Cajun culture has proven remarkably resilient to direct attack as well as resistant to attempts to absorb it into American culture. From 1765 to 1785, over 3,000 Acadians managed to travel from Nova Scotia, from which they had been exiled by the British, to Louisiana. Considering the distance of this migration and the scattered nature of the Acadians following their expulsion from Nova Scotia, it’s a wonder their culture survived at all. Once in Louisiana, they did well, settling in as the territory became a state. The 20th century proved tougher on them in many respects. The growth of the oil business in Louisiana and Texas brought more oil derricks into Acadia, and with them more outsiders and more exposure of Cajun culture to the melting pot of American culture. In addition, the Louisiana state constitution was changed in the 1920s to require Cajun children to attend schools—schools that taught English, requiring the abandonment of their native French dialect. As Cajuns became more integrated into American culture, there was a real threat that their own culture would disappear.
It was, in many respects, musicians who ensured the survival of Cajun culture. When Gladius Thibodeaux, Louis LeJeune, and Dewey Balfa appeared at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival as representatives of Louisiana they received a standing ovation. More importantly, they attracted nationwide attention and soon efforts were underway to record those Cajun musicians who were still performing in the traditional style. This led to an overall attempt to preserve Cajun culture, and, by the 1980s, to the export of Cajun music and food to all parts of the United States.
Of course, such success in exploiting Cajun culture has its own dangers, such as the cross-pollination of Cajun zydeco music with rock and R&B music. On the other hand, the worldwide distribution of authentic Cajun music has made it possible for Ann Savoy to arrange a project like Evangeline Made. “It came to me that to put together a collection of this interplay between important musical artists from the field of popular music with driving Cajun bands would be a strong statement about how Cajun music matters to musicians,” she says. Ann, who is married to Cajun musician and accordion builder Marc Savoy, has been documenting and photographing Cajun culture since 1976. She has written an award-winning book on Cajun music and contributed to the recent PBS series American Roots Music. She also performs with the Savoy Doucet Cajun Band and the Magnolia Sisters.
Not surprisingly, the popular music artists who have chosen to perform these songs (in French) are primarily songwriters themselves, with the exception of Linda Rondstadt. It’s not too surprising that Richard and Linda Thompson (separately), Patty Griffin, Rodney Crowell, and Maria McKee would find Cajun songs interesting. They are, after all, songs about love, about deep experiences both joyful and painful. They carry beautiful melodies and have a sense of earthiness that cannot be missed, even if one does not speak the language. Two other songwriters who appear are less expected at first glance: John Fogerty and Nick Lowe. Fogerty reminds us that he’s always been interested in “Southern nights . . . swamp critters . . . Cajun music.” And his performance of “Diggy Liggy Lo” about a couple who fall in love at a fais-do-do, is really good, full of energy and making you wish he had more opportunities to sing. Lowe, it turns out, is interested because his band members played with one Johnnie Allan who had a swamp pop hit in England.
The songs covered here are all traditional and classic Cajun songs, and as I say you don’t have to understand all the words in order to enjoy the album. Linda Thompson and Patty Griffin in particular are adept at relaying the emotional content of their songs through their voices rather than relying on the words. Richard Thompson’s performance of the traditional Cajun two-step “La Flammes d’Enfer” fares quite well also. The Thompsons have been mining the British folk traditions for so long this kind of thing is probably second nature to them, except for the French. “Many of the artists didn’t even know French and we spent hours together working on pronunciation and song delivery,” says Savoy. Nick Lowe comments “I don’t know how artistically marvelous my track is because my French is at best schoolboy French. . . .” What does come across on this album is that while the artists are all respectful of the material, they also seem to be enjoying themselves performing it.
One thing I found problematic is that there’s no list of musicians who play on the album. We’re told that two instrumental tracks, “Vagabond Special” and “Two Step de Prairie Soileau” are performed by “a band of Cajun all-star musicians”, but they aren’t listed. Nick Lowe makes reference to “Steve Riley and the band”, and my guess is that Marc Savoy and Michael Doucet may make appearances backing various artists, but a comprehensive list would have been nice. Otherwise, Evangeline Made is a very enjoyable experience and one that any serious music fan should check out.