restricted access Chapter 3 From Chanky-Chank to Yankee Chanks: The Cajun Accordion as Identity Symbol
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3 From Chanky-Chank to Yankee Chanks The Cajun Accordion as Identity Symbol mark f. dewitt The diatonic button accordion has been played by musicians the world over, but it has attained a uniquely prominent status in Louisiana Cajun culture. Over the decades, this one particular type of accordion has served as a tabula rasa onto which have been projected changing views of Cajun music and the status of Cajun ethnic identity. When we talk about the Cajun accordion, what do we mean? We could be referring to an instrument made by a Cajun accordion maker, of which there are several, and how these instruments differ from other accordions. We might also be thinking of a certain playing style and musical repertoire for the accordion that Cajuns and Creoles have developed over the last century or so, with the idea that the Cajun accordion is used to play Cajun music. That may seem obvious, but consideralsothataCajunwhoownsanaccordioncanplayanykindofmusiconit that he or she wishes, and in some sense the music that results still comes from a “Cajun accordion.” Theword“Cajun”isaphonetictransformationof“Acadian,”whichaptlysignifies the cultural transformation that took place when French-descended settlers inwhatwasknownasAcadie,nowpartoftheCanadianmaritimeprovinces,made anewhomeforthemselvesontheprairiesandbayousofLouisiana.Manyofthese settlersinAcadiawerenotimmigrantsfromFrancebutrathernative-bornfranco­ phoneswhoforseveralgenerationshadtheirowncommunityidentity.Theseset- 45 From Chanky-Chank to Yankee Chanks tlersrefusedtoswearallegiancetotheBritishcrownin1755duringaseesawbattle for control of the region with France and were deported at the hands of British colonial troops, or left a few years later under their own power after resistance to the British proved futile. Forcibly scattered along the eastern seaboard of the United States (and elsewhere), a decade later some Acadians were lured south by the Spanish, who owned Louisiana at the time and were looking to create a buffer zone of settlements against British-occupied lands to the north. Unlike in the British colonies, the Acadians found their Catholicism and French language accepted in Louisiana, and eventually nearly three thousand of the deportees from the north resettled in Louisiana on farmlands west of New Orleans.1 Intheirnewhome,theAcadiansinLouisianafoundthemselvesincontactwith a cultural diversity that was new for them: Spanish colonial governors, African slaves,unfamiliarNativeAmericancultures,French-speakingwhitesandblacks whoarrivedbywayofSt.Domingue(Haiti),andfreeCreolesofcolor.TheAcadians brought their own musicality with them—scholars have found documentation of their use of violins, clarinets, and a cappella dance music in eighteenth-century Louisiana—andtheydidnothesitatetoadaptittotheirnewculturalenvironment.2 InfluencesfromotherculturesfacilitatedagradualshiftfromanAcadianidentity to a Cajun one. Acadien became ’cadien became Cajun as English speakers came to power after the Spanish ceded the Louisiana Territory back to the French, who turned right around and dealt it to the United States in the same year (1803).3 On their farms and ranches, relatively isolated from the urban center of New Orleans by the swampy Atchafalaya Basin, French-speaking Cajuns and Creoles were not forced to learn English in the nineteenth century.4 Schooling was practically nonexistent, and most Cajuns were illiterate. The more upwardly mobile among them did learn English but still referred to themselves as Acadians and identifiedwithHenryWadsworthLongfellow’sepicpoemEvangeline(1847),which toldthestoryoftwo young Acadian lovers in Canadaseparatedanddeported,one ofwhomendsupinLouisiana.5 ThenameEvangelineisstillevidentinsouthwest Louisiana, for example as the name of a parish (county) and a brand of bread. Middle-class Acadians notwithstanding, most Cajuns engaged in farming and otherkindsofmanuallaborfortheirlivelihoods.Intermarriagewithimmigrants fromotherplacesledtoaproliferationofdistinctlynon-French-soundingCajun surnamessuchasOrtego,Schexnayder,McGee,andAbshire.Maleoutsiderswho marriedCajunwomenfoundthemselveslearningtospeakFrench(iftheydidnot already) and to follow Cajun customs, in essence becoming Cajun by marriage even as they were bringing outside cultural elements into Cajun communities.6 AlthoughtheyhadbeenU.S.citizenssincetheLouisianaPurchaseandaffected bynationaleventssuchastheCivilWarandReconstruction,theAmericanization processforCajunsreallybeganwiththecompletionoftherailroadfromNewOr- 46 mark f. dewitt leanstoHoustonin1880,facilitatingthemovementofgoodsandpeopleonawhole newscale.7 Withinafewyears,inpredominantlyCajuntownsalongtherailroute, German Jewish merchants began opening general stores, where the geographer Malcolm Comeaux believes Cajuns bought their first accordions.8 The influx of more English-speaking people heightened the awareness of cultural differences between Cajuns and Anglo-Americans, stereotypes on both sides that had been developingalreadyfordecades,whichJamesDormonsummarizesasfollows:“In the eyes of Anglos and Creoles alike, Cajuns were still a fundamentally impoverished , illiterate peasant folk, mired in tradition and kinship domination and a kind of reactionary orthodoxy, beyond the pale of the burgeoning Anglo-Creole agricultural/commercial world.”9 Cajuns, for their part, viewed les Américains as untrustworthy and overly materialistic. The word cadien or Cajun itself became loaded with negative connotations to the point where many considered it an epithet . Cajuns often referred to themselves simply as “French.” Because of increased commerce coming into the region from the rest of the United States, financial pressure continually grew for Cajuns to Americanize themselves in order to do business with outsiders and newcomers—for example, to learn English and work in the oil industry after oil was discovered in the area. Learning...


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