Thursday, March 27, 2008

[Really Listening] Cajun Country Music in Thibodaux

Cajun Country Music in Thibodaux
A moment of reflection at the confluence of bayous.
Story and photos by Alex V. Cook
April 2008

When we talk about local culture, what do we really mean? Do we mean preserving that which grew from our native soil in deference to that which was imported? Are we obliged to become fans of that indigenous culture, even when it is something that, left to our own devices, we’d pass on? These are the things that occupied my mind one Monday afternoon when I jumped in my car directly after six hours of teaching to drive the hour and a half to Thibodaux, to take in the Cajun music sessions at the Jean Lafitte National Park’s Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center. I love Cajun music probably more than I like it, in that what it represents—the rarely seen human instinct to not let something be destroyed over time—is inspiring to me. I love the community spirit of it, the way old people get out to dance, the sprinkling of young people who keep its flame fueled. I’ve said it before, we have something really special here in Cajun culture, and frankly, it is remarkable that it has survived as well as it has. I’m humbled that I get to participate in it under the auspices of this column.

That said, I don’t really listen to too much Cajun music on my own, outside of a research capacity. When I pulled out some CDs for this trip, I didn’t go for Cajun music. What Cajun music I have is historical in nature, recorded by Alan Lomax in the ‘thirties and Dr. Harry Oster in the ‘fifties. Instead I chose a group of local current rock bands, namely new CDs by Harlan and Cohen and The Ghost, partially because the drive meant I had a solid block of time to listen to them for review purposes, and partially because I wanted to go into this trip with open ears.
The Wetland Acadian Culture Center is a well appointed brick building on Highway 1, right in the middle of Thibodaux, containing a public library, museum and performance hall. A historical marker out front claims that it sits at the “Confluence of Bayous” a rather melodious term for the junction of Bayous Lafourche and Terrebonne. The Acadians came in 1785, and the Village of Thibodaux was founded on the banks of this confluence a few years later.

The informal concert was underway when I entered the well appointed theatre. Eight musicians were on stage, and about triple that were in the audience, unfortunately underscoring the waning public interest in the music. The group was not a tight dancefloor-seasoned outfit, rather a group of non-professionals that had an interest in keeping the informal back porch jam side of Cajun music alive. The park ranger Bill Finney shared with the group that his French teacher had helped him out with some lyrics and he was going to attempt singing in French, and there they went. The performers were as follows: Roland Landry on harmonica, Finney and Camille LeBoeuf on acoustic guitar, Larry LeBoeuf on the most gorgeous ’64 Fender Jaguar I have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing (“I bought it new when I was nineteen and am still playing it today at sixty-three,” said LeBoeuf.), Willy Champagne on acoustic guitar, Francis Foret on fiddle, Norman Landry on accordion and rhythm guitar (he also sang in French and English), and Agnes Landry keeping the boys in line on the tee fer (“little iron”, less exotically known as the triangle.)

What came out of this group was not the well-oiled machine that you get in a Breaux Bridge dance hall. Instead it was contemplative in nature. These lovesick waltzes issued into the air like smoke from a flame that burned hotter decades ago. The ambiance was sweet and informal; at one point Finney asked if there were any out-of-towners in the audience, and a group from Virginia and a couple from Pennsylvania introduced themselves and the performers chatted with them from the stage during the song breaks. It was about as friendly a concert as one could attend; one couple even got up and danced across the stage during one number, but the show made me a little sad; you could feel that this kind of performance was not going to be around much longer.

Then, they kicked into “Evangeline” and it all abruptly pivoted. Larry and his Jaguar gave the tune a haunting, almost Hawaiian undertone, while two harmonicas slowly weaved in a dreamy hum to the accordion lines. It gave this tune I’ve heard a million times a celestial quality, without taking anything away from the traditions from which it came. I was shocked at how beautiful this tune could become when people brought their own experiences to it. It reminded me that culture is a living thing, if it stagnates, it dies, and Cajun life, like everything else in the universe, is perpetually evolving. It will never be like it used to be, but thanks to folks like these, it can grow into something just as special.

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