johnny cash on cajuns, cajun food

Johnny Cash introducing America to the Cajuns on his TV variety show in 1970. Interestingly, he gets the history stuff pretty much right (bravo, Johnny!). He plays three “Cajun” songs: “Jambalaya,” “Louisiana Man,” and “Bayou Baby.”
I put Cajun in quotes there because none of the three would be considered Cajun music today. “Jambalaya” was written by the Alabama-born Hank Williams and is classic country. (Although extra credit to Johnny for pronouncing “bayou” correctly, even though it screws up the song’s rhyme scheme.) “Bayou Baby” was written by Kentuckian and Nashville legend Merle Travis. (You can tell from lyrics it ain’t Cajun; it’s a squaredance song.)
Neither one sounds even remotely Cajun; just like the Hank Williams Jr. version of “Cajun Baby” I linked to a while back, it’s trad early ’70s Nashville country using Cajun culture as a lyrical source.
(The other song, “Louisiana Man,” was written by a real Cajun, the legendary Doug Kershaw. But the song and most of his music are much more country than Cajun.)
1970 was an interesting time for Cajun culture within the larger American context. You’d already had the first glimmerings that the outside world might be interested — the 1964 Newport Folk Festival show, and the broader ethnic-group interest that came out of the civil rights movement.
But they were just glimmerings. Cajun music itself was still considered pretty strange, even by outward-looking Cajuns. These Mamou-via-Nashville country songs were the only popular outlet, and the only Cajun music they connected to were the earlier fiddle-heavy sound inspired by Western swing. And — as you can tell from Cash’s mention of it — Cajun food was still essentially unknown. (It would take Marcelle Bienvenue and a few others to get the food spread around the country.)
By the way, I just finished and can recommend Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine by Marcelle, Carl Brasseaux, and Ryan Brasseaux. (Marcelle is a longtime food writer; Carl is the chief historian of the Cajuns; Ryan is Carl’s son and a folklorist.) It could have used another copy edit and some less academic writing in spots (you can tell pretty clearly what’s in Marcelle’s voice and what’s in Carl’s more academic one), but it’s an excellent look at the degree to which Cajun food is a post-WWII invention.
Also, here’s an interesting piece on the role of Cajuns in the Louisiana Hayride, which gets at the sort of Cajun/country mixing that was going on from an early date.

3 thoughts on “johnny cash on cajuns, cajun food”

  1. Well, that’s a trick question.
    There are really two kinds of indigenous south Louisiana music: Cajun music and zydeco. To overgeneralize, Cajun music is played by white folks and zydeco by black folks.
    (Cajuns are essentially white. Black Francophone south Louisianians are often offended if you call them Cajuns. Many prefer the term “creole,” which is complicated in its own way because “creole” has about 3,000 meanings. There’s an organization of black south Louisianians called CREOLE tries to be sort of an NAACP for the region. They protested when the area’s main sports arena was named the Cajundome. They said that’s like naming it the Whiteydome because blacks are Cajuns.)
    Cajun music and zydeco music are highly interrelated. Basically, zydeco has more of a rock/r&b influence, is always electric (a lot of Cajun music is acoustic), and emphasizes different instruments (more rubboard, accordian, and bass, less fiddle). Cajun music is varied and can include a lot of up-tempo stuff, but it’s heavier on waltzes and sad-eyed ballads.
    Basically, if you hear it outside of Louisiana and it sounds like party music, it’s much more likely to be zydeco music than Cajun.
    Now, zydeco has always been heavily influenced by Cajun music, and in the last 20 years Cajun music has moved a lot more in the zydeco direction, so most popular Cajun bands edge toward zydeco. It’s confusing.
    So, to answer your question, no, Rockin’ Sidney was not a Cajun and he did not play Cajun music. But he was certainly a real zydeco player, no doubt about it, and a legit south Louisianian.
    I want to be clear on something: When I say something is “not Cajun” (like the Hank Williams song), I don’t mean it’s bad. I’m catholic in my tastes, and those Johnny Cash songs are great. They’re just a Kentuckian’s version (or an Alabaman’s version) of Cajun culture, not the real thing.

  2. You know that Cajun guy in the video was a “real” Cajun because of that welder’s hat. The only things missing were his overalls and “Cajun Reebok’s” (white rubber boots).

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