In 1713, the French ceded the colony of Nova Scotia to the British, leaving behind 12,000 French inhabitants. The British, nervous about the loyalties of the Acadians, as the remaining Frenchmen were called, attempted to coerce a pledge of loyalty to the crown from Acadian leaders. The Acadians accepted a pledge of neutrality, but with the onset of the French and Indian War in 1754, British governor Charles Lawrence, unable to convince the Acadians to pledge allegiance, began the systematic deportation of Acadians. Le Grand Dérangement, or the Great Upheaval, literally tore families apart. Acadians were forced from their land and livestock and packed into boats headed to destinations unknown. Some men landed in Boston while their families landed in New York. Some were shipped back to France. Some fled west and began what is now Québec. For many, though, the trail ended and began again in the heavy mists of southwestern Louisiana.
As their cultural name elided from “Acadian” to “Cajun,” the deported families began to create a new life for themselves with their Spanish and French neighbors and their African slaves, as well as several tribes of Native Americans. The Cajun territory – now referred to as Acadiana – became something of a world inside a world, an unofficial outpost of New France in the middle of colonial southern America. The influence of the non-French world on the Cajuns ignited a new, powerful culture, one that is still as marked by the mourning of torn-apart families as it is celebratory of new opportunity. Humid African cooking mixed with French gentillesse to create Cajun food. The delicacy of the French language found rough trade in its new rural homes and begat Cajun French. And the traditional French instruments – strings, percussion, and the accordion – mixed with the high lonesome prairies of southwestern Louisiana and the cries for home to create Cajun music.
Like all good things, though, Cajun culture began to dilute. As the 1960s drew to a close, national trends, as well as governmental regulations banning the speaking of French in Louisiana schools, were making Cajun culture passé at best and illegal at worst. With the passing of every generation, Cajun culture inched nearer its swampy death. During a tour of France following his college graduation, Lafayette, Louisiana, native Michael Doucet saw and heard the origins of his home in the popping accordions of French cafes. The songs that he had grown up singing at home with his family were still very much alive not only in the streets of France, but in the background of many contemporary folk and rock bands. Afraid that Cajun music would die out without receiving its due, Doucet returned home to Louisiana, armed with his fiddle, and set to work digging through archive after archive of ancient Cajun recordings, determined to keep the songs alive on the stage and in the hearts of the Cajun people.
Doucet's group, which he named BeauSoleil after an Acadian guerilla leader from Le Grand Dérangement, released its first record in France in 1976. As the group continued to release albums and play the dancehalls of small Louisiana towns, though, they found their profile rising. Their modernized version of traditional Cajun's popping two-step rhythms led Rolling Stone to call them “the nation's best dance band.” What was already an overly ambitious project – saving Cajun culture from extinction – morphed into something much larger. Since that first album, BeauSoleil have been nominated for ten Grammy Awards. Their influence on younger generations of Louisiana musicians has been so proficient as to warrant the creation of a Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Recoding category, a development that would have been unimaginable when young Doucet was still dragging his fiddle around France.
And while most music labelled “traditional” tends to be scratchy and stiff, BeauSoleil are anything but. Doucet's whining fiddle often occupies the lead spot while the drums and bass stutter out the backbeat. Staccato punches of accordion hiccup a side rhythm and flatpicked acoustic guitars sometimes take the lead. Somewhat improbably, BeauSoleil also incorporate elements of Texas swing, country, blues, jazz, calypso, and rock into their songs. In many ways, the music of BeauSoleil is a celebration of the diversity of the land around them, from the Atchafalaya Basin to Lake Michigan.
If you were to be dropped into the center of Lafayette, Louisiana, today, you may feel at home. There are the SUVs, the McMansions, and the Best Buys that adorn most mid-level American cities. But as you travel past the malls and bright colors and into the outskirts, to the small towns away from the city, the towns with names like Eunice and Mamou and Ville Platte, you would find yourself in some sort of approximate America, a place where English is only sort-of spoken, where the local accordionist is more popular than the quarterback, where Mardi Gras is celebrated by chasing a chicken around a front lawn. This is a place where music is sung from the sheets hanging on the line, where the crackle of mud and gravel roads make a percussive snap. You can stick out your tongue and taste the humidity, like kids licking snowflakes, and the sweet spices of a crawfish boil float in a peppery mist. And yes, their kids use Facebook. And yes, they make the trip into town to shop at the mall. You may not feel like you're in America. But you are very much in America; you are eating scoops from the bottom of the melting pot. And that makes America that much prettier. This heavy thing rests on a delicate edge, though. The malls, the Internet, the globe's eternal reaching around itself are all nibbling away at what makes our homes our homes.
And yet, there is dancing.
- Marty Garner