Monday, September 24, 2012

A Visit To Cajun Country

A close friend was heading off to graduate school. It was the summer of 1989 and I was visiting his home near Baltimore to help him with his preparations. He was moving to Lafayette, Louisiana to study at the university there. 

We loaded all of my friend’s worldly goods into a U-Haul trailer on a humid afternoon and attached the trailer to an army green, 1975 Dodge Dart. How this caravan was going to make it over the Appalachians was a mystery.

A night or two before his departure, my friend asked me to accompany him on his long drive. I made some phone calls to get some cash wired and to wrap up my affairs for a week or two. What followed was one of those sprawling, kerouackian voyages possible only in one’s twenties.

I am a musician and my friend a music folklorist and we took this opportunity to visit the South’s many music centers starting with Nashville and Memphis with side jaunts to New Orleans and Austin.

In Nashville, I encountered the most intoxicated person I have ever seen still capable of standing upright. She was in a modest café where about a half dozen Country singers, aspiring or over-the-hill, were passing around a guitar taking turns on one lonesome, late-night ballad after another. The superlatively intoxicated Pennsylvanian took many photos of the café denizens that night. I doubt she could identify a single person in them the next day although we were all the best of friends in the moment.

There are more than a few stories to tell from that trip: hearing the sales pitch of Memphis’s most inept hustler (he should consider a reliable line of work, like congressman); a close call with an idle deputy sheriff in southern Arkansas (idle, small town lawmen are the most dangerous kind for young males, with out-of-state license plates); and a potentially dangerous brush with three aggressive hustlers in North Little Rock.

Maybe I just have the look of a mark but it seemed that hustlers often beset these young travelers in the South while the North has formalized its hustle into institutions like Harvard and Wall Street. These digressions, however, distract me from my theme: the Cajun Country of Southwest Louisiana.

After our adventures, we unburdened the faithful Dart in Lafayette and pulled into some touristy place in nearby Breaux Bridge. We were looking for a beverage or two and some live music. As touristy places are wont this joint had a printed placemat like the kind found in Chinese restaurants, the ones that have the audacity to call you a pig, a dog, or a snake.

On this placemat was written “Are you a Cajun?” followed by ten questions. They included queries like, “Did your grandfather call you only by your ‘Ti’ name?” No, but we had a cat with a 'Ti' name of my grandfather’s invention. I answered yes to seven of the ten questions. I suppose that constitutes a passing grade. It seems that I had lived twenty-something years as an invisible Cajun.

My grandmother was an Acadienne, a Doucet(te) from Prince Edward Island. Her family tree is laden with Daigles, LeBlancs, Gallants, names common among Cajuns as are many other Acadian surnames. What I did not know at the time of my first visit to Louisiana is that there is a strong historical link between my grandmother’s Island Acadiens and the Cadiens.

There’s a common simplification that says, “The Cajuns are the descendants of Acadians deported from Nova Scotia to Louisiana.”  In fact, the Acadians were not deported to Louisiana and many of the Acadians who wound up there were deported not only from today's Nova Scotia but also from other Acadian settlements. By design, Le Grand Dérangement scattered the Acadians far and wide. Most of them were sent to the British-American colonies (the future USA), to Britain, and to France. Others ended up in other French colonies.

In the mid 1760s, a number of deportees came from Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) to Louisiana. Despite a smattering of Acadian refugees who had made their way to Louisiana even earlier, this group is recognized generally as the commencement of the Acadian Diaspora in the region. In the following years, a trickle of Acadians arrived in Louisiana from other places especially from Maryland.

When these first groups of deportees arrived, Louisiana had been ceded from France to Spain. The vast Louisiana territory would later revert to France before it was sold to the United States in 1803.
Romanticized Portrayal of the Acadian Arrival in Louisiana
Many of the ancestors of the future Cajuns were from among the Acadians who had been deported to France in 1758 from Île Saint-Jean, the future Prince Edward Island. In France, they were joined by some of the deportees who had been sent to Britain. About 1500 souls from among this mixed group of Acadians gathered in France came to Louisiana in 1785. They constitute a core of the group later known as Cadiens or Cajuns, although many of those who claim Cajun ethnicity today are not descended from the Acadians at all.

What I remember most vividly about my first visit to Cajun Country is the ubiquity and quality of the music. It was here that I first heard the musician/poet/advocate, Zachary Richard, dear to the French North Americans as a whole. On a subsequent visit, I attended the music festival at Mamou where I ate boudin while the Balfa Brothers appeared on stage followed by the (then) young upstarts Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.

In and around Lafayette I heard Creole Zydeco, Cajun rock, Cajun swing, and the traditional Cajun music, and through it all courses the blood of old Acadie, the strains of the dance music and plaintive ballads brought by our French ancestors to a wild new world.

Despite my 70% score on the placemat quiz I can’t really claim Cajun identity. Cajun culture is a mix all its own. Still, I discovered there something hauntingly familiar in the French accent, in the joie de vivre, and in the music of this people. My visits to Cajun Country planted seeds for my later ruminations on French North America.

Among this hospitable, festive people, exotic yet mysteriously familiar, I caught an inkling of how the pockets of French-descent peoples in North America are an extended family – separated by history and geography but a family nonetheless.

1 comment:

  1. So true David...we spend every spring in Lafayette, getting as I call it "Frenched-up!" I am always renewed and encouraged when in Acadiana that here at least the Franco-American culture in the US will not die. Am also encouraged to learn of a resurgence of French culture in Maine.