The lilting voice of l’Acadie

Wayne Grigsby November 30 1981

The lilting voice of l’Acadie

Wayne Grigsby November 30 1981

The lilting voice of l’Acadie


Wayne Grigsby

The hot glare of spotlights picks out the caramel in her mane of wavy hair as Edith Butler leans forward on a stool and starts to spin a yarn. This is opening night for Je m’appelle Edith, her new one-woman show. A cosy glow is spreading through Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde as the pride of l’Acadie explains her recent six-month sabbatical from show biz. A grinding 16-month coast-to-coast tour of more than 250 concerts and innumerable radio and television shows had left her burned out. On the advice of friends, she sought out a fashionable yogi, whom she hoped could show her the way to inner tranquillity. The stagelights dim, Butler leans back, closes her eyes and shows off her meditating style. Ommmmmmmm, she croons, and the crowd hushes. It’s not easy, explains Butler, to empty one’s mind of music.

Woops. A song fragment just scooted through. Redoubling her efforts, Butler vows to get right down to the bottom of her consciousness. Her om is now awesome, a buzzing physical presence that has her audience transfixed. Her shoulders droop, her upper body slumps in visible relaxation. But unobtrusively, her toe has begun to tap. Few notice, until her knee follows suit. Then the om begins to dance a little, weaving in and out and around the rhythm of her tapping foot. Inexorably, it slides into the dancing melody of Le Grain de Mil, an infectious Acadian folk tune that dates back to the deportation of 1755. Chuckles in the crowd swell into whoops of joy as the audience clambers aboard this bandwagon heading deep into the heart of l’Acadie.

There’s a striking irony in Edith Butler finding an ancient Acadian folksong dancing at the very heart of her. After 19 years as the low-key passionara of Acadian culture and song, Butler has lately come to feel a little smothered by the weight of

singing for a whole people. This show was her deliberate attempt to play up Edith Butler, person, and play down Edith Butler, Acadian standard-bearer. Yet every time she opened her mouth to sing or chat, she simply reinforced how completely Acadian she is. Later at the four-storey mansion in Montreal that she shares with her manager and lyricist, Lise Aubut, Butler good-naturedly agreed that she had been upstaged once again. “I’m not complaining. I know it’s a positive thing, a huge resource. But it’s so strong.”

L’Acadie resonates in just about everything Edith Butler says and does. Sea breezes blow through her strong, clear voice when she flings it into the curlicues of uptempo jigs and reels. In the next breath she can chill an audience with a plaint she has written about the Acadian dispersal. Her stories, told in the lilting old-fashioned softness of Acadian French, reveal an instinctive wit and dramatic timing that evoke images of wood stoves, whittling and rocking chairs. A strapping, striking woman with blue eyes that really do twinkle, she exudes a warmth and vitality that turn concert halls into community singsongs.

Offstage, however, the strong and sure Edith Butler melts away. Like a rawboned rural schoolgirl in Mother Superior’s study, she clashes with the provincial formality of her own living room. A massive chandelier dangles over the coffee table, which is bracketed by a demure pair of sofas. Silver-and-blue floral wallpaper contrasts sharply with her rumpled grey velour slacks, T-shirt, blouse and a quilted vest in the scarlet satin of a box of valentine chocolates. Only when a tour of the house finally winds its way down to the basement—with its fully equipped sound studio and the adjoining sauna and spa—does Butler finally look at home.

To the 39-year-old from Paquetville, N.B., the posh living room, the house in Outremont and the MercedesBenz parked outside mean she has arrived. That’s important to a performer who has been an outsider for most of her professional life. Montreal is the epicentre of French-Canadian show business, yet moving there in 1973 meant putting an uncomfortable distance between her professional life and her Acadian roots. As a non-Quebecker in Montreal, she was a ê country cousin, an outsider I trying to break into tight§ knit cliques. A Radio-Canada z producer advised her to lose “her Acadian accent if she

☺ever wanted to perform on the people’s network. Concert promoters told her that her guitar-toting style was too folksy. CBC Radio’s Touch the Earth turned her down because she wasn’t folksy enough. Her name looked English, yet she sang in French. Conventional record companies didn’t seem to know what to do with her, so Butler, along with Aubut, Angèle Arsenault and Jacqueline Lemay, formed SPPS Records in 1974. The odds were long against a four-woman record company in the male-dominated world of multinationals. But by pitching in and doing all the work themselves—Butler acted as president, bookkeeper and part-time shipping clerk—the company stayed alive. Butler’s just-released album, Je m'appelle Edith, her fifth and the company’s 13th, is expected to sell a respectable 25,000 to 35,000 copies.

Determination is a trait fundamental to Edith Butler’s character. At the age of 4 she discovered that all her cousins spoke French and she didn’t. So she announced to her mother that she was never again to be addressed in English. English had become the family lingua franca because Johnny and Lauretta Butler were the only francophones on the air base where Johnny was stationed during the war. It was only when they returned to Paquetville and the Butler family’s general store that Edith discovered that she was descended from a French-speaking Jerseyman who landed in New Brunswick in 1840.

The general store looms large in her memory. She used to hurry home after school to watch friends and relations parade through in search of shoes, molasses, nails, flour and, most important, conversation. “It was incredible... from another century. People sitting around on the big bench near the spittoon, telling stories and playing jokes on one another. Every once in a while some of it just pops out of my memory and gets incorporated into a song or a story.” Paquetville life in the ’50s was the stuff nostalgia is made of: Saturday-night reels, a cousin who played the fiddle and taught Edith the basics of the reels and jigs that had been passed down through generations.

It wasn’t until she went away to Moncton and the college Notre-Damed’Acadie that Edith Butler heard the new folksongs of the ’60s. A more important influence was the chansonniers, the singer-songwriters: Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel from France, Félix Leclerc, Georges Dor and Gilles Vigneault from Quebec. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” she reminisces. By combining what she learned from the chansonniers with the best of her traditional Acadian repertoire, she breathed

a new excitement into Acadian song. Before long she was a favorite performer at soirees around campus.

There was more to Notre-Damed’Acadie than new songs. Not only did the faculty set high academic standards, it also encouraged pride in the Acadian traditions. “Acadians at the time were reluctant to speak French outside the family or the village,” explains Butler. “Our teachers told us we spoke a very old and very lovely French and not to be ashamed of it. NotreDame was as much a school of thought as a college.”

Antonine Maillet, author of the Acadian classics La Sagouine and Pêlagiela-Charette, was both a student and a member of the faculty at Notre-Damed’Acadie. Sitting in the sunny living room of her house just down the road from Edith’s, Maillet can clearly remember her as a summer student. “She was a splendid girl, physically and morally—morally in the sense that she did exactly what she believed and didn’t hide it. She has a real facility for expressing what she is deep down.”

Lise Aubut was struck by the same directness and force of personality when a record company suggested she manage Butler in 1973. Since graduating from Notre-Dame in 1964, Butler had done a little teaching, picked up a master’s degree in folklore at Laval University and appeared at the odd concert and on CBC’s Singalong Jubilee. It took a six-month contract at the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka to convince her that she wanted to be a performer. In Aubut, Butler found the partner and guide she was looking for. “Everyone else wanted to change my name, my material and almost everything about me. She didn’t.” Aubut helped her winnow out her best songs and urged her to play up her Acadian accent and natural talent for story-

telling. She also took on the grinding details: the bookings, the travel arrangements, the sound and light settings. The collaboration went even deeper. As Butler’s lyricist, Aubut seems to function as an emotional lightning rod. “If she doesn’t cry when I show her the words, I throw them out. I have to try to sense what she feels and say it for her because she can’t. She’s very secretive, very shy.”

Direct but shy. The contradiction is fundamental to Edith Butler. She hates telephone conversations because she can’t read the caller’s eyes. There’s a hunted quality to her wariness. “That’s very typical of Acadians,” chuckles Antonine Maillet. “We’re a defeated people. We carry the weight of having been hunted through the woods and all the rest of it. That’s why Edith—like most Acadians—is much more fox than wolf. Quebeckers are much more wolf. They attack. They have a homeland, a government, their language. We don’t ... we use ruses and slip off.”

For the moment, Edith Butler is most likely to pull out the emotional stops in performance. But even then, it’s likely to be in a passionate expression of l’Acadie, not herself. “I’ve always had trouble talking and singing about personal things,” she admits. “In a way it’s helped me push Acadia as far as I have. In talking about Acadia I was talking about myself through an image.” Now that her music helped awaken a new pride in Acadian culture, however, she no longer has a sense of mission about it. Lately Butler has begun to look inward. “I don’t have a lot of love songs on my records. But I think with this show I’m starting to open a little. We’ll see where it leads.” If she can explore this terrain with the same ardor she brought to Acadia, some great Canadian love songs may be just around the corner. lt;£?