Henri Lacroix, harmonica player (1895-1962)

Henri Lacroix, the harmonica player, was one of the many folk musicians who recorded French-Canadian tunes in the 1930s. In his day, Lacroix made numerous 78-rpm recordings of Quebec's traditional music. His playing is still considered influential to musicians who carry on the traditions of Quebec music.

Born in Montréal in February of 1895, Henri Lacroix began experimenting with the harmonica at age nine. Like most folk musicians, he acquired his musical repertoire in the oral tradition, without any formal training.

Lacroix joined the Royal Navy in 1914, at age 19, and played with a Navy band in concerts at England's Crystal Garden. (It is not known what instrument Lacroix played in the Navy band. Other Canadians who used their musical abilities while in active service in the First World War include the famous Dumbells concert party, and pianist and songwriter Lt. Gitz Rice.)

The harmonica (known also in English as the "mouth organ" and in French as "musique à bouche") is a prominent instrument in Quebec folk music. The diatonic harmonica, which plays in a single musical key, was introduced to Canada in the 1800s. It quickly became a favourite - especially for folk dance music - because it was portable, cost little, and was fairly simple to play.

Lacroix's tour of duty ended in 1921 and he returned to Montréal. Lacroix continued performing in concerts in his spare time, while working at non-musical employment during the day. In the 1920s, he is known to have appeared in Conrad Gauthier's old-time folk music show "les Veillées du bon vieux temps" ("An Evening with the Good Old Days") at Montréal's Monument-National, along with such folk stars as Mary Bolduc and Ovila Légaré. Lacroix later also toured with Madame Bolduc's concert troupe, in the 1930s.

Lacroix's March 1927 recordings for the Starr label in Montréal (some of which were also released in the United States by Columbia) were among his earliest. Lacroix continued recording into 1928: for the Brunswick label, in April, in Plattsburgh, New York; for His Master's Voice, in August, in Montréal; and for Columbia, in November, in New York. Lacroix recorded as a solo musician and also led several ensembles. Recordings of his harmonica playing can be found under the names Trio d'Henri, Les Gais Villageois, Henri LaCroix et les Sérénadeurs canadiens, Quatuor Lacroix, and Henri et ses Habitants, among others. He also paired up with other folk musicians to record duos. For example, he returned to the Columbia recording studios in New York with Ovila Légaré in April 1928.

In all, Henri Lacroix is thought to have made 38 recordings by 1930, and an additional 100 recordings by 1939. This makes him one of the most prolific Quebecois recording artists of the difficult Depression years. In addition to the labels mentioned above, Lacroix's music was recorded on RCA Victor's Bluebird label.

A folk music star in his own right, Lacroix also accompanied such big-name performers as Conrad Gauthier, Isidore Soucy and Ovila Légaré. Like most Quebecois folk stars of the era, Lacroix performed on radio in the 1930s. This provided more exposure than disc sales, which fell off drastically during the Depression years. One such appearance was on the Montréal radio station CHLP, with fiddler J.O. LaMadeleine.

Lacroix's wide repertoire is representative of the traditional folk music of Quebec. He featured traditional dances such as marches, waltzes, reels and quadrilles, including such well-known pieces as "The Devil's Reel". In addition, Lacroix also performed many locally titled pieces that were probably of Canadian origin and possibly originated with him or his contemporaries. These locally titled tunes include "Reel du Saguenay" (about Quebec's Saguenay River), "Quadrille St-Henri" and "Marche de Dorval". Lacroix, like his contemporaries, also played tunes that had originated in the United States and become popular in Canada (see "Polka du Père Antoine", below).

The August 1929 Victor Records catalogue describes Lacroix as a "marvellous virtuoso of the harmonica". Among his best-remembered pieces are "Le Retour d'Henri" and "La Parade des ouvriers". In "Le Retour d'Henri", Lacroix not only plays the melody on his harmonica, but also simultaneously provides the rhythmic chords that accompany it. On this as on some other recordings, a guitar provides the only instrumental accompaniment; on others, piano, violin, drums, cowbell, Jew's harp, bones and even sandpaper can be heard. In "Polka du Père Antoine", recorded in 1932, a xylophone adds a modern dimension. This polka originates from the 1844 American tune, "Buffalo Gals". Lacroix's use of it illustrates the ease with which songs travelled across the border and were welcomed into the repertoires of Quebec musicians.

Decades after his Depression-era success, Lacroix's harmonica playing remains impressive. Several of his best recordings were re-released in 1982 by Folkways Records, on the fourth record of a set entitled Masters of French Canadian Music.

Selected recordings available

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  • Compo Company Ltd. fonds. Library and Archives Canada, MUS 16, MIKAN 206580
  • Encyclopedia of music in Canada. Edited by H. Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560
  • Gabriel Labbé fonds. Library and Archives Canada, MUS 245, MIKAN 213861
  • Labbé, Gabriel. Musiciens traditionnels du Québec (1920-1993). Montréal : VLB, 1995. 268 p. AMICUS 14357836
  • Les pionniers du disque folklorique québécois, 1920-1950. Montréal : L'Aurore, c1977. 216 p. AMICUS 21582
  • Masters of French Canadian music 4 [sound recording]. Selected by Gabriel Labbé. New York : Folklore Records, p1982. Publisher no. : RF 115 Folkway Records. AMICUS 5035912
  • Thérien, Robert. L'histoire de l'enregistrement sonore au Québec et dans le monde 1878-1950. Québec : Presses de l'Université Laval, 2003. 233 p. ISBN 2763779336. AMICUS 29903233
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