monthly report 2007

Zach chillin' - thinking about his monthly reports

December 11, 2007

The beginning of the 20th century was the determinant period for “French” music in South Louisiana.  Combining influences from various sources, musicians on the Attakapas prairie forged a new musical style. This style was based on the ten button diatonic accordion, the instrument of choice in the region.   Introduced by immigrants of German heritage, the “petit noir”, (little black) enjoyed immense popularity and became the foundation for the development of what would ultimately become both Cajun and Zydeco music. 

Although the German influence was critical simply because of the accordion, the Sterling and Monarch brands imported from Germany in large quantities, the new style had a host of sources.  Most of the inhabitants of the prairie were French-speaking descendants of the deported Acadians who had arrived in Louisiana beginning in 1765.  They had a musical tradition of ballads and songs many of which had their roots in Western France.  But the Cadiens or Cajuns, as they were called, although the dominant ethnic group, were not the only contributors to the new style.

Even though New Orleans was far from the rural areas of South Louisiana, its influence was important.  Southwest Louisiana was not as isolated as it might seem.  The railroad had been built in 1884, opening the prairie to a host of people and products as well as to the culture of New Orleans.  Thanks to the railroad, the city was more accessible than it had ever been.  New Orleans at that time was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world and with New York, one of the busiest ports in North America.  Inevitably the influence of the city and its culture were felt in the rural areas.

The Afro-American influence was also critical.  There was a significant population of French-speaking blacks, les Créoles noirs, in the area.  The Attakapas had been, and remained well into the 20th century, an area generally free of political control.  During the Civil War, it had been the preserve of a band of guerillas, numbering over one thousand men in its heyday, and led by a free mulatto, Onézime Carrière.  The absence of political control made the prairie the refuge of run-away slaves, of whites fleeing Confederate conscription and of free blacks fleeing the constraints of racist society.  In addition, cattle farming, the economic base of the region, was by its nature more egalitarian than the neighboring plantation system.  There were no plantations on the prairie.  Cotton and sugar cane were grown along the watercourses, the Mississippi, and the Bayous Teche and Vermilion.  Slavery was not affordable on the Attakapas.  A farmer and his sons were all the labor force needed to maintain a herd.  There was no segregation of residence either.  One’s neighbor might just as well be black Creole as white Cajun.  The divide between the races was easier to cross on the prairie than in the planter country.  Whites and blacks, while not enjoying the same social status, lived in relative proximity and this rapprochement was particularly evident in the musician community.

There was a very strong tradition of house dances, called bals de maison, in the Cadien-Cajun culture.  These communal celebrations offered the possibility of entertainment in what was otherwise a life of rigorous agricultural labor.  The dances were the occasion to let loose and to visit with family and friends.  It was in these house dances that an indigenous accordion based musical style evolved.  The basic phenomenon was the same in both the Cadien and the Créole cultures.  Someone decided to hold a dance.  An invitation was sent throughout the community.  This invitation could take several forms, of which the most exotic was a mounted horseman.  A young rider would gallop from farmstead to farmstead.  Never dismounting, he would fire his pistol from the road to attract the attention of the farmer and then proceed to wave a colored flag.  At the end of his ride, the flag was attached to the front of the house in which the dance was to be held.  Regardless of the form of the invitation, the house dances contributed to the formation of a vibrant musical community.  In the early days, no musicians could survive exclusively from playing, but the round of house dances created a group of able musicians.  It was this group that created the prototypical style of both Cajun music and Zydeco

The accordion had not been invented (1828 in Austria) when the first Acadians arrived in Louisiana (1765).  Although most of the musicians in rural South Louisiana were of Acadian heritage, the songs that were being created were of a new genre.  The accordion, by its very nature (diatonic push-pull) determined to a great extent the parameters of the music.  This music was dance music, period, and the rhythmic elements were fundamental and fundamentally new, reflecting not only the Cadien-French heritage, but also contemporary Anglo-american influences.  Irish, American, American-indian, and African melodies were part of the cultural matrix of South Louisiana and elements of all of these otherwise disparate sources wound up in the musical gumbo. 

Before 1928, it is very difficult to evaluate the evolution of the style,  After that date, however, the evolution of French music in Louisiana is documented by a very rich archive of popular recording.  The first song recorded was “Allons à Lafayette” by Joseph Falcon.  The flip side of the 78 rpm was “La Valse qui m’a emmené à ma fosse”, The Waltz that carried me to my grave.  The distribution of 78 rpm records beginning in the late 20s, had a spectacular impact on the music of the region.  Even though gramophones were scarce, they did insure that recorded music reached into every section of the prairie.  The result was the creation of a standard repertoire.  In addition, the distribution of recorded music encouraged the musical community not only to learn the songs of others, but also to record their own.  And the phenomenon was not exclusive to whites.

The arrival of the 78 rpm recordings was a seminal event in the creation of the prototypical style of French music, but ironically announced the decline in popularity of the accordion.  More and more, the influence of Anglo-american culture was being felt in rural French-speaking. Louisiana.  Oil had been discovered in Jennings in 1901, provoking a considerable influx of English speaking Americans.  As the dominant social and economic force in the region, the influence of “Les Américains” was felt in all sectors of the community, including the musical culture.  For a fairly long period in the 1930s and early 1940s, string band music was the most popular musical genre.  These orchestras relied on vocal harmony and string instruments and were essentially  inspired by “hillbilly” or “country” music.  Nathan  Abshire, one of the most important accordion players in the tradition confided to me that for 10 years he had been forced to play the violin because “nobody wanted to hear the accordion”.  This was the heyday of the Hackberry Ramblers, Happy Fats LeBlanc and Alex Broussard, who sang and played in a style identical to the Anglo string bands of the period, with the significant exception that they sang in French.

Coming in February: Ira Lejeune and the Golden Age of the Fais Do-Do.

November 7, 2007

Louisiana French music, known commonly as Cajun and Zydeco, gained in popularity during the 1980s.  Since that time, both styles have gained legions of fans around the world.  In spite of this recognition of both Cajun and Zydeco music, little is known about their common evolution or about the ethnic culture which gave rise to these apparently distinctive musical styles.  Here then is the big picture.

First of all, the etymology.  “Cajun” is an Anglicization of the French term which describes the Euro-French (as opposed to Afro-French) culture of Southwest Louisiana.  Following the Grand Dérangement (Deportation) of the Acadians in 1755, many of the exiles were eventually able to find a new home in Louisiana.  The Acadian-Cajun community of Louisiana is the largest group of Acadian descendants outside of maritime Canada.  The origin of the name for the original colony (today Nova Scotia) is the subject of some debate.  The early maps refer to both “Cadie” and “Acadie”.  It is widely believed that the name of the colony, founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1604, was a derivation of the “Arcadia” of  Greek mythology.  There is evidence, however, that the name was derived from the Mi’kmaq word “altagig” meaning “campground” or the Abénaki “quoddy” meaning “fertile earth”.  In any event the people referred to themselves as “Cadien”, pronounced “Kah Jahn”.  At the end of the 19th century, the Acadian population of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, having survived a century and a half of political and social oppression, established an institutional identity for themselves, largely thanks to the Catholic clergy.  The Acadians composed a national anthem, designed a flag and referred to themselves definitively with the term that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had used: Acadian.  In Louisiana, however, the exiled community had no knowledge of these events.  Regarded as backward and lazy, the exiled Acadians continued to refer to themselves as “Cadien”.  The Anglo-americans baptized them “Cajun”, and the term has prevailed ever since. 

Zydeco is likewise an Anglicization.  The term is derived from a common expression of the French parlance of South Louisiana: “Les haricots sont pas salés”, meaning “the beans are not salty”.  This is a code expression for poverty.  If one’s beans are not salty it means that one cannot afford salt meat.  The phrase, perhaps on account of its syncopated rhythm, was often used as a leitmotif in black Creole music.  This musical form is rhythmically more complex yet lyrically less developed than the Euro-French (Cajun) musical style.  As is common in the Afro-Creole language, the French “liaison”, in which a preceding consonant will be permanently affixed to a word beginning with a vowel, transformed the word for bean from “haricot” to “Z’haricot, pronounced Za ree ko.  This term was in turn  transformed by the Anglo-americans into Zydeco.  So much for the etymology.  Let’s talk about the history.


One of the most frequent mistakes made regarding Cajun-Creole culture is that it is believed that its musical tradition was brought from France.  While it is true that Cadiens are of French heritage and speak a form of French with roots in the west of France, it is important to understand that the musical forms known as Cajun and Zydeco were created in South Louisiana.  This is the music of a New World culture and is as American (in the sense of the continent) as Blues or Jazz.  The Acadian exile community, arriving in the late 18th century, absorbed a variety of influences as well as assimilating members of other ethnic origins, creating in the process an original and unique culture.  Cajun and Creole culture is a classic case of the fabled melting pot.

Until the early 20th century, Southwest Louisiana was an untamed frontier.  The prairie which stretches from the Mississippi River floodplain (the coteau ridge) to the Sabine River was named for an American Indian tribe reputed for its ferocity and cannibalism, the Attakapas.  The region was ungoverned during the colonial era, neither France nor Spain able to extend its control there.  The Attakaps prairie was one of the last areas of Louisiana to be settled.  During the Civil War, the region was the refuge of a large band of “jayhawkers” extra-legal armed forces, commanded by Onézime Carrière and counting as many as 1000 men in its heyday.  The area provided safety to those fleeing conscription into the Confederate Army.  The tradition of independence and self-reliance continues to influence Louisiana prairie society to this day. 

The first European settlers of the Attakapas prairie were the Acadian exiles.  The original Acadian settlements (1765) were along the Bayou Teche near the trading posts of Opelousas (present day Opelousas) and Attakapas (present day St. Martinville).  The settlement pattern was from watercourse to watercourse.   Once the lands along a particular bayou had been settled, the next generation would move west to the next bayou.  The original settlers found a vast flatland covered with high grass (4 to 6 feet) well suited to cattle farming and subsequently to rice and crawfish cultivation.

In 1765, a contract was signed between Antoine Bernard Dauterive, a landowner, and 8 Acadians including Joseph “Beausoleil” Broussard.  Dauterive had been one of the several French soldiers at Fort Dauphine (Mobile, Alabama) who chose to head west after the treaty of Paris in 1763 which ceded all of the French territory east of the Mississippi to the British.  He was one of the first to receive a land grant from the new Spanish government of Louisiana.  In need of manpower to herd his cattle, he granted one half of the annual crop of calves in exchange for the services of the Acadians.  Accustomed to cattle farming in Acadie (many of the exiles had lived at Beaubassin, likewise an open country suited to cattle farming), the Acadians were well qualified for the cowboy life.  Nevertheless, the Attakapas prairie remained largely uninhabited for 150 years.

At the end of the 19th century, the prairie region west of present day Lafayette was developed.  The railroad was built in 1884, and was responsible for the founding of several villages.  At regular intervals from Lafayette, heading due west, a railroad depot was established which became a magnet of commerce and a breeding ground of culture, breaking the isolation of the prairie and linking it to the world.  As the names of these towns suggest, Crowley, Jennings, Iota, Scott, Anglo-american culture was influential if not dominant.  The demographic preponderance of French speaking Cajuns, however, was the determining cultural factor, although the influence of other ethnic groups was important if not fundamental.   French became the dominant language on the prairie until WWII. 

Rice farming was established at the beginning of the 20th century and would have a profound effect on Louisiana prairie culture.  The land development companies were very aggressive in recruiting settlers.  One of the target communities was that of the German speaking people of the American mid-west.  We do not know whether it was these immigrants who brought the first accordion to the prairie, but is it certain that this group was responsible for the popularity of the instrument.  Diatonic ten button accordions were imported from Germany in large numbers.  In the isolated farming communities of Southwest Louisiana, the accordion became the primary musical instrument.  More resistant than guitars or fiddles to the rough conditions of the prairie, the accordion was the instrument of choice of the prairie Cajuns.  In a classic example of the melting-pot phenomenon, a new culture was created by the encounter of various ethnic groups.  The Cajun prairie society, French speaking though it was, was a profoundly American creation.  Out of this mix of cultures came the music known originally as “French music”, the prototype of both the Cajun and the Zydeco styles.  The first recordings were done in the late 1920s (Joe Falcon recording Allons à Lafayette in 1928). 78 rpm recordings not only rendered the music accessible throughout Southwest Louisiana, but also contributed to a homogenization of the style.

It was in the early 20th century that the Cajun-Creole music began its trajectory.  It was forged in the fire of the Louisiana prairie, an alloy composed of several ethnic influences that coalesced into a culture that was absolutely unique and absolutely original.

Next time: the history of the development of Louisiana “French music” and the distinction of Cajun and Zydeco styles.

October 3, 2007

My grandson Emile will celebrate his eighth birthday this October and this report is dedicated to him in thanks for all of the happiness that he has brought to us.  Emile is a charming young boy, full of life with a mischievous sense of humor.  His smile is like the sun breaking through the cloud.  He is an incomparable child, which is what most grandparents say of their grandchildren.  In the case of Emile, however, his special nature is evident.  He is handicapped.  The nature of his handicap is neuro-motor.  He is perfectly intelligent, but the neurotransmitters in his brain are damaged and he has trouble getting his body to do what he wants.  He expresses himself slowly, cannot run very fast and is behind on the developmental curve. As he says himself, “ I am handicapped, but not very much.”
It is very hard for the parents of a handicapped child to accept the reality of their situation.  The life of a handicapped child is fraught with questions, the first of which is “Why?”   The trials and tribulations of the parents of a special child are all the more difficult since our society offers no quick and easy solutions for finding appropriate care.  The raising of a handicapped child is very often defined by difficulty and discouragement.  In Emile’s case, however, his parents had the great good fortune of finding an absolutely marvelous school.
Last spring, I had the pleasure of visiting the L’École Spécialisée Notre Dame in Neuilly.  I was very anxious about making the visit, having pledged to perform a few songs for the spring fair.  I was afraid of walking into a sort of Court of Miracles à la Victor Hugo (Les Misérables), full of sadness and tears.  What I found was a delightful place full of charming children and lots of love.  Many of the kids are in wheel chairs, their bodies stiff and unwieldy, but their eyes sparkle with glee.  They are just like normal kids (whatever that means) but with special needs.  They laugh and cut up and play around just like kids are supposed to.  They had learned one of my songs for the occasion and sang along in a heartfelt and rhythmically complex version of “Travailler c’est trop dur”.  I have played in front of thousands of people, but never have I had an audience that I enjoyed as much.  To see the light in their eyes was worth more that a room full of platinum records.
The school is intimidating for the first time visitor.  There is an abundance of wheelchairs, and the space is adapted to the needs of the kids.  One of the most striking things to me was the artwork which lines the walls.  It was certainly as good as the art found in many of the art galleries that I have visited (and I have visited a few).  There was one artist whose work inspired my particularly.  Her name is Mélanie.  Her work was full of color and vibrant with life, sort of Marc Chagall meets Gaugin.  One picture sticks in my mind.  It is of a young girl with three legs jumping rope, a self-portrait in fact.  With one pertinent detail: Mélanie cannot walk.
The school is administered by the Association Notre Dame and is devoted to the education of children with neurological problems.  The history of the school is very interesting.  The Association Notre Dame was founded in 1853.  Back then, it was called L’Oeuvre Notre Dame des Sept Douleurs (The Work of Notre Dame of the Seven Sufferings).  It was founded by Chanoine Moret, the first vicar of Saint Philippe du Roule.  The first president of the association was the Princess Mathilde, cousin of Napoleon III.  She remained president for nearly 50 years from 1855 until her death in 1904.  She was the guiding light behind the foundation of the school in 1868, which was taught by the Sisters of Charity (les Filles de la Charité) for over one hundred years.  Between 1968 and 1971, the Association Notre Dame rebuilt the center to incorporate improvements in education for neurologically challenged children.  Today, the school accommodates 94 handicapped kids, one of which is my grandson Emile.
There is a very long waiting list for admission and each candidate must pass through a selection process.  The children selected are amongst the very few in France who have access to a pedagogical support adapted to the needs of the neuromotor handicapped.  The schooling includes not only the traditional subjects, but also physical therapy and psychological support.  The cost of the equipment, computers, motorized wheelchairs and specialized machinery, is enormous.  The kids in this school, who pay no tuition, are really the chosen few.  Hundreds if not thousands of kids throughout France suffer from the same disability, yet have no access to schooling and are shut away and largely forgotten.  The number in the US is probably in the hundreds of thousands. 
During the afternoon that I spent with Emile and his friends, many things touched me.  While I was playing, there was an older man, likewise in a wheelchair, planted amidst the kids.  As I sang, he never stopped smiling, a big canary-eating grin spread from ear to ear.  And tears rolled down his cheeks.  After the performance, he introduced himself, Didier Maître.  Apparently he is well known at the school.  I found out that he is about my age, is married and that his wife and his kids are all handicapped (his daughter is Mélanie the artist).  He thanked me warmly for performing, explaining that it was difficult for him to attend shows even though he loved music. Music is a very important part of his life, he said, but his access is limited mostly to the radio.  He had not seen someone perform live music in many years. 
The day was memorable for Claude and me.  The smiles on the children’s faces and the sparkle in their eyes as I sang are worth more to me than all the recognition in the world.  Their appreciation was sincere and very touching.  We were amongst the last to leave, visiting with the Directrice and Emile’s teachers.  Our departure was bitter-sweet, and a little sad.  Emile’s best friend is a young African boy, Glody.  Glody is one of the 40 children who board at the school, most of their families living too far to commute.  Many of their families are immigrants.  On top of the difficulties that they must face in relation to the handicap of their children, they must also face social challenges for which few are prepared.  Some of them cannot even speak French.  Even though he is well taken care of, it was hard to leave Glody behind. I will never forget Glody’s eyes as he watched his friend Emile leave with us.
These two people, Mr. Maître and Glody symbolize for me the situation of handicapped persons.  Will we make a place for them, encouraging their talent and accepting their contributions, or will we leave them behind like so much dust to be swept under the rug?  For myself, I will never forget my visit to L’École Spécialisée Notre Dame, and I will return with pleasure to see all of my little (and not so little) friends.

View a few photos from my visit.
To find out more or to make a contribution, click on the link above
Association Notre Dame
42-46, avenue du Roule
92200 Neuilly sur Seine,
Téléphone :
Fax :

August 29, 2007

Two years after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, the mood in the city of New Orleans can best be described as resignation.  Since September 2005, the city has lost more than a third of its population.  In the Parish of St. Bernard to the east of the city only 2 of its previous 26 day care centers have reopened.  In the 9th Ward, the levees have been reinforced but most of the houses are abandoned, the lots invaded by the jungle.  Two years after the hurricane, the city is still struggling to return.

There are, nonetheless, signs of hope.  On Downman Street deep in the 9th Ward, the Ace Hardware is a hub of activity, even though it’s the only building on the street with any sign of life.  The other houses seem empty.  Each one still bears the cross shaped graffiti of the rescue teams (the four compartments each containing the initials of the rescuer, the date, and the number of dead humans and animals, if any, found inside).  Inside the store, people fill the aisles busy searching for tools and equipment.  They are all intensely concentrated by their activity, a serious grim look on their faces.  There is none of the cantankerous joking that I associate with hardware stores when working men meet.  Instead, everyone is silent.   There is no place for horsing around.  Back in mid-city, the Lowe’s on Elysian Fields is ten times as big and as busy as a bee-hive.  Every morning, hundreds of Chicanos line the avenue, hoping to find work, a familiar sight that did not exist before Katrina. By noon there are still many milling about, some drinking beer, all with an empty stare on their faces.  This is the ubiquitous facial expression in New Orleans these days: the empty stare.  You can see it in the French Quarter, uptown in the Garden District, in the hardware stores, and even in the restaurants and the clubs.  It is the look of people who are confused about what to do.  The look of resignation.

The statistics reveal a tentative return.  The mid-city neighborhood of Gentilly was one of the worst hit areas, flood waters rising 8-10 feet in places.  The population is mostly white and middle class.  A door to door survey was recently conducted by Dartmouth College and revealed that 31% of the houses have been renovated;  57% are either gutted are under reconstruction.  Which is to say that only 12% of the houses have been abandoned.  This is a considerable improvement over a year ago when the neighborhood was empty.  But the reconstruction is uneven.  Some areas, like Gentilly, are being renovated.  Others, like the Northern 9th Ward remain completely empty.  And a renovated house is not necessarily an occupied house.

Even in Gentilly, where 88% of the houses are either renovated or in the process of becoming so, the actual population is only 37% of its pre-Katrina level.  The figure is the same for nearby Broadmoor and Lakeview.  In the areas hardest hit by the flood, less that a third of the inhabitants have returned.  Many streets of the Central Business District remain empty.  The downtown hospital complex is eerily silent.  Charity Hospital, the crown jewel of Louisiana’s public healthcare system, is victim to a political struggle between the city of New Orleans and the North of the state whose legislators want to see the hospital moved out of the city and closer to them.  The port of New Orleans, the economic engine of the city, is in disrepair.  The murder rate in the city, the highest in the nation, remains a terrifying problem.  The public education system is struggling to re-establish itself.  It is not surprising with this underlying tension that a recent survey by the University of New Orleans discovered that a third of the residents of the city plan to leave within the next few years.  Whether they will or not is another question, but the level of discontent is a good indication of the mood in the city.

At the mayor’s office, the situation is in disarray.  It would have been preferable, I believe, to condemn the hardest hit areas of the city and to expropriate the residents in hopes of avoiding a similar crisis in years to come.  The question is not whether there will be another Katrina, but when.  But there is no money for such a project and the expropriation of largely black low-income neighborhoods would pose a significant political problem.  Instead, things are left to work themselves out in Louisiana’s version of the survival of the fittest. The determining factor in the reconstruction is politics.  And the control of the process is in the hands of those who can most influence the politicians, i.e. real estate developers and the oil companies.  Common sense and good science have been left stranded much like the population of the city two years ago. 

The governor, Kathleen Blanco, identified herself strongly with the Road Home Program, a state run, federally funded project designed to jump start the reconstruction by awarding cash benefits to qualified home owners.  The program was a disaster and probably the main reason that the governor will not be a candidate for re-election. The State of Louisiana stopped taking applications and ran out of money ($7.5 million) after compensating only 1 in 5 qualified applicants (each was to receive a maximum of $150,000 less whatever insurance compensation they might have received which was usually zero).  Where did the money go?  Good question. 
Federal assistance in New Orleans is poor to non-existent.  FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has not delivered the promised aid to hardly anybody, the classic government boondoggle.  The programs run by the State of Louisiana have proven just as incompetent.  On the local level, the reconstruction effort is without vision.  Mayor Ray Nagin (re-elected in spite of a disastrous performance during the storm) has unveiled a revitalization project of over 1 billion dollars.  Unfortunately the project has no financing and Nagin spends most of his time haggling with the bureaucrats who are supposed to run the program should the money ever be found.  In the long term, however, no amount of planning will do any good unless private investors, insurance companies and the people of the city are confident that the US Army Corps of Engineers will be able to protect New Orleans against a future hurricane.
There was a horror movie in the 1960s called The Blob.  It was a gigantic red jello, several stories tall and about a half a mile wide that ate up everything in its path.  It had neither head nor tail and no apparent means of locomotion, but just kept rolling forward devouring everything.  This is an apt metaphor for the Corps of Engineers.  The agency is institutionally rigid, and subservient to the interests of its boss, the US Congress.  After Katrina, the director of the Corps resigned, admitting that his outfit had been responsible for a “catastrophic failure”.  The Corps today proclaims itself to be “new and improved” and admits the necessity of restoring the marsh (which is disappearing at the rate of a football field every half hour) and the barrier islands.  “We are not the old Corps”, proclaims Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of the agency’s Task Force Hope.  But in spite of assurances to the contrary, it is still business as usual at the Corps.
Even though marsh restoration is cited, every penny of the $7 million that the Corps has received from Congress since Katrina has gone into traditional engineering projects.  Worse still, the Corps is proposing the construction of a gigantic levee along the coast, the Great Wall of Louisiana.  We just have to return to September 2005 to understand the effects of a modest hurricane (Katrina was Force 2 when it hit New Orleans) in an area of drained wetland (Gentilly, Lakeview, the 9th Ward) behind insufficient levees.  The US Congress is on the verge of financing the first phase of the project, a 72 mile (116 kilometer) levee costing $900 million.  According to G. Edward Dickey, ex-planning chief for the Corps, the mentality of the Corps has not changed.  The only difference between the old modus operendi and the new is that the levees will be higher.  Nobody seems too concerned about the fact that it was this mentality, the attempt to manhandle Mother Nature with colossal engineering projects, which has gotten us into the swampy mess that we are in today.  The directors of the Corps of Engineers are intent on controlling Nature as opposed to collaborating with it.  If we continue this wrong-headed policy, sooner or later we will have to relearn the lessons of coastal erosion and storm surge flooding that are the bitter legacy of 2005.  We can attempt to control Mother Nature, but she will always have the last word.
The fundamental problem is that politics are determining the process designed to protect South Louisiana. The boss of the US Army Corps of Engineers is the US Congress, i.e. politicians, and in Louisiana politics and corruption go hand in hand. Special interests take priority over the long-term interests of the community.   Take the case of MR. GO.  The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR. GO) is a Corps of Engineers project designed to give access to deep draft vessels to the Gulf without having to pass into the river.  Opened in 1965, the canal’s construction required moving more dirt than its more celebrated cousin in Panama.  It has moved relatively few ships, but has allowed the intrusion of salt water into the marsh.  100 square miles (259 square kilometers) have disappeared thanks to MR. GO.  And it was the principal agent of the flooding of New Orleans.  The storm surge came across Lake Borgne and into the canal which in turn served as a funnel, bringing a wall of water into mid-city New Orleans.  In spite of the outcry of the scientific community and of the people living along its banks, MR. GO remains open.  Why?  Because the politicians have yet to tell the Corps to close it.  Now how could that happen?  The rumor in the city is that the Corps is reluctant to close the canal.  This would be tantamount to admitting that it (the canal and by extension the Corps) was responsible for the catastrophic loss of life and property during hurricane Katrina, which would open the door to possible lawsuits.  The politicians, desirous of obtaining future bounty from the Corps, are reluctant to ruffle its feathers.  And so MR. GO stays open, posing, a significant threat to the city.
In spite of the fact that MR. GO and thus the US Corps of Engineers was directly responsible for the flooding of New Orleans and the attendant loss of life and property, the U.S. Congress appears ready to allow the Corps to continue playing Dr. Frankenstein with the coast.   Not one Louisiana congressman has called for the closing of MR. GO., and none of them are questioning the Corps proposed mega-levee scheme.  In fact, Representative Melançon, who seems to be an honest and sensible fellow otherwise, is a strong proponent of the levee scheme.  Why?  Because the idea of a protection levee plays very very well in his district.  Not one Louisiana politician has brought the Corps of Engineers to task. Why?  Because they hope to garner some engineering booty for their districts.  Everybody needs a new wharf or a canal dredged.   The priorities of the Corps are determined by a flawed political process in which special interests (oil companies and developers) call the shots.  A project to build pumps along Lake Ponchartrain  which would have mitigated if not prevented the flooding during Katrina was scrapped.  Why?  Because somebody else had more influence on the US Army Corps of Engineers.  A recipe for disaster. 
Since Katrina, nothing seems to have changed.  In a crass effort to exploit the sympathy of the American public post-Katrina, Louisiana’s two senators, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, proposed a recovery project that was designed by and for the special interests: oil and shipping and timber companies.  The proposal contained $40 billion for projects in Louisiana, 10 times the Corps budget for the entire country, most of which had nothing to do with reconstruction.  The proposal was hastily withdrawn when it became apparent that it was a gravy train for special interests.  Shame.  This is the problem.  As long as the decisions regarding the future of South Louisiana are determined by special interests (developers and oil companies) we will be swimming in deep water infested by an alligator called “global warming” and a big snake  called “coastal erosion”.
Katrina and her evil little sister Rita wiped out 217 square miles (562 kilometers) of the coast in two weeks.  Two years later we, the citizens of South Louisiana, are faced with two major choices: stay or go.   I, like most of my friends,  am not prepared to leave.  In this hot and humid land, home to refugees and pirates, my family has toiled, suffered and celebrated for 250 years.  The great city of New Orleans is a jewel in the crown of the world.  Her music, her food, her people are like no other.  Her pull is so strong that her citizens are ready to defy corrupt politicians and the scientific alarm bells in the hopes of passing their heritage on to their children.  But this is where push comes to shove.  What is the future of the children of Louisiana?  What kind of place will this be in 50 years, in 100 years when dozens more storms like Katrina will have taken their toll?   We must understand, the oil companies and the developers and the shrimpers and the farmers and the cattlemen and the singers, that we live here together and that when flood water starts to rise, it cannot discriminate between sinner or saint, rich or poor, black or white.

August 1, 2007

According to Antonine Maillet, an Acadian is one who is descended from an inhabitant of pre-dispersal Acadia.  A simpler definition would be: and Acadian is somebody who thinks that he is.  There is no citizenship test, no passport no official outwards signs of Acadian identity.  So just what does it mean to be Acadian, or to consider oneself Acadian over 250 years after the dispersal?

The “Grand Dérangement” scattered the French speaking population of present Nova Scotia to the four winds in 1755.  There were basically two routes of exile: transported by force to the British North American colonies, or, for those who were able to escape capture, eking out a precarious existence in the woods.  Of these two main branches of the Acadian story sprang a multitude of twigs.  By 1763, year that the Seven Years War came officially to an end, there were Acadians scattered around the Atlantic basin, in the British colonies, in prisons in England, in France as well as in the woods of what is today New Brunswick.  There is a map which was drawn to commemorate the peregrinations of the Acadians in the decades following the deportation.  The Atlantic Ocean is black with lines crisscrossing its surface.  

Following the treaty of Paris of 1763, the Acadians generally speaking, were able to regain a certain freedom of movement.  They had been attempting to reunite their families throughout the war, and the cessation of hostilities between England and France allowed them greater possibilities of doing just that.  The Acadians in the colonies of New England attempted to return to the homeland on foot.  Those in the southern colonies of Georgia and the Carolinas had all but disappeared.  The exiles of the mid-Atlantic colonies descended to Louisiana in the second great wave of Acadian immigration to La Louisiane. 

The first Acadians to arrive in New Orleans were 193 exiles who had left the port of Halifax in November of 1763, arriving at the mouth of the Mississippi in February 1764.  This group was led by Beausoleil Broussard.  He had fought the British in a guerilla style resistance until the imminent starvation of his family forced him to surrender in at Fort Cumberland (formerly Fort Beauséjour) in the fall of 1760.  This group was imprisoned in Halifax for the duration of the war, forced to work on the Acadian-built dikes that were now in the hands of British landowners.  These Acadians were an unruly lot.  Fearing an uprising, the governor of Nova Scotia shipped them off to Boston in 1762.  But the governor of Massachusetts didn’t want them either and sent them back.  They remained in prison until the end of the war. 

Under the terms of the treaty of Paris, Acadian exiles were allowed to settle in the province of Nova Scotia after the war, provided they swore allegiance to the British crown.   The Beausoleil Acadians would have nothing of it.  Pooling their meager resources, they were able to hire a ship which brought them ultimately to New Orleans.  On board was Beausoleil’s first cousin,  Pierre Richard, his wife Marguérite Dugas and their three sons, Fabien, Louis and Pierre who was an infant, being born the previous year.  This child, Pierre à Pierre à Alexandre à Martin à Michel Richard was my direct ancestor.  Also on board was Olivier Boudrot, my ancestor on my mother’s side.  He arrived in Louisiana accompanied by his son, Simon.   His wife, Marie Dupuis, had died during the exile.  Olivier, called Belhomme, had been captured at the Battle of Restigouche in 1760 and taken to Halifax where he joined the Beausoleil Acadians.  We do not know what happened neither to his wife nor to his two brothers who had accompanied Olivier from the Petitcodiac valley after the Deportation, walking up the coast to the Bay des Chaleurs.  They may well have been at Miramichi during the winter of 1756.  A make shift refugee camp, called le Camp de L’espérance,  the camp of Hope, was a center for Acadians who had manage to escape the transport ships. Many of them died from starvation that winter, forced to eat the leather soles of their shoes and the bark from the trees.  In fact, it is estimated that within one year of the deportation, 50% of the Acadians had died from starvation and disease. 

It is perhaps the power of this story which has inspired generations of Acadians to preserve the memories of their deported ancestors.  These experiences were repeated thousands of times, weaving their tale of suffering and resistance through much of North America, England and France.  The desire to reunite their families was the primary social force for generations of Acadians.  As late as 1785, 30 years after the Deportation, the Acadian exiles in France left that country en masse to rejoin their relatives in Louisiana.  No matter where they wound up, in Louisiana, Québec, Haiti, Australia, New England, Old England, France, wherever destiny had led them, the Acadians were driven by an overwhelming desire to rebuild the society which had been brutally taken from them by the British in 1755.  Perhaps this explains the feeling of kinship which binds Acadians today, no matter where they may live. 

My first visit to Acadie was in 1975 at the occasion of the Frolic (a music festival based on the Woodstock model).  I had met my first Acadien du Nord (from the North) in Louisiana in 1973.  His name was Donald Doiron.  He had heard of the French program in Louisiana and had hitchhiked down to teach in the schools.  At that time not many of us had any real understanding of Acadian history or culture.  The history of the Acadians was not taught in the schools in Louisiana and what little we knew was clouded by myth.  We (the Cajuns) understood somehow that we were part of an exiled community, that our ancestors had come from someplace in Canada, but that was pretty much the extent of our understanding.  Acadian (Cajun) culture in Louisiana was scorned.  The French speaking generation of my grandparents was swept into a current of assimilation which denigrated their language and their identity.  Without the knowledge of their own history, they were unable to resist the notion that their culture was inferior to the Anglo-American culture which dominated the political and economic society of South Louisiana.

I went to New Brunswick inspired by the thought that I was to participate in the creation of a new Acadian society.  The organizers of the festival explained to me that in the parlance of New Brunswick, a “frolic” was a celebration which followed a communal undertaking.  Except that this time, instead of building a barn or a house, the frolic was to celebrate the building of a nation.  The Acadian communities of New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland suffered from the same social scorn of which the Acadians in Louisiana were victim.  But, unlike the Cajuns, the Acadian elite in maritime Canada did not assimilate into the Anglo culture.  In Louisiana, the wealthy and well-educated Acadians were able to achieve social prestige and political power simply by speaking English.  In the mongrel mix of South Louisiana culture, they were just another ethnic group.  In Canada, on the other hand, the Acadian community remained isolated, and its elite remained French speaking and thus excluded from political power to a great extent.  There was still in 1975 a bitter racial hatred of the French in New Brunswick.  In Louisiana the Anglo-Americans were content to simply make fun of the “Coon-Asses”.   In New Brunswick, crosses were burned Ku Klux style in Acadian yards into the 1960s. 

The first thing that struck me upon arriving in Acadie was the semblance between our two communities.  In spite of 250 years of separation, there are strong similarities.  All of the family names are the same.  And the Acadians resemble the Cajuns physically..  Both communities are rural.  Both have strong family traditions.  The Catholic religion still has a significant influence.  I remember that after playing the festival, I was approached by a Mrs. LeBlanc.  She was an elderly lady, the age of my grandmothers.  LeBlanc is a common name in Acadian Louisiana, and what is more, this lady resembled my own grandmother.  She spoke with the heavy accent of Southeastern New Brunswick.  This accent is quite different from that of South Louisiana, yet, for me was much easier to understand than that of Québec or France.  And the expressions used are common to both Louisiana and Acadie derived from the same source of the parlance of 18th century Western France.  This charming little woman with grey hair and blue-green eyes asked me if, in fact, there were Acadians in Louisiana.  She had heard that after the “Dérangement” some had settled there.  I told her that, yes, there were Acadians in Louisiana.  And she asked me the kinds of questions that my own grandmother would have asked:  were the people still Catholic, what did they do for a living, what kinds of crops did they grow, what was the weather like?  When we parted, she looked at me gently and said something that my grandmother had told me the last time that I had seen her: “be safe in your travels, may you return to your home and family”.  She finished by telling me, “I will pray for you.”   These were words of farewell shared by Acadians for 250 years.  Even though I was thousands of miles from Louisiana, I knew that I had somehow come home. 

The New Brunswick of 1975 was far different from that of today.  The Acadian World Congresses of 1994, 1999 and 2004 have instilled a confidence which was unknown a generation ago.  I remember being asked to leave a restaurant in Moncton because my friends and I were speaking French.  And we were busted by the Moncton police and my friend, Rhéal Drisdelle spent the night in prison because we dared celebrate the Acadian holiday.  (Of course the fact that it was midnight and that we were a coven of hippy radicals probably had something to do with it too). 

It is hard to explain my feeling of Acadian identity.  In Louisiana, the Acadians have assimilated as well as been assimilated.  There are Cajuns with German, Spanish, Irish and even English family names.  The history of the Acadians in Louisiana is like a meandering bayou with twists and turns, whereas the history of the Acadians in maritime Canada is relatively linear: flee British persecution for 100 years and then try to attain political and social recognition.   Ethnically, the Acadians of Canada have remained relatively isolated.  And yet in spite of these and a multitude of other differences, there is something, which unites our two communities, something that goes beyond folklore.  It is something that is felt, rather than reasoned.  It is the emotion that springs up when I think of the brutal conditions that my ancestors suffered because they practiced a different religion and spoke a different language than the men who forced them on the transport ships (ex-slave transports) and sent them into exile.  It is the emotion that I feel when I think of that Mrs. LeBlanc in Cap Pelé New Brunswick who said a prayer for my safe journey home. 

I will spend the Acadian National Holiday, August 15 in Caraquet, New Brunswick.  There will be celebrations throughout the region and even as far away as Québec and Louisiana, as sons and daughters of the exiles will gather to commemorate the tenacity and the courage of the deported Acadians and to share in the heritage of hope which they transmitted to us. 

To find out more about the history of the Acadians:

Against the Tide, the story of the Acadian people of Louisiana English version
Produced by Zachary Richard, directed by Pat Mire
Best historical documentary 2000, awarded by the
National Educational Television Authority (US)

Festival Acadien de Caraquet

Grand Rassemblement des familles Acadiennes
17, 18, 19 août, 2007
Ville Saguenay, Québec

Acadian Memorial, St. Martinville, Louisiana

July 4, 2007

What is the nature of the French language of Louisiana, and how should it be taught?  This question has preoccupied not only teachers in the Louisiana schools, but all of us attempting to transmit a viable form of Louisiana French to future generations.

In order to understand the question, it is important to understand the evolution of the teaching of French in Louisiana over the last 40 years.  The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) was founded in 1968.  It was the creation of its first director, Jimmy Domengeaux, a millionaire lawyer of creole heritage who did not speak French, or at least not easily.  According to Jimmy, Cajun French was not “real” French but a sort of exotic strain of the language.  It was to be replaced by “good” French,  so called “Parisian” French.  Even though French has been spoken in Louisiana for 300 years,  it was stigmatized by the local elite in the later 20th century.  During those 300 years, “Cajun”  French became a unique form of expression.  Rooted in the language of Western France of the 18th century, it absorbed influences from a wide variety of sources: native American, Spanish, African, Irish, English, German, and Anglo-American.  “Cajun” French evolved a unique syntax style and a vocabulary rich in images.  It was nourished by the cultural currents which ran through South Louisiana.   Throughout the history of the Acadian people in Louisiana, however, the English language and Anglo-American culture became more and more dominant.  Increasingly over the years, those who could not speak English were considered backward not only by the Americans, but by the Cajun elite as well.

The ridicule of which the Cajuns were victim is a long tradition amongst the Anglo-Americans.  During the Civil War, the first American journalists to describe the Cajuns speak of a brutish and lazy people.  The two communities, the Anglo and the Franco, lived side by side in Louisiana, but were separated by a cultural gulf.  They held two distinct world views.  The Cajuns viewed the Americans as greedy and unscrupulous.  They did not share the apparently unbridled ambition with which they associated American culture.  The Americans, on the other hand, saw the Cajuns as indolent and undisciplined.  This cultural separation did not pose a problem until the early 20th century when the American culture began to intrude into the Cajun world.  Beginning with the public education law of 1917, Cajun culture was increasingly “ghettoized”.  The Cajuns found themselves marginalized and their language increasingly scorned.

In 1900, according to US census records, approximately 85% of the population of South Louisiana was monolingual French speaking.  Today there are no accurate statistics, but it is not unrealistic to speak of a demographic catastrophe.  The generation born in the 20s and 30s is disappearing and with it goes the last Cajuns for whom French was their first language.  But even before the demographic catastrophe, another negative force was at work: the loss of prestige.  My parents and all of the Cajuns of their generation were confronted with a bitter reality when the arrived at public school:  the language that their parents (my grandparents) had taught them was viewed by official society as a problem to be eradicated.  French was relegated to a second class status, spoken only in the family or in certain social situations.  To get ahead, to be “serious” , it was necessary to speak English.  Period.  Cajun French and Cajun culture generally were associated with ignorance and poverty. 

Fast forward to 1968:  The French speaking Cajuns were facing a near complete assimilation.  French was spoken only by  old people and a few young crazies like me.  It was otherwise a dead language, with no social value.  None.  To go to the hospital or to court or to school, one was obliged to speak English. 

In this apocalyptic situation, Jimmy Domengeaux, a millionaire lawyer, founded CODOFIL.  His motivation will remain a mystery:  personal ambition, devotion to the culture, elitist arrogance, a true desire to preserve the language?  One thing, however, is certain, Jimmy single handedly brought the French language back from the brink of oblivion.  But Jimmy did not speak French.  He could mumble a few words, but his family, being of the elite, had long ago adopted English as its form of expression.  He had a certain disdain for the “Cajuns” which is to say people like my grandparents, part of the last monolingual generation of French speakers.  What Jimmy wanted to do was not to preserve the expression of these uneducated backward “Coon-asses”, but to install a mythical French, a “Parisian” French, in other words, a French that no one in Louisiana spoke.

Conflict:  between the French that was still spoken by approximately 50% of the population of South Louisiana in 1968, and a mythical French promoted by an English speaking lawyer whose family was part of the creole (franco-spanish) elite.   For Jimmy Domengeaux, and the local elite, “Cajun” was synonymous with “backward”.  What needed to be taught in Louisiana was “Good”  French, “le bon français” .  Ambitious program.  Mistake as well.  In so doing, an artificial barrier was created between the French that was being spoken at the feed stores and barber shops across South Louisiana, and some mythical language referred to as “Good French” which was supposed to be taught in the schools.  Cajun culture was so ridiculted that no one could imagine that the language of these “coon-asses” could be anything but a sort of linguistic aberration, the language equivalent of inbreeding.   The social elite of South Louisiana could not see that Cajun French was not an abnormality, but simply a unique form of French as it had evolved in Louisiana.

While local society in general accorded no value to Cajun French, part of the elite was glorifying it.  For some, Cajun French was not only unique, it was a full blown language.  South Louisiana was suffering from cultural schizophrenia. We couldn’t make up our minds whether to ridicule our culture or to exalt it.  According to Monseignor Jules Daigle in his “Dictionnary of the Cajun Language” :  Each language has its particular origin.  “Cajun” is not bad French.  It is not a dialect of French, but a complete language just as Italian, Spanish and French.  Each one of these languages is distinct from its origin, Latin.  Just as Cajun French is distinct from its origin, French”.  Rubbish.

This mythologizing of “Cajun” French created a significant problem for the teaching of French in Louisiana.  Because “Cajun French” was considered as something distinct from “French”, parents wanted their children to be taught “Cajun”, which put them in conflict with CODOFIL and its founder.  The teaching of French in Louisiana was and remains today largely in the hands of foreign teachers.  There are simply not enough qualified French teachers from Louisiana.  And so the classes are taught by Africans, Belgians, Québécois, Acadians and French, all of whom have  different accents and different idiomatic expressions than the local Cajuns.  The parents of the school children ask themselves what good will it do to teach their children something other than “Cajun French”.  However, the best way for young children to learn “Cajun French” is to learn the rudiments of the language in school and to communicate with a native Louisiana French speaker, often a grandparent.   We have yet to understand that although our Louisiana French is distinctive, it is not a separate language.

According to the Dictionnaire Robert:  a language is a system of communication common to a specific social group.  According to this definition, French speaking Cajuns are part of a social group which includes francophones worldwide.  In spite of differences in vocabulary, syntax and accent, the French spoken by someone in Vermilion Parish is the same as that spoken by someone from Poitiers or Martinique or Senegal.  With time to understand the differences of accent, etc.,  a French speaking Cajun can communicate effectively with any French speaker from anywhere.  The French that is spoken in Louisiana is not a separate language, but is simply the French language that is spoken here. And yet, because of a pervasive ethnocentric myth, Cajun French is seen by many in South Louisiana as something completely separate.

At the end of his career, Jimmy Domengeaux had a revelation of sorts.  In 1980, thanks to a Montreal publisher, I along with a dozen other Louisiana poets published an anthology, “Cris sur le Bayou”.    It was Barry Ancelet, currently director of the foreign language department at the University of Louisiana, (and one of the poets in question, writing under the nom-de-plume Jean Arceneaux), who presented Jimmy with a copy.   At that moment, Jimmy Domengeaux understood that Cajun French was not some atrophied dialect to be destroyed but a unique and viable expression of the French language.  If “Cajun” French could be written, it could be taught.  But the damage had been done.  The myth that Jimmy had helped to create, that Cajun French and Real French were so disparate as to be unrelated, had become conventional wisdom in Louisiana.  Louisiana French was seen as either a degenerate form of French or as the expression of the noble Cajun savage à la Jean-Jacque Rousseau.  Both ideas are off the mark.  For an entire generation,  French teaching in Louisiana was victim of a series of mistakes of perception.  The question today is how to save Louisiana French in a situation where only an infinitesimal percentage of the population has anything but a rudimentary grasp of the language.

We have been able to go beyond the “inferiority complex” which relegated Cajun French to second class status.  On the other hand, we have not been able to recognize that our French language Louisiana culture is part of  francophone culture worldwide.  Francophone culture is a braid of many disparate chords, each of its own texture and color.  Diversity is the force of La Francophonie.  We must understand that we cannot preserve our language or our culture in formaldehyde.  We cannot hope to save French culture by surrounding it in a myth, no matter how seductive it might be.  To do so would be to relegate our culture to folklore, the last stop before its ultimate demise.

June 6, 2007

I can’t remember if it was 1965 or 1966.  Every night before falling asleep, I tuned my massive radio dial to KAAY, 50,000 watts, broadcast from Little Rock, Arkansas.  One night, amidst the usual menu of Soul music and New Orleans rhythm and blues, a new sound jumped out of the six inch speaker, a song that sounded like nothing that I had ever heard before.  It was “Yesterday” by the Beatles.  I had never heard a cello before.  The beauty of the music was heart breaking. I was so excited that the very next day I wrote to my cousin in Rochester, New York.  My cousin Christine was my cultural barometer.  She was plugged in to the North East scene, and was therefore in the know weeks or even months before whatever was happening finally penetrated the depths of rural Louisiana.  She had heard the same song and it had the same effect on her.  This was a turning point for me, something that was happening all around the country, all around the world.  It might have been a different song by a different group, but young people were being transformed by the new musical culture of the post-modern world.  Suddenly everybody wanted to be in a band.  It was a desire not only to create music, but to be part of something fundamentally new and breathtaking. It was a desire that permeated my generation and held us as tight as a python.
My dream came true in my parent’s garage.  With a few friends, those who had instruments, I would spend my Saturday afternoons rehearsing.  I am not sure what the neighbors thought of our noisy enthusiasm.   Sipping coffee over their Formica counter tops, I can hear them say “My god, they’re at it again.  When will it end? That’s not music, it’s nothing but noise”.
I had another cousin, this one living nearby, who had a guitar.  He was a year younger than me, six months actually, but in our adolescent world, we were separated as though by the Berlin Wall.  None the less, the fact that he had a guitar, a bordeaux red Gibson SG, overcame the otherwise insurmountable barrier that represented our difference in age.  On top of having a guitar, he knew a few chords and could play the riff from “Satisfaction”.  This not only allowed him admittance into the heady world of 15 year olds, but also gave him a status to which none of us could aspire, those who neither had a guitar nor knew any guitar chords.
The group with which I spent my Saturday afternoons for the better part of a year never accomplished much except aggravating the neighbors.  We never got a gig.  We finally broke up from lack of interest. I was able to overcome the disappointment and move on.  I took guitar lessons and learned the basic chords.  I still watched American Bandstand.  Paul Revere and the Raiders, America’s answer to the British invasion, was one of my favorite groups.  I thought it was cool that the Paul Revere in question was not the lead singer, but the keyboard player.  I still went over to play and sing with my cousin.  We were evolving past our fantasy of being the Rolling Stones and soon would be copping the licks from Buffalo Springfield albums.  By that time I had moved up to a “real” guitar, a 1966 Gibson sunburst J-45.
I went through high school like a sleepwalker.  On the weekends, my friends and I would go out to dances with British invasion inspired bands wearing bell-bottoms, thier hair covering their ears with names like Isosceles Popsicle.  After high school, my guitar playing cousin and I split up, he to Baton Rouge and me to New Orleans.  We’d get together once in a while to play Crosby, Stills and Nash tunes.  It seemed that my days as lead singer in a band were over and done, and yet I still felt an ember burning in my heart.  While in college, I dedicated my time primarily to smoking weed and protesting the war.  I eventually found a group of like-minded souls and we formed a blues band, with me on harmonica.  I had shoplifted a James Cotton record from the university bookstore and spent many an afternoon working the tone arm of my portable record player, learning the licks one by one.  We played a Paul Butterfield inspired blues style and even had a name: Toby’s Uncle.  Rick Toby was the guitar player and we called each other “uncle”. 
In 1970, I left the States for Scotand.  I am not sure what would have happened to me had I remained in the country, but I am pretty sure it would not have been good.  After Altamont, the dream of Woodstock Nation died, and a whole generation woke up to the unpleasant reality that changing the world was not going to be so easy after all.  My America was filled with foreboding and despair.  It was on the Queen Elizabeth II, en route to Scotland for a “junior year abroad”, that I wrote my first song, a romantic ballad called “Blues at Sea Blue”.   It was at that moment that I went from being a singer to being a singer-songwriter.  But I still cherished the dream of playing in a band.  There was nothing that could compare to the sensation of fronting a rhythm section.  There are experiences stronger by nature, but nothing, in terms of social contact, can compare to the magic of singing in a band.
Somehow I graduated from college.  I had a brief period during which I attempted to satisfy my father’s ambition that I “settle down”.  I had a job in an office wearing a tie.  It lasted two weeks.  To the dismay of my parents, I slung my J-45 over my shoulder and headed to New York and to the life of a street musician.

Within a short time, I was under contract to Electra Records.  In the fall of 1972, I began recording my very first album.  Caught in the turmoil of the creation of WEA, the album (High Time) was never released (that is not until 30 years and a lot of searching later).  In the meantime, I met a French guitar builder who offered me some festival dates in France during the summer of 1973.  I called my guitar playing cousin and we headed to France.  We were a neo-Cajun folk rock duo. The rest, as they say, is history.  As soon as we got back to Louisiana, we formed the very first new generation Cajun rock band, the Bayou Drifter Band .  I slid into the gig like a pig into slop.  I needed to surround myself with musicians.  I needed to play in a band.
Somewhere in the fog that was the 1970s, we were able to resuscitate traditional Cajun music which, during the 60s, had fallen on hard times.  Accompanied by Ray Harrington on the bass, Jody Larivière on drums, Michael Doucet (my cousin) on guitar and fiddle and Bessyl Duhon on fiddle, we had a brief and not quite glorious career in the dance halls of South Louisiana.  We were caught in a cultural no-man’s-land, too traditional for the young people and too rock and roll for the old folks.  It would be 15 years before Cajun music caught on with a younger American audience.  Fate intervened in the spring of 1974.  We were invited to play the Carnaval de Québec.  The combination of the French language culture and the pretty girls was too much to resist.  I abandoned my Louisiana dance hall career and followed the northern lights.
Although its career was short-lived, I have tremendous memories of the Bayou Drifter Band:  the second Festival Acadien in Lafayette in 1975 at which we sang “Réveille” for the first time while holding flags emblazoned with the words “Solidarité et Fierté” (solidarity and pride), our fists held in the black power salute, in front of an audience of thousands of Cajuns who had no idea what we were singing about. We had rehearsed for months, fighting to stay together.  We played in the local clubs: Jay’s Lounge in Cankton, and Antler’s in Lafayette, but our big break was playing for Jack Miller’s New Year’s Eve party. Jack Miller is a legend in South Louisiana.  In a region which prides itself on its gastronomy, Jack Miller’s bar-b-que sauce is the best.  In fact it is the best in the world (sorry Kansas City).  With big chunks of onions and just the right amount of tomato, I can eat it right out of the jar.  I recall meeting the famous Mr. Miller that night we played his New Year’s eve party.  He was a balding little old man wearing a loud sport coat  and mumbling under the influence of one high-ball too many.  But what I remember most is the road back home.  Cutting across the Louisiana prairie in the van, we were night owls living the life.  Smoking a joint and laughing, we reveled in our adventure all the way home.  That was the first of many nights of wee hours spent traveling the highway, passing hundreds of houses with the lights out, filled with sleeping people who had no idea what we were doing.  Having fun.  Getting home with the sun coming up, worn out, but happy.  Happy to do something that we loved so much.  Happy to have shared the magic of the music with those who love, with those who sing and dance and feel.

May 2, 2007

In a year of political change which has seen the Democratic Party reclaim control of the US Congress, the Parti Québecois (which has dominated Québecois politics for a generation) fall into disarray, and the bitter religi-politico opponents of Northern Ireland reach a modus vivendi, the French nation, in its upcoming presidential election, finds itself in a situation which can best be described as a classic confrontation of left and right.  But it is the importance of the center which stands this election in stark contrast to the preceding.  Last time around, the right center candidate, Jacques Chirac, to almost everyone’s surprise, faced the extreme right nationalist Jean-Marie LePen.  This time, the debate has shifted back to the center. Around the world (At least in Europe, Canada and the US) the political importance of the center seems to be on the rise.  In a world threatened by environmental catastrophe and terrorism, people are longing for security, and this desire for stability is manifesting itself in the growing power of centrist parties.

The candidate of the right, Nicolas Sarkozy, is known primarily for his tough talk during the riots of 2005.  His image is one of no nonsense, and get the job done.  His opponent is Ségolène Royal, the socialist candidate who was able to reconstruct the party of Mitterand after the debacle of 2001.  She represents the politics of inclusion.  Plus she is a woman.  And would be the first female president of France.  Not a small advantage in a country where haut-couture is big business.

Although the current French presidential election seems to be the opposition of the stereotypical political left and of the stereotypical political right, it is the center which will determine the direction France will take for the next six years.  And the man in the middle, François Bayrou, has become the big player.  In spite of the fact that he has refused to endorse either candidate, he is the ‘imminence grise” the man in the shadows, whose weight will be felt in the new government.
Whether it is the tough talking Sarkozy or the diaphanous Ségolène Royal who becomes the next president of the 5e République, the primary challenges facing him or her are:

  1. revive a moribund economy, and
  2. resolve the minority (muslim/north african) question,

which are in fact two sides of the same coin.  Economic prosperity will not completely resolve the problems of integrating the minority underclass, but it will help.  Without a vibrant economy, France could devolve into the class struggle symbolized by the riots of 2005 when the suburbs north of Paris were engulfed in flames.   If the French government is able to provide the young, primarily north African minority with a real hope of a real future in the country, France will enjoy a generation of prosperity and internal peace. How to integrate the lower class (which is not only separated by class but also by ethnic heritage) into the middle class is the question. 

The French long for stability.  There is also a significant reaction against the constant threat of labor upheaval which seems to be part and parcel of life in France.  This malaise viz-à-viz organized labor serves Sarkozy.  Like spring and summer, the strike season is a part of the calendar to the dismay of most everyone except those in the streets holding the placards and disrupting public transport.  

It was very curious to see Bernard Thibault, the president of the powerful labor union, CGT, have such a prominent part in the Paris bid for the next Olympic games.  Mr. Thibault appeared in the promotional film, assuring the Olympic committee that there would be no strike during the games.  The message, to my mind, seems to be, on the contrary, that the threat of a general strike is ever present.   The effect on the committee was probably the opposite of that desired.  And Paris will not get the games.   How important was M. Thibault’s message in persuading or dissuading the committee will never be known, but it seems to say a lot about French society that he was included in the presentation in the first place.  As though the organizers wished to assure the Olympic committee that the labor unions would behave if Paris was chosen.  Standing on shaky ground.
In the upcoming election, France is in the crossfire, caught between competing images of itself, on the one hand as a humanistic society promising opportunity to all, and on the other hand, as a world power or at least an economic world player.  Remember Napoleon, remember Algeria, remember Viet Nam (The French started it all). 

It might be an unreasonable caricature, but it seems to me that a part of French society has never been able to accept its defeat at the hands of the Prussians in the war of 1871.  That was the beginning of the end of French world domination.  In spite of the loss of its colonial empire, and its obvious military inferiority during two World Wars, many French cling to the myth of France as a dominant world power. 

One of the most criticized aspects of the modern French character is arrogance of which Charles de Gaulle was the epitome. Ridiculed by the Anglo-Americans, de Gaulle’s aspirations seemed preposterous.  Except to the French themselves.  In the spirit of Gaulic pride, the most glorious moment in the presidency of Jacques Chirac was his standing up to George W. Bush relative to the invasion of Iraq.  His headstrong resistance was applauded in France, and rightfully so.  Irrespective of the content of Chirac’s position, his opposition to the American policy played to the latent Anglophobia of the French.  France was able to stand up to the Americans.  And thus confirm its position in the world.  But the real challenges facing France today are more significant than posture and perception.

On the positive side, France is still, amongst the first world nations, the best example of an open and humane society.  The institutional tolerance of French society stands in marked contrast to American culture which is closed-minded by comparison.   Even the Communist Party had a candidate in the recent French elections.  And where else in the world would an Altermondialiste (José Bové) get on the ballot?  And let’s give a big shout out to the French political system which allows any candidate who obtains the endorsement of 500 mayors (mayors in France have a much greater political role than their counterparts in the USA) to obtain as much television air time as any other candidate.  Each and every qualified candidate has the same allotted air time and by this I mean time devoted to speaking about him or her (French politics is free of the extremely expensive and often distorted political advertising which is the hallmark of American political practice).  In the recent election, the pro-hunting candidate, Frédéric Nihous, his faithful dog at his side, got as much time, down to the second, as the major candidates.  This might seem whacky in as much as fringe candidates receive as much television exposure as the major candidates, but in contrast to the money grubbing and potentially corrupt practice of US elections, the French system is a refreshing alternative.  If you can get on the ballot in France, you can get on TV.  And the television time is free to any qualified candidate.  Less ass kissing and money laundering, and less corruption. 

This year’s French presidential election is a classic confrontation.  Hard line little prick vs. the compassionate and diaphanous (and quite good looking) lady whose party stands for inclusion and the rights of all, even though nobody, including her, seems to have much of an idea how she will get it together.  Her economic program is leftist, which is an advantage in a country where everyone expects the government to take care of them from the cradle to the grave. 

This is the other quirk of the modern French character: the expectation that the government will solve all of society’s problem.  My own theory is that the French have replaced the king with the president, who is expected, like the king, to take care of all of his loyal subjects.  Sarkozy’s program goes against the grain of French social evolution.  He wants to overhaul the system through private initiative and the Darwinian forces of the market.   This notion is not as popular as his get tough message, since it means that the safety net that the French have come to take for granted, will disappear.  Walking the tightrope without a net, the Chinese and the Americans shaking the rope. 
I was recording an album in November of 1976 in Paris when the shit hit the fan.  It started with the rail workers.  They went on strike in name of their right to retire at 50 years (rail work is very hard).  Every day it would take me anywhere from 2 to 4 hours to drive to the studio instead of the 40 minutes under normal conditions.  For the first few days, I picked up hitchhikers (there were hundreds, everywhere.  Public transport had been shut down).  After a few days, I stopped picking them up.  First of all they never stopped talking which ultimately was aggravating because all they could talk about was the strike. To a person, they expressed sympathy for the strikers.  In spite of the fact that they themselves were swimming in a pool of shit because of the strike, they were supportive.  “They have a point” they would say.
The point being that there is in French society a river of sympathy that runs deep for the downtrodden.  As well as a utopian vision of society. The Communist Party is still able to field a candidate.  And yet on the other end of the spectrum there is the Front National which resembles the Nazi party of 1939 Germany more than anything else in political terms.  The Bourbon King vs. the Revolution.  Off with their heads.  Down with their pants.  The ultimate political challenge, with the man in the middle playing hard to get.  Both candidates are courting François Bayrou hard.  As this is being written, a week before the vote, Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative front-runner, has stepped up his efforts to court supporters of a defeated centrist candidate by offering them ministerial posts in his eventual government.  Not to be outdone, Ségolène Royal has hinted that she might even ask François Bayrou, the centrist leader, to be her prime minister.

In the meantime, Bayrou is playing hard to get, perhaps in the hope of positioning himself and his party for the next election.  He has said that Sarkozy will aggravate the problems “of democracy and the fraying of the social fabric.”  Regarding the Socialist candidate, he has said that she will “durably aggravate French economic problems.”  Classic politics.  Off with their heads and down with their pants.  And may the best man or woman win.  Vive la France.

April 4, 2007

On November 15, 1976, the Parti Qu ébécois swept to power in the province, on a fervent wave of emotion.  The mandate of the party was clear : to hold a referendum in the province on the question of separation from Canada.  The situation in Montreal was euphoric.  Many of the people who had voted for the Parti Québécois did so with no real conviction that René Lévesque could be elected.  That chilly November evening witnessed an outpouring of emotion that is hard to describe. The Parti Québécois had won 71 seats, enough to form a majority government.   With one of the highest voting turnouts in Quebec history, 41.4 per cent of the electorate had supported a political party whose primary mission was separation from the rest of Canada. To many Québécois and to one Cajun in their midst, it seemed that the dream of a sovereign French state in North America was not only possible but within reach.

True to its word, the Parti Québécois held a referendum in 198O.  The outcome was a bitter disappointment for René Lévesque.  Only 40% of the electorate supported the proposal to redefine the relationship between Québec and Canada along the lines of something called « Sovereignty association », a watered-down version of secession, based on the « association of two sovereign states ». 
In 1985, René Lévesque retired from politics, worn down years of intense political struggle and chain-smoking.  He would die two years later.  The image of him that is engraved in my mind is of his concession speech after the 1980 referendum.  Although apparently tired, he did not seem sad, or beaten.  In fact there was a mischievous gleam in his eye as he said : « If I understand you correctly, you are saying « until next time ».  That remark drew riotous applause from his followers, many of whom were weeping openly. 
In the provincial elections of 1985, Lévesque’s successor, Pierre-Marc Johnson lost to the Liberals, but the Parti Québécois, under the leadership of Jacques Parizeau, was able to return to power in 1994.  A referendum was called promptly.  The vote was breathtakingly close, the « yes » vote achieving 49.5%.  In an ill-considered outburst, a clearly frustrated Parizeau blamed the « money and the ethnic vote» (l’argent et le vote ethnic) .  His remarks, although ostensibly true, left a bitter legacy and were to confine him to the political shadows.  In fact, the ethnic French vote had been overwhelmingly favorable to separation.  On the other side of the spectrum, over 90% of the Anglophone minority voted against.  The immigrant community was also hostile.  Federalist money had in fact attempted to influence the vote.  In a campaign of dubious legality, anti-separation forces had organized massive demonstrations in Montreal, bringing in thousands of Canadians from outside of Québec.  Their «We love you, Québec » was condescending, and considered offensive by most Québécois.
In spite of the defeat of its proposal, the Parti Québécois maintained power until 2003, when the Liberal government of Jean Charest returned to power.  The politics of Québec for the last thirty years has been defined by the waxing and waning of separatist fervor.  The election of 2007, however, was a watershed event and presents a considerable challenge for the Parti Québécois which was the clear loser. 
It seems to me that, politically speaking, there are three types of Québécois each representing approximately 1/3 of the electorate: pro-separation, pro-Federalist, and the third bloc of voters who could go either way, caught in the cross fire of the sovereignty conflict.  It was coalescing of this « neutral » third into a distinct political force which was the defining development of the recent elections.  For the first time in a generation, a new political party emerged as a major force in Québec politics: the Action Démocratique du Québec, led by Mario Dumont.
The platform of the ADQ is right wing, middle class oriented, purporting« family values » and care for the elderly.
What the ADQ offers, however, is an alternative to the incessant separatist question, which has dominated the Québec political landscape for a generation?  The message of the electorate seems clear.  The voters of Québec are suffering from a sovereignty burnout.  What matters most is health care, education, and the economy.  The ADQ was able also to exploit a rural backlash against the hegemony of Montreal. A major fact of life in Québec is the decline of the rural economy and the exodus of young people to Montreal primary in search of work.  Mario Dumont was able to portray himself as the champion of the economically blighted regions, of the elderly, of the middle class family.  His appeal was in large part due to the fact that he was able to impose himself as an alternative to the Sisyphean struggle between separatist and federalist forces of which a considerable portion of the electorate is weary.
The question for the Parti Québécois is how to position itself for the future in the face of its dismal performance.  It is worth noting that the participation in the election was amongst the lowest in recent history.  In a population noted for its relatively high electoral turnout, 30% stayed home.  Which is roughly the equivalent of the amount of votes that the Parti Québécois received.  How to explain the declining fortunes of a political party, which has dominated Québécois politics for a generation.  The reasons are numerous, but let’s start with the most obvious: the idea of a sovereign state no longer resonates with the population.  And the Parti Québécois itself is victim of its own ambivalence.
One of the things that struck me most was the signage that the Parti Québécois used during the campaign. There were red ones for healthcare, orange ones for education and greens ones for the environment.  Outside of Montreal, there were blue ones for « regional development ».  Notably absent was a sign proposing a referendum or a national state.  And it was obvious that the Parti Québécois was torn between fidelity to its primary mandate and the obvious lack of resonance which that message has within the population.
It took only a few days for André Boisclair, the controversial leader of the Parti Québécois, to announce that the holding of a referendum was likely to be stricken from the party’s platform.  The question then is what does the Parti Québécois stand for?  Can a political party continue to appeal to voters when it abandons its principal message?  Until this election, all other political questions have been secondary to the question of sovereignty for the Parti Québécois.  The existence of the party is based on the assumption that the interests of all of the people of Québéc would be best served by an independent state.  By taking the referendum proposition from its platform, the Parti Québécois is admitting that this assumption can no longer be made.
According to Parti Québécois ex-minister Louise Beaudoin, 45% of the voters in Québec are pro-sovereignty.  How then to explain the discrepancy between those who support an independent Québec, and those who vote for the Party Québécois.  The Parti Québécois is one, which chews up its leaders and spits them out.  Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry, while being popular prime ministers, were not able to maintain control of the party.  André Boisclair was chosen as leader after the failure of the party to maintain control of the province in the 2003 election.  It was apparently an effort to revitalize the party with a young dynamic leader.  Boisclair has proven ineffective, however, and his days seem to be numbered.
The question is then is there a future for the separatist movement in Québec?  Or will the Party Québécois, in order to survive, transform itself into a left leaning political party, abandoning its separatist platform?  Around the world, the notion of political separation is on the wane.  In Northern Ireland, and Spain, as well as in Québec, in areas where separatist movements have long been in favor, support for political separation is declining. 

The motivation for political separation is more often than not of a sentimental nature.  Certainly the pro-separatist movement in Québec was fueled largely by a sentiment of cultural and economic oppression.  Until the « quiet revolution » of the 1960s, French language and French culture in Anglo-dominated Montreal were relegated to second-class status.  The feeling of oppression by the ethnic French in the face of the Anglo dominant class was a powerful force in the early days of the Parti Québécois.  The feeling of affirmation offered by the idea of an ethnic French culturally based sovereign state is in large part the fuel, which drove the separatist train.  But sentiments change. 

Bill 101, passed in the early days of the assumption of power by the Parti Québécois, confirmed the dominance of the French language in Québec.  The result, ironically, is an English minority in Québec which has become fully bilingual which the French-speaking majority remains, as often as not, monolingual.  Over the last few decades, ethnic French Québécois have taken control of the economy and have exported their goods and services beyond the province’s borders with ever growing confidence.  Bombardier aviation, Le Cirque du Soleil and Céline Dion are the business models which inspire the Québécois entrepreneurial class.  The sentiment of oppression which was prevalent a generation ago is no longer a viable factor in the political landscape.  And the heady emotion which reigned in the mid 1970s has become, apparently, a thing of the past. 

Mario Dumont, the leader of the ADQ is in his mid 30s.  He grew up in a Québec which takes for granted certain aspects of the cultural landscape such as Bill 101.  However, he is by no means a Canadian Federalist. Nonetheless, he has been able to define position, which reconciles the affirmation of Québécois culture with a retreat from hard-line political secession.  His catch phrase is « autonomy ».   He is careful to avoid the endorsement of a referendum.  He is just as careful to affirm his promotion of the interests of Québec in the context of the Canadian confederation. This position puts him in synch with a great number of Québécois.  In spite of the considerable criticism of his party as a « one-man show » and his drubbing at the hands of political commentator Chantal Hébert, Dumont is the clear winner in these elections. In the 2003 general election, the ADQ received 18% of the vote and 4 seats in the assembly.  In 2007, 31% of the vote and 41 seats. Is this triumph simply a flash in the pan or the augur of a significant shift in Québécois politics? Time will tell.
As far as the Parti Québécois and the separatist movement are concerned, it is obvious that the political wind is blowing in another direction. Will political sentiment change once again and favor the separatist movement in the years to come, or is the 2007 election the end of the dream of an independent French state in North America.  Stay tuned.

History of the Quebec sovereignty movement
Politics of Quebec
Une vision. Un plan. Une parole.
Notre vision | Le Parti Québécois

February 27, 2007

Bonjour and welcome to my new and improved web site. I am pleased to present two new projects : a new album, Lumière dans le noir, and a new children’s book, l’Histoire de Télésphore et ‘Tit Edvard dans le grand nord, published in collaboration with my daughter Sarah to whom we owe the wonderful artwork. For my old friends, you will discover several new elements on the site. First of all, an expanded downloads section. You will find clips and interviews, several dating back many years (don’t laugh too hard at the 1980s clips. Thankfully, styles have changed). In the downloads section you will also find presentations in French and in English of several of the songs from the new album. I hope that these will enhance your listening pleasure. In the words and lyrics section, you will also find a complete list of the lyrics from all of the albums with English translations where appropriate.

Starting next month, I will resume my monthly report. For those of you who are new to the site, the montly report is my commentary on just about anything that captures my fancy. The reports are archived by year if you would like to consult my previous musings. (See sidebar of this page)

I would like to recognize several friends and collaborators without whom none of this would be possible. First of all, my webmaster, Scott Long to whom we owe the elegance and easy navigation of this site. Also, Megan Barra, the graphic artist who created the artwork for the new album which inspired the design for this site. And finally, Dirk W. de Jong and Kent Hutslar to whom we owe the photography. I hope that you enjoy this new and improved site.

Thanks for your support, Zachary.