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Les Frères Champagne

Photo: Eusèbe Champagne

Photo: Eusèbe Champagne

Philias, Eusèbe and Octave Champagne

(Compiler’s note: In 1978 La Chorale Orion produced a CD entitled L’Amour C’est Comme La Salade, reviving the music of the Champagne brothers. The following article, used with the author’s permission, accompanied the recording.)

Ethnic and urban folk music are today subjects of serious study and research on the part of scholars and musicologists. The music presented in this recording, L’Amour C’est Comme La Salade the result of many years research, is taken from sheet music published from 1910 to 1932 and is among the finest popular music produced by the French-Canadian people of New England. The composers Eusèbe and Philias Champagne and their publisher brother Octave Champagne had little formal musical training but came from an ancient musical tradition nourished in the towns and villages of Québec since the arrival of the first colonists from France.

The early immigrants from Québec brought to New England along with their families and possessions a rich treasury of songs and ballads repeated from generation to generation. With time these songs were joined by newer melodies inspired by the urban milieu of Lowell, MA, Fall River, MA, Manchester, NH, Woonsocket, RI, Lewiston, ME, Winooski, VT and Putnam, CT. Although often inspired by a different reality, many of these songs still retained the old eternal themes and forms.

The golden age of Franco-American music extended from the late 1890s to the early 1930s with local composers and troupes performing throughout New England in concert halls, ethnic conclaves and parish gatherings. Unlike most Franco-American composers who were accomplished church organists and choir directors, the Champagne brothers were largely self taught and owed their success to the spontaneity and popular appeal of their music. Their songs, sung throughout New England and Québec, were the mainstay of family gatherings and festivities for a generation or more.

Octave, the eldest of the three brothers, was born in 1859 in Brome County, Québec at St-Etienne de Bolton. Shortly after, his father, a farmer, emigrated with his family, first to Lebanon, New Hampshire where Eusèbe was born in 1865 and then to Enfield, New Hampshire where Philias was born in 1871. Eventually the family numbered five girls and five boys, all of whom, particularly the boys, manifested a talent for music.

Octave moved to Lowell, Massachusetts in the late 1880s. By the middle of the 1890 Eusèbe and Philias, as well as another brother, had joined him. Octave, the entrepreneurial member of the family, during these early years became one of the managers and the advance agent of the Canadian strongman Louis Cyr who had begun his career as a teenager working in one of Lowell’s textile mills. Later at the turn of the century he would direct for the time the band of Cyr’s circus and would continue on his own booking circus acts until after W.W. I.

A cellist, Octave joined the Lowell Musicians Union in 1902 and, apart from his regular employment as an insurance agent for Metropolital Life, played in local orchestras and bands. Little is known about Octave’s musical training but his brother, Eusèbe, considered the family’s greatest musical talent, upon his arrival in Lowell about 1896 was already an accomplished musician and for a time studied violin at the New England Conservatory of Music. Active in local bands and orchestras, he also worked in the same insurance office as Octave. Little is known also of Philias’ musical training except that for a time he played in the violin section of a large Montréal symphony orchestra. Upon his arrival in Lowell, Philias joined his brothers in the insurance business leaving his musical pursuits to his leisure hours.

Masterful performers of the gigues, reels and songs of the folk repertoire as well as their own compositions, their presence was a requirement at neighborhood celebrations and family reunions. As demands on their time increased, Eusèbe founded his own orchestra in 1907 and Octave about 1912 began publishing and distributing the songs written by Eusèbe and Philias, occasionally providing the words for some of the compositions. As well as his brothers’ compositions, he also began publishing the old favorites of Québec and the works of Lowell’s noted pianist-songwriter Louis Napoléon Guilbault. The music, copyrighted in Canada and Europe as well as Washington, was shipped throughout North America. The catalogue listed close to sixty titles in various arrangements and included a full line of phonograph recordings and player piano rolls.

As popularity and publishing continually increased, Octave, Eusèbe and Philias entered the music business full time. In 1915, Philias opened a music store in Nashua, New Hampshire and in 1917 Eusèbe opened a music store on Moody Street in Lowell which remained in operation until 1923. The store in Nashua closed a few years before the one in Lowell. Both stores, besides the usual selection of sheet music and musical instruments, also served as outlets for the violins hand crafted by Eusèbe and Philias as well as an occasional viol. At this time also, Octave formed the Champagne Orchestra which he conducted and booked in Lowell’s vaudeville houses and theaters and in which both his brothers played the violin. Towards this end he purchased a controlling share in one of Lowell’s leading theaters.

Although Octave published a great many of his brothers’ songs, Eusèbe and Philias also published under their own names, but in 1922 the three founded the Orion Music Publishing Company and Eusèbe became a full time salesman traveling throughout New England filling orders and selling door to door. The rights to some of the more popular songs in the catalogue were sold to E. L. Turcot of Lowell, the Franco-American music magnate and publisher who included in his interests a large music store in Lowell, another in Montréal and three publishing houses.

The verses for the songs were either written by the composers themselves or taken principally from local authors writing either under their own name, Arthur Smith, poet and editor of Lowell’s French newspaper L’Etoile, Louis Alphonse Nolin, an Oblate priest poet, curate of the Champagne’s French Catholic parish, or writing under a pseudonym, Jean Nicolet, Gustave S. de France.

In the second half of the 1920s, changing times caused a decline in business and Eusèbe’s death in 1929 at age 64 marked the effective end of the family’s musical activities. Octave continued selling the sheet music until stocks were depleted and even published in 1932 one of Philias’s last songs, but in general little new music was written and in 1941, Octave died in Lowell. Philias continued playing the violin in local orchestras but spent most of his last years as a piano tuner and making violins. He died in Lowell in 1957.

The milieu presented in the Champagne music is the Franco-American ethnic community as it existed in New England and in Lowell, Massachusetts from the turn of the century to the mid 1920s. The period of adaptation from Québec to New England a thing of the past, intense nationalism and pride in being American coupled with a nostalgic love of ancestral traditions combined to create a distinctly American French culture as expressed in the verses and music of these songs.

The “My duty is to defend the nation…We will uphold the Flag and our Rights,” of Le Départ du Soldat and the “I will not forget the home of my childhood nor the language that my mother taught me,” of Restons toujours braves, Canadiens-Français written for the annual St-Jean-Baptiste day celebrations, unite to give us a view of the patriotic feelings of the day, just as the newlyweds asking God in Les Nouveaux mariés to bless their parents “to prolong their days, to give them joy and health always.” In thanksgiving for the happy days spent at home and the itinerant tinsmith, Le Retameur, singing his song through the streets of Little Canada, introduce us into the world of everyday life.

The Champagnes were born into an old musical tradition. Popular fiddlers, their renditions of the gigues and reels of rural Québec died with them although the tradition which they helped create in Lowell lives on in the work and recordings of Louis Beaudoin. The musical form of many of their songs, however, reflects and continues the folk tradition from which they came.

The poignant love ballads singing of lost love in Amour brisé and eternal fidelity in S’Aimer toujours or the calm autumn eve of Soir echo the ancient refrains of New France. The “chanson à répondre” L’Amour c’est comme la salade with its communal sing-a-long responses and the comic declamation Le Distrait represent a genre born of long winter nights lightened by “réveillon” and family “soirée.”

The title of the album is taken from Philias Champagne’s L’Amour c’est comme la salade. This song, long since passed into the folklore of Québec and New England, and Eusèbe Champagne’s Amour brisé were the most successful compositions and popular opinion has long considered them their finest work.

It is hoped that in time more of the musical heritage of the Franco-Americans of New England as well as more of the champagne songs will be made available for study and simple enjoyment.

Richard Santerre, PhD