Cajun Country, Transcription
Edited by Daniel W. Patterson
(over background image of a patchwork quilt)
WITH ALAN LOMAX
ALAN LOMAX: America has a patchwork culture of the dreams and songs of all its people. This is Alan Lomax. Come with me now on an adventure in our marvelous patchwork culture.
DENNIS McGEE: Hello there, how're you all?
LOMAX: Nice to see you, Mr. McGee.
McGEE: Welcome to Eunice, sir. Thank you, pleasure. Pleasure, my pleasure.
McGEE (speaking in Cajun French, captioned in English): It’s raining. The rain is pouring. It’s running on the ground.
LOMAX (in French, with captions in English: You speak another language. It’s not French.
McGEE: Cajun. It’s Cajun—Cajun language. That’s what you call Cajun. I can’t talk French like you.
LOMAX: What makes a good Cajun, Dennis?
McGEE: A good Cajun, you got to be a sport, a good sport to be a Cajun. (laughs)
LOMAX: Like to gamble and flirt?
McGEE: Gamble and hunt the woman!
(Dennis McGee fiddling)
LACHE PAS LA PATATE!
(DON’T DROP THE POTATO!)
(Musicians identified: Michael Doucet and Canray Fontenot)
CANRAY FONTENOT: We went and got us some cigar box and we made us each a violin out of that cigar box. Then I said, “Where we gonna get some string?” “Well,” he said, “I got an idea again.” His mama had a brand new screen door!
(playing his fiddle and singing in French, with subtitles mostly in English)
O bon soir, Moreau (Oh, good night, Moreau)
(I know it’s time to leave.)
(scene shifts to dancing in a hall to a band playing and singing in French, with captions in English)
Hello little girl, I came to tell you something. . .
LOMAX: The Cajun country was settled by French speakers from Canada, and they absorbed and Cajunized their local Indian neighbors, and the settlers who came later on from various parts of Europe and from Africa and the West Indies, Out of this mix came a new culture, with its own cuisine and its own music.
ALPHONSE “BOIS SEC” ARDOIN (singing in French, subtitled in English):
Me, I’ve always known you’re gonna have,
You’re gonna have, babe,
Nothin’ but trouble.
LOMAX: Some called the music fais do-do. Some called it zydeco. It's played on European instruments with an African beat. The Indians have added their sauce. And today young Cajuns are spreading it all around the world.
MICHAEL DOUCET (fiddling and singing in French, captioned in English,
If I have a sweetheart here, dear, it’s because of you . . .
LOMAX: These Cajuns are living up to an old Cajun motto. Ne lâche pas la patate. Which means, don't drop the potato. And that says don't give up the thing that's most important to you, your culture.
(fiddle music over shot of a country road)
I want to share with you one of my most extraordinary experiences driving down a misty road, past the shining silver marshes that are so typical of that area, all low lying. You're always draining water so you can farm. It's a rice area. I encountered a huge band of mounted, bedecked riders. They were celebrating the Cajun Mardi Gras.
MARDI GRAS CAPTAIN: We give them all the beer they want to drink all day long. They drink till seven o'clock tonight.
LOMAX: It was a day when you were supposed to misbehave and be punished for it. And the punishment delivered with phallic whips was renewing the world in this old spring-time rite. Many levels of symbolism here. It's an old custom brought over from France, ages old. And these Cajun ranchers have put it on horseback. And they take it down the misty lanes through the neighborhoods, visiting all the farms and calling for contributions to their Mardi Gras gumbo. The captain is the head of it all. He keeps them in line and negotiates their relationships with the ranchers because you have to be careful on Mardi Gras day.
(scene changes from men galloping on horseback to one of dancing in costume to music by a band, with singing in French, captioned in English):
The Mardi Gras wants to thank you,
Yes, my master and mistress
It’s the time of renewal and alms giving
And of inviting you to the big gumbo tonight.
WADE FRUGE: I was drunk before daylight. We get drunk. We take off, go from house to house. we change costumes so the people wouldn't recognize us.
LOMAX: When you changed your costume, you could do what you wanted, and nobody knew who you were, hunh?
FRUGE: You was supposed to fool them. That mask--They didn't know who you was. Lot of time I'd dance with a man, you know, and they thought I was a woman. I'd squeeze him a little bit.
(group with Michael Reed playing and singing the Mardi Gras song)
MICHAEL REED: A Mardi Gras song is a begging song. You get to the house like this and you ask for a little bit of sausage, a little bit of rice, fat hen. Anything to make the gumbo that night. The whole community come to eat. It’s open to the public.
(scene shifts to a field where an elderly man says in French, captioned in English, “You want to get the chicken. Yeah!” as men compete to catch chickens)
LOMAX: Every farm has to pay for this fun by contributing a chicken or so to the gumbo pot, and there's a wild time. There's a hint of blood sacrifice in it all, but you discover that the main point is that the men are breaking into the ladies' chicken money. Their chicken money out here in this a patriarchal culture is the one thing that the ladies absolutely control. But on Mardi Gras day, these wild riders break into the bank. And so the procession goes on through the misty lanes, visiting every farm in the neighborhood, linking the whole countryside, in the rite of giving and receiving and joyous spring time exchange.
(The scene shifts to the yard of a different farm.)
Just a few miles away we run into the black Mardi Gras. Here the body language and the behavior was a lot more flowing, sexy, and the atmosphere was not so much of rough horseplay but of neighborhood conviviality and fun. In the typical black Mardi Gras style the main point was dancing and making music together. The women have broken into the black Mardi Gras. They're now taking a major part in it, and now they're gathering around to hear Canray Fontenot, who is a kind of musical sage.
FONTENOT: Long time ago they had another type of song that old man Fabrice Julien used to sing. That was the old, old time Mardi Gras. That must've been a hundred and hundred of years ago.
WOMAN’S VOICE: Okay, let's hear it, let's hear it.
FONTENOT (singing in French, captioned in English):
You ought to receive us.
Yes, my dear comrade.
(speaking) You all can join.
THE GROUP: Yes, my dear comrade.
FONTENOT (continues singing in French, captioned in English):
You really ought to give us a chicken
ALL: Yes, my dear comrade.
FONTENOT: Even if it’s a little rice, a little fat.
ALL: Yes, my dear comrade.
FONTENOT: This is a very hungry bunch.
ALL: This is a very hungry bunch.
LOMAX (as black Mardi Gras participants sing and get served gumbo): Here's a true cultural marriage for you. The song is French. The gumbo is African. The costumes are French. And the sound comes from the Cajun variant of the African hot wind and percussion orchestra. The typical Zydeco combo of accordion and frottoir—a washboard--playing hot licks to what might be an old African chant.
(shot of a large iron pot sitting in a fire, into which gumbo ingredients are poured, while an unidentified woman says in English with captions): “Well, I put my meat. I cooks the meat, pepper, a little bit of garlic, onion, sausage, pepper. Yes, water. Un-huh. Cut the meat. Yes, I have a hard time this morning for to cut them big roastin’ chickens!”
BARRY ANCELET: The Cajun culture was a sort of a melting pot of its own. Different kind of people from all over came here. And all of these people sort of cooked in the same pot. And it's kind of like when you make a gumbo, you know, when you put a whole bunch of ingredients together and you let that boil a good while, then it's better than any of the different ingredients. And that's sort of what happened here. Cajun culture I think is something that has become different from just the sum of the parts. It's something new that happened only here in Louisiana.
(shots of horsemen riding slowly in columns, over uncaptioned singing in French, shifting to a topographical map of southern Lousiana)
LOMAX: The French speaking country where this cultural gumbo was cooked lies west of the Mississippi in the French-speaking triangle of Louisiana. Long isolated by a watery environment, it's a fertile shining prairie land laced with canals and bayous, bordered to the east by the vast swamps of the Atchafalaya basin, and merging in the south with marshland and coastal islands that are neither land nor sea. I was astonished to find a very similar environment in western France, the homeland of the Cajuns. Of course, every group who've come to America has tried to match its new environment with its old homeland--the Spanish in the dry Southwest, the Scandinavians 'round the chilly lake states, the blacks in the tropical Caribbean-- but the Cajuns found a new homeland that matched their place in Poitou. (over shots in Poitou)
It's another low-lying marshy plain along the sea's marge. It's a land of fishermen and seafarers. Here French expeditions sailed to open up colonies in the new world. Inland, I found a vast marsh laced with canals, site of an age-old fishing, cattle-raising culture, and behind that, a flat, wet farm country and all so similar to the Cajun landscape that it seemed like home to my Cajun friends.
DEWEY BALFA (over shots of a house party in France) I found that the people that were my parents' and my grandparents' age, that I had no problem with my French at all. I found some beautiful, warm people. The doors was open. The wine cellars were open, and the good times rolled every night, every day, all the time.
LOMAX: In colonial times, country dancing and fiddling were all the rage in western France-- in fact, in all of Western Europe and America. The fiddle became the darling of the frontier, therefore, and still is King of instruments in rural U.S.A., especially in Cajun country. Saturday night Cajun balls still vibrate with 19th-century French joie de vivre. But there were also grim episodes in the past of the Cajuns. The Fort of New Rochelle saw the final defeat of their Huguenot ancestors after a century of bloody religious warfare.
(over the voice of an unidentified woman singing stanzas of a ballad in French, ending with one captioned in English:
If you fish the carp for love
I’ll become a nun in a convent.
You’ll no long have your dowry, my dear love)
The Huguenots, you remember, were French Calvinists who fought hard for religious freedom and reforming France like the Puritans in England. Thousands of Huguenots were massacred and driven into exile, but they left their impress in the spare church architecture of Poitou and perhaps in the severe sexual code of the region and its consequent attachment to the sad love songs of the Middle Ages. Thousands of Huguenots had to flee France.
(again over the voice of the unidentified woman singing two lines of a song in French, captioned in English:
We were six years on the sea,
Unable to come ashore.
(the singing continues without captions during Lomax’s account)
These refugees became the vanguard of French settlement in America and years before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, they transformed the coastal marshes of Nova Scotia into the fair land of Acadia. The friendly Indians taught them wood lore, and that all men have equal rights, and they became so prosperous and independent that when a choleric British governor drove them out of their Acadian home in Nova Scotia they kept their Acadian identity in all their wanderings.
(the singing concludes with the following words captioned in English:
We ate mice and rats
In the hold of the ship.
(The singing continues after a short while, then stops again with no further captioning.)
The expulsion and the scattering across the sea actually crystallized the Acadian people. It brought out their innate stubbornness and independence. And when they got to Louisiana, they adapted to the big marshes and swamps there like so many alligators. They mastered the bayou country with their boats and dykes and decked the wild Spanish ponies of the Prairies, and became dashing vaqueros and to their romantic heritage they re-instituted the knightly tournament, and that's still to be seen in Louisiana today. In these tournaments the lowly cowherd of Poitou becomes a knight on horseback, spearing rings for his lady love.
ANNOUNCER: And there he is, the defending champ completing his second round of competition. He's got a second bunch of rings.
LOMAX: And so the first Acadian immigrants into Louisiana became cattle ranchers. They picked up the arts of the cowboy from Mexicans and Indians out on the Prairies, rounded up the wild longhorns, and by 1760 had established their own brand book. Almost a hundred years before the Texas trail drives began, these Cajun cowboys were driving big herds to markets through the swamps, using the skills of their French marshland ancestors.
DEWEY BALFA: I can remember when I was a small child, they would drive them over to the little town of Mamou, where they had a big cattle pen, and they would just load them up on the train and send them off. 'Bout that time is when this song came out, and it's called "Hippy To Yo."
(Balfa then sings the song, with captions in English):
It’s Hip and Taïau, dear.
Who stole my skid, baby.
When they saw things were hot
They returned my skid.
They returned my coat, dear.
They stole my hat, baby.
And when they saw things were hot
They returned my skid.
LOMAX: When my father and I first heard these Cajun cowboy songs, we thought they were pulling our leg. We knew "The Chisholm Trail," which ran (singing):
Come a ti yi yippee yippee yay yippee yay,
Come a ti yi yippee yippee yay.
And here they were using the same kind of refrain. Well, I found out that they had a cattle-herding hand called the Taïau. And looking into things further I discovered that "yup yup" and "ki yi" and "ti yo" were old French and Canadian cattle-herding calls. And it looks like, maybe, that the Texas traditional cowboy song may have had a Cajun origin.
(DEWEY BALFA fiddling and with ROBERT JARDELL singing in French captioned in English:
O Mom, O Mom,
What have you done with your little man
The beans aren’t salty.
The beans aren’t salty.
It’s a Hip and Tiyo
It’s a Hip and Tiyo. . . .
ANCELET: Some people want to think of this as a pure French culture. It's not a pure French culture. It's a French culture that existed in cowboy land. We have rodeos and horse shows here where people still to this day show off their prowess with a horse. (over shots of horse racing) Cajuns will bet on just about anything, the horse races, cock fights or frog races, crawfish races.
LOMAX: The thing that’d surprise most people I think about this scene is the fact that black people and white people meet on these tracks and have fun and there's no problem. Everybody hollers, everybody jumps up and down, everybody calls each other names. I'm a Southerner. I never saw anything like that in my whole life until I went to Carencro on weekend. But that's the truth, isn't it? I mean, this is the one place where, you know, the whole race stuff just never did work. (murmurs of assent, like “Not around here” and captioned comments, “I agree,” “That’s right,” “Yeah, you can discuss when you lose, too,” but on the big track you don't tell them nothing.”
LOMAX: Probably the ancestors of some of these folks were freed men in time of slavery, property owners, well-educated, attending mass with their white neighbors, speaking French and rejoicing in the same French traditions like this old-time drinking song that the whites have now forgotten.
(FONTENOT leading a group in singing in French, captioned in English):
Three times around the table
Let’s sashay, sashay sashay
For good comrade to be jolly
That’s the way, that’s the way.
LOMAX: But in the time of slavery, most blacks were field hands. And under the Louisiana system, it was a miserable existence. In fact, a slave sold South to Louisiana used to tell his family, "Goodbye forever." Blacks were expendable, because the slave ships kept bringing in new fodder for the system from Africa and Haiti. This reason, the black strain in the culture here was constantly renewed with music like this (over an example)
from Africa, where hands and feet and voices make a dance. They recorded almost the same sound in Louisiana in 1934, three young men pounding and clapping and shouting out of rhythm for the ring of strutting couples. They called it juré.
(the early recording in French, with captioning in French:
O mam, mais donnez-moi les haricots
O ye yaiem les haricots sont pas sale.
Fifty years later, I could hardly find a trace of the juré until I visited Canray's eighty-year-old aunt, Dorestine, whose head was full of the old-time music. Dorestine's old juré piece may bring us close to the roots of Cajun music. The words are part French and part English, but the tune has an Indian, as well as a black quality. Dorestine is mighty proud of her Indian ancestry.
DORESTINE FONTENOT (speaking in French, subtitled in English): . . . My Pa was a black Indian. And then my grandmother—my mother’s mother—a grey Indian. That’s why, you see, my nose is like an Indian’s.
LOMAX: Her family of Fontenots belonged to a group of French-speaking Indian soldiers from Alabama who settled on the Prairies in the early 1800s in the territory that historian, Carl Brasseaux calls the Cajun cultural heartland lying between Mamou and Ville Platte. (over map) This is the place where the French, African, and Indian mix may have taken shape. In Ville Platte late one night we found a relic from this early period. (over shot of two unidentified black performers) The singer played a roasting pan with a fork and was accompanied with the hot two-handed black accordion style.
(caption: “Cape Verde, AFRICA” over musicians performing)
From Africa, almost the same tune with the same combo. And now in Louisiana, the active pulsing left-hand produces a hot syncopated accompaniment for the song. This is the black accordion style. (over Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardouin playing the accordion)
It's put the heat into Cajun music. Its roots seem to be African. Cajuns like their French ancestors are dance mad. It's a place where girls come to meet their boyfriends, and the men liked to lean up against the bars and tell lies about their endless adventures in their beloved game-rich swamp land. When you hear these stories, remember that the first science fiction writer was a French man named Jules Verne.
HUBERT N. REED (sitting at the bar, in English with captioning): … I had a fish. It was so big I just took the picture. Just the picture weighed fifty-seven pounds. I couldn’t bring the fish in. I let him go in the bayou over there. Must have been a pretty good catfish!
GERARD SELLARS: You know, my father once told me that when he went to Cheniere au Tigre and he'd go to dances and all, what would happen is, he said if you had a girlfriend, you had to love her up on the ridge because if you took her in the grass and the bushes, the big mosquitoes would come and take her away from you, you know.
LOMAX: The mood is macho, and the ball rolls on, but the words of the songs are always pretty sad. The men are always broken hearted over some desertion by a dark- eyed Cajun beauty--and this country is full of beautiful women. And as for the girls, they faced a difficult destiny in their marriages, in fact, so much so that their mothers sometimes refused to come to their weddings, and when they did, they cried a lot. Their future was in some lonely cabin out on the prairie or along a bayou, a house full of kids, and a jealously guarded life. On them, depended the family honor. And in this property-focused world, where the property came down the family line, and illegitimacy was a threatening thing.
DEWEY BALFA: The boys were worried about their women. They didn't want nobody from a different area to come by and maybe get one of their women and bring it to his area.
LOMAX: That was what it was about, huh?
BALFA: Women, women--the whole world goes around women. We know that.
ADOLIS MONTOUCET: We couldn't go nowhere. Him, he'd work hard all the week long in the field, and on Saturdays, well, he'd let us loose from the field. Well, we had big porches on--we had an old, old house. We had three big porches, and we had to scrub that every Saturday afternoon. Then Saturday at night, he'd come back, and he'd bring us to the dance. We wouldn't go alone. He'd come with us. He'd bring us to the dance.
(over shots of a dance, musician sings in French, captioned in English):
Your father looks like an elephant
And your mother looks like an automobile
LUDERIN DARBONNE (of the Hackberry Ramblers): See, most of these people had big families, and the babies they was on bottles, or the mothers would go in there and “fais-do-do,” see that the babies go to sleep. Might have to go rock ‘em and nurse ‘em to put ‘em to sleep. And you call that a “fais do-do.” "Fais" means make, make sleep, in other words, direct translation, see. And they was all breast babies. The ladies would pat the babies, say, "Fais-do-do."
LOMAX: After the dance, would the boy get to walk the girl home?
McGEE (captioned): Oh yeah. That’s true. That’s the law. The boy takes her up to the buggy and helps her get into the buggy.
LOMAX: And he might get to give her a kiss on the way.
McGEE: Oh, no! The old lady’s right behind you. In my time, me, the girls don’t kiss the boys. If you—I kiss my sweetheart one time. I kiss her hand. I said, “I see you don’t give me a kiss today.” “Oh,” she said, “I guess so.” So she catch me in my neck and she kissed me. I say, “Give me another one!” (laughs) I was greedy. I want to kiss twice.
EVELYN FRUGE: I go to the dance, my mama goes with me. Oh, yeah. I never go with just my boyfriend, she had to come.
WADE FRUGE: You walk with the girl, bring her back from the dance like this, you know. But don’t scratch yourself, or you scratch that old lady. She was right there, right behind you!
LULA LANDRY: When they get married, it was-- they quit youth altogether. They never went out like they do today. That was all over.
LOMAX: What was that like?
LANDRY: To take care of children, take care of the house. That's how it was in those days.
LOMAX: The man could go out but the woman couldn't?
LANDRY: They drank wine all night, and sometimes they'd sing, you know. They'd get together and sing songs, all those old folks.
BALFA (singing in French, captioned in English):
Speak to us of drinking not of marriage
Always there’s regret For the time that’s past.
When you marry a pretty girl
There’s the chance That she’ll be stolen
When you marry a plain one
There’s the chance You’ll always be stuck with her . . .
DENNIS McGEE: I married three times. My second wife, I had to steal her. Then the old people didn't want to give her to me. (Captioned in English): So I went one night. I say “and listen here . . . I want you to come with me, I love you.” She said, “Me too, I love you.” I say, “Let’s go.”
GLADYS McGEE: I was 15.
LOMAX: Were you too young then?
GLADYS McGEE: Of course, I was too young, Fifteen years old. He was thirty-two. When I married him, he was a musician.
LOMAX: What was it like to live with a musician?
GLADYS McGEE: I wouldn't take, not for million dollar. I wouldn't live with a musician no more.
GLADYS McGEE: Never. 'Cause I had too much too much trouble with him.
DENNIS McGEE: Don't say that.
LOMAX: Tell me about it.
GLADYS McGEE: Well, he had two or three girlfriend, you know, all the time. I know. Well, anyway. It wasn't too good. First part our marriage was bad. (Captioned): And I couldn’t say I’m gonna leave. I’m gonna move somewhere—because I had too much children. I couldn’t move. I had to stay.
LOMAX: How many children did you have?
GLADYS McGEE: I had ten children. I lost two. I have eight living.
LOMAX: Women weren't supposed to go in those barrooms and things, were they?
GLADYS McGEE: Well, but did go. Chasing man, chase him all the time. They would dance in front of the bandstand, and somebody else would take his violin and play violin in his place until he’d catch him a girlfriend and dance in front of my eyes. So I decided I’d stay home. (chuckles when Dennis murmurs to her in French)
LULA LANDRY (singing in French, captioned in English):
My father gave me a little husband.
Great God, what a man, what a tiny man.
My father gave me a little husband.
Great God, what a man, what a tiny man.
I lost him in a straw bed.
Great God, what a man, what a tiny man.
I lost him in a straw bed.
Great God, what a man, what a tiny man.
ADOLIS MONTOUCET: They were strict on us, very strict, but I don't regret it because I've learned their way, and I'm living the same way they showed me, you know. And I love my way, the life I'm living.
LOMAX: Don't you think your mother was unhappy, locked up in that house?
MONTOUCET: No, she didn't like to go nowhere. No, she wasn't unhappy. She was a very happy woman. She lived until 84 years old.
(a band performing “Jolie Blonde” in French, with English subtitles):
Oh pretty blond, you’re about to leave me, to go away.
To go away, pretty blond, with a worthless man.
What hope, what future, will I have then.
WADE FRUGE: All the songs you hear, the man's always right. It's always the woman that's wrong. But it is a lot of 50/50 chance, it was the man that was no good, not the woman.
LOMAX: But the women did run off and leave the men sometimes.
FRUGE: Oh yeah, oh yeah, still do. They still do.
LOMAX: And women are generally much more faithful than men, aren't they? Don't you think so?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I believe so.
LOMAX: But you all accusing them of leaving you and breaking their hearts and all these things.
OCTA CLARK: Oh, yes. We say everything. I don't know why.
(singer continues with “Jolie Blonde”)
LOMAX: The Cajuns moved to town. The neighborhood dance was replaced by the big dance hall. And there the attempt of jealous Cajun men to guard their women from contact with strangers was a constant source of trouble, which sometimes led to bloodshed.
FRUGE (in English, with captions): You’d take a handkerchief like this with a knife. You’d catch the end like this, I’d catch the end. And we’d have each a knife. Best man win.
LOMAX: You'd stab each other until the first one fall, huh?
FRUGE: Oh yeah. He’d drop the handkerchief or he fall dead or something like that. Or he’d be so weak, you know, that he’d fall. Then they’d separate ‘em. But until you dropped that handkerchief, keep on at it.
LOMAX: The Cajun passion for violence according to that great Louisiana writer James Branch Cabell [Lomax mistakenly names the Virginian author instead of George Washington Cable] developed in the civil war period. The Cajuns black and white had little interest in the war. They were forced to serve. They were reluctant recruits, and they deserted in droves. They formed wild guerilla bands that raided for cattle led by a fierce freedman with a mulatto mistress. Post Civil War governments neglected the Cajun country, regarded as outlandish because of their language, impoverished Cajuns and ex-freedmen were pushed down the social scale to compete as farm laborers, with déclassé blacks. Old neighborly attitudes became edged with hostility.
CANRAY FONTENOT: Where I was born and raised, that old man there he didn't want a black man to have a good horse or nothing. The more rich fella there would go and tell him, "Don't send that little nigger to school. All he's gonna learn is go and make a check. And he's going to send himself to the penitentiary. Send him to work." I'm telling you what I know.
(blacks singing a work song in English, with captions):
Go down, Old Hannah
Don’t you rise no more
LOMAX: The blacks were kept at the bottom of the society. They're to do the mule labor without education, without opportunity. They couldn't protest because as blacks they had no civil rights. Any trouble out of them, and they could be prison bound.
Bring judgement on
I ain’t tired of livin
But I got so long
LOMAX: They were often simply used up, worked to death under the broiling sun. In Texas, they called it the burning hell, and so does Canray in this amazingly similar tune.
FONTENOT (fiddling and singing in French, with English subtitles):
My poor old mother,
She got down on her knees.
Her two hands on her head,
Weeping for me.
She said, “Mmmm.
Poor little boy.
I’ll never see you again.
You have been condemned
For the rest of your life
Behind the prison bars.”
LOMAX: In this man's music we come close to the poignancy that touches his soul in Cajun song. His uncle composed the song that we've just heard, and his daddy was one of the early great accordion players. He taught Bois Sec and also taught Amédé Ardoin.
AMÉDÉ ARDOIN (singing in French, captioned in English):
I’m going home alone
To live the life of an orphan.
Amédé Ardoin is a person who is credited by most folks with crystallizing and popularizing this style before anyone else. Amédé is a little guy with eyes like a deer. This story will break your heart. People like to talk about Amédé.
LOMAX: You used to know Amédé Ardoin, tell me a little bit about what--
DENNIS McGEE: Yes, I used to know pretty good. I played with him.
LOMAX: You two used to go and play dances together?
McGEE: Oh yeah, play all over, me and Amédé. We make some records, me and Amédé. He was a good mi....People cry when he sing that, poor boy. He was a good singer. Oh yeah!
(Ardoin continuing to sing, without captions)
LOMAX: He was a poet. Like all poets he preferred composing songs to working in the hot sun. He rambled around the Cajun country with his Squeezebox and a flower sack, making songs for the people who asked him to. And one day a woman told him about her marriage troubles.
FONTENOT, speaking in English, captioned: And he went and he decided a song about that.
LOMAX: Amédé kept on moving into more dangerous territory, taking his happy music to white dances. This was a racially divided society and a black man who crossed the line unless he came in a recognized role, ran a risk. Amédé wanted the money, so he took his chances.
WADE FRUGE, in English, captioned: This old man here had a dance. When I go to ask him “Can I bring Amadie tonight? He’s gonna play for us.” If he agree to that, then I’ll bring him. But a lot of times Amadie had to leave the accordian and take off across the field. When they started drinking that moonshine, you know? They didn’t want that . . . that black man there. Run him off.
LOMAX: And then one night at a white dance he crossed the line. He called for a towel to wipe his sweaty face, and the daughter of the house offered him her handkerchief.
FONTENOT: He was sweating, you know. He had been playing a whole lot and singing a whole lot. So one of Celestin’s daughters took a white handkerchief and she went and wiped his face. And they didn’t like that at all. But they didn’t tell Amadie nothin’ right then. And some body was waiting for them there. Some of them white guys, they beat him up. He had to play dead. They beat him up so bad till he acted like . . . He said that many times. He said that, uh. . . “Well, we got this. . .” excusin’ the expression,“ they said, “we got this goddam nigger and there ain’t gonna be no white lady wiping his face no more, you know.”
LOMAX: He said they damaged him?
FRUGE: Yeah, they damaged. Tried to run over with that Model A, back and forth. They just throwed him in the ditch there. They found him the next day. And most probably run over his vocal cord here or something. He could hardly talk anymore.
FONTENOT: They had to go and feed him, when it was time to eat.—He didn’t even know whether he was hungry or not. They just had to feed him. He was plumb crazy. Then he started getting weaker and weaker, and then he died.
(Amédé’s voice singing in French, with captions in English):
I’m going home, I’m going home
What do you do what you do me
Everyone was struck with horror that the most wonderful singer of the culture, this black Orpheus, had been foully murdered. Soon Amédé's records disappeared, but his tunes kept floating in the air in the Cajun country. And one singer especially was drawn to them.
(Iry LeJeune, singing in French, with English captions):
Oh the dear evil ways that you always had.
You’ll have to forget all that if you want to stay.
LOMAX: Iry LeJeune, disadvantaged as a kid, nearly blind, but with a great gift, like Elvis Presley, for black music. He swallowed Amédé whole, and the sound came out of him high and lonesome and blue.
(LeJeune’s voice continues, without captions)
Here, another important step had been taken in the melding of black and white styles in America.
(Walter Mouton singing in French, without captions)
Truly tragic notes began to throb in the throats of Cajun singers, and it still shimmers like heat lightning in the era of prairie dance halls.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: 1900 oil was discovered here in the Evangeline oil field, near Jennings. It brought in a flood of Anglo-Americans, too much to handle at once.
(Crawford Vincent of the Hackberry Ramblers, singing in English, with captions):
I’m an old pipeliner and lay my pipe all day
I’m an old pipeliner, lay my pipe all day
There’s four to five women waitin’ to draw my pay . . .
LUDERIN DARBONNE of the Hackberry Ramblers: I started working the oil fields when I was a young man. My daddy was a rig builder. It was all wooden decks in those days.
LOMAX: How did the oil change the country around here? I mean, the way of life. Did it change your way of life a lot?
DARBONNE: Yes, sir. They found out the oil and the waterways we had. It changed everybody's life. In other words, we had these big refineries come in. There was more money, more pay.
LOMAX: Do you think the coming of oil and the industry here has helped the Cajun culture?
FELIX RICHARD: Oh my God, that's it. Hadn't been for that, we'd be starving, just like they're doing in Mississippi right now.
LOMAX: But I mean, did it help to keep the culture too?
RICHARD: Well, it kind of destroyed some of that, you know?
LOMAX: When agriculture was mechanized and the oil boom came, the good times rolled in every community, and Cajun music blasted out of all the jukeboxes. There was support for Cajun culture. But soon this homely French-speaking way of life was threatened, when the homogenizing school system barred French from the classrooms.
PHOEBE TROTTER: Their teachers at school whose aim it was to educate them knew that at first they had to educate these children, they had to teach them English. And they set about to do that by trying to eradicate the French. They were punished for speaking French on the school ground. That's just universally known by everybody around here.
FONTENOT: All I knew was French but once I got in school then teachers didn't want us to speak French. Whenever they would catch somebody speaking in French at school, they'd go and whip them.
REVON REED: If we were caught speaking just one word of French for that matter on the school ground, anywhere in the school property, we were reprimanded, generally whipped, paddled, given lines to write: "I must not speak French."
LOMAX: The speaking of French dropped off except among the Houma Indians. In their swamp hideaway at the mouth of the Atchafalaya, they clung to their shrimping grounds and to the language that had given them status for almost two centuries.
LAURENCE BILLIOTT (speaking in French, captioned in English): The French that they speak is different. It’s French from across the ocean. The French don’t speak like we do here. They’re hard to understand among themselves. The French understand us better than they understand each other.
BALFA: Once you've taken the Cajun language, you've taken the Cajun culture away from me, away from my grandchildren, then who are they? They're an American plastic card with a number on it.
REED: After World War Two, we came back from overseas in France, North Africa, we saw the variety of our second language. And the amazing part is that the French could understand us.
LOMAX: Revon Reed is a natural-born communicator, and he did two things. He put together the first book in the Cajun language. Here it is, it's called "Lâche Pas la Patate," the subtitle of our program. And every word in this book is in Cajun. First time it ever happened. And he also started a Saturday and all-Cajun-language broadcast with a French band and him giving the commercials in French, Acadian English. Well, it wasn't long before that became the event of Saturday morning. If you weren't there in Mamou, where it happened-- a little cow town, a kind of cultural capital of Cajun land-- and at Fred's place, well, you imagined that you were. Revon's old rough voice reached out over the whole of the Cajun country. (over a broadcast commercial) It's the most informal thing you've ever seen, people dancing and doing a little smooching in the corners, and Cajun feeling uniting the whole thing.
REED: Some said that the language itself would be dead in 25 years and that was 35 years ago, and it's more alive today than it's ever been. I think that the second language and the Cajun finally got it's pride back in its original language.
(over the fiddling of Sady Courville and his band)
LOMAX: Thanks to this broadcast, Cajun culture began to come back. And you know, it's a remarkable thing that the comeback has been really based on music. Almost by accident, Ralph Rinzler and I got Cajun music onto the prestigious Newport Folk Festival. And these musicians made a big hit. When the news of their success in the rich East came back to Cajun land, it really made an impression.
(Michael Doucet fiddling with a band and singing in French, without captions)
LOMAX: Fais Do Do became the music of choice in fashionable Lafayette. And Zydeco began to make the hit parade. And the legislature, not wanting to be left behind, passed the law that French should be taught in the schools in every French-speaking district in Louisiana. Soon, Barry Ancelet launched his festival of Cajun culture. And French-speaking Cajun culture was off to a new start.
AMANDA LAFLEUR: Things like Cajun music and the festivals that have become so popular among young people have made it, have turned Cajun French from something that was only in the chank-a-chank and dance halls to something that everybody wants to be involved in. I teach a night course for adults, and there's a waiting list of people who want to be with the "in" crowd because the "in" crowd can walk up to you and say things like (speaks a phrase in French).
LOMAX: There were Cajun restaurants and Cajun stores. Even the football team got to be called the Ragin' Cajuns.
ANNOUNCER (speaking in English, captioned): It is the first honor of this type ever presented by the University. . .
LOMAX: It was terribly moving to see 91-year-old fiddler Dennis McGee, who had kept the old music alive, being recognized by the president of the local university as the Dean of Cajun music. Nothing like this has ever occurred anywhere else in the country, but it ought to. It's ironic that the most loyal Cajun speakers, the Houma Indians, are having the worst time of all. They've been the sufferers in the new environment because they live right on the edge of the most delicate part of the wetlands.
PERCY DARDAR: First, they said we could have this land. It wasn't good for anything. All what it was was mosquito infested and swamps with alligators and gar fish and what not, and they said, it's not valuable to them at all, you know. As you can see on the banks, there are no longer any big oak trees out here alive. They're all dead. And it is from erosion, and it is caused by the major oil companies. They have no respect for nobody.
JOE BILLIOTT: I've been arrested, I'd say, about 400 times in this town because I don't believe in leaving people push me around. I believe one thing, if I'm right, I'm going to stand for my rights. I made up my mind when I was a little bitty fellow. I wasn't going to put up with the law pushing me, and I wasn't going to put up with white people pushing me. I was going to stand up for my rights. And that's the reason that I got in all the trouble I got. But now I'm proud that I got in trouble because most people that didn't respect me before respect me now. They don't try pushing me around them.
LOMAX: The Houmas have held up their hands to prevent the ruin of their environment, as we must all do. Because when this whole area is handled the way the industry plans it, it will all disappear, with its shrimp, its crawfish, and with its incredibly rich cultural and natural life.
[Credits, over a montage of scenes from the film]
Written, Directed and Produced by
ELIZABETH FINK BENJAMIN
Sound and Engineer
Special Thanks To:
THE MAMOU MARDI GRAS
THE KINDER MARDI GRAS
THE ACADIAN VILLAGE
Footage Courtesy of:
WBRZ, Baton Rouge
“Zydeco” by S. Duplantier & N. Spitzer
“Badius”, by Kai Zanziger
Photographic Material Courtesy of:
The Farm Security Admin.
Library of Congress
New York Public Library
S. Western La. Univ. Library
Nova Scotia Dept. of Education
Nova Scotia Museum Complex
John Fargo Carl Brasseaux
Jean Dominique Lajoux
Cajun Music – Ann Savoy
Louisiana Gothic – Conrad and Baker
Louisiana – L.V. Huber
The Cajuns – Wm. Rushton
La Louisiane – Eugene Guenin
The Founding of New Acadia – Carl A. Brasseaux
Other Photographic Sources:
The Dance in Place, G. Cable
Picturesque Canada, G. M. Grant
Louisiana Images, G. F. Mugnier
An Album from the Thirties, Ben Shahn
Yankee Autumn in Acadia, D. Edmunds
Twelve Years a Slave, S. Northrup
Southeastern Indians, E. L. Funderburk
ANTON BAUER LIGHTING
THE LIGHTING HOUSE
VIDEO TECH BATTERIES
SACHTLER CAMERA SUPPORTS
With Special Thanks To:
Collection of Quilts Courtesy of:
THOMAS K. WOODWARD
Museum of American Folk Arts
THE AMERICAN PATCHWORK SERIES
was developed by the
Association for Cultural Equity
All songs and arrangements
are protected by copyright.
© ACE 1990