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Smithsonian Institution
Midwestern CrossroadsAmericans Old and NewMidwestern CrossroadsSouthern FusionLouisiana, Where Music is King
Ste. Genevieve

Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, lays claim to being the first permanent European settlement west of the Mississippi. Founded by French traders, it remained for centuries a French enclave in the midst of an increasingly Anglophone Midwest. Today, the last generation of native French speakers is disappearing, but old traditions still remain. The most visible is La Guignolée, a medieval tradition analagous to the English custom of wassailing. Every New Year's Eve, the descendants of St. Genevieve's French settlers don bizarre and archaic costumes and wander from bar to bar, singing a begging song that harks back to the Middle Ages.
       "The song asks for a piece of meat -- forty feet long, if I remember right," says Duke Blechler, leader of the current Ste. Genevieve Guignolée singers. "And if the people didn't have a piece of meat to give them, they would ask for their eldest daughter. Take her out, wine her and dine her -- which doesn't sound very good, you know."
       In every bar, the singers are welcomed with a drink and, as the night wears on, they begin to sway a bit and the French lyrics become harder and harder to understand. The spirit of the musical tradition keeps coming through loud and clear, though, until the last singer stumbles home to catch a few hours sleep before New Year's morning mass.

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