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Cajuns and Creoles

The February 1980 NPR broadcast of "Bon Cher Camarade" in the series "Folk Festival USA," traces the history of Cajuns and Creoles in southwestern Louisiana.

"Cajun" is a term used in south Louisiana for the people that originally lived in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1603. Though they had been under the rule of France, by 1713 they came under the rule of the British, and rather than swear allegiance to the British crown, they chose to maintain their independence in Nova Scotia. As a result of being French Catholic within what was then a British colony, the Cajuns, or Acadians as they were called then, came into conflict with the British.

Cajun boys fishing - Marion Post Wolcott/FSA(1940)By 1755 a large number of them, about 5,000, were deported by the British in ships, and their homes were burned and their farms were confiscated. It is this deportation that is referred to as Le Grand Dérangement.…Driven from their lands, the Acadians were scattered throughout the British colonies, Great Britain, France, and the West Indies.

They began a search for a new homeland, and from 1765 to 1785 a large number of exiled Acadians journeyed to Louisiana. Formerly French territory, Louisiana was under Spanish rule when they came, but the local officials were eager to develop the area and gave the newcomers land grants north and west of New Orleans.

The Acadians, or Cajuns as they came to be called in Louisiana, were primarily fishing, trapping, and farming people, petits habitants, or small farmers, in contrast to the French planter society for which Louisiana is also known.

Gradually the increased demand for land by new settlers caused many Cajuns to migrate into the swamp basins and out onto the prairies of southwest Louisiana. There they remained fairly isolated from mainstream America. The families that moved to the swamps and bayous maintained their individual customs, but those that moved to the prairies were bonded together by community life. As a result, the Cajuns that live today on those prairies have perhaps the strongest connection to the original Acadians and maintain traditions of language, religion, food, festival, and music that are the most old time.…

[T]he term "Creole" has evolved to its present day meaning through a pattern of cultural assimilation.…"Creole" in south Louisiana originally referred to the large French and Spanish planters, people of Old World descent born in the New World. These Creoles brought slaves, mainly through the French West Indies and from what later became French West Africa. Through intermingling with these slave populations, a new middle population emerged that was neither fully African nor fully European. It was an Afro-French population. And this middle population, sometimes referred to as the "Creoles of color" or "black Creoles" are the basis for what we now call Creole society.
— From "Bon Cher Camarade," 1980 radio program produced by Nick Spitzer for the National Public Radio series "Folk Festival USA." Archive Collection #55-56, FT1201-1202, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Social Life

The extended family provides the principal setting for Acadian [and Creole] social life. Large numbers of grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles gather regularly. The continual comings and goings within and between extended families exert a profound influence on the individual and on visiting outsiders as well.…

Creole trapper with daughter - Ben Shahn/FSA(1935)The social atmosphere at such gatherings— a lack of repressive attitudes, the free-wheeling gregariousness, enjoyment of life for its own sake, excited wagering on games, wildly funny stories, social and sexual attractions of dancing, and the continual festive atmosphere— all these contribute to the enjoyment of family life and its fundamental dominance on the lives of individual members.…

A principal rule of Acadian life is that no one is left out. This is why small babies are brought to the fais-do-do (dancehall) rather than being left at home with a baby sitter. Young children dance with elderly adults on the dance floor of bars and restaurants. Every child plays his or her role in the boucherie (rural butchery) or in the harvesting of crops. This spirit of gregariousness extends to adults as well, of course, and to fortunate strangers.
— From Cajun Country by Barry J. Ancelet, Jay D. Edwards, and Glen Pitre. U Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Louisiana's Cajun and Creole communities are often celebrated for their joie de vivre, and the strong work ethic they share can be overlooked. In the February 1980 NPR broadcast of "Bon Cher Camarade," Nick Spitzer comments on the spirit of cooperation and hard work that is characteristic of life in French Louisiana.

Cajuns [and Creoles] have often been characterized in terms of their public joie de vivre. It means "joy of life" if you translate it literally. It usually is an image that people have of Cajuns - always dancing, drinking and having a good time at festivals, at dance halls, what-have-you. But really there's more to life in French Louisiana than that, and contrasted to the value of joie de vivre is a strong sense of the religious life and particularly a strong sense of working hard. So you work hard and you play hard, and the two different kinds of values play off one another and give each other meaning.
— From "Bon Cher Camarade," 1980 radio program produced by Nick Spitzer for the National Public Radio series "Folk Festival USA." Archive Collection #55-56, FT1201-1202, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Louisiana French Renaissance Movement

Folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet notes in his moving and informed introduction to Philip Gould's beautiful photographic history, Cajun Music and Zydeco, that the mid-1970s were "a critical transitional period" for the resurgence of interest in Cajun culture and music. He attributes the first "Tribute to Cajun Music Festival," held in Lafayette on March 26, 1974, as heralding a "Louisiana French renaissance movement." Black Creoles became interested in preserving their distinctive French-influenced heritage and in the 1980s organized their own Zydeco Festival near Plaisance. Dry Wood was filmed at the forefront of this significant period, in 1972, two years before the first Cajun music festival and a decade before the seminal Zydeco festival. The contributions of Creole musicians Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin and Canray Fontenot were important to the development of both Cajun and Zydeco music.

Acknowledgements to: Contextual materials developed by Sally Council with Patricia Sawin, Daniel Patterson and Rob Roberts. B&W Photos from the 1940s are from the Farm Security Administration archive in the Library of Congress.

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