idiots on cajunness

Remember that WaPo piece I linked too last week, about KBON radio down in Louisiana?
A week later, the Post printed two letters to the editor quibbling with facts in the article. The facts I quibbled with in my post? Nope, other facts — facts that are actually accurate. (Warning: Those who get bored easily in my Cajuncentric posts should skip ahead.) Let’s start with the unoffensive letter:
The one item I might take issue with is labeling this interesting culture “Cajun” rather than “Creole.” While the people we dealt with [on a visit to south Louisiana] spoke a French patois, and there are certainly “Cajuns” in the area, our contacts seemed to be a mix of Spanish, black and French who prided themselves as being unique and Zydeco as being theirs and theirs alone.
Martin Prochnik

Martin’s right that calling the area “Cajun” is limiting. It’s like calling parts of Boston “Irish” or Harlem “black” — largely accurate from a demographic point of view, but not exhaustive.
Many blacks in south Louisiana, for instance, resent the fact that everything is labeled Cajun. (Like the local university’s sports teams, the Ragin’ Cajuns, who play at Cajun Field during football season or in the Cajundome during basketball season.) There have even been occasional protests to that effect.
My only quibble with Martin is the idea that if you’re not of direct Acadian French descent, you’re not a Cajun. Cajuns are primarily Acadian French, but plenty of Germans, Spaniards, and non-Acadian French snuck into the gene pool along the way. There are lots of Cajuns with names like Romero (Spanish), McGee (Irish), and Stelly (German).
It was intermarriage with these other ethnic groups that really made Cajuns Cajuns and not just Acadians. While some have maintained some of their ethnic identity (notably the Germans), most have assimilated into their Cajunness. I’ve never met anyone in south Louisiana who considered himself “Spanish,” for instance.
My grandfather’s last name is Benton (Irish), and he’s just as Cajun as my relatives with French names like Mouton, Dugas, and Breaux.
Anyway, on to the offensive letter:
I enjoyed Steve Hendrix’s article about Eunice, La., KBON and the surrounding area. I have two comments, admittedly sort of nit-picky:
– Zydeco. The term arrived in Cajun Louisiana with the advent of MTV. Zydeco sounds similar to and is a rip-off of authentic French or Cajun music. The pioneers of this music — anyone over 35, clubs, dance halls and music stores — call the squeeze-box music that I love so well simply “French” music.
– Creole. There are more definitions of “Creole” than I can count. However, you would be hard-pressed to find a Creole in Louisiana’s prairie parishes, and I don’t think there is such a language in south Louisiana as “Creole French.” The many Germans who settled in these parishes brought the accordion, which is the defining instrument of French music. And yes, they do use Creole mustard, but mustard alone does not a Creole make.
Sterling H. Kelbaugh
Thurmont, Md.

Um, Sterling, nope.
To call zydeco an invention of MTV — either the music or the term — is insulting. Go read Michael Tisserand’s The Kingdom of Zydeco — he traces the use of the term back to the 1940s.
Zydeco and Cajun music have developed on parallel (and regularly crossed) tracks since World War II. The simplistic way to put it: Cajun music is the music white Cajuns played. It draws largely from country, folk, and Western swing, and it usually features a fiddle. Zydeco is played by south Louisiana’s French-speaking blacks and is influenced more by R&B, blues, and rock. It’s usually got a rubboard, no fiddle, and more prominent guitar.
But there’s plenty of crossover — much contemporary “Cajun” music shows a very clear zydeco influence.
Yes, old folks do often lump Cajun and zydeco together under the umbrella of “French music.” (My grandmother does exactly that, for instance.) But there are also a lot of old folks who lump Nine Inch Nails, John Denver, and George Clinton together as “rock music.” That doesn’t make further genre definition illegitimate.
And calling zydeco a “ripoff” isn’t just insulting. It’s plum ignorant.
As for Sterling’s second sterling argument:
– “You would be hard-pressed to find a Creole in Louisiana’s prairie parishes.” That might be news to the thousands of African Americans in south Louisiana who consider themselves Creoles. (In 1982, some of them even formed a cultural-preservation group whose acronym is CREOLE to ensure that Cajuns aren’t the only ethnic group associated with south Louisiana.)
– “[A]nd I don’t think there is such a language in south Louisiana as ‘Creole French.'” Again, that’s news to linguists and researchers, who recognize Creole and Cajun as separate (although obviously related) dialects.
It appears that in Sterling Kelbaugh’s world, black people have never contributed anything to south Louisiana. Dumbass. I hate it when the clueless position themselves as experts.
This concludes the latest lengthy chapter of my Cajun Education Project.

2 thoughts on “idiots on cajunness”

  1. If he truly believes that there is no such language as Creole French, I wish he had been at a deposition I took where the deponent spoke nothing but Creole French and we had to have an interpreter there (as patient as we all tried to be, none of us could figure out what the man was trying to say).
    I’m not even going to start on the rest of his ignorant comments. What an idiot.

  2. Thank you Josh, it’s truly fascinating, from here in the other side of the Atlantic. Hope I can make it to southern Louisiana someday.

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