Cajun folklife is a field of study that describes, catalogs, and deciphers meaning within the vernacular culture of Acadian refugees who settled in Louisiana.
Cajun folklife is a field of study that describes, catalogs, and deciphers meaning within the vernacular culture of Acadian refugees who settled in Louisiana. Folklife refers to a wide constellation of patterned behavior ranging from foodways, musical traditions, and religious practices to folk medicine and architecture. It is generally defined as culture that is transmitted orally across generational lines outside of “formal,” or state-sanctioned, institutions. Cajun culture has become so identified with the folk label that the term has crossed over from academic jargon into vernacular parlance. Indeed, “folk” has become a self-referential term among many Cajuns.
As the authors of the book Cajun Country assert, “Cajuns seem to have an innate understanding that culture is an ongoing process, and appear willing constantly to reinvent and renegotiate their cultural affairs on their own terms.” Inter-ethnic interaction, appropriation, and adaptation were the hallmarks of the cultural processes that transformed Acadian refugees into Cajuns.
When the first Acadian refugees arrived in Louisiana in 1764, exiled from their former home in what would become the Maritime Provinces of Canada, they encountered a strange new world. The subtropical climate and diverse cultural topography posed new challenges as the Acadians acclimated to their new home. They began to fold in new vocabulary terms like tchoc (blackbird) and Atchafalaya, both borrowed from Choctaw dialects, to describe these new environs. Upwardly mobile exiles immediately attached themselves to Louisiana’s slave economy, amassing slaves, fortunes, and social status. The other fragments of Acadian society, however, scratched out a meager living along the coastal zones, bayous, and prairies of southern Louisiana. These settlers were the same “transplanted Acadian peasants” that French travel writer Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s as “labor[ing] without slaves. These people work the land, but so poorly, that they are the most miserable people in Louisiana.” These “miserable people” became the guardians of vernacular Cajun culture.
Cajun folklife hinged on building community. Such traditional customs as coup de mains, or Cajun cooperatives, provided neighbors, friends, and relatives with a social safety net during times of hardship. Coup de mains were work parties during harvests, barn raisings, and other labor-intensive jobs. In the realm of medicine, traiteurs, or folk healers, prayed over the sick and, in some cases, administered herbal remedies such as preparations of the Mamou plant appropriated from Native American traditions. Cajuns also learned to adapt their architectural designs to Louisiana’s climate. Working without blueprints, they built elevated homes (a response to flooding) with galleries, large windows, and high ceilings to alleviate the heat. Various forms of entertainment such as dancing, card games, and horse racing also fall under the purview of folklife. In addition, scholars recognize more symbolic expressions of culture and ethnicity: jokes and tales, instrumental music, and song lyrics all became topics of interest among Louisiana folklorists.
Dewey Segura’s rendition of the “New Iberia Polka,” recorded in New Orleans on December 16, 1928, is perhaps the best-documented example of the interactive cross-cultural exchanges that drove Cajun folklife’s evolution. Segura was of Spanish ancestry and played diatonic button accordion (imported to Louisiana by German Jewish immigrants) with a distinctive syncopated style influenced by African and Afro-Caribbean musical traditions. He sang in Cajun French (a North American French patois, based on seventeenth-century European grammatical structures and vocabulary), and recorded a polka, a decidedly Old World song style, for a major American record label. During the eighteenth century, the Segura family emigrated to south Louisiana from Malaga, Spain; by the twentieth century, the family participated as full members of Cajun society.
Folklife, however, is a moving target. Pervasive poverty forced Acadian refugees to adapt and to appropriate various pragmatic strategies for survival. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an emergent and synthetic culture began to distinguish Louisiana Acadians from their Canadian counterparts. This transformative process, accelerated through intermarriage, ultimately stimulated what historian James Dorman identifies as the ethnogenesis of the Cajun people. Non-Acadian surnames—including Abshire, Ducharme, McGee, Riley, Romero, Schexnayder, and Walker—suggest the extent to which cross-cultural borrowing and exogamy (marriage outside the group) factor into the development of Cajun folk culture. This cultural amalgamation, as folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet acknowledges, constituted “a blend of German, Spanish, Scottish, Irish, Anglo-American, Afro-Caribbean, and American Indian influences with a base of Western French and French Acadian folk traditions.” Thus, folklife proved crucial in the process by which Louisiana Acadians became “Cajun.”
The Birth of Cajun Folklife
The rise of Louisiana folklore studies coincided with the emergence of folklore as a sanctioned academic discipline at the end of the nineteenth century. Early North American folklorists concerned themselves with salvaging texts—including European cultural survivals, such as ballads, folktales, and the like—from the perceived erosion of oral tradition.
Alcée Fortier became the first scholar to apply the folklore concept to Louisiana’s cultural traditions. He became a founding member of the American Folklore Society while working as professor of romance languages at Tulane University in New Orleans. Much of his interest in folklife lay in “Louisiana folk-tales [that] were brought over to this country by Europeans and Africans.” Like his contemporaries, Fortier understood folklore to be the property of primitive peoples. “While reading in these tales,” he warned in the first pages of his book Louisiana Folk-Tales: In French Dialect and English Translation (1894), “one must bear in mind that most of them were related to children by childlike people.” Illiterate, working-class peoples such as Cajuns sustained folklore in Louisiana. “Education will,” Fortier suggested, “destroy their dialect, so that the work of studying their peculiar customs and language must not be long delayed.” In the 1890s, the Creole scholar launched a regional satellite of the American Folklore Society in New Orleans, an organization later refashioned as the Louisiana Folklore Society.
Fortier paved the way for a new generation of scholars interested Cajun folklife. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty led by geographers Fred Kniffen and Lauren Chester Post at Louisiana State University (LSU) helped to develop the first generation of Cajun folklore scholarship. Kniffen was a Michigan native who earned a PhD at the University of California at Berkeley under Carl O. Sauer and celebrated anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. After accepting a position at LSU, Kniffen helped introduce folklore studies and fieldwork to geography students. He published frequently in the Journal of American Folklore, the flagship journal of the American Folklore Society. His interests included material culture, hunting practices, and geographical myths of Louisiana. In 1935, he introduced what would become his classic study of folk architecture: “Louisiana House Types.” During the Great Depression, folklorists firmly identified Cajun culture as folklore, a distinction that persists today. Celebrated ethnographers John and Alan Lomax determined that Cajuns were the “folk.” Louise Olivier, working at the local level through the extension services at LSU, and Sarah Gertrude Knott, operating out of the National Folk Festival, launched folklife programming that helped solidify the Cajun culture’s folk categorization outside of the academic world. Meanwhile, Kniffen and Post helped make LSU’s geography department a beacon for the study of Cajun folklore within the state’s flagship university.
Post grew up on a homestead near Duson in Acadia Parish. “Well, I’m not an Acadian,” the cultural geographer once remarked, “but I am an American stewed in Cajun gravy.” His intimacy with Cajun country’s cultural landscape and his linguistic dexterity served him well in the field. “[H]e could speak Cajun French fairly well when he was ten years old,” recalled his cousin, Irene Whitfield Holmes, “having learned it through association with the boys of the families of Bouillon, Sensat, Sonnier, Gautreaux, and Thibodeaux.”
The late 1950s marked a resurgence in folklore studies at LSU, when Harry Oster joined the faculty. Oster boasted an Ivy League pedigree and specialized in Louisiana folklife, including Cajun music and African American blues. He would go on to record Folksongs of the Louisiana Acadians for the Folkways record label. Meanwhile, scholars institutionalized the study of Louisiana folklife. Kniffen noted that “a state-wide revival of activity in the field of folklore is apparent. There is talk among several faculty members of resurrecting the state society, which we hope can be affiliated with the [American Folklore Society]. Even modest funds for field collecting may be available.” Reinstated in 1956, the Louisiana Folklore Society revived the organization founded by Fortier roughly fifty years earlier. The professional organization included an official organ, the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.
The rise of modern folklife scholarship, however, came in 1962, when Post published the culmination of his lifelong research in the book Cajun Sketches: From the Prairies of Southwest Louisiana. The monograph covered a broad range of topics: land ownership patterns; vernacular Cajun architecture; folk occupations like ranching and agriculture, including rice, sugarcane, and cotton production; foodways; traditional spinning and weaving; entertainment, such as cockfights and horse racing; courtship and marriage; and transportation. Post’s landmark volume set the tone for other books that followed, including Cajun Country (1991) by Barry Jean Ancelet, Jay Dearborn Edwards, and Glen Pitre.
Music as Cajun Folklife
Much of the scholarship on Cajun folklife, at least in monograph form, has focused on the history and meaning of Cajun music as a folk idiom. Though grounded in folkloric and anthropological fieldwork methodology, the collective works of Whitfield, Post, and—later—Oster and Ancelet took place across disciplines and established the university at the forefront of the field.
Irene Petitjean conducted the first academic study to focus specifically on Cajun music. Her master’s thesis, “Cajun Folk Songs of Southwest Louisiana,” completed in January 1930 at Columbia University, compiled 144 song transcriptions taken from selected 78-rpm Cajun recordings and an unpublished late-nineteenth-century manuscript by Mrs. Arthur Aléman. Without substantive analysis, her efforts went largely unnoticed. Whitfield, on the other hand, following closely on Petitjean’s work, completed her groundbreaking master’s thesis, “Louisiana French Folk Songs” in 1935 at LSU.
Whitfield’s work overlapped with that of two of America’s most famous folklorists. In 1934, as Whitfield conducted her thesis research, she opened the world of Cajun folklife to ballad hunters John and Alan Lomax, who came to south Louisiana to collect indigenous American music for the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress. The Lomaxes had arrived in Cajun country with a 300-pound portable aluminum disc recorder, a relatively new form of technology that preserved ephemeral folk performances.
In 1939, LSU Press published a revised edition of Whitfield’s thesis, the landmark book Louisiana French Folk Songs, which included an account of her song-hunting expeditions with the Lomaxes during her thesis research. In 1941, the Lomaxes published their findings in Our Singing Country; however, they analyzed only a cappella ballad performances by a handful of Louisiana musicians.
A parallel Franco-oriented school of thought surfaced at the Université Laval in Québec, Canada, during the 1940s and 1950s, through the efforts of Corrine Saucier and Elizabeth Brandon, two graduate researchers interested in the French texts entwined in the Cajun ballad tradition. In the early 1970s, Catherine Blanchet helped to establish Cajun music studies at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) with her master’s thesis “Louisiana French Folk Songs among Children in Vermilion Parish, 1942–54.”
By the mid-1970s, the University of Southwestern Louisiana had become the center for the study of Cajun folklife in the state. In 1974, Ancelet helped organize the first Hommage à la musique Cadienne, a concert and festival, with the Smithsonian Institute’s Ralph Rinzler and the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL). One year later, Jon Gibson and Steven Del Sesto published an edited volume, The Culture of Acadiana: Tradition and Change in South Louisiana, which built on the tradition of Cajun Sketches. However, it was through Ancelet’s folklife programming and publications that Cajun folklife became a focal point at the university. Ancelet’s public engagement helped blur the lines between the academy and the broader public, which, in turn, facilitated diffusion of the term “folk” into southwestern Louisiana’s vernacular parlance. Part of Ancelet’s agenda included preserving the French language: “The fight to save the French language looms large because many fear that if it is lost, the whole culture will go with it.”
Today, the study of Cajun folklife is in the purview of an academic cohort that includes Barry Ancelet, Carl Bankston, Shane Bernard, Ray Brassieur, Jay Edwards, Kevin Fontenot, Marcia Gaudet, Jacques Henry, Carl Lindhal, Pat Mire, Maida Owens, Glen Pitre, Nick Spitzer, and Carolyn Ware.