Today, we look for harmony. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
A friend gave me two booklets on Canadian technology.
One was about the Voyageurs — 17th and 18th-century traders who
moved furs across Canada on great cargo-carrying canoes. A quotation in
that book got my attention. It was attributed to a Voyageur:
No portage was too long for me ... My end of the canoe never
touched the ground ... Fifty songs a day were nothing to me.
I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man. ... no
water, no weather, ever stopped the paddle or the song.
All that stuff about songs sounded pretty hokey until I remembered
Great-Grandpa's account of his journey here in a sailing ship. He traveled
in steerage from La Havre to New Orleans in 1843. He complained, not about
the wretched food and conditions, but about traveling companions who didn't
sing in tune.
So I've been listening to Voyageur songs — simple rhythmic parts songs, sung
in tune by untrained voices with lots of open fourths and fifths. Of course
these songs were much like the sea shanties of that period. Think about
chain gang songs; or even
harmonies of the Medieval Church.
The words may vary, but the binding tissue is the same. Harmony unified laborers
in their common effort. It turned labor into contemplation. It provided a
window into beauty. We have trouble understanding that today. If you or I want
the beauty of music, we let someone provide it for us.
I was born into the last gasp of a world where it was still normal to sing
around a parlor piano. We all did parts singing in grade school, and everyone
knew the basic vocabulary of printed music. We not only
sang our own National Anthem at games, we also sang the
That was fading when I reached Army basic training. Still, I had two barracks
mates, Mississippi farmers who, during our morning cleanup, would harmonize
old hymns in thirds. They weren't being demonstrative; they were simply
continuing a way of life frozen in time, in rural America.
The world has turned since then. Harmony once gave structure to monotony. It
focused our inner life when our outer life was hard. Maybe we no longer have
that need in our perfect world — perfect images on TV, perfect friends who
harmonize without music. Perhaps our perfect illusions squeeze real harmony out.
Lewis and Clark hired Voyageurs for their expedition; they listened to their songs.
And, but for one burst appendix, all came back alive. Maybe it's time to acknowledge
that our world remains as imperfect as theirs. Musical harmony won't suddenly
restore the figurative harmony we all need. But it is a model for human behavior —
with value that reaches somewhat beyond mere nostalgia.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
G. L. Nute, The Voyageur. (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1955).
The Voyageur quotation is given by: M. Savage, Early Voyageurs: The Incredible
Adventures of the Fearless Fur Traders. (Canmore, AB: Altitude Publishing, 2003).
(My thanks to Dr. Ali Daneshy for this book.)
In the audio portion of this episode, we've include snippets of Tracks No. and
of the recording Canot d'Écorce: Les Fils du Voyageur, sung by the group
Heartistry. To listen to more fragments of their Voyageur songs, or to
obtain their CDs, go to:
The Bluegrass piece in the audio portion is taken from Angels Rock Me to Sleep, by Bill
Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Live Recordings 1956-1959, Smithsonian Folkways recordings,
1995, Track 9.