10. Going Deeper
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Ten Going Deeper “Hey. It’s me. Harton. I just had an idea.”To me it sounded more like a brainstorm, judging from the urgency I could detect beneath the low drawl at the other end of the line. “Why don’t you get really drunk some time and then try to sing?” “Well, I don’t know . . .” I hesitated, trying to digest this latest bit of wisdom from my new Cajun friend. So he quickly amended his suggestion: “You’d only have to do it once. Think about it.” Harton was my first Louisiana-born friend, the first of many, as it would turn out. He had arrived in Chicago at just the right time—in the fall, at an unsettled point in my musical life. Our friendship marked the beginning of the deeper personal connection to the music and culture I’d been missing. We met at the monthly Cajun Aces dance, in their newest spot, the cavernous gym of a Presbyterian church. That night, I noticed someone new. A well-built man, around my age, with angular features , slightly hooked nose above a small mustache, black beret on top of curly dark hair with silver glints. I watched him dance, in an unusual style that resembled a jig in slow motion, or maybe a two-step cut in half. But he moved with certainty and appeared to feel the rhythm at a completely different level. Eyes fixed on something only he could see, lips moving slightly, transported by the music into some private world of his own. I wondered if he might be that friend Charlie had mentioned, a Cajun guy preparing to move to Chicago from Minnesota. I’d heard he was a piano tuner, like Charlie, and that he sang and played the accordion. When the song ended I approached this man, with the uncharacteristic social confidence Cajun music seemed to bring out in me. 105 106 Beginnings After introducing myself, I asked if he might be Charlie’s friend who had just arrived from Minnesota. “I am,” he said. “My name’s Harton.” “I thought you might be.Then after I watched you dance, I knew you had to be Cajun.” “Well, actually, I’m Creole.” “Oh.” I looked at him more closely, embarrassed that I had made an assumption . I had thought “Creole” referred to French-speaking people from Louisiana of mixed heritage—black and Native American, along with French European. People of color. But Harton appeared white, with a suggestion of Mediterranean ancestry. Harton looked faintly amused, as though he might be savoring my confusion, before he offered an explanation: He had always considered himself Cajun, a broadly inclusive term for anyone belonging to the white, French-speaking communities of rural southwest Louisiana. Then his grandmother told him the proper term for their family was “Creole,” since their ancestors had come directly from France, and not by way of the Acadian settlements in Nova Scotia. To Harton’s grandmother, this amounted to an important distinction , one that set them apart from their Cajun neighbors, and perhaps a little above. They were Creole—a purely French family with roots in the old world but transplanted to the new. It was an older, broader meaning of the term, unrelated to race. For Harton himself, the distinction had nothing to do with superiority . The particularities of peoples’ stories—his own, and everyone else’s—fascinated him, and he considered it important to get the story right. He also liked to keep people off balance, and he felt compelled to educate them about all sorts of things—including his Louisiana heritage. At that time, my notions about Louisiana remained hazy and romanticized , despite our recent trip in the spring. My experiences of people, whether Cajun or Creole, continued to be filtered through the books I’d read, song lyrics, and my own dreamy fantasies. Most of the people I’d encountered were men connected to the music world—idealized, larger-than-life figures.Added to this complicated Going Deeper 107 mix were my lingering negative stereotypes of southern white men, who might turn out to be rednecks and good old boys, tainted by machismo and racism. I needed to temper all this with an infusion of reality—like getting to know someone from Louisiana as a friend, plain and simple. Harton defied easy categorization. He’d grown up speaking French in a small rural community in Avoyelles Parish, on the northeast edge of Cajun...


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