Cajun Breakdown: The Emergence of an American-Made Music

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In 1946, Harry Choates, a Cajun fiddle virtuoso, changed the course of American musical history when his recording of the so-called Cajun national anthem "Jole Blon" reached number four on the national Billboard charts. Cajun music became part of the American consciousness for the first time thanks to the unprecedented success of this issue, as the French tune crossed cultural, ethnic, racial, and socio-economic boundaries. Country music stars Moon Mullican, Roy Acuff, Bob Wills, and Hank Snow rushed into the studio to record their own interpretations of the waltz-followed years later by Waylon Jennings and Bruce Springsteen. The cross-cultural musical legacy of this plaintive waltz also paved the way for Hank Williams Sr.'s Cajun-influenced hit "Jamabalaya."

Choates' "Jole Blon" represents the culmination of a centuries-old dialogue between the Cajun community and the rest of America. Joining into this dialogue is the most thoroughly researched and broadly conceived history of Cajun music yet published, Cajun Breakdown. Furthermore, the book examines the social and cultural roots of Cajun music's development through 1950 by raising broad questions about the ethnic experience in America and nature of indigenous American music. Since its inception, the Cajun community constantly refashioned influences from the American musical landscape despite the pressures of marginalization, denigration, and poverty. European and North American French songs, minstrel tunes, blues, jazz, hillbilly, Tin Pan Alley melodies, and western swing all became part of the Cajun musical equation. The idiom's synthetic nature suggests an extensive and intensive dialogue with popular culture, extinguishing the myth that Cajuns were an isolated folk group astray in the American South. Ryan André Brasseaux's work constitutes a bold and innovative exploration of a forgotten chapter in America's musical odyssey.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Brasseaux forges revelatory new terrain in the study of Cajun music...[He] demonstrates an impressive and vast familiarity of recorded period music produced from inside and outside of Louisiana." --Louisiana History

"Though Cajun music has been depicted as a Louisiana oddity, it was, by definition, international from the start. Ryan Brasseaux places Cajun music in the mainstream of American music, where it belongs. The folkloric myth of purity and isolation dissolves before his historical contextualization of the synchronicity of Cajun life and art with national and global trends. Cajun music changed over time and with the times. Its trans-Atlantic, French, Canadian, and southern roots lapped and twined into an American art form. The music becomes all the more original, adaptive, and brilliant when heard through Brasseaux's riveting depiction."--Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History Yale University

"In Cajun Breakdown, Ryan Brasseaux eloquently traces the history of Cajun people and their music from their arrival in Louisiana in 1764 to the present. His fine book firmly establishes Cajun music as a central part of mainstream American culture."--William Ferris, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Brasseaux's Cajun Breakdown is a lucid and compelling account of the survival of a people and their music against all odds. It's hard to imagine there being a better book on the history of Cajun music."--John Szwed, Author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis

"A noteworthy achievement...A well-informed discographic discussion that emphasizes cultural adaptation, the book will bring needed attention to Cajun music and, perhaps more importantly, to the study of music as a viable means to understand the societies that produce and consume it." --The Journal of American History

"An important addition to the study of Cajun music...Brasseaux breaks new ground and upsets the status quo, particularly in his zeal to reclaim Cajun Swing as a genre worthy of study and appreciation. This thoughtful, passionately worded monograph belongs in the pantheon of books by earlier south Louisiana music researchers...Brasseaux's study is highly recommended for students of Cajun music and culture as well as those interested in regional and vernacular music in general." --American Historical Review

"[A] wonderful examination of Cajun music." --The Journal of Southern History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195343069
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 6/4/2009
  • Series: American Musicspheres Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Louisiana native Ryan André Brasseaux is a doctoral student at Yale University. A former Research Associate for public radio's American Routes hosted by Nick Spitzer, Brasseaux has served as a Cajun cultural expert for the National Council for the Traditional Arts, Associated Press, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, Canadian Broadcast Corporation, National Film Board of Canada, and the Food Network. He has lectured across the country, including the keynote address at Nashville's International Country Music Conference and invited lectures at Yale University, Tulane University, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, and to gatherings of Fullbright scholars.

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