, was called “Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees.”) Unlike historian Stewart Doty, for whom Vallee was “a standard-bearer of the Franco-American community” (126),2 Lavoie believes that the artist did not embrace “this hyphenated American identity” (30). In Vallee’s three autobiographies, he described himself through clichés associated with the French or Irish (seduction, daring, etc.). Even though he knew that the first North American Vallee had come to New France in the 1650s, he claimed that his ancestor “had arrived in the United States directly from France under the command of General La Fayette, General Rochambeau, and Vice Admiral Grasse in support of the American revolutionary forces, before settling in Canada to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company” (128). Vallee only came out as a French Canadian temporarily, in 1936, during a Montreal tour, publicized as a “return to the land of his ancestors” (155). Although he spoke and sang there in both languages before “an enthusiastic and bilingual audience” (158), the nationalist press dismissed him as an American singer, “the perfect counterexample of ideal French-Canadian cultural identity” (116).
The third artist, Jean Grimaldi (1898-1996), was a “Corsican migrant driven by the American dream” (175). Having “learned to his surprise” from French-Canadian soldiers serving in World War I “that one could live in French in North America” (178), he came to Montreal in 1927 to work in the entertainment world. As a director of theater troupes and tours, starting with those of la Bolduc, Grimaldi became “the principal non-institutional cultural intermediary between Québec and New England francophones” (177). Whether in Montreal or American mill towns, his primary focus was on entertaining “a multilingual, diverse, and often immigrant audience” (185) with “comic, popular, and cross-genre shows” (184).
Thus, geographic mobility was important for the careers of all three artists, yet this aspect of their lives and work is nearly invisible in public memory. In Québec, la Bolduc was canonized as the queen of Québécois folklore, even though Mary Travers “lived and created in and for an urban, bilingual, and transnational world” (68). Likewise, Jean Grimaldi became “the patriarch of Québec show business” (176), despite his pride in “regularly presenting shows in French in New England for a quarter century” (261). As for Rudy Vallee, he is remembered in the United States only as the first “crooner” to attain national celebrity. His symbolic ethnicity, such as it was, is largely forgotten.
In a fine conclusion, Lavoie discusses the song “Mile after Mile,” which both furnishes his title and works as a mise en abyme (picture within a picture) of the book’s argument. He writes:
This song is in fact a product of the transnational francophone space of the American Northeast created by the great worker migrations; it was composed in a genre, country western, associated with the United States and long ignored or scorned by critics; it was performed in English and French to facilitate comprehension of the text; lastly, its popularization by a media celebrity [Willie Lamothe] enabled it to reach a vast audience in the four corners of the continent…before being repatriated and fixed into a cultural heritage of Québec Province (290).
We owe a debt of gratitude to the author for illuminating this final phase of a nearly forgotten culture of mobility that once dominated Franco-America.
(1) See, for example, Gérard Bouchard and Yvan Lamonde, eds., Québécois et Américains: la culture québécoise aux XIXe et XXe siècles (St-Laurent, QC: Éditions Fides, 1995).
(2) See C. Stewart Doty, “Rudy Vallee: Franco-American and Man from Maine,” Maine History, vol. 33, no. 1 (1993): 2-19. https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/mainehistoryjournal/vol33/iss1/2/
The original French version of this review was written for the journal Québec Studies, vol. 76 (2023). The author and the editors of Résonance would like to thank that journal’s publisher, Liverpool University Press, for granting permission to publish the author’s own English translation here.