A Brief History of the Cajuns
In the 1500’s French explorers left France and sailed west to the Bay of Fundy in what is now Nova Scotia, Canada. At first they hunted, trapped, and fished, and lived a rather nomadic existence. In 1605 they founded a town called Port Royal on the northern coast of the Bay of Fundy where they could live in a permanent settlement and farm the land, but continue to hunt and fish.
Because they felt that they had found an “earthly paradise” like Virgil’s Arcadia, these settlers started calling themselves “Acadiens” (Acadians). Politically, however, there were problems in paradise. The British and the French were beginning their struggle for domination of the Americas. The Acadians were neutral in this struggle, but because they were French, the British became suspicious of them.
At the same time that the French were settling Acadia (Nova Scotia), other groups of French settlers were establishing themselves in Louisiana. The political situation was getting worse and worse in Acadia, so much so that some of the Acadians began thinking about moving to Louisiana where the French ruled the area securely and the Catholic religion was supreme.
In 1713, Acadia was ceded to the English under the Treaty of Utrecht. The population was entirely French Catholic. The treaty allowed the people to leave the country within one year, with their belongings, or to remain and practice their own religion insofar as British law allowed. (Jacques-Donat Casanova and Armour Landry,
(La Documentation FranCaise and the Quebec Official Publisher, 1976), p. 64)
In 1754 the Mouton family left Acadia for Louisiana. Their move became the first recorded migration of Acadians to Louisiana, and the Moutons became the first “Cajuns” (an Americanization of the word Acadian). In 1755, Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia formally expelled the Acadians.
This is the central experience of Cajun history and lore. In French it is called ‘Le Grand Dérangement,’ the great disturbance, in English commonly known as the Expulsion. Between September, 1755 and the end of the year, more than five thousand Acadians were shipped out of their homeland for unknown destinations. Families were separated, often on purpose, by the British, who would put men on one ship and women and children on another. The deportation continued in spurts, until almost every single Acadian had been expelled from the land his or her forebears had tamed. (Wilentz, p. 106)
The Acadians were dispersed far and wide. Some went to France or England. Others settled in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, the Carolinas, or Georgia. Still others ended up in Haiti, Martinique, or Guadeloupe in the French West Indies. It sometimes took many months and even years before the exiles reached Louisiana where the King of France was offering them land for settlement.
When the Acadians finally arrived in Louisiana, they discovered a hostile, disease ridden environment. Even with all the problems they encountered here, they found that the land was rich for farming; there were thick woods teeming with game, and rivers, marshes, and swamps filled with fish of all kinds.
It was hard to starve in the new Acadia, and even if the French Creole planters of New Orleans and its environs did not want to have much to do with the now penniless Acadians, at least French was spoken throughout the colony, even during its brief cession to the Spanish. The religion was Catholic, and the Acadians could erect their churches here without fear that the Protestant English would burn them down the next day. (Wilentz, pp. 106-107)
Cajun farmers settled on the prairie, and the trappers and fishermen built their houses in the bayous (“Bayou” is from a Choctaw Indian word “bayuk” meaning creek or small river). The Cajuns made use of the natural resources of the area, and, in so doing, created a new way of life.
A Brief History of Cajun Music
Cajun music “is a major lifeforce of the Cajun culture. It is vital to the continuation of that culture and by continuing to live, it serves to bond together the generations. Those who can identify with this music can identify with the people because the music is a reflection of the lives, strengths, sorrows, and joys of the people.” (Ann Allen Savoy,
, Volume 1 (Eunice, Louisiana: Bluebird Press, Inc., 1984), p. XI)
Early Cajun music was born in the struggle to survive in a difficult living situation. Cajun music reflected the day to day problems and the hardships faced by the new settlers. They worked hard and played even harder. Their music defined a sense of community as several musicians worked together in playing their music for social gatherings.
The first music of Louisiana was brought by the settlers. The music was that of their ancestors, “... beautiful ballads that told stories of bygone years. Many of these songs can be traced back to France and many songs from France drifted to the bayou and prairie region via New Orleans and Nova Scotia.” (Savoy, p. 13)
The voice as well as the fiddle were the instruments of choice in early Cajun country. There were two fiddles customarily employed for playing this music; one played the tune while the other played the rhythm. Later the Germans brought the button accordion to Louisiana and it was incorporated into Cajun music. It became the instrument of choice in the 1920’s.
Here was an instrument that could withstand the problems that ravaged violins in the semi-tropical climate... Here also, was an instrument of huge volume that even offered its own accompaniment by supplying a bass and a chord section, so its full sound was an asset to the packed, noisy dancehalls. Thus Cajun music began a major change. (Savoy, p. 13) Because the accordion was simple, it could not form the delicate nuances of the old songs. But many beautiful songs were written for it. The era of the accordion is considered by some to be “traditional Cajun music.” (Savoy, p. 13)
The Cajuns also started using a guitar for rhythm. A typical Cajun band was made up of a fiddle, an accordion, and a guitar or triangle for rhythm. In the 1930’s the accordion began to lose its popularity due to the influence of hillbilly music which was introduced during the discovery of oil in Louisiana. During World War II the typical Cajun band consisted of the fiddle, the guitar, the upright string bass and drums. Sometimes mandolins and banjos were included.
After World War II, accordions became popular again. “Not only was the availability of the accordions the reason for this instrument’s regained popularity, but Cajun national pride was in full bloom; those who had left during the war saw that the Cajuns were as ‘good as anyone else,’ and they had longed for the symbols of their homeland.” (Savoy, p. 14)
As soldiers, the Cajuns were used to translate and to act as liaisons with the French allies. The Cajuns were amazed that the language they were forbidden to speak outside their homes in Louisiana, was not only acceptable but respected by everyone they met. They felt very important because they could contribute something unique to the war effort—their language. Their renewed pride in their culture manifested itself in their music when they came home. They wanted their music played and sung the way it had been before World War II. Nevertheless, changes occurred in the music after the War.
An important structural change was the phasing out of the ‘bridges’ used in the old songs. A ‘bridge’ is an alternate tune (usually formed by omitting the second chord of the melody) used to break up the monotony of one or two instruments repeating the melody over and over again. The addition of the steel guitar as a third lead instrument omitted the need for an alternate melody since enough variety was already offered by the increased instrumentation. (Savoy, p. 14)
Creole and Zydeco Music
“Creole” originally meant a person of French, Spanish, or Portuguese descent born in the United States. Its meaning subsequently changed to a person of mixed ancestry-European and Black, who speaks the Creole language (a mixture of African and French). The latter definition of a person of mixed ancestry who speaks Creole is preferred by the Blacks in southern Louisiana.
Slaves were brought to Louisiana from the west coast of Africa between 1719 and 18O9; ‘Gens libres de couleur’ (free people of color) came to and developed in Louisiana before and after the Haitian revolution; French planters exiled from Cuba in 1810 brought Caribbean French slaves with them; blacks from Virginia and Maryland also came to Louisiana, Slavery, though common in eastern Louisiana, was practiced on a small scale in the Cajun part of Louisiana. Many blacks found work as tenant farmers among the hard working Cajuns after their release from slavery. To the Cajun culture these people of many nations brought spices, new language elements, culinary arts, and rhythmic influences to the music. (Savoy, p. 304)
Early Creole music was made without instruments because instruments cost money. Therefore the Creole musicians used what they had, their bodies, their voices, or simple instruments made from ordinary household items to make their music. “When instruments became available the black Creoles were among the earliest to master the accordion. The early available recordings of Creole musicians show a closeness in style to the Cajun musicians.” (Savoy, p. 304)
The early singers were mainly women who sang old ballads or story songs that came from Old World sources, brought over by French and Spanish settlers. Other singers were called “juré singers” who sang inspirational songs praising God with hand clapping, foot timing, calling and singing testimonies to God. Surrogate instruments were sometimes used such as mule jaws or bones, washboards, and sticks rubbed on wood.
After World War II rhythm and blues and other instrumental music influenced black Creole music. The washboard was replaced by corrugated steel vests. French songs were played faster, and the words of songs were simplified. There were changes in rhythm also. “La-la” music was characteristic of this period of Creole music. “La-la” music is fast French dance music with a rhythm and blues influence. Single row and triple row accordions were the instruments of choice for “la-la” music. “‘Zydeco’ is really the expression that replaced ‘la-la’ and ‘pic-nic’ in referring to a dance or the music played at a dance.” (Savoy, p. 305)