The Log Driver’s Waltz

Canada Vignettes: The Log Driver’s Waltz
Canada Vignettes: La valse du maître draveur
country: Canada
year: 1978
director: John Weldon
studio: NFB
length: 3’28”
style: mixed media, hand-drawn, cutouts

The Log Driver’s Waltz is one of the NFB’s most popular animated shorts.  Made as part of the series Canada Vignettes, which has aired on Canadian TV since the late 1970s, The Log Driver’s Waltz was also released theatrically in Canada and did well overseas (learn more). The popularity of the song led to it being one of 5 films chosen by Canada Post this spring to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the NFB with postage stamps.

 Many Canadians who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, take a nostalgic delight in both the song and the animation – it has deep resonances in my family in particular because my paternal great-grandfather, who immigrated to Canada from Alsace-Lorraine,was a log driver.  My father speaks fondly of how strong his grandfather was because of his work, able to perform acrobatic tricks even in old age. 
The music
The song “The Log Driver’s Waltz”, performed in French as “La valse du maître draveur”, was composed by Wade Hemsworth (1916-2002), a surveyor and draftsman by day who performed in folk clubs at night.  He was not a prolific songwriter, but three of his songs – “The Log Driver’s Waltz”, “The Wild Goose”, and “The Black Fly Song” have become Canadian classics.  In fact, “The Black Fly Song”, also performed by the McGarrigle Sisters, was also made into an animated short by Christopher Hinton called Blackfly for the NFB in 1991.
The McGarrigle sisters, Kate (1946-2010, mother of Rufus and Martha Wainright) and Anna (b.1944), with their beautiful harmonies, were already at the forefront of the Canadian folk music scene in the 1970s when “The Log Driver’s Waltz” was made.  They are accompanied by Jack Nissenson and Peter Weldon – members of their 1960s folk group The Mountain City Four. The two men continue to perform in a group called The What Four with Marvin Segal, John Knowles and sometimes Jane McGarrigle.

Using the animation to teach about Canadian culture

The animation begins with black and white documentary footage of log drivers at work.  As the instrumental prelude nears an end and the song begins, a lone log driver heading downstream transforms into brightly painted animation. He then transforms into a caricature recognizable to all Canadians as a Quebecer (variant spellings: Quebecker, FR: Québécois) in a traditional rural costume.  A partner film that I use when teaching about Quebec culture is the short documentary Les raquetteurs (Michel Brault/Gilles Grouly, 1958) about a snowshoeing festival in the city of Sherbrooke, Quebec.  The snowshoers are in traditional costume complete with long toques.  The key elements of this costume are the checked shirt – which fans of Monty Python  will recognize from The Lumberjack Song – and the toque (variant spellings: tuque/touque), the Canadian variant of the knit cap.  The tuque is believed to have originated with the coureurs de bois (lit: runner of the woods), French-Canadian and Métis travelling woodsmen who traded fur.  It is said that they kept their woollen nightcaps on during the day for warmth. 
The red toque worn by the log driver is particularly associated with Quebec national identity.  It became a symbol of French-Canadian nationalism during the Lower Canada Rebellion (FR: Patriotes Rebellion) of 1837 and was revived as a patriotic symbol by the separatists in 1960s.  In Anglophone Canada, the tuque was popularized by comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas in the roles of Bob and Doug McKenzie in the sketch comedy “Great White North” on the television series SCTV.
Activities to do with students:
  • Spot the Canadian icons / stereotypes: lumberjack, moose, beaver, toques.  Brainstorm: What other symbols do you associate with Canada?
  • Learn and sing the song (sheet music)
  • Design your own tuque – show examples of tuque (short/long, with/without the pompom / woollybobble) and have the students draw their own unique tuque.  Knitting a hat might be for the more adventurous teacher, but it is quite easy to make the pompom with very little prep work. 
FILM CREDITS / GÉNÉRIQUE DU FILM
director / réalisateur
John Weldon
producer / producteur
David Verrall
animation
John Weldon
music / musique 
Kate McGarrigle
Anna McGarrigle
The Mountain City Four

https://www.nfb.ca/film/log_drivers_waltz/embed/player

“This lighthearted, animated short is based on the song “The Log Driver’s Waltz” by Wade Hemsworth. Easily one of the most often-requested films in the NFB collection, Kate and Anna McGarrigle sing along to the tale of a young girl who loves to dance and chooses to marry a log driver over his more well-to-do competitor. Driving logs down the river has made the young man the best dancing partner to be found.”

https://www.onf.ca/film/canada_vignettes_la_valse_du_maitre_draveur/embed/player

« Animation décrivant l’histoire d’une jeune femme qui repousse les prétendants qu’on lui destine parce qu’elle est obnubilée par un draveur, qui finalement l’entraînera dans une valse effrénée. Une joyeuse animation entremêlée de métrage d’archives sur la drave. Avec une chanson interprétée par les sœurs McGarrigle. »
English Lyrics / Paroles anglaises:
If you should ask any girl from the parish around
What pleases her most from her head to her toes
She’ll say “I’m not sure that it’s business of yours
But I do like to waltz with the log driver.”
CHORUS
For he goes birling down and down white water
That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly.
He’s birling down and down white water
A log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely.
When the drive’s nearly over I like to go down and watch
All the lads as they work on the river.
I know that come evenin’ they’ll be in the town
And we all like to waltz with the log driver.
CHORUS
For he goes birling down and down white water
That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly.
He’s birling down and down white water
A log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely.
To please both my parents I’ve had to give way
And dance with the doctors and merchants and lawyers.
Their manners are fine but their feet are of clay
But there’s none with the style of my log driver.
CHORUS
For he goes birling down and down white water
That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly.
He goes birling down and down white water
A log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely.
Now I’ve had my chances with all sorts of men
But none is so fine as my lad on the river
So when the drive’s over, if he asks me again
I think I will marry my log driver.
CHORUS
For he goes birling down and down white water
That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly.
He’s birling down and down white water
A log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely.
Birling down and down white water
A log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely.
Vocabulary:
log driver: (PQ: le draveur) a person who drives logs down the river.
log driving (FR: le flottage du bois / PQ: la drave) (see: Wikipedia) was a method of
transporting logs by river from a forest upstream to sawmills downstream in
North America and Europe.  The log driver would ride along with the logs and use their pike poles (see: Wikipedia) to prevent logs from jamming up.
parish: (FR: une paroisse) a church territorial unit constituting a division of a diocese.  In the time of log driving (19th century – early 20th century), the church would have been the centre of rural communities.
birling: (FR: voliger) English for spinning or whirling; log birling as a sport is also called logrolling (see: Wikipedia)
the drive: (PQ: la drave) an abbreviation of “log drive” – OED Defn. 3: “an organized effort by a number of people to achieve a purpose”
feet of clay: this biblical idiom (Daniel 2:31-33) usually means that a person has weaknesses.  In this context; however, it suggests that the men are heavy-footed, unlike the agility of the log driver.
lad: boy or young man.  This British word usage is uncommon in Canada, but could be heard in communities settled by the Scottish or the Irish.   
References:
Ohayon, Albert.  “Canada Vignettes: Essential Canadiana, eh!NFB blog, November 16, 2011.
McGarrigle, Anna.  Official website of Kate and Anna McGarrigle.
Rosholt, Malcolm.  Lumbermen on the Chippewa, Rosholt House, 1982.
Rosholt, Malcolm.  The Wisconsin Logging Book, 1839-1939, Rosholt House, 1980.
The Patriotes Rebellion, Quebec 1837-1839, Marxists Internet Archive.
Thrills of the Spring Log Drive”, Popular Mechanics (February 1931), pp. 242-47.  A contemporary description of a log drive in Quebec

by: Cathy Munroe Hotes, originally published July 11, 2014

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