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Southern Cultures 13.3 (2007) 87-105

The Color of Music
Social Boundaries and Stereotypes in Southwest Louisiana French Music
Sara Le Menestrel

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Figure 1
One local jazzman rose from a humble start to play with jazz greats Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden. Rural jazzman Bunk Johnson, the trumpeter credited with teaching Louis Armstrong, first earned his living at the local rice mills and taught music in the New Iberia Public School system under the WPA program. Bunk Johnson at Conrad's Rice Mill, New Iberia, May 1945, photographed by William Russell, courtesy of the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.
[End Page 87]

Until the 1960s, southwest Louisianans did not categorize their music as Cajun, Creole, or zydeco. Instead, they referred to it as musique française, or French music, without systematically assigning it to a specific ethnic group or music subgenre. The French versus American musical distinction was the significant factor. In fact, this belief was so well-rooted that one Cajun woman who grew up in the 1960s was convinced that the AM/FM options on her radio referred to the distinction between American Music and French Music.

In recent years, however, artists and intellectuals in southwest Louisiana have increasingly pointed out the historic collaboration and intermixing of Cajuns and Creoles within French music, while simultaneously emphasizing their differences as distinct ethnic groups. The distinctions between these categories shape and are shaped by social stereotypes, while discussions of musical hybridization, or creolization, tend to mask persistent tensions along social boundaries. The Louisiana context thus mirrors the way in which the problematic category of "world music," despite its pluralist ideology, also tends to obscure social and racial divisions in the music world.

Cajuns and Creoles share francophone origins and are most commonly referred to respectively as white and black French-speaking people from Louisiana. Many Cajuns claim Acadian ancestry, although their origins are also traceable to other European immigrant groups that settled in Louisiana. In addition to the claim of a "blood" kinship with the Acadians from the Canadian Maritime Provinces, this sense of belonging is expressed through a common historic memory rooted in the expulsion of the Acadians by the British in 1755 ("Grand Dérangement") and in a recurrent survival theme, common to all dispersed Acadians, that defines their contemporary sense of identity. This notion of an Acadian diaspora has more recently been reinforced and institutionalized by the World Acadian Congress organized since 1994, which reunites people of Acadian ancestry every five years.

For their part, black Creoles strongly differentiate themselves from Cajuns, who until the mid-1990s were the primary focus of tourism promotion in French Louisiana. In present-day southwest Louisiana, individuals who call themselves Creoles are descendants of both free people of color and freed slaves. Their identity is combined with a strong sense of being African American: black identity and French heritage are thought of not only as compatible but as inseparable.

Throughout the twentieth century, Cajuns and Creoles have unarguably shared common music traditions. Historically, two musicians embody this shared heritage: Creole accordion player Amédée Ardoin (1896–1941) and Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee (1893–1989), both sharecroppers who recorded together in 1929. They were tremendously successful for twenty years, playing in local dancehalls and house dances, and Ardoin is now considered the father of French music by most local musicians, no matter which subcategory of music they identify with. [End Page 88] Until the 1860s the fiddle was the lead instrument; often twin fiddles played, one leading with the melody and the other seconding with harmony or chords. The diatonic accordion took over later and was played along with a fiddle and a rhythm section composed of a guitar and percussion—a triangle, or 'tit fer, and/or a washboard, or frottoir.


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Figure 2
Many Cajuns claim Acadian ancestry, expressed through the claim of a "blood" kinship with Acadians from the Canadian Maritime Provinces and a common historic memory...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 87-105
Launched on MUSE
2007-09-17
Open Access
No
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