On the first Sunday of every month, in Arnaudville, Louisiana, Tom Pierce hosts a Cajun Music Jam.
Tom is a ‘luthier’, a maker of stringed instruments, and his shop - Tom’s Fiddle and Bow - is a glorious jumble of violins for sale and repair. His workshop overflows with clamps and tools and offcuts of wood, and violins with a rich woody timbre hang on racks overhead. It’s not the first violin repair shop we've seen in this part of lower Louisiana - there seem to be more luthiers per capita here than anywhere else in the world - and as a (strictly amateur) violinist myself, this fills me with pleasure. When craftsmanship and a love of music combine like this, all seems right with the world.
These past couple of days we’ve been exploring Cajun Louisiana, a pocket of French culture that survives like some obstinate flowering weed in the homogenous American garden.
I don’t mean to seem disrespectful. My mother always describes weeds as "just a flower out of place” - and that seems to me a perfect description of the Cajuns.
Their historical provenance is fascinating and extraordinary. They trace themselves back to a community of French settlers on the Maritime Islands of Canada - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island - a land once called “Acadia”. In the mid-18th Century the British and French were at war, and the Acadians were suspected by the British of helping supply French forts in the interior, and so the British forcibly relocated the Acadians, en masse, in what became known as the Great Upheaval (the ‘Grand Dérangement’). They were repatriated to the 13 colonies, and to Europe - to Britain, and to France. It was a time of terrible suffering and loss, not least in the sinking of three transport ships in which a thousand Acadians died.
But out of this tragedy, Cajun Louisiana was born. The Acadians regrouped, and led by Henri Peyroux de la Coudreniere, they traveled to Louisiana and colonized the bayou region west of New Orleans. (At this point in history Louisiana was under Spanish control, but the Spanish were happy to give land to the Acadians because it bolstered the Catholic population of the region).
In time, ‘Acadian’ evolved into ‘Cajun’. (It sort of makes sense if you say ‘Acadian’ with a gruff rural French accent). The Cajuns eked out a humble existence in the bayous and swamps. They farmed, and fished for crawfish and catfish, navigating the waters in pirogues, canoes carved from a single cypress trunk. They kept apart from the Creole and planter elite in New Orleans, who dismissed them as peasants. Isolated, introverted, proud, their culture survived.
We've been 'bookpacking' Cajun Louisiana through the short stories of Tim Gautreaux, a brilliant and undervalued writer of subtlety and great compassion.
As his name suggests, Gautreaux is of French Cajun stock. He likes to say he's not exclusively a Cajun writer; he writes about blue-collar Louisiana. The title of the collection we’ve been reading, ‘Same Place, Same Things’, describes a rural Louisianan woman who is desperate to escape, stifled after seeing the ‘same place, same things’ every day of her life. But other stories in the collection capture a more distinctly Cajun voice, and rather than a yearning for escape, these stories celebrate the attributes of Cajun culture which the people here celebrate and cherish, and which hold them to their land and to their traditions for generation after generation.
‘Floyd’s Girl’, one of the best stories in the collection, describes a Cajun girl whose mother has left Louisiana for Texas. She sends her new boyfriend, a tough Texan Protestant, to collect Lizette - but Floyd, Lizette’s father, is determined to resist her abduction. He wants Lizette to grow up in the bosom of her Cajun family, and he's joined by a motley collection of Cajun characters in a rescue mission. It’s a funny, poignant story, a celebration of the French Catholic culture of this remote and remarkable place.
‘There’s nothing wrong with west Texas, but there’s something wrong with a child living there who doesn’t belong, who will be haunted the rest of her days by memories of the ample laps of aunts, daily thunderheads rolling above flat parishes of rice and cane, the musical rattle of French, her prayers, the head-turning squawk of her uncle’s accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekends, vibrations of the soul lost for what? Because her mama wants her too? Her mama, a LeBlanc gone bad.’
There’s a phrase in this paragraph I love: ’vibrations of the soul…’. It’s so expressive of the magic that makes Cajun Louisiana hum.
And it was these ‘vibrations of the soul’ we experienced in abundance in Arnaudville, at Tom’s Fiddle and Bow.
Tom’s invitation seemed open and inclusive: 1pm for a potluck lunch and a music jam. But still, we were apprehensive. We weren’t sure how a close-knit community of local musicians would feel about a gang of USC students invading their get-together, nine of us in total, taking up a fair proportion of the physical space in Tom’s small fiddle repair shop. We needn’t have worried. The welcome we received was truly life-affirming, and we were swept up in conversations with some of the most warmly authentic people it has been my privilege to meet, during this journey or any other.
Food, of course, is at the heart of the Cajun experience. We added our rather sad offering of supermarket-bought fried chicken to the potluck mix, and tucked in to the whole with relish. I thought of the grandmother in Gautreaux’s story who wonders if Floyd’s dauthter would get ‘turtle sauce piquante’ in Texas.
‘[She] thought of the gumbos Lizette would be missing, the okra soul, the crawfish body. How could she live without the things that belong on the tongue like Communion on Sunday? For living without her food would be like losing God, her unique meal.’
In the front room, seven or eight fiddlers (and Tom on the triangle) were lead by Joel, a Cajun recently returned from 15 years in LA. He alternated between fiddle and accordion, and sang Cajun songs in French in a rich expressive voice. Again, it brought to mind ‘Floyd’s Girl’ - this time, Uncle René:
‘“Mon coeur est tout cassé,” he sang, himself a windbox of lyrics playing for his own amazement.
Nonc René had sung so many sentimental songs so badly over the years that he had become a tender man. … Now he imagined his grand niece dragged off to live among lizards and rock and only Mexican accordion music. How could she bear to stay there without the buzz of a fiddle and the clang of a triangle in her pretty head, the love songs sung through the nose?’
I picked up a stray violin and joined in. I’m no good at the complex double-stopping that makes country fiddle music so distinctive, but the harmonies were easy enough so I had a good bash at it. It was such a happy time, lost in a mix of melodies that have been listened to, and danced to, for centuries - here, in Canada, and in rural France. There is a camaraderie in music, and especially in music with such a strong flavour of culture and community. I felt connected to something bigger than myself, and basked in the joy of it all.
On the back porch, Tom’s partner, an artist called Lori, played ukelele in a bluegrass singalong with three guitarists and a saxophone. Elmer, an old-timer in a peaked cap, tuned his guitar slowly and twinkled at us delightedly. The enclosed porch overlooked the swamps, and outside the rain lashed down, but we felt safe and warm and among friends, and the hours ticked past slowly, and we didn’t want to leave.
Later, in the van, Morgan said she’d never before sat with a group of strangers and seen "how beautiful they were".
I think that remark will live me as the abiding highlight of this trip - this glimpse Morgan was given of the beauty of people, the beauty in the ordinary, in lives well lived, in the breaking of bread, in music, in shared pleasure. The beauty in the passing of the generations, and in continuity, and in sameness. ‘Same place, same things’ - but with joy in their simple repetition.
I’m over-sentimentalizing, no doubt. (My students have come to recognize this quality in me, my yearning for the romantic).
Tim Gautreaux’s characters - Nonc René aside - are rarely sentimental. His Cajuns are hard as nails. In ‘Floyd’s Girl’, he describes how ‘when Floyd was a baby … he was like a tough little muscle made hard by God for a hard life ahead’. The story ends with Floyd’s friends using cutting torches to dismember the Texan’s truck down to the axle. They warn him:
“Anytime you come back to Louisiana, Floyd gonna phone us. … An’ unless you drive to Grand Crapaud in a asbestos car, you gonna wind up with a bunch of little smokin’ pieces shoved up you ass.”
Driving through the Cajun parishes we sensed the grit and graft necessary to survive in this forbidding landscape. Deviating off the main roads, following the levées through the bayou, we passed communities with flood water lapping at their porches, cars rusting, the detritus of tough lives littering their yards. Rotting boardwalks led off into the dark swamp interior, the occasional flash of orange twine marking the location of a crawfish pot.
And yet, and yet - I don’t think I’m entirely wrong to stress the sentimental. There’s a Frenchness to these people that is uninhibited and emotionally open. “Love you guys”, called the luthier Tom as we climbed into our van, on the strength of a mere four hours’ acquaintance. And though Gautreaux eschews sentimentality, he’s got a soft heart too. He rejects despair. He loves stories of transformation. He writes about simple acts of goodness that create ripples, effecting change, binding people together.
The following day, winding our way from Lafayette to New Iberia, we drove through St Martinville, the romantic heart of Cajun Louisiana.
St Martinville, according to legend, is where the Acadian maiden Evangeline waited for her lover Gabriel, under the ‘Evangeline Oak’ in the centre of the town. We followed the tourist itinerary, and photographed the oak, and the tomb of Evangeline which sits next to the church.
The legend stems from a mid-19th century epic poem, ‘The Story of Evangeline’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (he of ‘Hiawatha’ fame). Evangeline and Gabriel are separated in the ‘Great Upheaval’, but prove their constancy, waiting each for the other. Eventually, in old age, Gabriel dies in Evangeline’s arms.
It’s all historical hogwash, of course. The tomb of Evangeline is empty; the statue above is the likeness of the Mexican movie star Delores del Rio, who played Evangeline in a silent movie version of the story. The oak tree is the third such to be named “Evangeline’s Oak”. And in any case, in Longfellow’s poem the lovers are reunited not in Louisiana at all, but in Philadelphia.
But in the late 19th century, every American schoolchild knew this poem, and this romantic legend gave the Cajun people a sense of validation. ‘Cajun’ - once used in contempt - became a badge of pride. And sentimentality - if it wasn’t there already - seeped inexorably into the Cajun lifeblood.
And so, yes, I’ll remember our afternoon at Tom’s Fiddle and Bow with unabashed sentimentality. And I’ll return next year with a new group of students. And it will feel, just a bit, like coming home.