La Guillonée *
A French New Years’ Eve Custom
Kent Beaulne dit Bone
A 1956 recording of a traditional song in celebration of the New Year, sung in the dialect of Missouri's PawPaw French, is available here: Side A has the song, side B the (English) narration. Colby Emily of K14 school, Old Mines transferred the music to MP3. Dave Doiron supplied the photo of the Prairie du Rocher group. Art Papin supplied the photo of the Ste Genevieve group. Other photos are by Kent Bone.
The story of this song and custom has been written many times. Once common in a dozen settlements of Upper Louisiana, it survives in 2014 only at Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, and Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. La Guillonée, (pronounced gee-o-nee) is also spelled Guignolée or Gui-année, (pronounced geen-yo-lay and gee-ah-nay). The older folks of all three towns call it “the gee-o-nee.”
Until the 1950s, the gee-o-nee was still run in some French Creole towns and neighborhoods of Washington County, Missouri, but was near the end of its run. A short revival sponsored by a local historical society in the 1970s lasted a few years around Old Mines. Unfortunately it was too late for that generation to embrace it, due to assimilation of their parents, competition from New Years’ Eve dances, and a near total loss of the French language by anyone under 50. The desire by the younger generation to be “cool”, thereby abandoning the cultural trappings of the ancestors was probably the main reason. Curiously none of the folks who sing and run the Gee-o-nee at Ste. Genevieve and Prairie du Rocher are fluent francophones. Not being able to read French, they learn the song phonetically, these descendants of the towns’ French and German founders.
Both towns continue to hold their annual Kings Ball or “Bal du Roi.” Originally these were held on Epiphany, the date associated with the arrival of the three kings, with gifts for the Christ Child. In modern times the Balls are held on different weekends so folks can go to both events.
La Guillonée is what is known by folklorists as a begging ritual. Other examples are Christmas Caroling, Mumming, Halloween, Hogmanay, and Mardi Gras. A common theme in all of these is disguising oneself, and going from house to house asking for free stuff. Except for the Halloween run, which is for children, the participants are adults, and often with a belly full of booze. Anthropologists like to discuss these begging rituals in lofty terms about transmission of the culture with deeply rooted subtexts based in pre-Christian, Celtic origins. While this is true, the events are also a reason to party. With the Guillonée, and Mardi Gras runs, there is a capitain and a specific song for the event. The Guillonée would stop at various houses in the neighborhood where there was a table set and a party going on. They were fed and given drink with a promise to donate something for the Kings Ball on Epiphany, January 6th. In the Old Mines area, the revelers blackened their faces with soot or shoe polish. While some complain this is black face, and making fun of the black folks, others believe it is simply a symbol of death, the death of the old year. Under the old calendar system, Oct 31st was the last day of the year, therefore the Halloween similarities. The latter is probably closer to the truth as the people of Scotland often blacken their face as part of their New Years’ Eve Hogmanay run. There was little if any African slavery in Scotland. Revelers in other regions dress as Indians, buffoons, or Colonial habitants. It is interesting to note that with la Guillonée run and le Mardi Gras run of rural Louisiana, the leader and the fiddler does not disguise their selves. Also in both regions, the “paillasse,” or straw-man could be part of the event.
A Jan 3, 1938 article in the St Louis Post-Dispatch carried an interview with 82-year-old Etienne Edouard Roussin of St Clair. He describes the Guillonée as he remembers it at Richwoods in 1866. He talks about Peter Rulo, then well past 80, as the fiddler and group leader. Peter would have been born in 1786. According to Helen Vallé Boyster, resident of Richwoods, she remembers the Gee-o-nee coming to her grandma Courtaways’ house at Kingston, when she was young.
Potosi Weekly Journal 6th January, 1916 Mineral Point, Louis D. Bone:
Friday night at 11o’clock, while we were sleeping the sleep of the just, regardless of the fact that 1915 had just an hour to live, and 1916 was standing ready to take its place, we were awakened by loud stomping of feet on the porch of our home, and heard music floating in the air, and then we heard the voice of the leader sing these words “Bon soir, le Maître et la Maîtresse”. We realized that the La Guignolée party was here.
We got up, lit the lamp and did our best to get on the inside of our clothes, and after so long, succeeded, we opened the door and bid them come in. In a short time the room was packed, and young Battrel started to sing the Guignolée, Jess Sparks used the bow on the violin, and a colored gentleman played the guitar, and the dance was on. “Bon soir, le Maître et la Maîtresse” means “Good night to the Master and the Mistress. We promised to donate some thing for the Guignolée ball and the party left. Just as they got out in the yard, the Mistress came in and said, “Why did you let them go? I want to hear the old Guignolée once more.” We called them back; they played and repeated the old song to the delight of the Mistress.
She invited them to the basement and served cake, fruit juice and apples after which the Guignolée left, thanking the Master and Mistress for their kind treatment. Many years ago, when the Mistress lived at Ste. Genevieve, the Guignolée was highly appreciated and enjoyed by the people of that town, and hearing the old French song brought back memories of her younger days. “OLD IKE”
A Jan 18, 1951 story in the Independent Journal relates the following:
The passing of another New Year’s Eve with its singing of La Gaie-Année at Ste. Genevieve and Old Mines and Prairie du Rocher in Illinois brought back to many of the old time French families the recollection of the singing of the glad song as part of the folk festival of Richwoods and Old Mines. Many Washington County citizens have never heard the words of the old French song Gaie-Année and we are publishing the English translation of the New Year’s Eve ballad. The words were obtained from Mrs. Joe D. Casey. We suggest that every reader clip this song from the paper and next New Year join the Gaie-Année group in celebrating the first day of 1952.
“We used to wait all day for it to get dark for the Gee-o-nee, when we were kids. Aunt Josephine would set a table and folks would come over. All of a sudden there would be a bunch of jumping up and down on the porch and knocking on the door. It was the Gee-o-nee. They would have their faces blackened and acting silly, then they would come in, and sing their song. They would eat, and drink, and visite a while till they went on to the next cabin.” Torie Portell-Bone at Bottom Diggins.
A history of, and words and music to the song can be found in various publications at the Washington County Library.
In 1956 an interesting thing happened at Old Mines. The pastor of St Joachim Parish, Edward A. Bruemmer made an attempt to save and or revive the dying custom. The assistant priest, Joseph A. Capizzi, put together a deal with Frank Eschen of KSD TV to make a 45 rpm recording of the Guillonée song to distribute in the community and make money for the Parish. Frank Eschen was a well-known St Louis personality in his day. I was often curious what was the connection between these two, for this to happen. It seems Father Capizzi and Frank Eschen were buddies. In 2000 I found the following letters:
St. Joachim Church Old Mines Cadet, Route 1, Missouri
Mr. Canter, Technisonic Studio 1201 Brentwood Blvd. St Louis Nov 29, 1956
Dear Mr. Canter, In confirmation of our telephone conversation of Wednesday, the order was placed with you for 500 recordings, 45 rpm, double faced. The total amount of the contract being $185.00. The information that you requested for the label is as following:
Violin Accompaniment; Ralph Coleman. Solo; Steve Thebeau. Chorus; Nicholas Thebeau, Joseph Thebeau, Edgar Bequette, Roussan Bequette, Mrs. Frances [Magdalena] Robart, Lourdes Bequette. You may feel free to arrange this in any way that deems best. The date Oct. 1956 of the recording may be inserted in small letters.
Rev. Joseph A. Capizzi
KSD KSD TV The St Louis Post Dispatch Stations. Basic NBC Affiliate
Dec 6, 1956 Rev. Joseph A Capizzi St. Joachim’s Church
Dear Cap; I recorded your La Guignolée narration this morning in Father Schwienher’s office at the League of the Sacred Heart, and he in turn took it to Bud Harrison at Technisonic to be dubbed on to the records. By doing it on Sacred Heart tape and in the Sacred Heart studio, we saved you the studio fee of $12.50 which you would have to pay at Technisonic. The only compensation we ask of you is prayer and please listen to our program sometime.
I hope the records turn out well and that you have much success in selling them for the greater honor and glory of Old Mines and St Joachim’s Parish. Hope to see you soon. Give us a ring the next time you are at the Weber’s and maybe we can toast each other, if we can persuade Johnny to buy us some drinking whiskey.
Warmest regards, Sincerely, Frank Eschen
So now we know the connection between Capizzi and Eschen. Of the 500 copies pressed it is unknown how many are still floating around the community. I had heard stories of this record for years with the promises of several folks to dig it out for me. I wanted to make a tape copy of it. In 1995 Gary Vaught of DeSoto gave me a copy he found at the juke box company where he worked. It seems the record made it into several juke boxes of the time. I’ve been told it was on the juke box at Buck Courtaway’s Bar near Tin Can. By 2000 the digital age had arrived and Dennis Stroughmatt transferred the 45 rpm materials to a CD.
Side 1 of the record has a narration by Frank Eschen describing in English the custom and song. He states that the project is a fundraiser for the Parish of St Joachim. On the flip side are the 21 verses of the actual song, en français.
Miss Theresa “Plug” Coleman, relates how the song was recorded at her house at Racolla in only two tries. Frank Eschen brought a recording machine from St Louis. He sat on the bottom step and the kids were up at the top with orders to be quiet. Her husband Ralph was the fiddler.
Although the Gee-o-nee isn’t “run” in Northern Washington County any longer, the last nail hasn’t yet been driven into the coffin lid, as there are still lots of folks who know a few verses of the song. Many are in their 30s and 40s having been taught it at school.
There is a possibility that the 1956, 45 rpm recording may be available to buy as a CD next December. For the youngsters out there who are clueless as to what a 45 rpm is. Ask a grownup.
Be sure and check Old Mines French on the internet, a historical and cultural site of Will Thompson at the University of Memphis.
An old French Christmas Carol.
Par Kent Beaulne dit Bone
D’Où Viens-Tu Bergère? From where are you coming, shepherd?
1. D’où viens-tu bergère, D’où viens-tu? From where do you come shepherd,
from where do you come?
“Je viens de l’étable, de m’y promener. “I come from the stable, where I was walking by.
J’ai vu un miracle, ce soir arrive.” I’ve seen a miracle, arrive this night.”
2. Qu’as-tu vu, bergère, qu’as-tu vu? What have you seen shepherd, what have you seen?
“J’ai vu dans la crèche, un petit enfant. “I’ve seen in the manger, a little child.
Sur la paille fraiche, mis bien tendrement.” On the fresh straw, lay so tenderly.”
3. Est-il beau bergère, est-il beau? Is he handsome, shepherd, is he handsome?
“Plus beau que la lune, et que le soleil. “More handsome than the moon, and than the sun.
Jamais dans le monde, on ne vit son pareil.” Never in the world, have we seen his equal.”
4. Rien de plus bergère, rien de plus? Nothing else shepherd, nothing else?
“Saint Marie, sa mère, lui fait boir du lait. “Saint Mary, his mother was nursing him.
Saint Joseph son père, lui tremble de froid.” Saint Joseph his father trembled from the cold.”
5. Rien de plus bergère, rien de plus? Nothing else shepherd, nothing else?
“Il y a le boeuf et l’âne, que sont par devant. “There is an ox and an ass, in front.
Avec leur haleine, réchauffant l’enfant”. With their breath, warming the infant.”
6. Rien de plus bergère, rien de plus? Nothing else shepherd, nothing else?
“Il y a trois petits anges, descendus de ciel. “There are three little angels, descended from heaven.
Chantant les louagnes, du Père Éternal”. Singing the praises of the Eternal Father.”
The first line of each verse is a question from the narrator. The two verses following in quotes are the response of the shepherds. My English translation is not a literal one, but a more exact word for word, meant to show the meaning of the words, and to help in understanding the language as there are many cognates in the song. The translation is not meant to rhyme or be sung.
This song was collected in Washington County MO in the 1980s. I heard it sung by Ida & Genevieve Politte-Portell. It was also sung in Vincennes Indiana, and can be found with the musical score at the Washington Library, in the book Folksongs of Old Vincennes, Anna C. O’Flynn & Joseph Carrière. H. T. Fitzsimons Company. Chicago IL ©1946 Mister Carrière did much research and recording of songs and stories in Washington County in the mid- 1930s.
The authors write, “Christmas and New Year’s Day have remained the two greatest days of the year in French Canada. The spirit of Christmas there is still one of religious fervor and wonderment at this mystery of God made man to redeem humanity. Something of the touching faith of the stalwart men and the humble women folk who travel miles on a cold starry night to attend Midnight Mass permeates this simple song. This song was once very popular among the French people of Canada, Southern Illinois, and Southeastern Missouri.” This one and others would have been sung in churches of St Louis, St Charles, Florissant, Cahokia, Carandolet, Ste. Genevieve, Prairie du Rocher, Potosi, Old Mines, Richwoods, and Vincennes. The Frenchmen of Washington County did not live in a vacuum, but were connected to these other settlements over three centuries.
Another very popular Christmas carol “Il est né le divin enfant”, He is born, the divine infant is still sung today in French speaking regions.
In the early days of the colony of Louisiana, (which includes Missouri and Illinois) the Christmas tree was not often observed by the Créoles, if at all. They did bring evergreens into their homes to hang on the walls. One custom observed was the hanging of a large decorated wreath from the ceiling rafters. This can be seen today at some of the old homes in Ste. Genevieve, which has an annual Christmas tour of its French and German homes. Later in the 20th century with their assimilation in full swing, the tiff miners began bringing cedar trees into their homes to decorate for Christmas. They sometimes added candles to their trees in imitation of the stars. Several stories have been handed down of flaming trees being dragged out of the miners’ cabin to save the home.
Noël is the standard French word for Christmas, with “Joyeux Noël” being the common Christmas greeting, but “Bonne Christmisse” could be heard among the Creoles of Upper and Lower Louisiana. I’m not sure how or why this happened since the old Créole dialect has the word Noël, heard in songs and stories.