When singer Edith Butler was growing up in northern New Brunswick in the 1950s, the social and economic life of the Acadian people there had changed little in several hundred years. Some rarely left their home community. She recalls her father picking up a man in Haut-Paquetville who'd never been as far as the Butlers' village of Petit-Paquetville, just 16 kilometres away.
The isolation of the Acadians led them to rely heavily on their own resources, especially in matters of culture. Legends and ballads from medieval France thrived alongside newer stories and songs about the lives of the early settlers of the Atlantic seaboard. Butler--who brings a five-piece electroacoustic band with her to the Roundhouse Community Centre this Friday (June 18) as part of the Festival d'Eté Francophone de Vancouver--was well-placed to absorb everything. Her father was a storyteller himself, and owned Petit-Paquetville's general store.
"People used to meet there, and he would tell them stories or jokes or whatever," Butler remembers, speaking from her home in Montreal. "And my mother played piano and sang. There was no television or anything else at the time, so we made music almost every evening."
In the early '60s Butler began her career as a singer on the radio and the newly available TV, as well as in local concerts, performing mainly traditional material. She attended Quebec's Laval University to do a master's degree on the ethnography of her people, and thoroughly researched Acadian history. One of her chief sources was Píƒ ¨re Anselme Chiasson from the fishing village of Chéticamp, on the west coast of Cape Breton Island. "Sadly, he died just a few weeks ago," Butler says. "He was an extraordinary man, who actually published about 10 collections of material, folk songs and stories, all from the Chéticamp area. I love to go there; it's culturally so rich."
After graduating, Butler pursued music, becoming an iconic figure for Acadians and an internationally successful performer. She has a particularly strong following in France.
Although the songs don't need to be translated for Butler's French fans, some of the Acadian words have been changed to ensure the lyrics aren't taken the wrong way. Take the beautiful traditional song "Wing Tra La", learned from Píƒ ¨re Anselme. The song tells the tale of a young shoemaker deemed by his heartthrob's dad to be unworthy of his daughter. "I sing 'Son píƒ ¨re se mit íƒ colérer' [her dad gets mad]," explains Butler with a laugh. "But in the original version it's 'Son píƒ ¨re se mit íƒ tempíƒ ªter'. It means the same, but if I sang it the French people would hear it as 'se mit íƒ tant péter', which would mean her dad started farting a lot."