Doug Kershaw is a Cajun fiddler, singer, and songwriter who cemented his place in American popular music at the height of the 1960s counter-culture movement with two self-penned hits, "Louisiana Man" and "Diggy Diggy Lo."
Douglas James “Doug” Kershaw is a Cajun fiddler, singer, and songwriter who cemented his place in American popular music at the height of the 1960s counterculture movement with two self-penned hits, “Louisiana Man” and “Diggy Diggy Lo.” Those hits, combined with an onstage persona that consisted of one-third fiercely proud Louisiana Cajun, one-third Nashville country-music showmanship, and one-third reflections of Sixties-era style—shoulder-length hair, velvet Edwardian suit jackets, and wildly impassioned, energetic performances—created a recipe for establishing Kershaw’s image in the fervent sixties music scene as “The Cajun Hippie.”
In reality, Doug Kershaw was much more than that; with brother Rusty, he established himself as a popular country artist from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, selling more than 18 million records before conquering pop music in the late 1960s. And while the success of the country duo “Rusty and Doug” accurately reflected a widespread embrace of post-World War II country music in Cajun circles, Kershaw’s solo career bears no signs of cultural precedence or context—save for the permeability of the Cajun music tradition generally—making the distinctive Cajun musician both an anomaly and a trailblazer for musical developments in Cajun music that would not fully surface for decades.
From the Bayous to Country Music Celebrity
That Kershaw should represent something of an outlier in the evolutionary timeline of Cajun music is perhaps reflected in his origins. He was born, the seventh in a family of nine children, to Rita and Jack Kershaw in 1936 on a remote marshland island in Louisiana’s westernmost coastal parish, Cameron Parish, where his family lived on neighboring bayous, swamps, and rivers in a houseboat. The Kershaw family lived in rustic conditions, isolated from the mainstream, fishing, trapping, and hunting alligators to make a living, speaking only Cajun French, holding regular Saturday night fais do dos, or house parties—where Kershaw first heard live Cajun music—at their camp.
When Kershaw was seven years old, his father, plagued by depression, committed suicide. “[H]e was 41, but he was so weather-beaten he looked 80,” Kershaw later wrote in his combination songbook and autobiography, Lou’siana Man. Not long after, the family left the isolation of the bayous and moved into the small town of Lake Arthur, where an eight-year-old Doug Kershaw earned what money he could shining shoes, playing on street corners, and accompanying his guitar-playing mother in a local bar, The Bucket of Blood (which was “exactly what it was!” Kershaw later commented). A few years later, the Kershaws moved to Jennings, a proper “city” located on the east-west coastal thoroughfare of U.S. 90. In high school, Kershaw teamed up with two of his brothers, Rusty and “Pee Wee,” to form a band, The Continental Playboys, playing what was then known in Louisiana as “French music.” (Kershaw later recalled, “In 1953, we broadcast over radio station KPLC in Lake Charles, but the furthest we would travel from Jennings would be 30 miles. Within that radius, we were real popular, but beyond that, people didn’t speak French.”) Two years later, Rusty and Doug were recording English-language country songs in Nashville, and within another two years, the pair had firmly established themselves with the burgeoning country music media, including regular stints with the Louisiana Hayride show in Shreveport; the World’s Original Jamboree out of Wheeling, West Virginia; and Nashville, Tennessee’s court of country music royalty, the Grand Ole Opry.
Achieving National Prominence
Throughout his life, Kershaw exhibited a rare ability to focus his energies on self-directed acts of accomplishment. While best known as a fiddler and singer, he eventually taught himself to master nearly thirty musical instruments; during the period in the 1950s when he and brother Rusty were forging a career in country music, Kershaw was also attending McNeese State College (renamed a university in 1970) in Lake Charles, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. Both brothers enlisted in the military in 1958, and Doug emerged three years later with new music that encapsulated both his personal and music identities, “Louisiana Man” and “Diggy Diggy Lo,” instant hits in the country music market and songs that would become the trademark of his career. When Rusty left show business not long after to work in the oil fields, Kershaw plowed forward, ultimately achieving a career and level of national celebrity at that time unparalleled in the annals of Cajun music.
Kershaw drew national attention beyond the country charts in the summer of 1969 when he performed “Louisiana Man” on the premiere episode of Johnny Cash’s television variety show. Later that year, in November 1969, the song was beamed back to earth from the Apollo 12 moon mission, and soon thereafter he appeared as the opening act at the Fillmore East in New York City for a weeklong engagement by Derek and the Dominos, Eric Clapton’s roots-and-rock ensemble. Following his 1969 breakout year, he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, The Midnight Special and numerous other national television broadcasts. As the authors of Let the Good Times Roll! A Guide to Cajun & Zydeco Music observe, “For the next decade, Kershaw symbolized Cajun music to Americans in that he was all they were likely to hear. … Kershaw sawed his fiddle on national TV and enjoyed record sales with a major label other Louisiana musicians couldn’t imagine.”
One-of-a-Kind Musical Figure
Meanwhile, back home in Louisiana, the 1960s and 1970s represented a major transition period, as authentic and acoustic Cajun roots music underwent a conscious and aggressive revival. The survival of genuine Cajun dance hall traditions was in full flower, filled with swamp pop, country, and honky-tonk sounds by active practitioners such as Belton Richard, Lawrence Walker, Aldus Roger, and others. Cajun music had seen its share of national country stars, but the Cajun tradition had never seen an outsized personality like Doug Kershaw—who married in 1975 in an on-field ceremony prior to a baseball game in the Houston Astrodome—or heard Cajun music transformed as no-holds-barred, “psychedelic” rock ’n’ roll. So even though Kershaw in his later years recorded again in Cajun French and performed music closer to the Cajun traditions, he never was embraced by the Cajun music community as were other homegrown musicians. He continued to make music and even scored an occasional Nashville hit, but musically he remained at the periphery of the Cajun music scene. In 2009, though, he, Jo-El Sonnier, and Jimmy C. Newman were honored for their musical contributions by Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, the biggest annual event on the Acadiana music calendar. The festival recognized them for retaining the spirit of their Cajun upbringing as they pursued musical careers far from Louisiana, with French songs remaining in their repertoires even as they appealed primarily to country audiences.
More recent figures from Wayne Toups, with his blend of Cajun, zydeco, and rock; to Michael Doucet, mixing Cajun, world music, and virtuoso artistry; to an entire, new generation of young Cajun innovators at the turn of the twenty-first century have been hailed as creators of old and modern, homemade and universal Cajun music hybrids. Often overlooked was that Doug Kershaw had gone a long way toward blazing the paths that some contemporary Louisiana performers would follow.