Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Mississippi: The River of Song and more...


Smithsonian Institution
Louisiana Where Music is King1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King

back

South Louisiana
by Maida Owens


       Nicholas R. Spitzer described rural south Louisiana as a cultural gumbo in which each of the different ingredients is identifiable, yet all have blended, affecting each other (Spitzer 1977). A complex blend of French, Spanish, German, African, Irish, and Native American influences created a unique regional culture. Yet, when one looks closer, one becomes aware of local variations because, in spite of its deep French roots, south Louisiana is not a monolithic, homogeneous Francophonic culture. French traditional culture in Louisiana is largely contained in a great triangular area with its apex below Alexandria and its base stretching from New Orleans to Lake Charles. Small enclaves exist, however, even in North Louisiana, near Natchitoches and Hebert in Caldwell Parish, and along Bayou Pierre (the Rambin community) and in Big Island in Rapides Parish.
       The dominant regional culture of south Louisiana results from successive waves of French (Canadian traders, Acadians from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, French royalists, Bonapartists, apolitical French civilians, French soldiers, French from the West Indies), Spaniards (from Spain, the Adaesenos from Texas Mexico, and the Islenos from the Canary Islands), Germans (arriving as early as the Spanish period and continuing into the nineteenth century), Irish, Africans, and a variety of Caribbean transplants. Many of these groups blended with the Louisiana Native American groups (some aboriginal tribes and others who resettled in the area during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Some Native Americans retain their own unique cultures, virtually unmodified by European contact in a number of ways.
       Many people think of south Louisiana as "Cajun," the term being a local version of Acadian. Today's Cajun culture resulted from the blending of several groups, primarily the Acadians, the descendants of French Acadians who were expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755 and who began arriving in Louisiana in 1765. Two primary cultural regions exist within south Louisiana. While still basically French, the area east of the Atchafalaya Swamp and along the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche between Baton Rouge and New Orleans received a significant influx of wealthy Lowland South planters of English descent. Those plantation owners influenced the area in many ways, particularly by teaching their slaves English rather than French. Also, being closer to New Orleans and on major transportation routes, the Germans, Spanish, French, English, and later the "Kaintucks" (Americans from up the Mississippi River) were more cosmopolitan than people in the swamps and on the prairies to the west. A large number of Germans arrived during the Spanish period, settled upriver from New Orleans along the German Coast, and provided most of the vegetable crops needed by New Orleans. These Germans are not as easily identified today, because they gradually assimilated into the dominant French culture, and many of their names were translated into French or English (Reinecke 1985).
       Living in relative isolation on the Louisiana bayous and the southwest Louisiana prairie and being the dominant cultural group, the French speaking Acadians, French nationals, French royalists, and French army officers absorbed Germans, Spanish, British Americans, and Native Americans that settled among them or married into their families. During the late nineteenth century, large numbers of Midwesterners settled the Cajun prairie to take part in the newly developing rice industry and the railroad. Within a relatively short time period, many were absorbed into Cajun culture. Today, many French speaking people who identify themselves Cajuns may have surnames such as Frey (German), Smith (English), McGee (Irish), and Manuel or Rodrigue (Spanish) in addition to Acadian surnames like Bergeron, Broussard, LeBlanc, or Mire, and the French colonial army surnames of Fontenot or Fusilier (Brasseaux 1992).
       The French speaking black Creoles of the southwest Louisiana prairie lived alongside the Cajuns and were often free men of color and landowners. While remaining racially distinct from their Cajun neighbors, they share many cultural traits which have distinctive nuances. For example, they share the food, Mardi Gras, Catholicism, musical repertoire, and often the French or Creole language. But one of their most significant contributions is zydeco, a distinctly black Creole music known for its blending of French songs and African/Caribbean rhythms. To be of African descent in south Louisiana certainly does not presume a French speaking heritage. English speaking blacks, many of whom descended from freed slaves, also made cultural contributions (Fontenot 1994a and 1994b). For example, the zydeco repertoire shows heavy influence from Deep South rhythm and blues.
       Many people are aware that the Cajun and Creole cultures have contributed Cajun dance music, with two steps, waltzes, and haunting ballads; and Creole zydeco music, with its African influence. But more recently,in the early 1950s, this unique cultural mix also created "swamp pop" " a regional variation of rhythm and blues music common throughout south Louisiana and into east Texas. Swamp pop combines rhythm and blues with Cajun and black Creole music and country and western. A strong horn section and honky tonk piano characterizes this blend (Bernard 1995). The region also has a vital jazz community (Sonnier 1990). Cajuns and Creoles are as well known to outsiders for their special foods as for the distinctive music, and a delectable palate of food dishes (crawfish etouffe, gumbo, bisque, sauce piquante, jambalaya) can be found in the region (Gutierrez 1992). Many restaurants and dance halls provide Cajun and Creole music for both tourists and locals. Saturdays often mean jam sessions, radio shows, or dances for Cajun music lovers. Outsiders seldom know about Cajun and Creole crafts, such as cowhide chair bottoms, wooden boats (skiffs, luggers, pirogues), Acadian brown cotton weaving, accordion building, fiddle making, and Job's Tears rosaries (Latimer and Vermillion 1988) or lesser known food delicacies such as langue bouree (stuffed beef tongue) or chaudin (sausage stuffed pork stomach).
       Some communities in south Louisiana have always been predominantly English speaking. Fishing and gathering settlements in the Atchafalaya Basin were different from those on the bayous and prairies to the east and west. Many of these English speaking, predominately white communities relocated to the levees surrounding the basin when the U.S. Corps of Engineers transformed the basin for flood control. Many individuals also moved to the Morgan City area, which was primarily English speaking. Other English speaking people in Morgan City came from the Carolinas' coastal fishing communities and became shrimpers or menhaden ("poggie") fishermen.
       South Louisiana also has pockets of ethnic groups that have resisted total absorption by French/Cajun culture. In St. Bernard Parish, the Islenos, who are descended from Canary Islanders who settled the area in the 1760s, continue to retain their archaic Spanish dialect and perpetuate the singing of decimas (narrative songs with ten syllable lines). In Acadia Parish, Germans of Robert's Cove, who settled the area during the nineteenth century, begin the Christmas season with a procession on December 5, the eve of the religious feast of St. Nicholas. St. Nick, Lil' Black Peter, Santa Claus, and the church choir visit German homes in the community. Croatians from the Dalmatian Coast settled in Plaquemines Parish, introduced the oystering industry, and continue to control it. These groups remain culturally distinct after more than one hundred years of Louisiana residency.
       Throughout south Louisiana and New Orleans, Catholicism, the dominant religion since colonial times, is shared by many cultural groups. As a result, cultural or folk Catholicism, incorporating the culturally specific religious traditions of each group, has contributed practices that persist today. For example, on November 7, New Orleanian Nicaraguans build home altars for Purissima, the Feast of the Blessed Mother; and in Cajun prairie communities Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, is observed with le courrir de Mardi Gras (running of the Mardi Gras) by community members proceeding from house to house on horseback or by truck to gather ingredients for a communal gumbo, one last good meal and lively party before the solemn observance of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.


Home | The River of Song Project | The Artists | Music Along the River | Calendar | Teacher's Guide | Press Room | The Store
© 1998 The Filmmakers Collaborative and The Smithsonian Institution, all right reserved
River of Song HOME the River of Song project the artists music along the river calendar teacher's guide pressroom store