Disenchanting Les Bons Temps: Identity and Authenticity in Cajun Music and Dance

Disenchanting Les Bons Temps: Identity and Authenticity in Cajun Music and Dance

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Disenchanting Les Bons Temps: Identity and Authenticity in Cajun Music and Dance by Charles J. Stivale

The expression laissez les bons temps rouler—"let the good times roll"—conveys the sense of exuberance and good times associated with southern Louisiana’s vibrant cultural milieu. Yet, for Cajuns, descendants of French settlers exiled from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the mid-eighteenth century, this sense of celebration has always been mixed with sorrow. By focusing on Cajun music and dance and the ways they convey the dual experiences of joy and pain, Disenchanting Les Bons Temps illuminates the complexities of Cajun culture. Charles J. Stivale shows how vexed issues of cultural identity and authenticity are negotiated through the rich expressions of emotion, sensation, sound, and movement in Cajun music and dance.

Stivale combines his personal knowledge and love of Cajun music and dance with the theoretical insights of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to consider representations of things Cajun. He examines the themes expressed within the lyrics of the Cajun musical repertoire and reflects on the ways Cajun cultural practices are portrayed in different genres including feature films, documentaries, and instructional dance videos. He analyzes the dynamic exchanges between musicians, dancers, and spectators at such venues as bars and music festivals. He also considers a number of thorny socio-political issues underlying Cajun culture, including racial tensions and linguistic isolation. At the same time, he describes various efforts by contemporary musicians and their fans to transcend the limitations of cultural stereotypes and social exclusion.

Disenchanting Les Bons Temps will appeal to those interested in Cajun culture, issues of race and ethnicity, music and dance, and the intersection of French and Francophone studies with Anglo and American cultural studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822384823
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/29/2002
Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 481 KB

About the Author

Charles J. Stivale is Professor of French at Wayne State University. He is the author of several books including The Two-Fold Thought of Deleuze and Guattari: Intersections and Animations.

Read an Excerpt

Disenchanting less bons temps

Identity and authenticity in Cajun music and dance
By Charles J. Stivale

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3020-2

Chapter One


In the same way [as a body], a musical form will depend on a complex relation between speeds and slownesses of sound particles. It is not just a matter of music but of how to live: it is by speed and slowness that one slips in among things, that one connects with something else. One never commences; one never has a tabula rasa; one slips in, enters in the middle; one takes up or lays down rhythm.-Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy

During an all too brief four-year period in the mid-to-late 1980s, I began to devote myself actively to the truly pleasurable pursuits of "becoming-Cajun," a "Cajun-by-choice" as many native and nonnative Louisianans are often inclined to say. This pursuit was an avocation born of a happy coincidence of geography (living in New Orleans), personal interests (a desire to become familiar with the region's folk practices and culture), and personal encounters with a diverse group of Cajun dance and music acionados. Subsequently, despite a job-related move to Detroit, I refused to let go of the rewarding activities and enriching friendships that becoming-Cajun had afforded. Thus, from 1990 onward, I developed a scholarly project that has allowed me to pursue and enjoy Cajun dance and music as well as the manyfriendships that have grown from this pursuit. In this chapter, I reflect on the circumstances that led me to this project on Cajun dance and music spaces and practices. The chapter also provides an opportunity to consider the difficulties-personal, scholarly, and theoretical-that have arisen in pursuing this project and thereby allow me to clarify certain problems pertaining to the current institutional and disciplinary conjuncture.

Through this reflection on the relation between the personal and the scholarly, I want to emphasize something important that tends to disappear all too often in such discussions and publications-namely, the experiences of personal pleasure that originally inspire research, the experiences of reflection that propel the research forward, and, yes, the doubts that often require one to redirect a project partially or entirely in order to continue. Hence, my use of the personal is a strategic trajectory for considering the motivations and professional choices that have contributed to developing an ongoing critical project, as well as for exploring my in-between status as scholar and participant/observer in relation to the dance and music arena that I discuss. This exploration also examines how the personal, the pleasurable, and the reflective often encounter tensions and even certain forms of conflict when linked to a "disciplinary" domain. Given that cultural studies has become victim of its own success, I begin by tracing a particular example of how "cultural studies travels" (Grossberg 1997b, 343-44; see also Grossberg 1996a) both geographically within a life and disciplinarily in relation to something that has come to be known as French cultural studies. In tracing this trajectory, I also consider ways in which a particular theoretical engagement-in my case, an engagement with works by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari-might over complementary, practical lines of "becoming" in relation to contemporary events, problems, debates, and cultural practices.

Personal Steps

After moving to Louisiana in 1986 to teach French at Tulane University, I slowly adapted to the many manifestations of New Orleans music culture, and I revised a series of misconceptions about the varieties of New Orleans music as distinct from Cajun musical expression (see Hannusch 1985). I learned, for example, that whereas the French origins of New Orleans were based on aristocratic and imperial fiats for gradual urban development, the introduction of the exiles acadiens (Acadians exiled by the British from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1755) into Louisiana occurred fairly quickly in the mid-to-late eighteenth century through a deliberate process of rural resettlement toward the bayous west of New Orleans and even further west beyond the Atchafalaya Basin in the swamps and on the prairies of southwestern Louisiana (see Brasseaux 1987, 1991, and 1992). I also learned of the many difficulties that rural Cajuns suffered in terms of the increasing Americanization of Louisiana society throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly with the 1921 constitutional interdiction on offering instruction in French in the public schools (see Dormon 1983, 68-71).

Early on, I began to perceive the implicit political impact of Cajun sounds within the New Orleans context. For example, the weekly Cajun music hours in Cajun French, transmitted on one or two local New Orleans radio stations, challenged the hegemony both of English and of the blues, rhythm and blues, and jazz-based idioms that dominate New Orleans musical sounds. In fact, these shows occasionally included specific references to the repression of Cajun identity that occurred throughout much of the twentieth century. These deliberate interventions constituted a musical and linguistic challenge to the more "refined" sensibilities both of the New Orleans French language tradition and of the community's fairly insular cultural practices. Initially, however, I hesitated to venture into the pays inconnus (unknown countries) of the bar and music scene without having some familiarity with the social protocols, indeed the social "languages," spoken there. Although I now see this hesitation as a fairly normal function of a certain culture shock, I correctly intuited something special about the Cajun music and dance scene that I would soon better understand.

Having studied the works of Deleuze and Guattari for a number of years, I found the New Orleans social context all the more important both for my experiences therein and for subsequent critical reflections. Most evidently, questions both of "minor language" and of "territorialization" gradually became apparent through the extreme complexity of socio-cultural relations in south Louisiana (see Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 1987). As an outsider learning to negotiate various cultural milieus, I began to distinguish how French language, already "minor" in relation to the dominant English surrounding it, could itself be de- and reterritorialized. That is, Cajun French in Louisiana has always been something of a poor cousin in relation to the New Orleans French language with its origins in the French aristocracy (see Ancelet 1988; Phillips 1983). La langue cadjine, as it is sometimes known, suffered the same fate as the Acadian settlers themselves, first deterritorialized through exile and physical displacement and then linguistically through the language's evolution over two centuries and its growing distinction from a "major" French as well as the territorializing dominance of American English.

Yet in recent years the Cajun cultural renaissance and Cajun music's commercialization (in advertising and films as well as through recordings) have served to reterritorialize la langue cadjine: on the one hand, the mix of Cajun and Louisiana representations is often quite distorted and the language itself still remains incomprehensible within American mass culture (see Ancelet 1990). On the other hand, the Cajun dialect has at least been resituated within increasingly familiar sociocultural and economic coordinates as a form of homegrown cultural and linguistic exoticism, so near and yet so far. In this sense, the potentially subversive impact that this "minor language" may have once possessed in relation to the dominant colonial English has been dissipated by dint of the dialect's "capture" within recognizable parameters, if not linguistically comprehensible ones for all who are attracted to things Cajun. And yet, quite bluntly, time takes its toll inexorably, and like the Louisiana Gulf coastline the Cajun linguistic territory itself recedes. That is, as an older generation of Cajun French speakers disappears and as few Louisianans grow up speaking the language, efforts to jump-start Cajun French in southern Louisiana through educational programs face a daunting challenge (one to which I return in chapter 6).

Of these diverse facets, however, I was only dimly aware as I sought to familiarize myself with a select Cajun sound and movement. This effort constituted the first phase in what I call becoming-Cajun. While I develop this term more fully below, I can define it here provisionally as a gradual cultural familiarization with the indigenous francophone culture close by. My understanding of this becoming was twofold, at once opening myself to local cultural practices by engaging in them and thereby situating these practices as possible sociopolitical enunciations of the "minor." In January 1987, Lezlie Hart Stivale and I participated in a three-week introductory course in Cajun dance-the rudiments of the Cajun waltz, two-step, and jitterbug-overed by Rand Speyrer (see Plater, Speyrer, and Speyrer 1993). Although teaching and research demands that winter prevented me from putting these lessons into practice, Rand's course syllabus (presented orally) included a basic introduction to Cajun musicians and musical traditions. Thus, I began to purchase records and tapes of a few musicians, for example, Bruce Daigrepont (Stir Up the Roux, 1987), File (Cajun Dance Band, 1987), Wayne Toups with ZydeCajun, (ZydeCajun, 1986, and Johnnie Can't Dance, 1988), and one compilation (La Musique Chez Mulate's, 1986). At that point, not knowing how or if I would continue dancing, I collected and listened to the music as much from linguistic and aesthetic curiosity as from a desire for diversion and recreation.

The second phase of this becoming consisted of passing through successive turning points during spring and summer 1987. In late April, Lezlie and I renewed our contacts with Cajun sound and movement as well as with Rand Speyrer and other friends when we decided to repeat Rand's introductory course, then take advantage of his generous over to serve as unofficial host for a trip to the Mamou Cajun Music Festival in early June. We New Orleans tourists spent some remarkably recreative time in Mamou with Cajuns and non-Cajuns from various parts of southwestern Louisiana and out of state, as well as with our friends from New Orleans. Above all, we danced and danced, all day at the festival and most of the evening at a local dance restaurant, Randol's. Attending the 1987 Mamou festival was the beginning of a different way of life for us, in Louisiana and beyond, by providing new openings for friendships and deep cultural enrichment.

The third phase of becoming covered the following three years of intense dance activity in New Orleans and southwestern Louisiana, including participation in regular Cajun music and dance venues in New Orleans area bars and dance halls; travel to festivals inside and outside New Orleans (e.g., the annual Mamou Festival and the Lafayette Festivals Acadiens); and connection to a network of dancers who would contact us for local performances of particular musicians or groups. Besides individual activities, we participated in the folk dance group that Rand Speyrer organized, performing an eight-couple contredanse routine at diverent convention-related events in New Orleans and Lafayette. These brief performances also yielded some paid activities-for example, performances with a live Cajun band at different tour group dinners and occasionally assisting Rand with large introductory dance classes. Above all, these varied pursuits helped us become close friends with a very wide group of Louisianans, both in the New Orleans area and in Acadiana (around Lafayette), and my enthusiasm for this activity spread slowly to my often incredulous and skeptical colleagues in academe. Frankly, had the personal and social aspect of these activities been less enjoyable, I doubt that I would have had an interest in pursuing them as a research project.

Scholarly Steps

To address this second aspect of becoming-Cajun, I must reflect on two conjoined facets of my post-New Orleans experience: first, the factors that impelled me to undertake research in an area that I had initially pursued solely as an avocation; and, second, the specific steps of this project. Both of these facets came together early in the project when I began to understand more fully the tragic circumstances that brought the Cajuns to Louisiana in the first place.

An introductory overview of these Cajun origins must mention that l'Acadie (Acadia; Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) was colonized by French settlers in 1602, but after the English colonization of French Canada in the early eighteenth century the descendants of the settlers in Acadia refused to forswear their Catholic faith and pledge allegiance to the British king. Following decades of tension between Protestant British military authorities and the French-speaking Catholic population, the governor of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, took steps in 1754 and 1755 to isolate and then expel the Acadians from the Bay of Fundy region-a mass deportation known as le grand derangement (the great upheaval). After several more decades of forced separation and wandering along various circuitous routes, most of the expelled Acadians arrived and resettled in southern Louisiana between 1765 and 1785 (see Brasseaux 1987; Dormon 1983; and Griths 1973).

The Acadian refugees were welcomed in Louisiana for the products of their farming and cattle raising ventures, which would eventually provide the New Orleans area with the food products as well as the general economic development that were sorely needed. On arrival the refugees were given Spanish land grants (Louisiana remained under Spanish control until 1803) with the condition that they had to accept assignment to specific regions, including the southwestern prairies of the Opelousas and Attakapas areas west of the Atchafalaya River, and the forests and bayous of the Mississippi River of the Cabannoce area to the west and southwest of New Orleans. Nonetheless, the mostly rural Acadians, whose name evolved by deformation to "Cajuns," adapted well and quickly in their new environment, and their prosperity continued unabated throughout the nineteenth century. However, after the Civil War most of their socioeconomic structures collapsed and were not rebuilt until well into the twentieth century. The subsequent assimilation of the Cajuns to American culture occurred quite slowly until after World War II, then accelerated with their exposure to cultural and technological influences from outside the region (see Severn 1991; Ancelet 1989a).

Cajun music and dance practices developed in social gatherings held in the rural communities. The bals de maison (house dances) were held in the homes of individuals, where they were also called fais do-do, literally "go to sleep," in reference to mothers encouraging their children to fall asleep in a nearby room so the adults could dance. Eventually this tradition extended beyond the private homes to dances held in public halls. The music is a blend of German, Spanish, Scottish, Irish, Anglo-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Native American influences with a base of French and French Acadian folk traditions. Similarly, the instruments are from other traditions: the guitar from Spain, the violin from France, and the diatonic accordion from Germany. Although the Acadian refugees arrived without instruments and their musicians had to mime the fiddle sounds, "by the late 1770s most of the fiddlers had achieved a comfortable existence and enjoyed the leisure time to make, or the financial resources to purchase, new instruments" (Brasseaux 1987, 147). The subsequent introduction of other, imported instruments, such as the accordion in the later nineteenth century, had an impact both on the compositions and the sound of the evolving Cajun music, because "limited in notes and keys, [the accordion] simplified Cajun music as songs that it could not play tended to fade from the scene" (Ancelet 1989a, 21; see also Comeaux 1978). The accordion also came to dominate the fiddle because its power responded increasingly to the need for musicians to be heard over the large crowds that assembled in the public dance halls in the early twentieth century (see Plater, Speyrer, and Speyrer 1993, 22).


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: “The Good Times Are Killing Me” 1

1. Becoming-Cajun 9

2. (Geo)graphies of (Dé)paysement: Dislocation and Unsettling in the Cajun Music Repertoire 40

3. “J’ai Été au Bal”: Cajun Sights and Sounds 73

4. Feeling the Event: Spaces of Affects and the Cajun Dance Arena 110

5. Disenchanting Les Bons Temps

6. Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler, or, Death and Life in the Cajun Dance Arena 158

Notes 169

Works Cited 193

Index 211

What People are Saying About This

Lawrence Grossberg

Disenchanting Les Bons Temps is an outstanding and original contribution to both the literatures on popular/folk music and to contemporary debates about the practice of cultural studies.
— author of Bringing It All Back Home: Essays on Cultural Studies

Gilbert B. Rodman

Charles J. Stivale has a unique ability to bring together his deep and fluent understanding of Deleuzean theory with his passion and enthusiasm for Cajun music. It's not an obvious combination of elements, but Stivale pulls it off with grace and skill. I attribute that to the clear way that his love for the diverse ingredients of this scholarly gumbo shine through his prose.
— author of Elvis after Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend

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