Cannonballs in April

There’s this very pretty song I’ve liked for a while called “Le 10 d’avril” (“The 10th of April”) by Les Charbonniers de l’enfer, a Québécois group. It’s about some people sailing to France when a corsair (I didn’t know that was an English word! It means a privateer) fires cannonballs at them, wounding one of the officers. As he’s dying, the crew somehow gets some American officers (conveniently close at hand) to fetch his sweetheart so they can see each other one last time. Don’t ask me how that works (aren’t they out on the ocean?), but the sweetheart arrives and says she’d exchange all sorts of things (her gold ring, etc.) to heal him.

Then, just the other day, I listened to a song called “Le Vingt D’avril” (“The Twentieth of April”) by another Québécois group, Genticorum. And I realized it was a different version of the same text. For one thing, in one version the ship leaves on April 10th and in the other on April 20th… There are also other differences, but some lines are almost identical. The tune is completely different, though, and I have to say I think Les Charbonniers de l’enfer’s is much prettier.

Searching for the origins of the text, I found it as “La Mort du colonel” (“The Death of the Colonel”) in Vision d’une société par les chansons de tradition orale à caractère épique et tragique by Conrad Laforte and Monique Jutras, volume 27 in L’Université Laval’s Les archives de folklore. The tune printed in this book is clearly related to the one Les Charbonniers de l’enfer sing. The book gives a couple of different versions of the text, plus lots of variants of individual verses. Among all these variants, the ship alternately leaves on the 12th, the 15th, the 21st, or the 25th of April (none of which match the dates in the two versions above!). Or just in April, generally. Or in May. The main version in the book was sung by one Sévérin Langlois, age 59, on August 25th, 1966 in Cannes-de-Roche, Québec. And the book says that there are 127 versions of this song: 1 from Belgium, 7 from the U.S., 8 from Switzerland (a…land-locked country?), 26 from France, and 85 from Canada.

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