Born and raised on the Magdalen Islands, Jerome Arsenault, also known as Vilbon le Violoneux, is an excellent traditional fiddler with a repertoire that reflects old Acadian tune sources, Québécois tunes translated to the islands via either older players or possibly radio stations, and many other genres (he participates in a bluegrass hoedown weekly at The Wheel Club in Montreal and even played in a Russian ballet in the 1980s). Yann Falquet and I (Devon Léger), visited Jerome at his apartment in Chateaugay (a suburb of Montreal) in May 2014. A police officer for many years, first in the suburb of Outremont and then in Montreal, Jerome has worked hard to connect Madelinots (Magdalen Islanders) living off the islands. In the nearby town of Verdun he helped found a large social club for Madelinot and had a local park renamed “le parc des madelinots”. He remembers a time when there were a good number of Acadian fiddlers in Montreal (Aurelien Jomphe was a name that came up, and Jerome lent us a cassette tape of him to digitize), but it seems now that he’s the last of the old guard. As a side note, young Montréalais fiddler Matthieu Gallant is a fellow Madelinot fiddler who’s quite a lot younger, but learned from Bertrand Deraspe and plays some lovely Acadian fiddle tunes as well as a wide selection of tunes from the Montreal québécois jams. Jerome still plays, though not a lot, and retains some of the power that was his hallmark in his youth. He tells wonderful, colorful stories, often long stories that wind around and around before getting to the punchline. In his work and through his generous spirit he’s met many famous people and was pleased to show us photos of himself with politicans, celebrities, even Joe Frazier, the great boxing champ. The best photo shows legendary Québécois politician René Levesque trying out Jerome’s fiddle while he looks on! His stories are impressive as well, especially the time that he busted a young, hippified Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, future Prime Minister of Canada, in a Montreal park for his long hair. He made Trudeau report to the police station the next day with a haircut, which Trudeau did! Sounds like Jerome was a tough cop!
Jerome Arsenault is best known for the LP he recorded in 1977 under the pseudonym Vilbon le Violoneux. It took us a while to confirm that Vilbon was not his given name, but it turns out he chose the name for the recording in honor of his much-loved grandfather (on his mother’s side), Vilbon Arsenault, a blacksmith (forgeron) from the Magdelans. Jerome was born in Havre-Aubert in 1932, making him 84 in 2014. His father was Azade Arsenault (not the same Azade as the one listed as the source for the amazing tune “Rigodon au p’tit Azade” on his LP) and his mother was Hilda Poirier, the adopted daughter of the original Vilbon. Jerome was one of six children, and the family lived on a large homestead. They had livestock (cows, sheep, chickens, pigs) and grew most of their own food. According to him, the family only bought suger and flour at the general store (his father bought huge sacks of flour to share with neighbors during the winter). Jerome’s first instrument was the harmonium (he started playing when he was 4), a kind of pump organ common in Atlantic Canada and often used to accompany fiddle tunes. After receiving the gift of a fiddle from an older brother, he began playing more fiddle and learning tunes from fiddlers in the surrounding region. Most of the tunes on his LP are listed as a Rigodon from so-and-so, who got it from so-and-so. Jerome talked a bit about these individual sources like the other Azade, who wasn’t a great fiddler and only had one tune to share, but also Onésime (last name??), or Charlie McKay. McKay was an interesting case, being an Anglo fiddler living in the far North of the island. On the LP, Jerome refers to the songs as “rigodons”, something he says is common in the islands, though I’ve found few examples of this. He also says that rigodon can be used to mean tunes particularly popular during Christmas. On the album, and from the few tunes we were able to record for him, there’s a strong connection between older Acadian fiddling styles and strong Québécois influences. Perhaps more so than in the fiddling of Jerome’s friend, the great Madelinot fiddler Bertrand Deraspe.
As a young man, Jerome played often for social dances on the island, which sound like informal affairs. He also played a lot for weddings, which he said typically lasted three days and brought the community together. The Fall was the best time for music, since the fishing was over by then and folks needed something to do. Jerome was much loved as a fiddler, both on the Islands and later in Montreal, where his penchant for social organizing and his charismatic personality made him a popular figure in the 1970s and 80s especially. He left the Islands as a young man in 1951 and found work in the mines of Ontario before moving to Montreal to work as a police officer for the town (later suburb) of Outremont. He worked as a police officer for the rest of his professional career, and was known popularly as “le policier violoneux” (the fiddling policeman). It’s funny that Jerome lived for years in Montreal, but when we went looking for him, none of the Montreal québécois musicians had any idea he was there. Our hope is that more folks in Montreal today will discover his music once they realize that he’s still living in the area and once they see what a charming, generous fellow he is! After recording the album in 1977, something he said he did mainly for the pleasure of it, Jerome hadn’t really been heard from in the larger circles of French-Canadian music, though his album remained and remains a touchstone of the genre of traditional Acadian fiddling. It’s great to have him back!
Contact Devon Leger (firstname.lastname@example.org) for Jerome’s contact information if you’d like to talk to him directly. He’s a charming guy!
Many thanks to the people who helped track down Jerome: Bertrand Deraspe from the Magdalens who made most of the connections, Yann Falquet who made the trip out with me, Léo Thériault who passed along Jerome’s phone number and address, Gilles Garand of La Grande Rencontre for bringing me out in the first place, and Matthieu Gallant who worked with Bertrand to make the connections. And of course the most thanks to Jerome Arsenault dit Vilbon le Violoneux for a lovely visit!