A New Generation of Cajun/Creole Musicians Take the Lead
Pity poor Cajun music. Its existence in the late 20th century had become a pretty sad thing, what with all the crawfish t-shirts, the rubboard ties, the coming of shitty Chinese-made button accordions, and the million-and-one Whitey McWhiterson bands from the Midwest playing Jolie Blonde or Colinda. Poor, poor Cajun music. It went from one of the darkest, grittiest hillbilly music traditions in the US to one of the cheesiest travesties of traditional culture. Thank god a new generation of Cajuns have risen up to take their music back to its true roots.
Led by Cajun accordionist Marc Savoy’s two sons, Wilson and Joel, Cajun music has stepped back into the Americana spotlight through the work of artists like the Red Stick Ramblers, Feufollet, the Pine Leaf Boys, Dirk Powell, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, and Creole super-star fiddler Cedric Watson. The sprawling city of Lafayette, Louisiana, deep in the heart of Cajun Country, is home to this new scene, and Valcour Records is the record label that is getting all this music out internationally. To get a feel for the new music coming out of Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole (French-speaking African Americans in LA) music communities, Valcour’s compilation CD, Alllons Boire un Coup, provides a totally fresh perspective on Louisiana’s French music.
Allons Boire un Coup is a collection of Cajun drinking songs, and while this may seem a strange novelty, it’s actually a core tradition that dates all the way back to Canada’s Acadian heritage and Western France. Thanks to a series of wars in the 16 and 17th century (French-Indian Wars), we’ve pretty much forgotten that North American used to be nearly all French. Everything West of the Mississippi and North of the colonies belonged to the rough-and-tumble voyageurs, fur-traders who ran the length of the continent in bark canoes, marrying Native Americans and generally partying their way to infamy.
In fact, the first real European culture created in the New World was “L’Ordre de Bon Temps” (The Order of Good Cheer), a dinner party club started in 1606 that mixed the first French settlers with local Native Americans and anchored the club with good food and plenty of wine. This love of drinking and drinking culture lives on in today’s French-Canadian folk music, where drinking songs are ubiqutous, and in traditional Cajun and Creole music, where songs of local bambocheurs (rounders) abound.
The songs on Allons Boire un Coup are practically drowning in the cool, summer drawl of Louisiana’s medival Acadian French and the lyrics are some of the darkest, most miserable words of heartbreak in American music. It’s good that the liner notes don’t translate the lyrics (they do translate online), as Cajun French songs can sound pointless in English:
Moi, j’ai roulé
J’ai roulé dans les chemins
Avec un quart dans la poche et une jogue à plombeau.
Mon, j’ai jonglé
Moi, j’ai pleuré
Oh tit monde, tes parents sont tous contre moi.
from “La Jog à Plombeau” becomes…
Me, I rambled
I rambled in the roads
With a quart in my pocket, and a corked jug in my hand.
Me, I thought
Me, I cried
Oh, little world, your cousins are against me
The English translation does nothing to convey the sad beauty of the phrase “jogue à plambeau” (corked jug), or the use of rough, archaic French words from the Middle Ages like “jonglé” (loosely translates to “to think or reflect”), or “roulé” (ramble). The rich roux of Cajun language has a soft, gorgeous sound to ears that understand French, and to those that don’t, the drawl is still unmistakeable. Even nicer is the a cappella drinking song La Table Ronde, sung by Cedric Watson in the nearly vanished Creole language couri vini. You can hear the strong African influence on Cajun french that marks Louisiana Creole culture. You can also hear this influence in the deep blues of Linzay Young or Joel Savoy’s fiddling.
While the rest of the country wallowed in cheap Louisiana souvenirs and over-simplified Cajun songs, the true Cajuns and Creoles of Louisiana have kept their music close to their hearts, tucked away in their homes, and bouncing out of their packed dancehalls. Don’t blame them for the watered down soup we’ve all been fed. But do check out today’s Cajun/Creole music renaissance. You’ll find that the rough-and-tumble songs of the Louisiana’s Cajun country echo the heartbreak and blues of other American hillbilly music traditions like Southern old-time music, honky-tonk, old-school bluegrass and roots country. It’s music from the heartland of the old, weird America.
NOTE: This blog originally appeared in American Standard Time, Greg Vandy’s blog for The Roadhouse, a great roots music radio show that airs every Wednesday night on KEXP. Check out the original blog for audio:
ALSO NOTE: Joel Savoy of Valcour Records will be performing in Portland and Seattle on July 1 and 2 with master Cajun accordionist Jesse Lege and the Caleb Klauder Country Band. See www.hearthmusic.com/concerts.html for details.