Rosier’s New Song is a Haunting Medieval French Murder Ballad
If you’re looking for a breath of fresh air from the frozen North, turn to French-Canadian band Rosier, whose new album merges the balladry of old France with fresh new sounds from Montréal’s streets. Made up of the children of prominent folklorists and master traditional artists, Rosier have grown up deep in the Québécois tradition and have internalized the old songs in a way that only an artist who listened to this music in the womb can understand. They’re able to take old songs and craft entirely new settings that are as informed by indie rock or new-wave Québécois music as they are by the tradition. Rosier have been the group to watch amongst the next generation of roots musicians in Québec for some time now and their new album cements their place as one of the bands pushing the tradition forward the fastest. Rosier’s newest LP, Légèrement, is coming January 29, 2021 and Folk Alley is happy to premiere the song “La Poison” (The Poison) from the album!
“La Poison” is an old ballad collected by the great Canadian folklorist Marius Barbeau (the Alan Lomax of Canada) from the singing of Zéphirin Dorion in Québec. Dorion was Acadian, and the song itself relates to the “Dame Lombarde” family of songs that are often from Acadian sources, though originally they came from medieval France. Rosier’s version is beautiful, anchored by the glorious singing of Béatrix Méthé, but don’t think for a second that this is a love song. It’s part of a truly disturbing and strange family of songs that provide instruction for women looking to murder their husbands. Rosier’s version of the song hints at the story here, but as is often the case, the darker elements of this song have been left out. In other versions I’ve heard, a woman looking to kill her husband asks her neighbor for advice. The neighbor tells her to go to the woods and find a black snake. Cut off the snake’s head, place it in a glass, and cover the snake’s head with a generous pouring of wine. The song becomes almost a recipe for how to murder your husband. Wait until your husband has returned from working in the fields. He will be hot and sweaty and desperate for a drink. Give him the glass of wine and he will drink from it. From there, the song pivots to become a truly graphic account of the husband’s death as he falls to the ground twitching and foaming and kicking and finally dies. It’s a terrifying blend of black magic and straight-up murder, made all the worse in its presentation as almost having been ripped from a cookbook. Only a Catholic country where divorce was illegal could come up with a song like this and indeed French Canada (and possibly other Catholic countries like Ireland) is rife with songs about hideous husbands, awful wives, and murder for all. In Rosier’s version, the song has been a bit more sanitized and is more mysterious. The wife offers the husband a glass of water instead and there’s no mention of the snake. All the same, when the wife pours the water, it turns black in the glass. The suspicious husband asks her to drink it first and she declines. The song ends with her cursing her neighbor for teaching her to kill and asking Death to come for her.
Along with two new English language songs of their own composition, most of the songs on Rosier’s new album are drawn from old sources, some from medieval France, some just left over from that period but still remembered in Québec today. The love in these songs is still raw after all these centuries, and you get the impression that the souls that were damned from this love gone wrong still linger in the lyrics. Some songs, like “Pontoise”, came from a communal trauma so powerful (the burning and massacre of an entire town after three soldiers were hanged) that the song is still unsettling today, but other songs tell more common stories of love lost and love returning, sometimes through war, sometimes through the front door of a tavern, sometimes in the form of a nightingale flying in your window. The stories have been fragmented, their stories left missing key details, information that could place them historically, or even make sense of a narrative that’s slowly becoming more and more mysterious. It’s proof that even if love can last through the centuries, the story may not. Working with songs so old that they might as well be stained glass panels on a cathedral, Rosier prove that they can make this music sound as hauntingly fresh as the day that first heartbroken poet wrote the song.
Légèrement is available HERE.