Cajun music is a genre that developed in Louisiana but that has its firm roots in the Maritime provinces of Canada. How did a type of music that originated in chilly eastern Canada end up becoming one of most distinctive cultural elements of hot hot hot New Orleans? We can chalk that up to a quirk of 18th century “ethnic cleansing.”
Way back in the 17th century a group of French settlers, hailing from all over France but primarily from urban areas, colonized the eastern part of the country we now call Canada–specifically today’s provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island–as well as part of present-day Quebec and also much of Maine. At the time the land was known as Acadia, which was part of “New France.”
In 1710 the British conquered Acadia. The British let the several thousand Acadians stay, but brought British citizens to settle as well and installed a British administrative structure. In subsequent decades tensions grew between England and France, and from 1754 to 1763 the two countries fought each other on the American continent, weaving Native American/First Nations people into the struggle. (Your middle school history textbook probably referred to the conflict as “The French-Indian War.”)
During the war the British feared the Acadians in New France would rebel, and, in fact some did; Acadian rebels worked with First Nations “Indians” known as the Mi’kmaq to resist British rule. Even Acadians who weren’t actively engaged in the resistance refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the King as the British demanded. The British used this threat as justification for “The Great Expulsion,” during which they quite brutally deported about 11,500 Acadians, sending some Acadians to to the American Colonies and most of the rest directly back to France. An estimated third of deported Acadians died en route due to disease and drowning.
Acadians who the British had deported to France yearned to return “the New World,” and many did. Some ultimately returned to Acadia–though they were not allowed to reclaim their family land and had to face the harsh conditions of the coast–or ended up sprinkled around the British Colonies. Many thousands, however, took advantage of an opportunity to settle in southwestern Louisiana, which at the time was actually under Spanish control. Relations between France and Spain in the New World were decent enough at the time that the relocation worked; eventually the Acadians signed an oath of allegiance to Spain. The Acadians became known in Louisiana as the “Cajuns.” (Say “Acadian” like this — ah-cA-djun— and you’ll get it.) Acadians had little to bring with them to their new homes in late 18th century Louisiana, but they did have songs. Acadaian music was centuries-old French folk music, primarily composed of ballads about the difficulty of Acadian life. (Read National Geographic’s history of Acadian music for details.) Early Acadian music in Louisiana was either performed without instrumentation (a capella) or with basic fiddle accompaniment. Only when German immigrants arrived with the late 1800s and introduced the accordion did Cajuns add that instrument too.
In class we sing a contemporary version of a 300 year old Acadian song, “V’la L’Bon Vent,” (“Go Good Wind”) performed by The McDades. The McDades are a Canadian band composed of siblings Shannon Johnson, Solon McDade and Jeremiah McDade, children of Danielle and Terry McDade of the McDade Family Band. Both the parents and their kids perform “Canadiana,” or Canadian “roots” music.
“V’la L’Bon Vent” is one of those grand old folk songs that performers have interpreted in literally thousands of ways over the years. In most versions the story of the song seems to the similar; three ducks swim in a pond behind a house–a black one, a white one, and another duck whose coloring doesn’t seem to warrant mention. Then king’s son happens along and, with little reason, shoots the white duck. Either the duck just passes on or, in a magical turn, doesn’t bleed, but instead spews diamonds, gold and jewels. The king’s son is excited about the riches, but the lyrics of the song question the worth of wealth relative to the joy of keeping a living duck. In class we’re going to sing the song as both “V’la L’Bon Vent” and “Go Good Wind.” Wounded ducks or not, the McDades’ version of “V’la L’Bon Vent” rocks.
Meanwhile, back in Cajun country….
The Spanish eventually relinquished Louisiana to the French, who in 1803 sold it to Thomas Jefferson and the fledgling United States. (Your middle school history textbook calls this “The Louisiana Purchase.”)
Throughout all this nation-changing the Cajuns became farmers, manual laborers and pretty darned great fiddle and accordion players. Of particular note was fiddler Dennis McGee, who was of Irish, Cajun and Native American descent. His playing helped fuse Celtic influences into Acadian music. Watch McGee in action (the music starts at 1:35).
By mid 1930s a large wave of English-speaking immigrants had come to French-speaking southwest Louisiana to work the oil fields. At the same time many Cajuns moved westward into Texas. This brought both British and Texan sounds to Cajun songs. To enjoy some of the Cajun music from this time period, listen to Joe Falcon and Cleoma Breaux perform “Osson.” You may also listen to a very blurry Leo Soileau fiddle his way through “Blues of Port Arthur.”
After World War II the accordion became the lead instrument in Cajun bands and Cajun musicians found enthusiastic reception among their Frrench-speaking brethren. Only in 1964 when the Newport Folk Festival featured a performance by Dewey Balfa, Vinus LeJeune (who wins this week’s competition for “most awesome name”) and Gladius Thibodeaux (who very quickly takes the “most awesome name” title from LeJeune) did the music begin to find appreciation beyond its Louisiana borders. [Watch Dewey Balfa perform “Jei Ete Au Bal” with his nephew performing on the aptly named “fiddlesticks.”]