Cajun music, like polka music is fun, happy music, you can’t help but grin while dancing and the rhythm keeps you coming back to the floor after quenching your thirst.
What exactly is Cajun music? Ignorant marketers have led astray the public by inferring the word "Cajun" means anything and everything from Louisiana, which is far from the truth.
A Northern Louisianan is insulted when called a Cajun, as a Czech would be if referred to as a German. Some people think that New Orleans is Cajun country, which isn’t true, N’Awlins is N’Awlins and real Cajuns treat it as a tourist destination. The popular image portrays Cajuns as alligator-wrestling, crawfish- and gumbo-eating, swamp hillbillies, who talk like Justin Wilson, the Cajun chef (which some of them do), and punctuate every other sentence with Ayeeee!!!. In reality, Cajun territory is the extreme southwest corner of Louisiana, consisting of all the land west of Baton Rouge and south of Opelousas to the Gulf of Mexico and to the Sabine River on the Texas Border. This land does include swamps and bayous but also thousands of acres of flat, fertile land suitable for crops and cattle.
What most people are not aware of is that Texas is partially responsible for today’s popularity of Cajun food and music. Of course, a West Texian will say that is only true in East Texas.
In 1754, France had a colony that occupied a corner of Northeast Canada which went by the name Acadia. Great Britain went to war with France to acquire the lucrative fishing, fur-trapping, and agricultural efforts in North America. The French were defeated in 1763. This was known as the French and Indian War. The majority of the French settlers (11,000) were arrested and deported to France by the British, tearing families apart and burning their houses. However, 1,600 either escaped or chose to not stay in France and ended up in the swamps and bayous of Southwestern Louisiana under Spanish rule. The Spanish had recently acquired Louisiana as part of the settlement of the Seven Years War. The new settlers began cultivating the land for agriculture and fished the surrounding bayous and the Gulf of Mexico. This area was inhospitable to many Anglos, thus making it a haven for refugees from other cultures including the Spanish, Canary Islanders, Native Americans, Anglos, descendants of African slaves, and French and German Creoles (European and African blend) from the Caribbean.
With music being the great catalyst that it is, the cultures interacted with their native sounds. and formed the basis of modern-day Cajun music. The Acadians brought their French music, performed on fiddles and accordions; the Spaniards contributed the guitar; the Native Americans their vocal layers; the Anglos brought music in the form of jigs, reels and ballads, and the Africans donated their rhythms.
The music that resulted became called “Cajun” which was a derivative of the word “Acadian,” in the French-based Creole language. The French language had become the predominate language of the area and Anglo lyrics were translated into French.
The Cajun lifestyle of this corner of Louisiana was devoted to farming and raising cattle as a hand-to-mouth existence. Music was one of the few escapes from this minimal lifestyle. In the late 1930s folklorist Alan Lomax and his father, John, ventured into Louisiana and recorded the music as it had been played for the previous 150 years making the sound available outside of the area. Dennis McGee was one of the first to be recorded and his Valse du vacher (Cowboy’s Waltz), which lamented the loneliness of being a cowboy was preserved.
The Lomaxes were astounded by the “Western” influence (the term cowboy) that had already infiltrated this remote region. They were relieved to hear, and record other tunes whose rhythms and melodies showed how the music had migrated from Europe and other cultures and ended up in the lowlands and swamps of Southwestern Louisiana. The accordion, fiddle, and guitar were the major instruments pushing the music out the windows and off the porches of rural homes during this time.
By the late 1930s, Cajun music began to change as the outside influences silenced the loud accordion and the fiddle and guitar moved to the front with western swing and country styles integrating in commercial recordings. In the future decades electrical instrumentation was being introduced and English lyrics began to be heard, further signaling the decline of “real” Cajun music.
During this same time-frame, African-flavored music was running a parallel path resulting in Zydeco music which will be covered elsewhere in this paper. To briefly explain the difference, Cajun music tends to be smoother and more melodic than Zydeco which is highly percussive and syncopated (an aggressive rhythm).
It seems that Anglo (white, English speaking) citizens are uncomfortable with Americans speaking another language other than their own, as evidenced by attempts to stamp out Native American, Spanish, French, German, and Czech languages in the late 1800s and 1900s. As a result, Cajun French became spoken less and nearly died out altogether during the mid-20th century as school children were punished for speaking the language they heard at home. In the middle of the 20th century, there were only a few musicians who played in public in the style of their grandparents. During the 1950s and '60s, the youth rejected their heritage music and were embarrassed to be associated with their culture’s music. This phenomenon is a natural occurrence in most cultures.
In 1974 the first Tribute to Cajun Music was held in Lafayette as an experiment to see if anyone was interested in the old-time music. Promoters were apprehensive as by this time even older Cajuns were characterizing the music as “Chanky-Chank,” a disparaging term used to describe the aged, slow, front-porch-style music that had been played by the old Cajuns in their native French Cajun dialect.
At first the promoters had booked a small theatre seating several hundred. As more interest was shown, a larger venue was chosen twice more, until the largest venue in Lafayette was booked. The 12,000 tickets sold gave them hope for interest in the music and a successful show; as over 150 French journalists had been invited. If there was only a half a stadium, it would look bad; if all the attendees were old folks, it would show that the music was on its last legs. Louisiana was being ornery as the afternoon of the show 12 inches of rain fell from the sky accompanied by intense lightening. The promoters, who were music enthusiasts, not professionals, were apprehensive to say the least; as the musicians were all volunteering their time.
That evening, the opening act, fiddler Lionel LeLeux, showed up with his pants rolled up to his knees and holding his fiddle case over his head. Well, at least there will be music if any people showed up. The first group through the turnstile was a family representing three generations of Cajuns. More families showed up, soon couples, singles, and best of all young folks. By showtime the auditorium was full. With several thousand others unable to enter, the coliseum doors were opened so the music could be heard by the attendees standing under umbrellas. All the Cajun musicians booked showed up bringing other musicians.
The journalists had a separate section reserved; the buses were delayed by flooding, so when they arrived just as the first act walked on stage, the 12,000 pairs of hands burst into applause making the journalists think that it was for them and later wrote of the extremely warm reception they were given.
The concert, which was sequenced to show the progression of Cajun sounds from France to modern Louisiana was a turning point in Cajun music; all Louisiana newspapers raved about the event, even one who had written a story several years early entitled: “They Call That Music?”. The concert drew attention to the culture and its unique music and within several years Cajun musicians were performing at concerts around the U.S. Accordion festivals were blooming in southern Louisiana. A word about accordions, the most common is the button box accordion as opposed to the piano-keyed accordion. They are constructed to produce notes when squeezed in and when stretched out, unlike the piano-style single action.
One of the now high-profile Cajun musicians, Michael Doucet (doos-a), had left Louisiana in his youth to play other forms of music as what he heard as a child was no longer being played. With the resurgence of the culture, he abandoned a burgeoning career and came home to relearn his roots music. Doucet joined like-minded friends and formed a band, Coctau, that melded the current rock rhythms with the old melodies to satisfy all ages of Cajuns. Doucet sought out all the old-timers and learned their songs and musicianship. Coctau had a short run but it ignited further interest in the culture. Doucet is equally at home on the fiddle and the accordion as he leads his now legendary band Beausoleil (Beautiful Sun); which has toured the world and performed for kings and queens in its 50+ years of existence.
ANOTHER GTT (GONE TO TEXAS)
The emergence of the Golden Triangle (Houston-Beaumont-Port Arthur) during and after World War II as a heavy manufacturing and petrochemical center did the same to Louisiana as it did to the Czech and German communities to the west of Houston. Tens of thousands of men with their families left the farms and found work in the shipyards, ports, and petrochemical plants proliferating in Southeast Texas. With this exodus came the culture. In the bars and dance-halls that sprang up in the triangle, the Cajun accordions, fiddles, and triangles (the three-sided metal percussion instrument) mixed with the steel and electric guitars kept the memories of the rice fields and bayous alive, while forging a new sound. It has been said that around 1950 there were more Cajuns in Texas than Louisiana. That is quite possible as the population of Beaumont increased by 59% between 1940 and 1950.
It was during this time (1946) that a Cajun fiddler named Harry Choates, living in the Golden Triangle, recorded Jole Blon (Pretty Blonde), a song with French lyrics and origins in the early 1900s that had been recorded and altered many times. The tiny record label (Gold Star) could not keep up with the requests for the song as it became what is now called the Cajun National Anthem.
Moon Mullican “borrowed” the title and approximate medley and it became a national hit. Roy Acuff, Red Foley, and several others recorded versions of the song. Waylon Jennings' first single was Jole Blon with Buddy Holley on guitar and King Curtis on saxophone.
Probably the most well-known Cajun song was written by a guy from Alabama who used the melody from a Cajun French song called Grand Texas and added English lyrics incorporating all things Cajun: pole the pirogue down the bayou, jambalaya, crawfish pie, file’gumbo, ma cher amio, the Thibideauxs, and the Fontainenots. He used the very un-Cajun sound of Don Helm’s steel guitar and a standup bass as backing for his moaning vocals. The song was Jambalaya (On the Bayou) and released in 1952 by Hank Williams.
Another crowd-pleaser that raised the Cajun flag high is Diggy Liggy Lo (also known as Diggy Diggy Lo). Written in 1953 by Terry Clement, the infectious song about a romance between Diggy Liggy La and Diggy Liggy Lo, owes its popularity to the showmanship of the Ragin' Cajun Doug Kershaw.
To the followers of the Red Ravens, a Jimmy C. Newman song Lâche pas la patate (Don’t drop the potato), is always a crowd pleaser. Newman was a regular on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, right up until two weeks before his death in 2014 at the age of 86.
There is a subgenre of Cajun music that is called Swamp Pop. As country, rock-n-roll, and the blues invaded Louisiana, a new form of music evolved. The locals took the songs from elsewhere and reinterpreted them which resulted in what became called Swamp Pop. Cookie and the Cupcakes gave us Mathilda, Phil Phillips sang Sea of Love, Van Broussard smoked us with saxophones on Red, Red Wine, and Johnny Allan recorded Before the Next Teardrop Falls before the criminally crazy Huey Meaux (The Crazy Cajun) got Freddy Fender in the studio. Even most songs by Fats Domino are considered Swamp Pop.
By the 1970s Cajun music and its variants were considered THE music of Southeast Texas.
POLE THE PIROGUE WESTWARD
The expansion of Cajun music out of its adopted region of southeast Texas has been very slow. The popularity of festivals celebrating different Texian cultures, especially their foods, has been the primary reason for the increased awareness of Cajun music. Crawfish and gumbo festivals fill the May thru September entertainment calendars throughout the state. One of the best music festivals is held at Anhalt, a German Verein Hall in the Hill Country. Three different Cajun bands perform throughout the day as crawfish are boiled and the floor is filled. Medina Lake, also in the Hill Country, has had a Cajun festival featuring gumbo for 39 years. Fayetteville has a yearly crawfish meal with the Austin Cajun Aces performing. Of course, in the Golden Triangle, where the crawfish farms are, every community has a crawfish meal as a fundraiser.
The Cajun French Music Association has been vital to exposing their music to the rest of Texas and the nation. Based in Lafayette, the three chapters in Texas hosts regular dances. The San Antonio chapter De Fa Tras, hosts monthly dances downtown. The Gulf Coast Cajuns in Orange holds monthly dances, and the Houston Chapter holds bi-monthly dances.
Each year, CFMA hosts the LeCajun Festival in Louisiana (this year on Aug. 15-17), a unique three-day event that features an awards ceremony honoring the best in Cajun music and Cajun musicians, and includes a two-day dance festival with award-winning Cajun bands providing the music. The fest starts with CFMA chapter award presentations and music by CFMA young musicians at La Poussiere in Breaux Bridge. Friday and Saturday, the action moves to the civic center in Rayne.
Awards are presented for Band of the Year, Best Accordionist, Best Fiddler, Best Male and Female Vocalist, Song of the Year, and Best Recording of the Year.
While most of the working Cajun bands, such as Donny Broussard and the Louisiana Stars, have weekly gigs that keep them in the Texas-Louisiana regions, a few like Charles Thibodeaux and the Austin Cajun Aces, based in Austin, and Ca Va Bien, based in San Antonio, hold down the Cajun music slots in those respective areas.
Ca Va Bien has been around for three years filling the need for Cajun music in the San Antonio area. Previously, Th e Swamp Angels, founded by Mike Pollock, who was instrumental in raising Cajun awareness in the Bexar County area and has since gone back to Louisiana, kept the dance floors hopping. Another band that made the rounds was Cher La Bas, which morphed into Ca Va Bien, and is now captained by Robin Howell, whose family roots are back in Cajun country. He had played fiddle in a bluegrass band but was smitten the first time he was shown how to play Cajun fiddle. That style is a lot smoother and more rhythmic than bluegrass. When playing, Robin channels the sounds of all the Cajun records that his father used to play at home.
Charles Thibodeaux and the Austin Cajun Aces have a weekly gig at the Evangeline Café in Austin. Charles was raised in Cajun country by parents who spoke French around the house and took him to dances every chance they could get. He’s been playing accordion since he was 16 and his current band of top-notch players have been playing traditional Cajun music for 15 years.
Leading Cajun musicians most of whom play a blend of traditional and contemporary music include Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Wayne Toups, Pine Leaf Boys, Donnie Broussard and the All Stars, and Red Stick Ramblers. Donovan Bourque of Beaumont is a rising star. Donovan started playing the accordion when he was 10 years old. His grandfather was one of his biggest influences growing up and left Donovan his accordion when he passed. He was the Cajun/Zydeco grand prize winner in the Texas Folklife 2017 Big Squeeze contest, and now has his own band Donovan Bourque & Friends. Upon winning the Big Squeeze contest he said his goal is "to keep the Cajun tradition alive until [his] very last breath."
If you're interested in Cajun music, and you must be if you have read this far, check out the above bands live and on You-Tube. The Beausoleil Quartet is recommended, and if you want to impress your friends on your Cajun knowledge you can enlighten them that Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, translates to red stick. Big deal, right? Well, when the peppers were being picked on Avery Island (southern Louisiana), where the original Tabasco Sauce is made, the peppers were judged to be ripe by comparing their color to a red stick carried by the picker. AYEEEE!!!!!