Listening to Ethel Mae Bourque’s Chansons de la Campagne, a series of bayou stories and songs immediately brings to mind Hamper McGee from Monteagle, Tennessee. There’s a similar Irish lilt to cadence of both, but there’s a deeper connection as well. Both Ethel Mae and Hamper carry a connection to a lost time for each are the last in the long line of their kind. I imagine Ethel Mae and Hamper would get along only in the formal polite way many southerners do, because I imagine Hamper would’ve been too wild for Ethel Mae’s sensibilities. Both, however, represent stories and songs from a lost time, sung honestly and without artifice.
No instrumentation is necessary to carry Ethel Mae’s tune. And, although it may sound harsh and unpolished at first to your radio weened ears, given time the musicality of Ethel Mae’s melodies shines through. Available on Nouveau Electric Records, these recordings circa 2003 could have come from a century before. Ethel Mae provides a connection to the past virtually lost in our societal obsession with a race into the future.
For her own amusement Ethel Mae improvised new lyrics to traditional Louisiana French songs. While maintaining a life of self-sufficiency via hunting, raising chickens, and foraging along the banks of the Bayou Vermilion, Ethel Mae sang an assorted collection of traditional an original a cappella ballads. Not always for entertainment, Ethel Mae’s songs operated as anodyne when the poor Bourque family couldn’t afford pain medication for her father, Sidney. As he slowly died from lung cancer and pneumonia, Ethel Mae sang ballad composed for her father again and again for a whole week as he slowly passed away. Ethel Mae sings in a combination of English and Louisiana French, but even when the words are unfamiliar then meaning, the emotion, carries through regardless. Plaintive and hopeful, Ethel Mae’s songs and stories carry a hint of the traditional Cajun lifestyle into the 21st century.
Ethel Mae is gone now as are many of her contemporaries and the secrets they kept about life on the bayou, but her legacy lives on in this collection that peers into the past if only for a brief moment.