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Cajun Music – The Soul of Acadiana
By Vonnie R. Brown, 1977

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Vonnie Brown

Cajun⭑ music should be prefaced by an anthropoligical history of the Acadians, who after leaving Canada for Louisiana in 1756, unconsciously isolated themselves from the American cultural stream and gradually developed their own unique style of living. Today, their characteristic "joie de vivre" continues to separate them from their northern neighbors, and an unmistakable Cajun flavor permeates their language⭑⭑, religion, family, and social lives. Music is a very important part of the Cajun's life, and it too is seasoned with a quality identifiable only as "Cajun."

⭑ Cajun – corruption from the French word "Acadien." The pronunciation of "di" having undergone the process of palatalization became "dj" (1, p. 21).

⭑⭑ The language spoken by the modern Cajun is a combination of French and of recently acquired anglicisms. The Cajun French has retained many seventeenth century archaisms, as well as regional expressions stemming from the original words from the occupational vocabulary of the Acadians, most of whom were peasants and fishermen. Due to the influence of modern American ways, the oral traditions of the bayou folk represent a fusion of the French and American heritages in the environment of contemporary progress and uniformity of modes of existence (1, p. 21).

There is an old Cajun expression that says, "If a Cajun soul has a voice, that vioce is Cajun music." Cajun music is certainly the soul of Acadiana. It is a sound that dates back two hundred years, but it is as rich and alive today as anytime in its history. The homogeneous character of the Cajun's closely knit, rural communities, and their resistance to acculturation have undoubtedly contributed greatly to the survival of these musical traditions.

Cajun Music It is said that the French Louisianian will sing a tune at the drop of a "chapeau," and this is quite true, indeed. Along the Lafourche, Teche, and Vermilion Bayous an infinite number of songs have survived the decades and new songs are constantly being created. The bayous and prairies of Southern Louisiana offer a vast resource for ethnomusicologists and folk music students who might be interested in collecting and researching Cajun folk songs. Distinguished academicians who have studied Acadian folk songs include: Marie del Norte Thériot, Catherine Brookshire Blanchet, Irène Thérèse Whitfield, Dr. Harry Oster, Mr. Revon Reed, and Mr. Alan Lomax.

The songs that have been collected in Cajun French may be divided into four groups:

  1. French songs indigenous to Louisiana, composed by local musicians.
  2. Songs from American folklore translated into French.
  3. French Negro spirituals indigenous to Southern Louisiana.
  4. Traditional French songs stemming from three sources: France, Nova Scotia, and Canada.

The countryside of Southern Louisiana is dotted with barn-like structrues where a few times a week, especially on Saturday nights, the inhabitants gather to dance and drink. The musicians who play in these dance halls produce Cajun music – composing much of the music they play and the songs that they sing. These musicians are very popular with the Louisiana people and their music is played daily on various radio stations in the French speaking region. Louisiana recording companies produce thousands of their records yearly, and these records are a hot sales item in stores throughout the state.

The music and lyrics of these indigenous compositions present a striking exsmple of acculturation. The lyrics are often a mixture of fragments taken out of traditional French songs and vocabulary and syntactical structures of the Cajun's daily language. Researchers describe the music as hybrid because it contains elements from one or more outside sources: southern mountain folk song, Tin Pan Alley hits, country-and-western music, cowboy and hillbilly, Negro jazz and blues (4).

French they may be in origin, however, Cajun folk songs have in some cases a definitive Negro flavor to be found in super-imposed elementary rhythms which gave them sort of a "jazzy" atmosphere, nowhere else to be found in folk songs derived from France other than in the Caribbean (9, p. 3).

Songs from American folklore were perhaps introduced to the Cajuns by the heterogeneous ethnic groups who eventually settled in French Louisiana. These non-French speaking settlers from the southern mountains and the seaboard states were of English, Scottish, Irish, and German descent. The Cajuns, being a stronger unit, in time assimilated these minorities; however, no doubt certain cultural elements from these groups remained and were adopted by the Cajuns. Such is the case with the American folk song: the Cajuns adopted the songs but with a French translation. Examples of these translated songs include: "Billy Boy," "My Good Old Man," "The Butcher Boy," and many others.

The French Negro spirituals indingenous to Louisiana have not been collected extensively, but an analysis by Oster (5) show that these songs represent a fusion of Afro-American and French elements. The French traits having been tramsmitted to the Blacks by the Cajuns and French missionaries. The Cajuns have always maintained close and friendly contacts with their Negro neighbors.

As landless immigrants, the Acadians had a lower social status than the old French settlers, and as a persecuted minority in their former northern homeland, they were not stand-offish with the Negro slaves. Their relations were not tempered by a master–slave attitude . . . [and] there seems to have been a considerable cultural exchange in some areas between the Negroes and Cajuns. As a result, numerous Negroes in proximity to the Cajuns today sing Cajun songs in Cajun dialect and play Cajun tunes without any suggestion of foreign intrusion (2, p. 164).

Cajun Music Music played a vital role in the African slave's communal life and ritual, and his descendants never lost their desire to carry on this musical tradition. During the Reconstruction period, many Catholic Negroes turned to the Protestant religion after being proselyted by northern Baptist and Methodist missionaries. An important factor in their conversion, however, was that these churches provided them with the opportunity for oral expression, that is, singing, chanting, and shouting.

The priests in Catholic Louisiana understood the Black parishioners' need for vocal expression and they made concessions by permitting hymns to be sung in mass and spirituals to be sung in homes on designated Sundays. And so it was that throughout the parishes the communitey would gather at various private homes to sing their spirituals and vent their religious fervor. The texts used in these "cantiques," as they were called by the singers, were taken out of French religious canticles or sacred songs. The preceptor who was the priest or a chosen elder, taught a few singable words or phrases one line at a time and these were repeated over and over. Refrains were particularly enjoyable because everybody learned them quickly. It is interesting to note that these gatherings took on an entertaining quality in that the energy of the performers was always directed more towards the music than to the meaning of the spirituals. It might be said that these cantiques developed as a counterpart to the Negro American spiritual; however, shouting and foot tapping were never a part of the French cantiques (1).

Traditional French folk songs were brought to Louisiana by ancestors of the present generation who came from French Canada or France. Numerous comparative studies have been done on these songs as they now exist in these three geographical locations. These studies indicate that in some instances the songs and music had undergone little change from the original form found in France; in other cases the melody, the lyrics, the rhythm, or all three of these elements changed somewhat. Some of these changes will be noted in the discussion that follows.

Once one has heard Cajun mjsic, as it is played in Louisiana or across the border in Texas, the Cajun sound is readily identified. Musicians in other locales who have attempted to play Cajun music without having studied the Cajun style in depth through recordings or first-hand experience, have difficulty duplicating the native Louisiana music. Music to the Cajun is a natural phenomenon that accompanies growing and living, and the acquisition of musical skills is often equated with learning such basic skills as feeding oneself. It is looked on as a natural process whereby skill and technique are caught rather than taught. There are no conservatories of Acadian music, and few, if any, Cajun musicians have had any formal musical training.

Musical instruments used by traditional Cajun bands include accordion, fiddle, triangle, spoons, washboard, and harmonica. Recently the guitar and drums have been added. Quasi-professional musicians add highly amplified steel guitars and an assortment of drums and castanets to their bands. This is the commercial type Cajun sound that you hear frequently on television and radio and in some of the larger dance halls around Lafayette. Usually, these orchestras play some Texas western music and rock and roll in addition to the traditional Cajun tunes. The small traditional Cajun bands of the small rural towns play "pure" Cajun music.

The accordion, originally made in East Germany, became the Cajun's favorite sound around the turn of the century. The traditional accordion is not the large piano accordion with which most of us are familiar. Rather, it is the type which Cajuns affectionately refer to as the "push-and-pull" style. It has a full sound and is actually a small orchestra in itself, if well played. The Cajuns prefer their accordion in the key of C, whereas the Canadians use the key of D and the Germans use the key of C. Many accordions are made right in Louisiana, this craft originating during World War II when German accordions became impossible to get. Today, there are about twenty craftsmen in the state that make accordions, one of the most proficient being Marc Savoy from the small town of Eunice.

There are literally hundreds of Cajuns, young and old, who play the accordion, but fiddlers are not as plentiful. The fiddle is perhaps less desirable to play because it is a harder instrument to master than the accordion. Also, it does not make as good a solo instrument as the accordion. There are very fine fiddlers in Cajun country and you will find one in every band.

The steel triangle, the spoons, and the washboard have been replaced somewhat by the guitar and drums, but they are still popular instruments with the smaller rural bands. The spoons are played by suspending one over the other in the left hand like chopsticks and tapping them rhythmically against the right knee with the other hand. Washboards are simply washboards bought from local hardware stores. Sometimes they are played by striking several of the old type of bottle openers (church keys) against the surface of the board. The washboards used by the quasi-professional bands are specially made and are very modernistic in design. These all-metal washboards hang suspended from the musician's shoulders and are tailor-made to fit the body.

In most Cajun music there is no semblance of scientific rules of composition nor of development according to a plan of pre-conceived ideas. Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin claimed, "I 'spect I growed. Don't think anybody ever made me." So it is with Cajun music. It grew spontaneously and compositions were created from emotions.

With few exceptions, there is no written Cajun music – no self-respecting Cajun would dare, even if he could, use sheet music to play "Jolie Blonde" or "Grand Mamou." The music has been transmitted by ear from one generation to another, and in mamy cases the orignal composer is unknown.

Cajun music is generally characterized by a flexibility of form. Sometimes, the melodies show a wide range of tones and large intervals between notes such as in standard French folk songs; but on the other hand many show little variance in tones, and some, a few wailing melodies, use only the petatonic five-note scale (10). The pentatonic scale, common to both Anglo-American and African traditions, testifies to the important influence of the Southern Unites States on the French songs in Louisiana. This scale may sound archaic and primitive to the modern ear; this is because certain notes of the modern scale are omitted and other notes, which are important in modern scales, are de-emphasized.

There are other characteristics in Cajun music that make it rather unique. Strong rhythms and repetitious verses suggest that this music is intended for dance. Some tunes are repeated over and over again until they seem endless in time. Obviously, the music must last long enough for the dance to be of sufficient length. Another characteristic often found in Cajun music is that the vocals are frequently rhythmically independent of the musical instruments – they go off on a surging pattern of their own. For example, a composition may use a waltz rhythm in a tragic-blues-influenced song. Also, sometimes the meter or beat is revised to suit the mood of the player or crowd. That is, a waltz becomes a two-step, as in the song "Allons a Lafayette." Others, such as the Cajun version of "Home Sweet Home," start off as a waltz and suddenly double or triple in beat and become a fast-moving two-step (7). Other common features include nine-measure musical phrases and irregular number of lines to stanzas (10).

Frequently, Cajun musicians will change song titles and words to songs to suit a particular whim or occasion. Each year, dozens of songs are literally revised by singers who wish to convey a new and current thought. Indeed, it is quite possible that a song may be entirely different before an evening of dance comes to an end! To complicate the situation even more, there may be a number of different titles for the same tune. That is, the famous "Jolie Blonde" has been recorded under a variety of names.

Usually, Cajun musicians take turns singing and, almost without exception, they sing as soloists. Very rarely do Cajuns sing parts or in unison (6). Their singing also has a very nasal quality and is portamento in style (10).

Until some fifty years ago, Cajun musicians had a few lyrics or songs to accompany their music; much of their singing accompaniment was simply a cry or yip. These musicians wojld yell out their emotions rather than sing about them. The Cajun cry was sometimes sad and heartrending; other times carefree, exuberant, and sassy. "Hey-hey!" "Ehehee?" "Aw yai-yi!" "Hey labas!" and "Va-t-en!" all served to express a particular mood (7).

What do Cajuns say in their songs? Like all folk songs, their songs are echoes of the incidents of life and express simple ideas. Through song they express their emotions, longings, desires, needs, and fantasies. They sing of fate and misfortune showing that they enjoy their suffering enough to tell about it. There are songs of sadness, death, joy, adventure, songs to amuse, and songs to satirize. There are songs about ordinary people, animals, and places such as Texas – that far-off country of great adventure.

When the Cajun is not worried by amorous difficulties he is thrilled with the joy of living. His music has retained a good bit of the Cajun earthy philosophy that it is better to sing loudly and laugh coarsely than to curse fate or growl at mankind, and that it is much better to love and trust than to war and fear (7). His carefree manner makes him seek pleasure in cards, whiskey and dance, and these too he sings about.

Like most folk songs, courtship, love, marriage, and family life form dominant themes in Cajun vocal renditions. Songs such as "Chere Cherie," "Ma Jolie Blonde," "Grand Mamou," "Chere Mom," "La Valse de Musicians," "Ma Negresse," and "Jai Passe Devant ta Porte" are just a few of the great Cajun classics that bear this out.

There still remain in Louisiana marriage songs which are quite interesting when compared with the French songs from which they stemmed. Typically American is the concept of love, happiness, and hope in marriage. Although romantic love discovered in the age of medieval chivalry stems from Europe, marriage as a culmination of romantic love does not represent the point of view of French tradition. Among upper classes and the bourgeoise, as well as among the French Creoles in the colonies, the concept of marriage was a proper match which gave the couple marital stability and social status, and assured the future of their children. For the French, peasant marriage did not augur any happiness either, for it meant a meager livelihood and a hard life filled with deprivation. Texts from French songs warn that love and marriage are foreign and incompatible notions, that marriage is a regrettable event that means sorrow and grief (1).

In Louisiana, these songs pertaining to marriage are toned down or changed. Most of the lines predicting doom and spelling pessimism have disappeared. Statements of unhappiness are replaced by expressions of hope. Interestingly, however, the tune has not changed. Instead of the joyful and carefree rhythms of a wedding song that we usually expect in the American culture, the melodies are sad and dejected. Some collectors have interpreted it as the expression of the passing sadness of the bride as she leaves her home and family to assume the responsibility of married life. Doubtless, these feelings are present, but the doleful, melancholy music of the songs should be considered realistically as a survival of the French folk songs which reflected a certain negativism towards marriage (1).

When the young men of English, Scottish, and Irish extraction moved into Louisiana and married young Cajun women, some of their attitudes left an imprint on the French Louisiana folk mores. The moral code of pioneer America was based on Calvinist and Puritan precepts which were very restricting.

The protestant catalog of sins included lovemaking, drinking, gambling, playing fiddle, singing worldly songs, dancing, fishing on Sunday, and anything else a hysterical preacher could think of (3, p. 17).

The Cajun rejected almost all of the above taboos: he loves to drink, gamble, dance, sing, play the fiddle, and fish on Sunday, but on the discussion of lovemaking he has undergone the Puritanical influence of his American neighbors. Although the Cajun is reputed to be an ardent lover and speaks of love in his songs, he very deliberately avoids any reference to matters related to sex. This is in direct contrast to the French songs from which many of the Cajun songs are derived. Obviously, French song tradition on the American soil has been "censored both conscientiously and consciously" (1).

Illustrations of expurgation occurring in Louisiana songs are abundant, and exist to some degree in French Canada. The song "La Délaisée" is a fine example of this. It tells of a sweet young girl who after being jilted by her lover takes her own life and that of her lover. Nothing in the Louisiana text justifies the violence of the ending. Contrariwise, in most of the French ballads that typically end in tragedy, the motive for violence is more justified: the man grows tired of his sweetheart after he has taken advantage of her, particularly after he discovers that she is pregnant (1).

Another ballad of jilted love is "The Butcher Boy," which in many British and in some American variants allude to the "babe that was not born" and to the "apron strings that are worn high" or "under the chin," makes no mention of pregnancy in Louisiana. In the same song when, before committing suicide, the young girl leaves a note to her parents and places it on her "poitrine," which means chest, bosom or breast, the word is often replaced by "coeur." As a general rule, the Louisiana song does not mention any uncovered parts of the body (1).

The song "Le Galant wui voit mourir sa Mie" illustrates another example of censorship. As this song exists in Louisiana, a conscious effort is made to "dress" any reference to nudity. Moreover, the French reference to "lovers sleeping together" is completely rejected by Louisiana singers (1).

It is interesting to note that while Cajuns reject motifs relating to sex, these motifs are retained by the Blacks living in French Louisiana.

The full weight of Puritanism did not fall upon the Negroes who came largely from cultures which placed a high value on erotic and agressive behavior and which provided vivid outlets for them in song, dance, and ceremonial. As slaves and later, as second-class citizens in the South, they were not expected to conform rigidly to the convention of harassed whites (3, p. 19).

There are several themes which play a very minor role or are completely absent in the Cajun's repertoire of songs. For instance, the Cajun is industrious, peaceful, frank and cheerful by nature, but he rarely sings of these virtues. Instead, a good portion of the Cajun tales and musical repertoire deals more with shiftlessness, sadness, and sometimes ironical slaps at virtue and frankness in general. Until recently, Cajuns have shown no great ambition for political domination, riches, education, or social power. Hence, these form no part of his music. Recently, some Cajun musicians have translated some patriotic western songs, but generally themes dealing with nationalism and hero worship are missing in Cajun music (7).

Songs pertaining to occupations or so-called "work songs" do not exist in French Louisiana. This phenomenon is explained by the fact that work songs did not develop in the French provinces which sent colonists to the New World (1). The authors of the Danses Rondes quote a possible remnant of a trade song in "Raisin, Raisin" – a song about grape crushers (8). It is surprising that in agricultural Lower Louisiana, where the Cajuns' main occupation has been the cultivation of sugar cane, cotton and rice, not a single song describing these chores had been recorded. Of course, it is possible that any song may be used s a work song provided the rhythm is suited to the execution of the task. Negro slaves in the South sang spirituals and love songs when working in the fields, loading cotton bales, and building levees and railroads. So it is quite possible that the Cajuns also sang as they worked, but the songs cannot be classified as work songs per se.

The religious element is also absent from the collections of French songs in Louisiana. The one song that has a religious text and that is known by many singers is "La Sainte Catherine." It recounts the story of the martyrdom of a Christian princess. It is sung in a boisterous and often comical tone, and its refrain and rhythm suggest a march or dance. In Louisiana, it has been known as a "dance ronde," although it is seldom danced (8). Its character reflects a custom known in French tradition where many tragic or solemn religious songs were often sung in an air of gaiety. Profane melodies with sacred words were common in France, as exemplified by the Christmas carols sung to jovial drinking songs and having farcical and often licentious refrains (1).

Recently, Cajun musicians have translated some old Baptist or Apostolic hymns and French canticles; however, songs of this type have never achieved oral currency in Louisiana.

The absence of the religious element in Cajun songs is difficult to explain. Historically, Cajun men have been rather indifferent to expressing their religious beliefs overtly. Their attitude has been that certain religious practices are alright for the wife and children, but not for them. Obviously, this unconcern for the religion did little to encourage the composition of songs praising the Lord. This does not mean that the Cajuns lacked respect for their religion or were non-believers; their faith was very deep.

The satirical type of song mocking clergy, so prevalent in France, is unknown in Louisiana. Such songs developed in France for two reasons:

  1. many of the priests exercised such a strong control over their congregations that they became oppressors and were bitterly disliked by their parishioners.
  2. many of the clerics lacked a calling for the priesthood and as a result did not lead exemplary sacerdotal lives.

Both these conditions created a negative attitude towards the clergy and parishioners released their emotions by composing biting songs about the men of the cloth (1). The priests in Louisiana were very tolerant towards their carefree flocks and most who chose to minister in the colonies had deep humanitarian convictions; therefore, the situation in Louisiana did not give rise to a musical mockery of the clergy.

Cajun music is for dancing, for parties and for weddings, but those of us who live in French Louisiana know that the music is more than an attribute to festivity. It is a mirror that reflects the history, the character, and the living experiences of a people who refuse to let their heritage be engulfed by the melting pot of America. It is their language, their voice, and a testimonial to the endurance of the Cajun spirit. It is the spirit of Acadiana.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Brandon, Elizabeth. The socio-cultural traits of the French folksong. Louisiana Review, CODOFIL 1(2). Winter, 1972.

  2. Courlander, Harold. Negro folk music, U.S.A. Columbia University Press, New York and London. 1963. 164 p.

  3. Lomax, Alan. The folk songs of North America. Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. 1960. 235 p.

  4. Oster, Harry. Folksongs of the Louisiana Acadians. Arhoolie Records 5009, Berkeley, California. 1959. 16 p.

  5. Oster, Harry. Negro French spirituals of Louisiana. Journal of the International Folk Music Council 14:166-167. 1962.

  6. Post, Lauren C. Cajun sketches. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1974. 215 p.

  7. Reed, Revon. Cajun music – an Acadiana tradition. Acadian Profile ( ):4-5. September, 1975.

  8. Thériot, Marie de Norte and Catherine Brookshire Blanchet. R.E. Blanchet, Distributor, Abbeville, Louisiana. 1955. 32 p.

  9. Vieene, Lucie de. Introduction and texts to Cajun songs from Louisiana. Ethnic Folkway Library Album No. P 438. 1957. 3 p.

  10. Whitfield, Irène Thérèse. Louisiana French folksongs. Dover Publications, Inc., New York. 1969. 171 p.

DOCUMENT


Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, February 1977.


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