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Grandma’s Hands: Rob Sylvain keeps Maine’s Acadian musical heritage alive

Mémère & Me: Acadian Folksongs from Maine features an all-star cast of local roots musicians

by | Mar 9, 2021

 

Elisa Marie Sylvain with her grandson, Rob. photo/courtesy Rob Sylvain

Years ago, during a gig in the little city of Edmunston, New Brunswick, just over the border from Madawaska, Rob Sylvain tried to introduce himself to the crowd, en français. Although adept at singing French lyrics as leader of the Acadian folk group Boréal Tordu and his Cajun bar band, the Acadian Aces, conversational French was another matter.     

“I was trying to explain who I was and what I was doing,” Sylvain recalled. “And some guy said, ‘You know you can speak in English? We all speak English!’”

It’s a revealing anecdote from a musician and educator who crosses cultures with ease, but doesn’t seek shortcuts to authenticity.  

“My father grew up speaking French as his first language in Waterville,” said Sylvian, who lives in Portland. “But it was a liability, so he didn’t pass it on to his children. I only heard it from him when he was angry.”

Sylvain’s ancestors were Acadians, French-speakers expelled from northern Maine and Canada’s Maritime provinces by the British during the French and Indian War of the mid-18th century. Strong prejudice against Franco-Americans continued in Maine for another two centuries, eroding the culture in our state as older generations died off and younger ones strove to assimilate. 

Sylvain’s latest project bridges both cultures and time to give Acadian music new life. Mémère & Me: Acadian Folksongs from Maine is a double-disc collection of songs based on lyrics found in a notebook kept by his maternal grandmother, Elisa Marie Sylvain, née Thibodeau, who died in 1998.    

“It was not unusual for the matriarch of the family to keep a notebook of old songs,” Sylvain said. “Not necessarily for their progeny. More like a mnemonic, so they can pull it out when it’s time to go around the table and sing songs – longish old ballads, eight to twelve verses. It wasn’t too long ago that it was all oral tradition. As far as I know, my mémère may have been the first of the Thibodeaus to be literate.” 

Mémère lived to see me getting into Acadian music,” her grandson said. “I do regret not asking more questions when I had a chance.”

Like, How did that song go? 

Sylvain had the lyrics, written longhand, in French, but no musical notation accompanied them. His father and aunt remembered a few of the tunes, but most of the music was a mystery lost to an age before widespread recording. This project recalls that of Billy Bragg and Wilco, who conjured music for unused Woody Guthrie lyrics on their Mermaid Avenue records based on just a hint of a song’s style.

Supported in part by a Maine Arts Commission grant, Sylvain spent years digging through university audio archives, listening to tinny field recordings on moldering wax discs, searching for the melodies and modes his mémère would have recognized. His quest for authenticity doesn’t mean he’s an originalist. Although firmly rooted in traditional forms, in some cases the melodies were changed to appeal to modern ears. And rather than the parlor or dinner table, the setting was Acadia Recording Company, the studio in downtown Portland, and Sylvain’s backed by a full band.

“If I was to sing them all in a cappella, that would be difficult listening,” he said. “I’m not interested in just digging up mummified remains in order to put them on display. I’m interested in the things about my culture – and our culture as Mainers – that are relevant, that can be learned from, and that are beautiful. As it turned out, these songs are beautiful.”

Each of the 12 songs on Mémère & Me is presented in English and French. Sylvain, who handles vocals and guitar and plays spoons on a few tracks, has been a central figure in Maine’s roots music community for over two decades. He assembled an all-star cast of supporting musicians for this project, including his longtime collaborator in Boréal Tordu, Steve Muise, on fiddle, drummer Per Hanson, flautist Nicole Rabata, Junior Stevens on accordion, and pianist Neil Pearlman, to name just a few. Jason Phelps (Jerks of Grass, A Band Beyond Description) recorded and mixed the sessions, which include backing vocals by Sylvain’s wife and children, reinforcing the feeling that this is a family affair.       

The group needed to be highly versatile, because the songs in the notebook reflect a wide range of human experience, from the flush of young love (“Happiness of Marriage”) to the torment of domestic abuse (“Little Aurore”). “The lyrical content surprised me,” Sylvain said. “It’s often dark comedy; it shows a weird relationship between the sexes that you don’t see in Anglo ballads.” 

For example, the first track, “Dear Leonore,” about a soldier pining for his sweetheart back home, contains the lines, “Many are the good old boys / In this good old town / Surely they’ll make love to you while I’m not around.” The lines are offered without a shade of jealously or bitterness, by a character who figures he’s already a ghost. “Oh don’t you cry for your old love, for he by now has surely died.”    

“I was really happy to find out there are no murder ballads – no violence against women – which was a huge part of Scotch-Irish Protestant ballads in Appalachia and the South,” Sylvain said. But one tragic theme does run through this material: the loneliness of being compelled to leave home, a reflection of Acadian history.  

Over tenderly strummed guitar and mournful fiddle, Sylvain sings one of these songs, the ballad “Farewell to Childhood,” with appropriate reverence:

Oh! Here we are around the table
My parents and my family
Every time now them do I see
From my eyes do flow the tears
Adieu to my childish ways
Fare thee well, I’s leaving today

Sylvain was raised in Maine, immersed in modern American culture. I asked him what drew him to these dusty old musical styles. “This music is what I’ve been looking for all my life,” he said. “I’d like to think that I was drawn to it by my DNA, but I think it’s just stars aligning. I grew up loving folk music, spent a lot of time playing slide guitar and listening to the blues. When I heard Cajun music – this really raw, from-the-heart music from French white people – to realize that was my heritage was pretty astonishing.” (Cajun culture derives from Acadians who settled in Louisiana after exile in France.) 

Sylvain is proud of his heritage and this project, the first of what could be a series of volumes based on songs from his grandmother’s notebook. But he said, “I think that pride is a funny thing. I try to stay away from it. There must be another word for the feeling that I get from waking the spirit of my ancestors.”

It takes him a few seconds, but then he lands on it. “It’s a feeling of satisfaction,” he said.

For more about this project and Sylvain’s other work, visit robertsylvain.com

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