Marius Barbeau | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Marius Barbeau

Charles Marius Barbeau, CC, FRSC, anthropologist, ethnologist, folklorist, ethnomusicologist (born 5 March 1883 in Ste-Marie-de-Beauce, QC; died 27 February 1969 in Ottawa, ON).

Barbeau, Marius
Barbeau was the founder of professional folklore studies in Canada and was one of the first collectors of folk songs (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-34447).

Marius Barbeau was a pioneering anthropologist and the founder of professional folklore studies in Canada. He worked at the National Museum (now the Canadian Museum of History) from 1911 until the late 1960s, collecting a vast archive of thousands of traditional songs, texts and artifacts — especially of French Canadian and Aboriginal peoples. Barbeau also founded the Archives de folklore at Université Laval and several folklore groups. He was especially successful in bringing ethnology and folklore to the Canadian public through several prizewinning books, as well as tireless lecturing and teaching. He received many honours and awards, and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Early Years and Education

Barbeau studied music as a child with his mother and took his classical studies at the Collège de Ste-Anne-de-la-Pocatière. He went on to earn a BA and a law degree at Université Laval. After receiving a Rhodes Scholarship in 1907, he studied anthropology, archeology and ethnology at Oriel College, Oxford (1907–10). He also took summer courses in Paris at the École des hautes études de la Sorbonne and at the École d'anthropologie. In Paris he met Marcel Mauss, who encouraged him to study North American Aboriginal folklore, and Raoul and Marguerite d'Harcourt, who aroused his interest in the musical culture of early Aboriginal civilizations.

Early Career

Barbeau returned to Canada in 1910, and was hired the next year as anthropologist and ethnologist at the Museum Branch of the Geological Survey of Canada (which became the National Museum in 1927 and is now the Canadian Museum of History). In the spring of 1911, on a Huron reserve in Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, near Québec City, he began a series of recordings on Edison wax cylinders. He pursued his research with the Huron at Lorette for three years, and also spent time at the Quapaw reserve in Oklahoma.

In 1912, a delegation of chiefs from western Alberta, from the Rocky Mountains, and from Salish near the Fraser and Thomson rivers came to Ottawa to discuss territorial issues with the government. Barbeau took this opportunity to record some 60 songs. During the course of another excursion, he visited (and grew interested in the mythology of) other people, among them the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Wendat. Through his encounters with the Wendat Lorette, he came across aspects of French folklore, and the mixture of French-Canadian and Indigenous tales stimulated his interest in French-Canadian folklore. His 1914 meeting with the US anthropologist Franz Boas encouraged him to pursue his research in this vein.

Career Highlights

Barbeau worked in the US and across Canada, in particular with the Tsimshian in British Columbia. The Tsimshian myth of an ancient migration from a distant homeland convinced him that they had journeyed across the Bering Sea from Asia within living memory. While anthropologists no longer accept this hypothesis, it was a powerful motive for Barbeau's activity over the years, aided by Tsimshian chief William Beynon, in recording the tribe's traditional lore in order to preserve the legacy of a fading past in the face of the pressures of the industrial age.

In 1916, Barbeau set off on a recording expedition along the St. Lawrence River, determined to refute the assumption that Ernest Gagnon, in his Chansons populaires du Canada (Québec, 1865), had published all the traditional French songs there were to be found. In Barbeau’s first investigation in the counties of Charlevoix and Chicoutimi, he was able to gather, in notation and recordings, more than 500 songs and several folk legends — enough material to prove his point. An initial field trip among Northwest Coast Aboriginal peoples in 1914 was followed by many subsequent visits. Edward Sapir and Sir Ernest MacMillan taught him how to set down folk tunes in musical notation.

In 1918, Barbeau became president of the American Folklore Society, of which he had been a member since 1911. He became assistant editor of the Journal of American Folklore starting in 1915. In 1916, he was elected to membership in the Royal Society of Canada, and in 1933 he became president of its francophone section. He was named a Fellow in 1950. In 1917, he reconstituted the Canadian Society of Folklore in two divisions, in order to more effectively serve the separate needs of the provinces of Québec and Ontario in the collection.

By 1939, he was a member of the Washington Academy of Sciences, the Canadian Authors Association and the Société des écrivains canadiens. He gave his first series of courses in human geography at the University of Ottawa in 1942. In 1945, he joined the faculty of letters at Université Laval, where, in 1942, he began lecturing during the summer. (The Archives de folklore at Université Laval was established in 1944.)

He retired from the National Museum in 1948, but kept up his private research. For many more years, he devoted himself to the transcription and publication of the folk tunes and texts he had collected during his expeditions. From 1956 to 1963, he served as president of the Canadian Society for Traditional Music, which he also co-founded.

In 1963, on Radio-Canada, he presented his reminiscences and findings in a series of eight programs called “Le Rossignol y chante” for the Images du Canada series. His interests were wide-ranging and covered not only music, folklore and ethnology but also art in general — sculpture, architecture, embroidery, culinary arts and painting. He was also interested in the origin and history of the West Coast Aboriginal peoples as revealed in their totem poles. In linguistics, he revealed the relationship between the Huron and Iroquois languages. He contributed articles to many periodicals, among them La Revue canadienne, La Revue populaire, Scientific American, the Bulletin of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, Le Canada français, Culture, La Revue de l'Université d'Ottawa, Journal of American Folklore, Saturday Night, the Beaver and the Canadian Forum.


Throughout the 1920s, Evelyn Bolduc, Gustave Lanctot, Adélard Lambert and É.-Z. Massicotte were inspired largely by Barbeau. With Massicotte, Barbeau established the Soirées du bon vieux temps in 1919, held at the Bibliothèque St-Sulpice (BN du Q). François Brassard, Luc Lacourcière and Joseph-Thomas Leblanc were his principal disciples in the 1930s.

In Dictionnaire pratique des auteurs Québécois (Montréal, 1976), Réginald Hamel wrote of Barbeau: “A tireless seeker, he was the first to open up the field of scientific research in the realm of folklore.” Barbeau was the first in Canada to document precisely the location and the date of collection, and the singer's name for each song gathered; the first to transcribe the tunes in a precise manner and to comment on the structure, semantics and prosody of the verse. He left 13,000 original texts and variants of Aboriginal and French songs, 8,000 with tunes. He transcribed in syllabic notation the lyrics of more than 3,000 Aboriginal songs and invented a system of notation for their music. Considering that he was virtually self-taught, his ability to transcribe the music recorded on his cylinders was remarkable.


On three occasions — in 1925, 1929 and 1945 — Barbeau received the Prix David for his literary works. In 1937, he was named president of the National Consulting Committee for the Protection of Canadian Wildlife. In 1946, he received the Parizeau Medal at the 14th congress of the Association canadienne-française pour l'avancement des sciences.

A branch of the Laval public library and an Ottawa elementary school are named after him, as is the Centre Marius-Barbeau, a Montréal cultural centre dedicated to the arts and folk traditions of Québec and Aboriginal people in all their diversity. In 1969, the highest mountain in the Canadian Arctic was christened Barbeau Peak. In 1985, a street in Montréal’s Rivière-des-Prairies district was named Rue Marius Barbeau. Also that year, Barbeau was recognized as a “person of national historic importance” by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and the Marius-Barbeau Medal was established by the Folklore Studies Association of Canada. It has been awarded to Edith Butler, LaRena Clark and Germain Lemieux, among others.

A bronze head of Barbeau by Russian-Canadian sculptor Eugenia Berlin is held at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Most of Barbeau’s papers can be found at the Salle Marius-Barbeau, in the Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies, a division of the Canadian Museum of History; a collection is also held at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec in Montréal.

See also: Franco-Canadian Folk Music.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.


Prix David, Province of Québec (1925, 1929, 1945)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, Université de Montréal (1940)

Honorary Fellow, Oriel College, University of Oxford (1941)

Parizeau Medal, Association canadienne-française pour l'avancement des sciences (1946)

Lorne Pierce Medal, Royal Society of Canada (1950)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, Université Laval (1952)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Oxford (1953)

Canada Council Medal, Canada Council for the Arts (1962)

National Award, University of Alberta (1965)

Diplôme d'honneur, Canadian Conference of the Arts (1968)

Companion, Order of Canada (1967)


The Downfall of Temlaham (1928).

Québec: Where Ancient France Lingers (1936).

Marius Barbeau and Edward Sapir, Folk Songs of French Canada (1925).

“How the Folksongs of French Canada were Discovered,” Canadian Geographical Journal vol. 49 (August 1954).

I Was a Pioneer (transcription of a 1965 interview with Laurence Nowry), National Museum Oracle vol. 43 (Ottawa, 1982).

See also: Bibliographies for Christmas Music; Ethnomusicology; Folk Music; Franco-Canadian Folk Music.

Further Reading

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