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Quand on est voltigeur


Quand on est voltigeur

music Mike Ford, words Mike Ford & Gilbert Bélisle


Quand on est voltigeur

Un homme prêt à tout

Quand on est voltigeur

On devient fou

On t’échange tes rêves

On t’vole l’cœur

On te fait à croire

Que t’es beau, t’es galant

« Sale garnement! »

Quand on est voltigeur


Quand on est voltigeur

« Tu vois la frontière, y’a un patelin

Quand on est voltigeur

Va semer le chagrin »

Tu défiles le jour

Tu t’faufiles la nuit

Tu t’éloignes du fleuve

Tu t’éloignes de la vie

Maudit faiseur de veuves

Quand on est voltigeur


Quand on est voltigeur

Pendant la bataille on crie des noms

Quand on est voltigeur

Au-dessus les canons

On s’souvient de son nom

De sa ville le nom

De son frère le nom

De sa mère le nom

De ma belle le « Non! »

Quand on est voltigeur


Quand on est voltigeur

Des copains avec toi à la vie à la mort

Quand on est voltigeur

Mais après les combats

Sur ta béquille accoté

Vieux chapeau tout troué

À quêter ton souper

T’es si vite oublié

C’est de toi qu’on a peur

Quand on est voltigeur





The most famous fighting group in Quebec, or Lower Canada, during the War of 1812/13/14, were those assembled under Lieutenant Colonel Charles de Salaberry (and later under Major Frederick Heriot) les Voltigeurs Canadiens. Among other engagements, they were central to Canada’s defence at The Battles of Crysler’s Farm and Chateaugauy.

My song doesn’t go into their history, but instead imagines the thoughts of a young Voltigeur at war’s end. The narrator here is someone who was enticed by the promises of glory that most soldiers were given (see/listen to the song “Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles”) and the tales of daring adventure they heard (see/listen to “The Chesapeake & The Shannon”). Unfortunately, for this soldier, the experience has turned out quite different – he feels betrayed by those who made the promises, ashamed of his role, estranged from his home and family, and in his crippled post-war state, shunned by the world. Of course there would have been veteran Voltigeurs who felt proud of their exploits, were regaled by society, and had productive and enviable lives after 1814. This song’s narrator, for any number of imaginable reasons, is not among them.

I believe that songs cannot truly be translated – to do so accurately requires writing a whole new song in the new language. If one does not speak French, perhaps the best way to get the meaning of a song in French is to use a dictionary and explore as many of the lyrics as possible. Feeding the lyrics into a translation app will give a completely ridiculous result, and simply ‘looking up’ the lyrics word-for-word doesn’t reveal much more. To understand what a song might be saying, I prefer exploring the song’s key words, and then listening to the song repeatedly.

That said, I’ve attempted to write an quick English version of the song below, for anyone who is looking to understand the lyrics but may not have the time for the method described above. The word Voltigeur, in this context, translates as ‘light infantryman’. For the English version, I’ve just left it as ‘Voltigeur’.

When you’re a Voltigeur

You can stand any pain

When you’re a Voltigeur

You can go insane

They steal your dreams

They steal your heart

They make you believe

You’re handsome and smart

But you’re just a useless brat from the start

When you’re a Voltigeur


When you’re a Voltigeur

They show you the frontier

When you’re a Voltigeur

That’s were you’ll spread tears

You march through the day

And stumble through the night

Leave behind the Big River

Leave behind your life’s light

You’re a widow-maker in flight

When you’re a Voltigeur


When you’re a Voltigeur

During battle, the names cry out

When you’re a Voltigeur

Above the cannons you hear yourself shout

The sound of your own name

Of your town – the name

Of your brother – the name

Of your mother – the name

And of your girl – the shame

When you’re a Voltigeur


When you’re a Voltigeur

Your pals are with you through thick and thin

When you’re a Voltigeur

But when peacetime begins

Broken crutch by your leg

Old hat on the street

For your dinner to beg

You’re forgotten and beat

Children see you and retreat

When you’re a Voltigeur




Discussion Questions

1.The character in this song feels betrayed by the images of war he is given before enlisting. Do soldiers today have a clearer picture of what to expect?

2.What is the Fleuve or ‘big river’ that is referred to in this song?

3.Why does the song, in verse three, end so many lines with the same word? Is it meant to conjure up a particular sound of battle?

4.The song’s character finds himself broken and forgotten after the war. Does this happen in today’s world, or are veterans given adequate care and respect?


Related Activities

1.The song ends on a seemingly hopeless note – but is does the story have to end there? Compose a letter as if you are someone in the town who has befriended the veteran Voltigeur, showing what his experiences are after the song’s sad ending. Do things change? How?

2.Music: The song is recorded in a slow ballad form, in the key of XX – quite suitable for instrumental improvising. Using a woodwind, brass, or stringed instrument, find notes and musical phrases that work along with the recording and play them over top.

3.Music: Using the recording, create a counter-melody of just a few words, just a few long-held notes, that can be sung over top – perhaps they are the voices of his family at home, or of his comrades, or the wind.