Yesterday afternoon my wife came home with what I found to be a rather telling story about the local art scene here in south Louisiana. Her and a friend had taken our combined three children to a nearby small town, which has carved out for itself a small antique and art scene. (There are a couple of these now, and so my obfuscation does leave room for mystery.) The five of them had left a shop and were pausing for a moment to enjoy a courtyard that had a layer of fallen leaves. The kids, being kids, were making the occasional pile out of leaves. The shop’s owner came out to watch what was going on, sighed, and noted quite audibly that she really liked the way the courtyard looked when the leaves were simply scattered by the wind. As if realizing that she had perhaps rebuked the two women, whose children were undoing the scattering, she then described one of her favorite photographs to them: it is of a girl who has thrown leaves up in the air and they are now falling all about her. My wife’s response, and that of her companion as well, was, well, if she had bothered to wait a moment, she would have seen it in action.
For me, the anecdote captures exactly the strange twilight world of the local arts, and even to some degree the local academic, scene and its relationship to the local landscape and people. The local arts organizations, are very fond of invoking “Cajun” and “Creole” as things that enrich the local arts. Painters and poets draw upon their Cajun roots, or they produce work with a Cajun sensibility, or they capture Cajun folklife authentically.
That is, local arts organizations make much use of Cajun folklife in various ways, but the Cajun they have in mind lives mostly in the pages of books, and most of those books are quite old. The Cajuns they have in mind still make their way about the world on boats, run small cattle ranches, and trundle about the landscape on horses, or perhaps Model T Fords.
When it comes to actual Cajuns, who still tend to be rural and working class, they really don’t have much truck with them. That the farmers and fabricators that are still the economic backbone of this region and who don’t go much for the kind of events hosted by the local art organizations and universities are seen as a kind of drain on how lovely things could be. It helps, of course, that the city’s upper classes hold much the same view, which makes sense because it is these folks who attend local art and university events. They pay top dollar for tickets to see Beausoleil play, and everyone believes that Beausoleil *is* Cajun music. And it is. It’s just that it’s Cajun music for a very small percentage of Cajuns in Louisiana. Out on the prairies, I have met very few people who listen to Beausoleil. A number of folks still listen to Cajun music, but the music they listen to is not an art form, but a dance form, a social form.
Don’t get me wrong. A number of my friends produce some of the most beautiful Cajun music I have ever heard. And it’s Cajun music in as much as they are Cajuns and they made it, but it is not Cajun music in the sense that a large percentage of Cajuns listen to it. Nor is it, sadly, entering into oral tradition and becoming the basis for other innovation — though I could be wrong here, and I really would like to investigate the Lafayette scene to see how the incredibly innovative work here may also have some traditional dynamics.
But the qualification to the above is that it’s the Lafayette scene. It’s bounded. The Lafayette scene is not the Louisiana scene, and the constant conflation of the two is used by local organizations for profit: they sell themselves or the things they produce as the thing itself when they are not. I am sure this dynamic is to be found around the nation, and it’s probably an acceptable fiction by both the local organizations as well as their various funding sources, who probably would hold the actual “folk” at arms distance as well.
As a fiction, it is worth further study, and perhaps that will be my next project. I can imagine something like “Cajuns, Creoles, Cultures, Commodities.” If someone else wants to take the idea and run with it, feel free. I suspect that I am too close to it all to do the topic full justice: I myself belong to the local university. Many of the people involved in both the local arts organizations and the local university are my friends, acquaintances. Some of them, if they ever read this post, will be disturbed, perhaps even upset, by what I have written here. To them, I note that this is meant as critique, in the sense of understanding the work, and not as criticism. I engage in this kind of critique in the firm belief that the local arts and academic organizations find themselves in a status quo which, in fact, undermines their very desire to grow and to become more relevant. If we can unchain ourselves from just a few conventions, then perhaps we can do truly amazing things. If you are going to renovate a house, sometimes you have to remove a wall or two from the existing house.
**UPDATE**: A friend wrote in to note that by my definition of *Cajun* and the logic I pursue above, “Cajun music itself is not Cajun, because, judging from record sales, dancehall attendance and airplay, most Cajuns do not listen to it.” All I have right now are questions — and, who knows, this may be the end of this ling of thinking for me. Questions like: what does it mean for a “folk music” not to have its “folk” base any more? Or not to have it in the usual way — it begs the question of what is “usual.” What is the relationship between folk music and its folk? What happens when the tradition and the group seem to run in parallel?
None of these questions are at all useful to people trying to make a living playing, performing, writing or to the groups — local arts and academic organizations — that try to support them.
And I should be clear: folk music is not my area of expertise. Nor is public folklore. My focus is on creativity, and my current work is with farmers and fabricators.