Group gathers to reconnect to Cajun language and music
SCOTT — Singing along was not as simple as just reading words off the sheet music.
Phyllis B. Lejeune, attending her first Cajun French singing workshop, began to stumble while learning the lyrics to “Si Je Pourrai Oublier” as the foreign words contracted and combined, sounding little like they looked.
She leaned over, laughed and whispered to her sister, “Why didn’t we learn this when we were little?”
Part of a generation that often distanced themselves from the Cajun heritage of their elders, Lejeune, 57, of Crowley, said she regrets she ignored the language of her parents and grandparents as a child.
“We didn’t want to be Cajun,” Lejeune said. “That’s why we didn’t learn. And they spoke French when they didn’t want us to know what they’re saying.”
She has begun making amends, immersing herself in the parts of her heritage she barely knew.
A year and a half ago she started playing Cajun fiddle on the same instrument her great-grandfather and grandfather used. And a few weeks ago she and 20 others sat in a circle at The Front Room — a musical workshop at the home of fiddler Mitch Reed, who plays with neo-Cajun band Beausoleil — and line-by-line, learned their first Cajun French in song.
“I want to be able to pass this on to my grandchildren,” she said.
Inside the front room of Reed’s cottage home, strings of decorative lights streamed from the ceiling, fiddles hung on the wall and Reed’s Grammy award sat on an upright piano.
The workshop began when petite brunette Kristi Guillory cradled her acoustic guitar surrounded by novice singers in metal folding chairs. She passed out copies of French lyrics to “Si Je Pourrai Oublier,” an easier old song she sings with her band Bonsoir, Catin.
“What I like about this song, the lyrics are beautiful and the music is gorgeous, but it repeats,” she said.
Guillory strummed her guitar, decided on playing in the key of C — a “common denominator” for teaching the tune, she said — and played through one time.
“Si je pourrais oublier comment gros je t’aime,” she sang. “Si je pourrais oublier comment j’ai du regret. Si je pourrais oublier comment toi t’ étais tout le mien. Peut-être je pourrais dormir quand me couche.”
“If I could forget how much I love you,” the song asks. “If I could forget how sorry I am. If I could forget how you were all mine, maybe I could sleep when I go to bed.”
After Guillory sang through once, she began to “call and repeat,” singing a line alone, then asking the group to echo her, a technique she and Courtney Granger use on a DVD released this month called “Cajun Vocals for Men and Women.”
For a few lines they sang along. The group sounded timid, afraid to mispronounce the words too loudly, so Guillory spoke up, reminding them the great Cajun and Creole vocalists rarely sounded conventionally beautiful. Sing at the top of your register, she said.
“When you’re singing you have to sing loud,” she told them. “It has to sound powerful. It doesn’t have to be pretty. Use your whole voice.”
While Cajun foods have appealed for decades to many outside of South Louisiana, the unique language and music have not always garnered respect, said Reed, who grew up in Lafayette in a deeply Cajun family from Mamou.
“It wasn’t cool to speak French,” he said. “In the older generation, you were looked down upon if you spoke Cajun French.”
Folklorists say the Cajun and Creole culture of South Louisiana stands out from the rest of the South, Reed said, because of three things: the music, the food and the language. While the food and music have not been in danger of dying out, the Cajun dialect of French slowly passed out of use.
French speakers became reluctant to teach their children the language after 1916, when Cajuns were forced to send their children to school, said historian Shane K. Bernard said. Under the 1921 state constitution, English became the only language used in the classroom. Students speaking French had their mouths washed out with soap, their knuckles slapped and their behinds whipped, said Bernard, author of “The Cajuns: Americanization of a People.”
“I sensed a great cultural gap between my grandparents and myself, greater than that between me and my parents,” said Bernard, whose grandparents were of the first Cajun generation to attend compulsory school. “Some would say it was an age gap, but it was more than that. It was a difference in culture.”
In 1981, schools in south Louisiana began offering French immersion programs for students wishing to deeply learn the language, Bernard said.
Now, a “gray area” exists for the generation now in their 40s and 50s who did not learn Cajun French at home or in school.
Reed said the music, with its distinct use of the dialect and accordion, fiddle and unique percussion such as the triangle, has been a powerful vehicle for the language.
“I think in this region, the language would have died if it were not for the music,” Reed said.
For decades now the region of south Louisiana and such places as Lafayette have become tourist destinations because of the culture.
“What we have in Acadiana is really special,” Reed said. “We make a big effort to remind people of that.”
Near Reed’s place, at the Begnaud House, a “heritage interpretive center” in Scott, “Mama” Redell Comeaux Miller also leads groups in Cajun French sing-alongs to old “family friendly” Cajun songs as an introduction to the language.
“It makes it easier to take a tune and get used to the words rolling and turning,” she said.
Miller grew up in an “old-school family,” she said, and learned Cajun French early on, but she fears some of the culture will fade away, especially the old tradition of dance halls.
“It’s in big danger,” she said. “Some of it will live on. Everything has to evolve and change.”
For Lejeune, the music and much of the heritage became more accessible when she saw Cajun band Beausoleil play at a festival in the 1970s.
Her uncle was a celebrated musician in south Louisiana, but she doesn’t remember paying much attention to the music he played.
“We were embarrassed to be Cajun then,” she said. “It was sad, but true.”
Now, on Monday nights, she takes up her great-grandfather’s fiddle and learns to saw out traditional tunes. The physical connection to her ancestor strikes her each time she picks up the instrument.
“It was kind of scary,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I hope I can live up to this.’”
Prior to the singing workshop, Alice Landry, of Lafayette, thought Cajun and Creole music was too simple and lacked sophistication. Landry, a lawyer in Lafayette, grew up in New Iberia to a middle-class family that lived a more mainstream American existence.
Aside from eating the local food, they participated little in their heritage, she said.
“It was sort of a class distinction,” she said. “They were not on that level. They listened to contemporary American music.”
Landry, who tagged along to the workshop with a friend, said she made the connection with her heritage through belting out the songs with the 20 other souls in the room.
“I thought I wouldn’t enjoy this, but I really did end up connecting with the music,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised. It was different than I thought, and I became so immersed in trying to learn it the right way.”
For Monica Mott, the granddaughter of well-known musician Iry Lejeune, learning the fiddle has come easily. Cajun music is in her blood, Reed said. She enjoys the connection she feels in music.
“It makes me very proud,” she said. “It helps you to remember what your family went through to get to where you are today.”
At the end of the workshop, Reed, Guillory, Granger and all the musicians took up their instruments and played the songs learned that night.
More than 20 voices belted out the words, like a late night “jam” from decades ago, with singers bellowing sad words to a happy tune.
The weekend after the workshop, Lejeune said her 10-year-old triplet grandchildren came to her Crowley home from Baton Rouge. She found the Cajun music playing early Sunday on the radio and, as she turned it up, she told them, “This is your heritage.”
And they all danced along.