“Laissez le bon temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll!) can be heard everywhere on beautiful Saturday mornings in Cajun Louisiana. Delicious smells waft through the air along with the sounds of musicians tuning up, getting ready for a day-long celebration of music, dance and food.
Saturday is important to the Cajuns because it is the end of the work week and the day before the Sabbath.
On Saturday, from nine in the morning to past midnight, all over Acadiana—and especially in its heartland, around Mamou and Eunice and Opelousas—is impossible to escape the sound of the fiddle, the guitar, and the accordion, the nasal singing of the old Cajun lyrics, the tingle of the triangle and spoons, and the rhythmic clomping of the two-step, the most popular Cajun dance because a two-step works well with the simple rhythms of the songs. (Amy Wilentz, “Bon Temps on the Bayou”,
Condé Nast Traveler
(New York: Condé Nast Publications Inc.; June, 1991), p. 145)
Cajun life is defined by its music. Cajun music is the focus for this unit as it reflects Cajun family life, customs, and language.
Using music to discuss a culture, its background and influences, is a special approach to the study of the family. For the Cajuns, music reveals their deepest feelings and expresses their philosophy of life. Cajun music can be studied in several different ways: 1) historically, as to its origins; 2) culturally; and 3) socially. With the family as the center of the ethnic group, and the focus for this unit, Cajun music will provide here the means for exploring the latter two aspects, for understanding the culture and the people.
As a French teacher in the New Haven Public Schools, I am required to teach a particular curriculum. Included in this curriculum are aspects of French culture which are highlighted in the textbooks for every level. In addition to the “mandatory” culture, there are cultural topics that I include because I am interested in them, and, because the students find them interesting as well.
I enjoy teaching French culture. Sometimes, however, the information seems too remote from my urban students’ American experience. Therefore I make an effort to include cultural topics based on French influence on the United States (food, fashion, language, etc.), as well as the study of French Americans. Because I am fascinated by the culture of the French Americans in Louisiana, especially the Cajuns, I take every opportunity to learn more about them. I have written two other units about the Cajuns which can be used along with this unit: “The Preservation of a Heritage: A Study of the Acadians” in 1983, and “The Cajuns: Natives With a Difference!” in 1988.
This unit is designed for French classes in levels 2, 3, and 4. It can be used in a U.S. History class, an American literature class, a music class, and an art history or Humanities class. The unit may take between five and ten weeks, depending on the interest of the students, and the constraints of the curriculum.
In order to learn about Cajun music within the context of its culture, I am using an object analysis approach. Object analysis concentrates on an object from a particular time or culture. In studying the object thoroughly, conclusions about the culture can be reached.
Jules D. Prown, in his article “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” (see Bibliography) describes the three major phases of object analysis as description, deduction, and speculation. In the descriptive phase, the observer is limited to what can be seen in the object itself: its measurements and weight, the materials used, and the ways in which the materials are put together. All decorations, designs, words, and letters are examined. And, as the final step in this phase, “formal analysis” occurs in which the observer describes the object two-dimensionally and three-dimensionally, as well as in terms of color, lights and darks, and texture.
In the deductive phase, the observer uses the information learned in the first phase. He/She interacts with the object and draws some conclusions about the society from which it comes. This phase relies on the observer’s senses, and his/her intellectual and emotional responses to the object.
The final phase of object analysis is speculation. In this phase, the observer is required to use his/her imagination in a creative manner to hypothesize about the object. The theories derived from these hypotheses need to be tested through research, so that questions raised from the close observation of the object can be answered satisfactorily.
Music, though not a material object, can be analyzed using Prown’s method. The record album cover, the lyrics, and the music itself, all can be studied to provide insight into the Cajun culture.
The album cover can be examined descriptively, deductively, and speculatively as a cultural object. Cultural information can be gleaned from the design of the cover, not only from what is included, but from what is not, as well.
One can study the lyrics of a song in their original form linguistically and grammatically, in translation, and as presented in different versions. The lyrics may be studied historically and culturally. The lyrics provide several lessons for language classes to analyze Cajun French.
The music can be studied historically to learn how it has been influenced. In addition, one can examine the music for its unique qualities—elements that make Cajun music different from other forms of American music.