Let the Good Times Unroll: Music and Race Relations in Southwest Louisiana

Article excerpt

Laissez les bon temps roulez, or "Let the good times roll," is often heard at musical events, parties, festivals, and other upbeat events of both black Creoles and Cajuns living in Southwest Louisiana. Black Creoles are black persons living in the area whose contemporary identity reflects strong French and African roots as well as other ethnic and cultural influences. Their music is widely known as zydeco music. In this article, the term "black Creole" will be used rather than "African American" since it is the preferred term among most residents of Southwest Louisiana, including among most black Creoles. The term "Cajun" is an anglicized rendition of "Cadien," which is a shortened version of "Acadien," the French word for Acadian. It refers to the white, francophone people and culture of Southwest Louisiana.

In this article, I use music as a window into relations between black Creoles and Cajuns, interpreting music as a social arena in which relations between the two groups are partly determined.(1) As the title of this article suggests, musical practices in recent times have been the source and site of some discontent between black Creoles and Cajuns. Beginning in the 1960s, Cajun musicians led a Cajun cultural revival that succeeded in drawing attention to some of the problems of Cajuns, such as cultural assimilation, poverty, and ethnic stigma. It also succeeded in helping to partially overcome these problems. Many black Creoles believe that at least some of this resurgence of Cajun culture has come at their expense. They charge that Cajuns have profited from the use of black Creole cultural property, that black Creole contributions to cultural vitality in Southwest Louisiana are too frequently overlooked, and that the Cajun revival represents a bid for cultural dominance. Much of this controversy has been generated by, or around, musical practices.

Music as a Social Arena of Communication and Interaction

Taken together, zydeco and Cajun music represent a social arena of communication and interaction. This arena is defined by the musical texts themselves and also by the complex of associated practices that define the context in which musical texts circulate. In other words, it encompasses the people and sites involved in the production, consumption, and use of zydeco and Cajun music. Within this arena, black Creoles and Cajuns share experiences, communicate with each other, and partly determine their mutual relations. This can be seen more clearly by briefly examining the overlapping histories of zydeco and Cajun music.

Both zydeco and Cajun music have absorbed many different influences, especially elements drawn from French and African roots. Historically, musicians in both traditions sang almost entirely in French, and both traditions emphasized waltz and two-step dance forms derived primarily from Europe. Today, many musicians continue to compose and sing in French, and the waltz and two-step remain popular among both groups. Cajuns brought their French heritage with them when they emigrated from French Canada during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Black Creoles acquired their French heritage from their Acadian neighbors, from immigrants and slaves arriving from Haiti, and from their parents and grandparents who were themselves immigrants and slaves from Haiti. The African influence in Cajun and zydeco music can be seen in blues sentiments and expressions, percussive and rhythmic techniques, syncopation, and vocal and instrumental improvisation.

The African precursors of zydeco music include slave music in the form of rhythmic stomping, field hollers, jure singers, and hand clapping accompanied by rhythm instruments such as spoons, washboards, and sticks. Later precursors include "la la" music, fast French dance music with a rhythm-and-blues influence developed in Southwest Louisiana in the early- and mid-twentieth century.

In modern times, zydeco reflects the strong influences of African-American blues, soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues. …