There is an old saying in south Louisiana: “Lâche pas la patate.” Translated literally, it means “Don’t drop the potato,” but what it really means is “Hold on to what’s important.” Cajun and Creole musics have proved to be of central importance to south Louisiana, to the United States, and to the world, demonstrating as they have not only the possibility for, and importance of, maintaining a vibrant folk culture but also revealing the connections between Louisiana and the rest of the world. That is, the musics of south Louisiana not only underline Africa and Europe as original contributors of people to the American experiment (in addition to the already present First World nations) but also that the American experiment is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of experiments around the world where people mix together to produce new, but still related cultures and musics-in terms of south Louisiana, the connections to the Caribbean and the western Indian Ocean are most striking.
The purpose of this project is to preserve the unique collections of the Archives and Cajun and Creole Folklore in order to (1) stabilize the collections and (2) make them more accessible to researchers, area musicians, and the public. The Archives currently holds almost two thousand reel-to-reel tapes and audio cassettes. While a small number of the reel-to-reel tapes are copies of recordings, which can only otherwise be found in the Library of Congress, all the rest are unique to the collection. A large number of the recordings were done in the field by a variety of trained professionals-thus, the quality is as high as the various media and technology involved allowed.
Most of these field recordings provide intimate glimpses into the past: musicians talking and playing in their own homes. In some cases, only the performer and the fieldworker are present; in other cases they are joined by old friends or by some of the young musicians of the day-e.g., Grammy winner Michael Doucet-who went on to revitalize the tradition. These recordings from the past still hold the keys to the music’s future. Musicians continue to clamber for access to the collections: e.g., David Greeley of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys is a regular listener.
Time has not been kind to any musical archive. Reel-to-reel machine manufacturers are down to two; makers of tape, one. It is clear that for Archives like our own to survive and to continue to play a role in not only keeping history alive but also in making new traditional music possible we must move materials onto formats that are (1) currently in use and will be for the foreseeable future and (2) allow for ready and rapid copying, in a way that tapes did not, so that the collection’s future can be secured-perhaps equally important is that with high capacity hard drives, a lot of material can be kept in a relatively small space.
The collections in need of restoration and digitization that are unique to the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore-which also holds copies of recordings by Alan Lomax and Ralph Rinzler (originals are housed in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress)-are:
- The Ancelet Collection: 236 reels, recorded in the 1970s and the 1980s.
- The Elizabeth Brandon Collection: 9 reels, recorded in the 1950s and 1960s.
- The Susan Crutcher and Andy Wiskes Collection: 21 reels, recorded in the late 1970s.
- The Phillip Dur Collection: 46 reels, recorded in the late 1960s.
- The Donald Hebert Collection: 40 reels, recorded in the 1970s.
- The Otis Hebert Collection: 7 reels, recorded in the late 1970s.
- The CRS Collection: 65 reels, recorded in the 1960s and the 1970s.
There are a huge number of recordings of area festivals, like the nationally known Festivals Acadiens, as well as a few unique recordings done at the Festival of American Folklife, all of which are on cassette, but many of which were professionally recorded, in need of restoration. There are also several hundred recordings by students, students who had been trained in proper recording and fieldwork methods.
The mechanics of the process are straightforward and follow the Academy’s own guidelines as well as those that have been worked out by various other agencies and organizations:
*Reel-to-reel tapes and audio cassettes are played on the appropriate equipment-those familiar with the variety of head arrangements on the former machines will recognize that getting the right equipment is a task in and of itself, fed through an Alesis 1622 mixer, through an Apogee PSX-100 audio-to-digital converter, into a Gateway workstation running Sound Forge Studio.
*Each digitized file is stored in raw form on both a hard drive and a CD, which is stored separately. (For listening purposes, we normalize the files (service copies) and save them using the MP3 codec, in order to enhance listening and to facilitate moving files onto machines dedicated as listening stations.)
Source Material Preservation
All original materials (preservation masters) are kept in climate-controlled conditions in a designated space within the university’s main research library. While a number of other facilities have seen holding onto original materials as a moot point, we do not plan to dispose of our original holdings at any point in the future: we realize that technology is changing quickly and we have an obligation to the future to make it possible for others to revisit either the original materials or their un-enhanced digitized copies, having as they probably will better methods for extracting more information out of either.
We are a small unit within a much larger organization, a public university to be exact. For the purposes of preserving the materials which we deem most important and the most in danger of suffering further by the hands of time, we have acquired a graduate research assistant whose primary responsibility is to begin digitization of some of the holdings-our grant request is for professional help in this regard because we do not have enough expertise to deal with the more fragile materials. We have also gathered together a part-time team primarily focused on indexing and cataloging the materials: preservation is important, but we must also begin to assess what is being preserved and to make it possible for researchers, musicians, and other publics to locate materials relevant to their own work or project, be it a book, an album, or simply knowledge of times past.
A breakdown of the personnel involved is as follows:
- John Laudun is Associate Director for the Center for Louisiana Studies and the project leader for “Lâche pas la musique.” He is assistant professor of folklore and English and holds a Ph.D. in folklore studies from the Folklore Institute at Indiana University.
- Kristi Guillory is a M.A. student in English with a concentration in folklore studies. She is also a native of the area and a working musician, with three CDs to her name. She brings her knowledge of the music and of Louisiana French to our efforts to inventory the holdings of the Archive.
- Erik Charpentier is a Ph.D. student in Francophone Studies who has spent the last five years working with the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore, cataloging the holdings and doing some digitization.