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The Devil’s Canoe, and the Devil’s Fiddle

February 18, 2010

So, I briefly touched on this in my note on the opening ceremony at Vancouver, but it bears developping, as it seems lots of people just didn’t know about it…

The devil in the flying canoe was a reference to one of Quebec (and French North America)’s oldest and best known legends – La Chasse-Gallerie . It’s an old legend, and like most legends, it exists in dozens of version: there are recorded versions everywhere that French-Canadian/Acadian/Cajuns have gone, from Louisiana to the Hudson Bay, and from Cape-Breton island to the Rockies. I know of at least one interesting twentieth century variation recorded in Lowell, Massachusetts (where the canoe becomes a school bus), and I’ve seen mentions of a cowboy version, though I know nothing more of that.

The best known version generally starts with a group of men working many weeks from civilization – often but not always lumberjacks – and being left alone on New Year’s eve. ..

In order to return home to the New Year party, one of them summons the Devil, and the group of men enter a pact with him: he will make their canoe fly, allowing them to make their way to the city so they may party with their girlfriend, but with a condition: if, in flying the canoe, the lumberjack should ever strike a Church stepple, or a cross, their souls will be forfeit, and they will go straight to hell. (Sometime, there is an added restriction that the Canoe will lose its ability to fly at dawn).

They fly the canoe south to the city without much trouble, and there they party for much of the night, drinking and dancing with their girlfriends. However, when it comes time (before dawn) to leave, the man in charge of maneveuring the canoe is roaring drunk, and the return trip involves several near brushes with crosses and church stepples.

In the best known version, they’re almost back to the yard when the sun rise, and the Canoe crashes not far from the lumber yard; but they survive.

There are, of course, several other versions, and not all of them have the (mostly) happy ending. In one song version, the condition is that they must not touch the girls, and the youngest of the men kiss one just before leaving (but rather than being send to hell, God intervenes and condemn them to fly for all eternity in the sky of Montreal.

The fiddling part is also part of Quebec mythology. Not quite so famously as the Chasse-gallerie, but the association is very strong, with many variation of legends associating fiddle and devil. (Not that these are unique to Quebec – Charlie Daniels probably didn’t get it from us, although it may well have made its way to the US South by way of Louisiana, or to the North-East by way of the massive wave nineteenth-early twentieth century French-Canadian immigration)

There are, of course, many variations. Most of them involve a stranger arriving in the evening, on the day before one or another important Catholic day – perhaps simply saturday evening; or the day before Lent begin, or a variety of other days.

One way or another, the stranger take out his fiddle, and begin playing, and people begin dancing, and the more they dance, the less they find themselves wanting to stop, to a point where they just can’t.

In the most benign versions, at this point, someone – perhaps a woman too old to be tempted, or the parish priest – realizes just who the mystery fiddler is, and invoke one of the many ways of chasing him off. The dancers are left largely drained, and sometime, some of them are left just plain soulless or dead. That’s the nice ending.

In the darker ending, no one finds out who the stranger is. The dancers dance on and on and on, until lent begins and the dancers, who have now stepped outside the bound of Christianity, descend straight to hell with the fiddler, Lucifer.

The local (And I mean: really local) version, instead of having the dancers descend to hell, merge into a legend explaining the origins of the local lake: the dancers were all in a meadow in the middle of Mount Saint-Hilaire, and when they broke their solemn oath to attend the newly built chapel, God, in anger, drowned them. The water remained there, becoming the lake.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. J. Ligers permalink
    April 16, 2018 11:57 pm

    Hello.

    I’m a school teacher and I recall a CBC cartoon of the devil fiddling for lumberjacks. I’ve been unsuccessful searching for it. Do you recall seeing it?

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