The name Marius Barbeau is synonymous with the pioneering and founding of traditional Canadian folklore and music studies.
He was born in 1883 in Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, Quebec into a musical family: his mother was a trained pianist and his father a singer. After graduating in anthropology from Oxford University, Barbeau began his career at the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa.
During a conference in Washington, DC, fellow anthropologist Franz Boos suggested Barbeau explore the cultural significance of the songs and stories of the French Canadian community. In 1913, he subsequently began to collect examples of traditional French folk stories and songs.
In 1916, Barbeau began to study the traditional folklore of Native people including the Huron Indians. On his journeys, he brought along his phonograph, wax cylinders and a camera. By 1946, he had recorded an astounding 8,000 traditional songs, making him one of the first Canadian ethnographers to gather wax cylinders of folk songs throughout Quebec.
Barbeau’s research in the field of Native studies took him across the country and grew to include the mapping of the customs, legends, arts, and social organizations of Native cultures in the Western and Prairie regions. In Quebec, his extensive research, recordings and articles about the lifestyles of the French Canadians helped define and popularize the province’s distinctive songs, folk legends and popular and traditional art.
In the words of Barbeau: “In order to create good music you have to have basic material somewhere and this is in our folk music either Indian or French-Canadian or Scottish or Irish. These have to be consulted and absorbed by the creators, the composers. If they don’t do that, they miss the boat. In the past it has happened that way. All the great composers have used the music they knew in their own churches, in plain chants, in Gregorian chants. From Vivaldi on, they all based themselves on the knowledge of their own native music.”
Renowned as the premiere specialist in traditional folklore and music, Barbeau’s work won international acclaim. According to Canada’s Museum of Civilization, he was a three-time award winner of Quebec’s prestigious Prix David, the recipient of honorary doctorates from the Universities of Montreal and Oxford, and was named a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Barbeau continued his work as an ethnologist and anthropologist at the National Museum of Man until he retired in 1948. Until his death in 1969, Marius continued to research traditional customs and folklore. His writings total more than 1,000 books and articles and he has left 40 linear feet of manuscripts and more than 100 linear feet of research notes. Barbeau’s research collection of photographs, detailed geographical data, documentation of legends and mythologies, sketches, musical transcriptions and linguistic data research remains unmatched to this day.