Meet the Cajuns

The Cajun history is a sad one, but it produced a people and a culture well worth getting to know.

The Acadian Odyssey -- In the early 1600s, colonists from France began settling the southeastern coast of Canada in a region of Nova Scotia they named Acadia. They developed a peaceful agricultural society based on the values of a strong Catholic faith, deep love of family, and respect for their relatively small landholdings. This pastoral existence was isolated from the mainstream of European culture for nearly 150 years, until 1713 when Acadia became the property of the British under the Treaty of Utrecht. For more than 40 years, the Acadians were harassed by the king's representatives, who tried to force them to pledge allegiance to the British Crown, renounce Catholicism, and embrace the king's Protestant religion. When the Acadians steadfastly refused, the British governor of the region sent in troops. Villages were burned; husbands, wives, and children were separated as ships were loaded to deport them; and a 10-year odyssey began.

Some Acadians returned to France, some went to England (some to return to American decades later), many were put ashore along America's East Coast, and some wound up in the West Indies. Hundreds of lives were lost to the terrible conditions onboard.

Louisiana, with its strong French background, was a natural destination for Acadians hoping to reestablish a permanent home. In 1765, Bernard Andry brought a band of 231 men, women, and children to the region now known as Acadiana.

The swampy land differed greatly from what they had left in Nova Scotia. Bogs interlaced with bayous and lakes; thick forests teemed with wildlife. They built small levees (or dikes) along the banks and drained fields for small farms and pastures.

A New Pride -- After many decades during which Cajuns shied away from their roots (children were beaten in school for speaking French, which was considered a sign of ignorance; Cajun music was considered primitive or hokey), the Cajun culture has experienced a resurgence of popularity and respect, and gained a new sense of community pride.

The Real Evangeline -- You may know Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem Evangeline -- the story of Evangeline and Gabriel, Acadian lovers who spent their lives searching for each other after being wrenched from their homeland. In real life, Evangeline was Emmeline Labiche, and her sweetheart was Louis Pierre Arceneaux. Their story has a different ending from the poet's -- Emmeline found Louis Pierre, after years of searching, in Cajun Country, in St. Martinville. The tragedy was that, by then, Louis had given up hope of finding her and was pledged to another. She died of a broken heart in Louisiana, not Philadelphia. (Note: Sorry, probably none of the above is true at all. Emmeline and Louise Pierre were yet another fictional couple, invented to build a "real life back story" for the popular poem. But who cares? It's a good yarn!)

Cajun Language

This essay was provided by two-time Grammy nominee Ann Allen Savoy, who is, along with her husband, Marc, a musician in the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band and in her own groups, the Magnolia Sisters and Ann Savoy and the Sleepless Knights. Ann and Marc have also spawned a musical dynasty, including their son Joel (founding member of the Red Stick Ramblers and head of Valcour Records), their son Wilson (of Pine Leaf Boys fame), and their daughter Sarah (of the Paris-based Sarah Savoy and the Francadians) -- all stellar musicians leading the charge of a new generation.

The French influence in Louisiana is one of the things that sets the state apart from the rest of the United States. As soon as you get west of Baton Rouge, you can cruise down the Louisiana highways listening to French radio. The accent is sharp and bright with occasional English words thrown in ("On va revenir right back" -- "We'll be right back"), so it is fun to see how much even Anglophones can follow the French story lines.

Though French is spoken by most of the older Cajuns (ages 60 and up), most middle-aged and young Louisianans don't speak the language. This is partially because the knowledge of the French language, from the 1930s on, became associated with a lack of business success or education, and therefore was stigmatized. Today, however, there is a resurgence of pride in being bilingual. French immersion programs are cropping up and people of all ages are learning to speak French.

Cajun French & the Creole Language -- Cajun French is peppered with beautiful old words dating from Louis XIV, unused in France and historically intriguing. Cajun French is not a dialect of the French language, nor are there actual dialects of Cajun French from town to town in southwest Louisiana. However, many words refer to particular items, and certain areas prefer particular words over others: a mosquito can be called a marougouin in one area, a moustique in another, or a cousin elsewhere. Since Cajun French is not a written language (it's only spoken), certain words that were originally mispronounced have become part of the language. Similarly, some English words are part of the language today because when the Acadians first came to Louisiana, there were no such things as pickup trucks, typewriters, and other modern inventions, so the English words are used.

Additionally, the fascinating Creole language is still spoken by many black Louisianans. A compilation of French and African dialects, it is quite different from standard French, though Cajuns and black Creoles can speak and understand both languages.

Cajun Music

It's hard to decide which is more important to a Cajun: food or music. In the early days when instruments were scarce, Cajuns held dances to a cappella voices. With roots probably found in medieval France, the strains usually came in the form of a brisk two-step or a waltz. Traditional groups still play mostly acoustic instruments -- a fiddle, an accordion, a triangle, and maybe a guitar.

The best place to hear real Cajun music is on someone's back porch, the time-honored spot for eating some gumbo and listening to several generations of musicians jamming. If you don't have access to a back-porch gathering, there are dance halls with something going on just about every weekend, full of willing dance coaches for newbies. Locals come to dance and socialize (and so should you). And don't be shy, everyone will be watching the really good dancers (and so should you). Talk to the people around you, too. Cajuns love to tell stories and jokes, and do it well.

Mulate's, Randol's, and D.I.'s restaurants offer regular live music and dancing. The regular Saturday morning jam session at the Savoy Music Center in Eunice is a sheer delight that's not to be missed -- it's the closest you will get to that back-porch experience.

Zydeco also thrives in this region. Zydeco bands share the bill at the weekly live show at Eunice's Liberty Theater, Slim's Y Ki-Ki in Opelousas, the Zydeco Hall of Fame in Lawtell, and El Sido's in Lafayette.

Tuning in to Cajun Country -- Our standard soundtrack for the drive from New Orleans to Cajun Country begins with the excellent WWOZ 90.7 FM (to which we're assiduously tuned while in the city). After an hour on the road, static takes over, signaling the unwrapping of whatever new music we've wisely recently purchased from Louisiana Music Factory. In about half a CD's time, we can usually pull in KBON 101.1 FM for some rollickin' Cajun and zydeco tunes. At that point we know we've arrived, as much in geography as mood. (Even the ads are good!)

Growing Up Cajun

Growing up immersed in Cajun culture was rewarding but alienating. My heroes weren't football jocks or rock-'n'-roll stars but rather my old neighbors, farmers who spoke French, and played the accordion or fiddle. When fiddler Dennis McGee farmed for my grandpa, I didn't play with his children, even though they were my age -- I hung around Dennis. I followed him in the fields while he plowed with his mule team. I wanted to hear his stories.

None of my classmates shared my love for what these old-timers had to offer. On my best days, my peers' attitude toward me was indifference. Even though it was difficult being Cajun in the '40s and '50s, I never felt any anger about the negativity of the non-Cajuns or by those Cajuns who had given up their heritage, but rather frustration and disappointment. They were turning away from this wonderful heritage in pursuit of the mainstream. They were turning their backs on a delicious bowl of gumbo in favor of an American hot dog. I think my ulterior motive in opening up a music store that specialized in Cajun music in 1966 was that I had an ax to grind. I wanted to destroy the stigma of being Cajun, to prove to the locals that heritage and success could coexist, that being Cajun and speaking French was okay. I wanted to tell outsiders how good our food was and about all these wonderful, warm, friendly, and sincere people who were called Cajuns.

That year was a turning point -- Cajun music was first presented to the outside world at the Newport Folk Festival. A three-piece group of old Cajuns was up against names such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The Cajuns played their first simple tune, "Grand Mamou," and before they were halfway through, an audience of 10,000 gave them a standing ovation.

This experience reinforced the passion that had kept the fire burning in the musicians' hearts, while the audience and press reaction surprised even the local non-Cajuns. This brought outside interest -- and visitors -- to Cajun Louisiana. In turn, this "relegitimized" Cajun culture among locals. What was once considered a stigma -- to be Cajun -- was now considered an asset. Sadly, some took it to a commercialized extreme, hawking a Hollywood-ized caricature to tourists. Cajun music comes from the flat, rice-farming prairie regions. The Germans brought the button accordion from their homeland, and some say they brought rice as well. My theory is this: Prosperity equals permanence, and permanence equals roots. Having been raised on a rice farm, with 6 feet of topsoil in some places, the first settlers here could easily sustain themselves without having to move after the first spot was depleted. We also don't have big rivers, which bring in big industry and masses of people diluting the existing culture. So we stayed and dug in -- literally and figuratively.

I don't think modern Cajuns are much different from the early Cajuns in the past. For any other ethnic group, it's not about one aspect of a culture -- whether or not you play music, eat spicy food, or speak a certain language. It's about having a foundation that was cultivated in good times and bad. And because of devotion and love, those roots sink deep, deep, deep and produce a strong, strong, strong tree, which gives protection and comfort to all those who come into its embrace. It's a matter of vision, being from a certain ethnic minority. It's about how you see yourself in your environment and how you relate and function in that environment, and having a deep sense of the past in order to know your direction. It's about having respect and love for the things that make you who you are and prevent you from being someone else. It's not about being a crowd-pleaser. It's about being natural.

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