An Interview with Myself
by Marc Savoy
What kind of music do you play? The kind that you can continue playing in the event of a power failure. We are a group of people playing the music that we love. I would describe us as a high energy, low profile group of friends playing old-time Cajun music. The energy we exude is musical and is generated by our musicianship, rather than by electrical energy that is generated by a too loud amplifier. We are unpretentious, unprofessional; have no performance, don't do any jumping around on stage or clapping our hands over our heads, or use any other cheap stage trick in an attempt to turn on our audience. If our musicianship, naturalness and personality cannot connect with and entertain the audience, then we would remove ourselves from the situation rather than distort who we are and what we represent. After 30 years of playing around the world, I have never had to resort to the latter option. We are regressive rather than progressive in the sense that we search out old, forgotten tunes and work very hard to cultivate and maintain the subtleties that make this music so unique. We do this because we love our traditions and want to keep it from sounding like normal, mainstream American or country music.
You have been around the world playing Cajun music. What do you do when you get on stage? Nothing any different than I would do sitting in the privacy of my kitchen jamming with friends. I don't wear costumes because I don't wear costumes in my daily life. I don't give autographs because I don't possess any. I don't use straps, gadgets, enhancers, smoke machines, harmonizers, homogenizers, pickups, lights or any other electronic paraphernalia. I sit down, somewhere near a microphone if the audience wishes to hear, and I move my fingers instead of my buttocks. I find it so offensive to incorporate all this hype, showbiz, glitz, jumping around on stage, etc. into this wonderful, clean, old musical form to the point that sometimes I wish it were possible to play music totally nude and not even sit, much less jump around, but instead lay down on the bare earth; in other words, bring the act of playing music down to the lowest essential level of all, stripped of any excess baggage.
What music do you listen to? I listen to mostly old Cajun, old country, old American, old Tex-Mex because very little of the new stuff turns me on. To me the old music of the 20s, 30s and 40s had a certain quality that reminds me of a homegrown tomato compared to the ones you buy in the supermarket. For example, I have always been a fan of Amédé Ardoin's accordion style. I hear his tunes being played today in this so called modern style, and I am blown away by what he did with the same seven notes that everyone else plays, but the arrangements in which he phrases these seven notes and the instant he chose to use them makes it art instead of mediocrity. This is true of any art. I could write all day about a trail that I hiked and use big, fancy words, but it will very likely be mediocrity; but when Frost wrote about it using the vocabulary of a six year old it came out as beautiful poetry because of the manner in which he treated it. I find old music very hard and difficult to learn because the world was such a different place in those days. You have to listen and listen and listen to the music and words and imagine yourself in the musician's head looking out upon the world through his eyes. Then you begin to get an understanding of what he is doing with either the strings or buttons. I am also attracted to the vocal styles in the old music, and even though I am not a vocalist myself, I know that the old style of singing is very hard to do, and not too many people can reach those very high octaves. That beautiful, high, lonesome sounding vocal style developed before amplification, since people had to sing like that to be heard above the instruments. Nowadays everyone is playing music in lower pitched keys, so that the vocalist can croon like Bing Crosby or emulate the vibrato of Pavarotti. Some of the new singing sounds like they are chewing the words before letting them out. Again, the same re-occurring problem: replacing something beautiful but difficult to achieve with something not so great but easily attainable. I hardly ever listen to Cajun radio anymore, because I find that the music being passed off as Cajun is nothing more than a cheap, sleazy interpretation of country music. When I first turn the radio on, I have to either hear the accordion or the Cajun language before I can determine whether I am tuned in to a Cajun music program or just another of the awful sounding country music stations playing the same formulated rendition of an overproduced, exaggerated product that will probably survive for about a week before it is completely forgotten and abandoned. Has the public become such a Novocain society that it can not relate to any food, music, film, drama, are, etc. unless it is over-done, over-produced, over-acted, and over-amplified? Where have all the people gone who had the talent to borrow from all the musical influences found in early Louisiana and create the fusion that we call Cajun music?? Why did it work in the past to produce some of the most powerful, yet simple, natural yet totally unique music to be found in America? I listen to bands having as many as ten members, and though the volume level is greater, I find that the actual music produced is still much less than someone say like Jimmy Rogers with only his guitar, or Amédé Ardoin with only his accordion. I listen to these big, ten piece bands playing all these fancy breaks in the rhythm, fancy modulations, complex chord progressions, facial contortions, stage antics, etc. and ask myself how in the world did Aldus Roger (in the 50s) take a one chord melody and make that simple little tune come alive like he did in the Mardi Gras Jig? Where have all these people gone?? I think they are still amongst us. It's the reasons for doing things that have changed ñ a shift in values. People played music for the sheer love of the music and also for the things they associated with this music ñ their heritage. There weren't any performers because everyone "lived" the culture and a performance was artificial ñ something they never were. It seems to me that this "raison d'etre" has shifted from a love of culture to a love of big bucks, which hopefully will be achieved by becoming a crowd pleaser to an audience who to begin with don't have a clue as to what they want to listen to.
Have you written any new "old" music? Yes I have. Since Amédé Ardoin has been my mentor since the age of six, I composed a song several years ago in his honor. I wanted to title it "A Tribute to Amédé Ardoin" since Amédé had a song simple called "The Amédé Two-Step", but which was a completely different melody. The producer, thinking my title too long, called it "The Amédé Two-Step" also. For a long time many musicians thought that my composition was by Amédé Ardoin because it sounded very traditional and everyone thought it was a forgotten song from the past. That in itself is the greatest compliment I have ever received musically.
Do you like to play for an audience? It all depends on the quality of the audience. I am neither a crowd pleaser or a performer, and I surely wouldn't want to play for an audience that finds a Garth Brooks type of presentation as something entertaining. What such an audience would call a performance I would refer to as a mindless exhibition and the things they find so amusing, I would refer to as "cutesy-cutesy", "shlock", or "gimmickry". I find that this type audience "sees" music and very rarely ever hears anything. I would much rather play for the blind.
Do you blame the audience for placing demands on musicians that in turn has a sleazing effect on traditional music? No! I blame the media, which influences people to the point of dictating to them what they want these audiences' personal taste to become. Not visa versa. I blame the media with their stereotype role models of everything, convincing or at least suggesting to this audience that it is a definite improvement for them to give up their Cajun gumbo in favor of a cold, tasteless American hotdog. I recall an experience I had several years ago when a very fine, old style elderly musician had just about given up playing his traditional music because he was so intimidated and confused about how successful a student of his had become playing a rocked up, hyped up, watt-ed up version of what the teacher had taught the student. The student had only learned about one-tenth of what the teacher knew but had watched a lot of TV and knew very well from this observation that it was not at all necessary to learn the remaining nine-tenths of the technique the old man knew because it really didn't matter if the cake was good or not. If you could cover it up with enough cool-whip, it would sell. The teacher was confused because he had never made much money or achieved much recognition for mastering a technique that had taken a lifetime of devotion, while his student, who wasn't nearly as accomplished as the teacher was, but understood what it was that the audience wanted, had become so rich and famous almost overnight. Who do you think will be a role model for an up and coming young Cajun musician, the old man playing a beautiful, intricate, hard to learn style of music that goes unnoticed and unappreciated or the other appearing on TV, under the spotlight, jumping around, hollering, making mainstream sounds on his accordion and getting well paid for it?
How would you define a "Cajun?" It's not about one certain aspect of that culture. It isn't whether or not you play music, or eat spicy food, or speak a certain language. You can be a mute and still be an example of that culture. It isn't the person who wears costumes with red bandanas, white rubber boots, big straw hats, with a plucked rubber chicken hanging from his belt. Being from a certain ethnic minority is a matter of having a certain vision of the world around you and the role that you play in this environment. It's about having a deep sense of the past in order to know your current direction. It's a special way of looking at life and a certain manner of doing things. It's a certain and unique thought process that motivates a behavior pattern that makes us who we are and prevents us from being someone else. It's about being natural.
What is the difference between Cajun and Zydeco? That's a piece of cake to answer. When I was a little boy, we had a black woman living on our farm who was a fantastic cook. One of her specialties was a pineapple layer cake that also happened to be my mother's specialty. They would both use the same fruit, sugar, butter, milk and eggs, but both cakes were completely different. The outcome all depends on how you treat the ingredients.
What brought about the stigma associated with Cajun culture? No one has ever expressed the stigmatization process more eloquently than the late Paul Tate of Mamou, who said, "Because the Acadian sought in Louisiana not a new life but the old life in a new location, he escaped the disintegrating and cataclysmic effects of ëthe melting pot.' Unable to conform gracefully to pseudo-cultural standards being pressed upon himself he noisily joined the opposition in denouncing everything Acadian." I find it very amazing and unusual that in the early 1900s, when the rest of the world was telling my ancestors through the voice of the Anglo-Protestant teachers sent down here to bring the Cajuns up to speed, that the Cajun people didn't go mainstream at that time. They would have had good reason to do so then, since not only were they physically abused for speaking their native language on the school grounds, but they were ridiculed for their lifestyle, their food, their music and everything else that made up this wonderful, colorful culture that defined who they were. Luckily for these Anglo teachers, the Cajuns were for the most part a peaceful, tolerant people, because with anyone else there surely would have been some adverse reaction. What I find so amazing is the fact that, after so much physical and mental abuse endured by the Cajuns through the mainstream's attempt to bring them up to speed, for the most part the majority of the Cajuns continued to do exactly what they had always done before - be themselves. Their spirit was not to be broken by a few whippings for speaking French on the school ground or by being socially rejected by the Anglo community. They knew very well that what they had was the best and they weren't going to wait around and concern themselves with anyone else who couldn't understand how beautiful their music was or how delicious their food was or how wonderful their lifestyle was. It was not their problem, and they were not going to wait around trying to make themselves acceptable to anyone. They had the best of everything, and they knew it. Luckily for the Cajuns they didn't wait around, because it would have been a long wait - about a 50-year wait before the media discovered this utopia behind the cultural iron curtain. This media focus on the culture had a legitimizing effect for many of the weak-hearted who, because of their not being able to stand the heat of being Cajun when it was a socially dirty word, had gradually made the transition to what appeared to be the greener side. This media focus caused these weak-hearted to be "born again" and when the weak-hearted, who had gradually embraced mainstream, saw that the media was focusing on the very same thing that they were abandoning and running away from, this created a "born again" group that raced back to the culture for a piece of the pie. Because of this break in cultural continuity, they returned with much of the same attitude and view from the mainstream culture that they had previously adopted. They had nearly forgotten how to speak French, didn't know any of the music anymore, and had replaced their folklore with a stereotype version of something that was more American than America itself. These "born agains" raced back to the culture that they had abandoned to aggressively hawk a commercialized Hollywood vision reeking of the mainstream they had reverted to while their culture was stigmatized. They had learned from their mainstream sojourn that the most important survival skill in the herd is aggressiveness. They re-enter their culture and apply this survival skill to promoting themselves as an easy listening version to the rest of the world through the medium of the media. This "easy listening" imitation is usually more popular that the thing being imitated, because it appears to the media/mainstream as having elements of something they are familiar with yet still unfamiliar enough to be somewhat unique and interesting, whereas the real thing might be a little too esoteric for the public taste. I believe that these changes comes about for three reasons: 1) failing to comprehend the subtleties that account for a culture's uniqueness; thereby, 2) resulting in an exaggeration of what is very obvious; together with, 3) producing the near impossibility of articulating these subtleties if and when they are understood. I have seen so many examples to which my theory can be applied, especially having to do with food and music. When my father cooked a fish courtboullion, he used a very simple blend of ingredients. What made the dish very wonderful and unique were not only the subtle blend of ingredients but the manner in which he actually cooked. It was equally important to know when to leave the pot open, at which moment he needed to put the lid on so that the gravy would form and when to apply or reduce the heat for the taste to be just right. Someone not familiar with the entire process would most likely taste his courtboullion and relate only to what was the most obvious thing about it. If this person attempts to duplicate what he just ate, it will very likely come out with way too much cayenne, too many ingredients that don't belong there, and a consistency approaching that of contact glue. The things that are important to the outcome of a wonderful courtboullion go unnoticed because they are very subtle; and it takes a lot of patience to recognize, a devotion to develop and a passion to create. Recently I went out of state to cook a gumbo for a group of people, and the first thing the resident chef asked me was how many pounds of filÈ I had brought along. When I replied that I hadn't brought any at all (much less "pounds" of it), I could easily see in his expression that he doubted not only my expertise, but also thought that I must be a fake Cajun since I didn't use "pounds" of filÈ. When I began making my roux, he came up to me and asked me what I was doing. He had never heard of roux before. Somehow according to the recipe for gumbo that he had, he was under the assumption that the ultimate ingredient was filÈ powder. I patiently explained (though not trying to convince) that the essential ingredient of any gumbo was this thing called roux, and as far as filÈ was concerned, not everyone used it, and if they did, it was usually a very small pinch added to your bowl just before you ate it. Everything went along well and I could finally see something other than distrust as he began smelling the gumbo cooking. After his fourth bowl, without filÈ, he took pen and paper and came up to me and asked, "How did you do this?" I see the same thing happening with the music. Several years ago we were participating in a folk music festival in East Germany, when we were approached by a couple of German kids while we were having a jam session with other musicians. The girl wore a straw hat with a picture of an alligator pasted on the crown, a red bandanna around her neck, white rubber boots and was holding a triangle. The young man was dressed in the same style and had a rub board on his chest. They spoke neither English nor French; nevertheless they joined the jam session. We were dressed in normal clothes, were playing accordion, fiddle and guitar and singing in French. Along comes the TV camera crew and who gets interviewed and filmed as the Louisiana Cajuns? How can someone not be aware that no one dresses in straw hats, bandannas, or white rubber boots unless they were field hands 100 years ago? Are they maybe trying to play a part? Why can't the naturalness of our culture be recognized and appreciated without distorting it and in the process overlooking the subtleties that actually do make it unique? Another thing I can't understand is why the Cajuns, who were in search of something upward, and who turned their backs on their culture, used Nashville and Country music as their role model. Why did they adopt and emulate the "Nashville Country" culture, including not only the music but also the clothes (big cowboy hats and boots, etc.), instead of one that was closer to home like Delta Blues or Dixieland Jazz? What made these Cajuns imagine that emulating Nashville was moving upward? The owner of a California winery came to Louisiana to present his wines in one of our larger cities. Being a gentleman with a love of traditional Cajun music, he hired our group to entertain a group of local affluent people that the city's Chamber of Commerce had chosen to invite for an evening of wine tasting. The winery owner and his wife were very wealthy, sophisticated and intelligent, but were also charming, warm, friendly and very simply dressed. As the invited guests began to arrive; the women decked out in their furs, the men with their gold chains; I realized that the winery owner had chosen the wrong music for the evening. These nouveau rich, upward moving ex-Cajuns were not going to relate to traditional Cajun music. The evening progressed without any requests from the crowd for a certain song or even a glance in our direction or any acknowledgment whatsoever that there was actually a group of musicians playing. As the gentleman mingled with his guests I could see the concern develop in his expression. When the ordeal was finally over and everyone had left, the gentleman said to us, "I'm very surprised that these people didn't seem to relate to their own music, so I inquired as to what sort of music they normally listen to. I thought perhaps they preferred classical, jazz or rock, but they all answered that they listen to Country Western. I'm really surprised, because where we're from only red necks listen to Country music." I had to explain that the reason for this is that for many people success and heritage cannot coexist, therefore they embrace anything else that appears to have some glitz, giving up a bowl of hot gumbo for a cold, tasteless American hot dog.
How did the out-of-state interest in Cajun music develop? The reason the outside world flipped out and embraced Cajun music when they first heard it in the 60s and 70s was because this music sounded so unique to their ears. It had a "freshness" and a "realness" that had been lost in most of the other forms of music found throughout the country. Our music, because of our isolation behind the cultural iron curtain, had remained regionally intact because its evolution had occurred by absorbing and adapting certain aspects of mainstream, but not to the extent of losing its uniqueness. It was a people's music that expressed these people's entire cultural history. It exposed the culture's heart and soul. It made no difference if the songs were in a language that the rest of the world couldn't understand. What they did understand and connect with was the rhythm of life this music possessed. It all began in the tiny town of Mamou. Where is Mamou? It rests in the middle of the prairie of southwest Louisiana; not serviced by major highways, railroads or airports. Americanization has never been very effective there because of its isolation. There was a rich musical community living in and around the area. There were, just to name a few; the Balfa family, the Landreneau family, the Guillory family, the Ardoin family, the Deshotels family, the Berzas family, the Fontenot family and many others. These traditional, old-time musicians were the resources needed to support and enrich any project of cultural preservation. The townspeople themselves were proud of their heritage, wanting to preserve what they knew was good. The flame was lit. All that was needed was someone to fan the fire and to give it fuel. These keepers of the flame were Revon Reed and Paul Tate. Revon Reed and Paul Tate had been exposed to mainstream America, earning college degrees in places far removed from the rich cultural heritage of their community. By leaving their home they realized the wealth and potential of the natural cultural resources their little town had to offer and returned to support what they now realized was threatened by the melting pot syndrome. Reed and Tate were not the only men in southwest Louisiana trying to preserve the Cajun culture. Why did this preservation movement take root and grow in the tiny town of Mamou? There were people in other towns with similar ideas of cultural identity, but Reed and Tate were the first to have the vision that this preservation movement could best be achieved by presenting this music out of state. They recognized the potential of their culture, and they knew that if they could bring this music to America it would be accepted by the masses and would eventually lead to the rest of the world coming to Acadiana for the specific purpose of wanting more of what the Cajuns had to offer. They felt that visitors seeking out all things Cajun would open the Cajuns' eyes to the merits of their own heritage and would legitimize the culture for the Cajuns who had been stigmatized by their own heritage. They knew that this outside interest could easily turn what many considered a stigma into an asset. Mamou was destined to become the birthplace of this movement because all the conditions were right for this cultural revolution to take place. The musical resources were available, the followers of tradition were there, and it was the home of Paul Tate and Revon Reed. Unfortunately, in these early years not everyone shared the concept that success and heritage could coexist. But here were two men; well educated, successful, in the public eye, yet being so while speaking french and promoting Cajun music. In 1964 a talent scout for the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island was visiting the Lafayette area and happened to tune in to the live Revon Reed Show, which was broadcast in those days directly from the KEUN studio in Eunice. Reed was very often criticized by locals for making his show too unpolished. The complaints ranged from; the musicians were not professional enough, or they were too old-timey, or the fact that Reed didn't allow steel guitars on his show. All of these complaints were in fact the truth and were exactly the criteria that he wanted to feature in his show. It was exactly what the Newport scout, Dr. Ralph Rinzler wanted also. The music Dr. Rinzler heard in other areas was too influenced by country western or too commercialized. What he was looking for was the oldest version of the music and the most authentic side of the culture. He found it in Mamou! He was greeted by the brilliant Paul Tate, Sr. in his white linen suit and the intelligent and witty Revon Reed, who guided him to the rarest gems of the culture. Arrangements were made, a group of musicians were chosen (ironically from the Eunice area), and off they all went to the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival. The line up of superstars that the Cajun band was up against would have surely intimidated anyone else; but the names Bob Dylan and Joan Baez didn't have any special meaning because the Cajuns had never heard of them before. The Cajun band gets on stage, plays Grand Mamou to an audience of about 10,000 people who had never before heard the word Cajun, and before the song was halfway through, the entire audience was giving the Cajun band a standing ovation. The bomb was detonated and American music would never be the same. Film makers, folklorists, musicologists, journalists all were fascinated by the uniqueness of the Cajun roots sounds and lifestyle. The following year these men traveled to Newport, Rhode Island with another group of Cajun musicians, to act as spokespersons. These early trips exposed large groups of educated people to Cajun music and encouraged the musicians to remain traditional. From these early out of state appearances many doors were opened to musicians in Mamou and the surrounding area.
What is your view on the process of change versus evolution? I have always thought of the word tradition as meaning a set of road-tested rules and guidelines that gradually developed from countless generations of ancestors living in the same habitat. Throughout these generations a wisdom was eventually acquired about certain things that seem to work for you in your time slot and in this habitat, things that have deep meaning and lasting values handed down by one generation to the other. These generations would evolve, but the values wouldn't change because these values represented the family core, the identity of the people. Today, all these different cultures all over the globe with their beautiful traditions are all bombarded with the same message, "Get rid of everything old, your house, your car, and everything including your traditions and whatever else that makes you an individual. Come out and buy new products and lifestyles. We the organized and powerful media, as part of our indoctrination process to make you want to buy something new, will not use any examples of unique individuals from any of the many ethnic cultures that make America the beautiful patchwork quilt that it is. But instead, we will do our best to ridicule, ostracize and ultimately destroy any tradition that stands in our way, preventing us from selling our product. We will present you with a stereotype role model, and if you dare speak a language or live a lifestyle, or wear clothes, or live in a house other than the stereotype image we present to you, then we will do our best to make you unaccepted, unsuccessful and unappreciated in the herd of clones. We do this because we care only for your money and because your old traditions and time tested values prevent us from selling you a cheap product that you would be better off in the first place by not owning." I think of the word cultural change as a process that occurs very rapidly over a short span of time and usually indicates the demise of whatever is caught in its web. I think of the word evolution as a very gradual process occurring over eons of time in which an entity fine-tunes and adjusts itself very gradually to a changing environment. I see the abrupt change in my culture today sort of like what may have happened to the dinosaurs. They evolved and were very successful for 125 million years until an abrupt change (probably climatic) in their environment occurred at a faster pace than their genetic evolution could keep up with. I couldn't agree less with the statement, "things have to change to live." I believe that things have to evolve to adjust to a changing world, but if the core drastically changes, then we no longer have the same tradition. Everyone seems to be trying to justify change by saying, "look how much it has grown." Growth is not necessarily an indication of health. Multiple melanoma is also a growth. I think that when man imposes and encourages change on anything, it is usually a fiasco because the situations are usually so complex and the process by which the systems function are so unknown that we have no clear idea of what effects our changes will produce. I think of evolution as necessary and beneficial, an ongoing process implemented and guided by a much greater mind than man, one that comprehends the whole picture. I think that cultures, if they are to remain ethnic, should be left alone to evolve at the normal rate of living and dying. If a culture gets too much media attention, or worst yet, too much cultural awareness from within itself, then it changes from ethnic to ethnic-knack. It changes from a way of life to a marketable product. It changes from being underground and unique to embracing and emulating all forms of mainstream commercialization. It seems to me that as long as a culture has to endure ridicule and ostracization by the rest of mainstream that this may in some odd way be healthy for its survival in the sense that it maintains its ethnic purity by the fact that only the strong survive. The weak succumb to the ostracization and ridicule of mainstream and make the transition and join the mainstream herd. It is difficult to be unique and different from mainstream, and many proponents of a culture cannot take the heat of being different. It's their weakness that seems to make the grass greener on the other side. I don't believe in "freeze-drying" anything, much less a culture. I think that if someone would try to guide or control human expression, it would be like trying to push a flock of geese into a holding pen. Just when everything seems to be going according to plan, the flock makes an abrupt, totally unexpected change of direction, and you are left wondering what happened. I have always believed in evolution and I think that the only thing permanent is steroid-free, natural evolution. We can look around and see that everything about Nature and life has to do with evolution. I think that natural processes like living and dying are good and necessary, however I think that when a life-form, and surely music is alive, becomes infected with a rogue cell that destroys the good cells that make it impossible for the system to function, then we have something known as cancer. If ever traditions are allowed or forced to change into something that does not possess the qualities that initially made it what it was, then we no longer have the same tradition. Or worse yet, we will witness its death. I think that if traditional music survives, it will do so outside its habitat because the outsiders, out of neglect and succumbing to media influence, have for the most part lost their traditions, are searching to connect with something real, and are starved for anything that doesn't sound mainstream.
How do you feel about the fusion of Cajun music with other musical genres? I think that this fusion or cross-pollinating process has in the past worked very well and has produced some fantastic music until as recently as the 60s and 70s. To me the fusion of musical genres has been analogous to tectonic plates colliding and forming spectacular mountains of lasting beauty. Today it seems that this fusion/tectonic plate collision produces only a little cloud of dust that quickly settles and disperses in a matter of weeks. Where have all the mountains gone? What is so different about today's world that prevents singer/songwriters from producing material having the longevity, uniqueness and power of the older recordings? Is it the lack of strife and hardship in today's world or is it that with all the technology available, we have replaced heart-felt emotion and talent with electronically generated impulses. Maybe the world's obsession with all things "lite" includes even their desire for "lite" music?
Are you opposed to musicians who are interested in fusion? Certainly not. Thank God there are no "music police", because even I would be in trouble. However, I feel that the number of musicians, who are gifted with this talent, are very very few and far between. Instead of producing a new, fantastic and unique genre, today this fusion or cross-pollination produces only mediocrity. What is difficult for me to comprehend is that this mediocrity does sell, not because it is such a high art form, but apparently because the current audiences are not very demanding to begin with, and will buy whatever is backed by enough money in the marketing process. I find this mediocrity to be much less than the sum of its parts, and not near as interesting as the individual genres from whence they came. An example of this is a program aired recently on PBS about Irish music, which I am somewhat familiar with. The moderator did a fantastic job of selling the forthcoming performance by very convincingly telling us listeners that the fantastic music we were about to hear was the result of Irish music constantly fusing and cross-pollinating with other musical forms and in doing so produced the amazing music we were about to enjoy. I fastened my sear belt and sunk a little lower in my easy chair anticipating the sheer joy of hearing such art. The curtain lifts; a yuppyish-looking young man dressed in raggedy clothes appears on stage and begins strumming a guitar while moaning a generic, Wal-Mart sounding melody with lyrics about some political issues in Ireland. Actually there wasn't really any melody at all and his guitar playing was still in the learning stages (better known as the "can't yet play" style). I immediately thought that this had to be a bad joke on the Irish or that if this was the fantastic new art form created by fusion of Irish music and God knows what else, then this person should have left well enough alone and devoted himself to trying to learn the art of past generations of Irish musicians, since he surely didn't possess any talent for creating anything but more new mediocrity, which is definitely not in short demand. This was my opinion but was surely not the general consensus of the audience, because they gave him a standing ovation. Why?? What for?? What is it?? It had to be in the message, because it certainly wasn't in the music. If the attraction was only in the message, then why not simply recite the message or better yet print the message in an article that deals with political issues and have that published? Has the American audience become accustomed to so much mediocrity that they are easily entertained by something of so little talent? I think the reason the audience responded in the manner they did was mostly because the moderator told them that it was so fantastic. The power of suggestion and the influence of the tube! One thing that I have been observing for the last 60 years is that the person who grows up immersed in the culture he has always embraced is the one less likely to bring about any fusion or artificial insemination. Why is it that the "born agains" are usually the progenitors of change, fusion, crossbreeding, etc.? Is it because they want to make more money by selling a product that appeals to a larger audience, or is it because, by not having cut their teeth on their heritage, they don't fully comprehend the beauty and richness of this heritage that they have been entrusted with? I find gumbo an awesome fusion of a few very simple ingredients that produced an amazingly delicious and very unique dish, much greater than the sum of its parts. I follow a family recipe that was handed down from my grandmother and yet my gumbo is slightly different, even though I follow the recipe closely. Because I am not my grandmother, and since my world is very different from hers, and also that the quality and quantity of each ingredient may be a little different, her gumbo has evolved to taste like mine does today. This I would call natural "evolution." If I were to pour a gallon of "Kool-aid" and maybe add a few "Big Macs" into the pot of gumbo, then I probably would have something that no one would or could eat. I would definitely call this brilliant innovation a "change." Where have all the people gone who were able to take these few simple ingredients of scorched flour, onions and meat and fuse this into something as good as gumbo, and all into one single pot?! How did this come about? I read today's recipes for new dishes of Cajun fusion, and even though they are very complicated, involving many stages of preparation, the end result is that they can't begin to compare with the simple old recipes for sauce piquant, etouffee, courtbouillion, gumbo, fricassee, jambalaya, etc. Not to mention the fact that because of the complexity of preparation, you now have used every pot and pan in the kitchen and instead of having the time now to play a tune, you can now enjoy hours of washing dishes.
What do you see as serious problems affecting Cajun culture today? Too much affectation and not enough naturalness. I think that the culture may be suffering from acute cuteness. The biggest thing that really sticks in my craw is this "cutesy-cutesy" infatuation with children and babies performing Cajun music. I use the term "performing music" instead of the term "playing music" because the performance aspect seems to be more important than the music. The reason the music attracted me so much when I began playing was the fact that there wasn't any performance attached. The music was the star, and the musician was simply the steward. I am all for children learning about their music, as well as their entire folklore. All four of my children play music even though they were never prompted, much less pushed. On the contrary, when they expressed an interest in learning, I gave them access to the instruments but made it very clear that I wasn't going to help them learn. I learned because of a passion and would have done so even with handcuffs. I also made it clear that they were not going to get on stage until they had mastered the music and paid their dues, no matter how "cute" an audience would have thought them to be. I remember in 1952 when I received my first accordion. I was not pushed or prompted to play, even though I could play better than most of my neighbors. In fact, I was not allowed to play when the old-timers got together; not one of them found it "so cute" that a twelve-year-old kid could play almost as well as the old-timers. I had the right only to sit, listen and be quiet. And because of that social rule in those days, "children should be seen and not heard"; I learned a lot of technique from those old musicians. Twenty-five years ago I began a jam session that I hoped would create a situation in which a younger musician could participate (instead of anxiously awaiting a turn to "perform") and play along with an older, seasoned master. My motive for an older master leading the jam session was to create a learning experience for the younger generation where they could watch, listen, learn and play along in the background. I wanted this to be a learning center where the only star was the music itself. Today I am noticing an alarmingly large number of children whose parents are not content for these children to sit in the background to try to learn something but are pushing them to either "out gun" the old master or demonstrate their pitiful 3 or 4 note rendition of a tune or two. Is this some sort of vicarious thrill for the parents, or is it actually the child's interest? If this is actually the child's interest, then what is it that has motivated this interest? Is this interest an extension of the tradition found to already exist in the home, or is it the stimulus resulting from watching TV performances depicting another child's performance? What child, 3, 30, 60, or 90 wouldn't be motivated to "perform" anything, especially when they see the audience going "goo goo ga ga" over a performance that requires little if any talent? A woman telephoned me recently to say that her 3 year old son had seen such a performance on TV, and she was surprised by the child's sudden interest in Cajun music, especially since neither she or her husband spoke French or listened to Cajun music. I asked her if her child was interested in the music or was he interested solely in the performance. She didn't relate to my question, so she replied that the child didn't know any tunes and that she wanted to know what it was that I thought her child needed at this point. I answered that I thought what both the parents and the child needed was to cut off the TV and try to re-connect with their heritage and not to be so interested in a "performance," but rather in someone who actually "lives" the culture. I suggested that maybe she should immerse the child as much as possible in the presence of older musicians (who aren't performers). From these folks maybe the child could learn about the core of the music and gradually progress to learning the tunes themselves. Maybe at that point she could consider the purchase of an instrument. I could tell that my suggestion was much too staid, so the next question was, "Is there a secret to learning music by ear?" I replied that there definitely was and the secret was "Don't buy a typewriter until you learn to spell the word." Will this quest for the spotlight produce a person who plays music out of love for his heritage and would do so regardless of any obstacle, including being barred from touching the parents' instruments, or will this showbiz vision of music produce a commercialized, vanity-driven person whose ulterior motive is to get to Nashville and rub elbows with the many other people who have robbed peoples' music of its integrity, warmth and feeling, and in doing so replaced these qualities with superficial music expressing cheap and shallow lifestyles?
What would you do to correct the problems you speak of? First of all, throw your TV in the landfill. If you insist on keeping it, write to the companies that sponsor all those stupid comedies, violent movies, degenerate daytime talk shows, and horrid music shows and threaten to quit buying their products until they can clean up their act. Buy your neighbor a small trash can for his automobile so he won't have to throw his beer can in the ditch. Explain to him that that piece of litter is neither going to melt, evaporate, sublime, or rot and will lay there until someone cares enough to pick it up. I would encourage teachers in the classroom to develop and cultivate each student's special and unique talent that each and every one of them possess and affirm that the differences that identify students as being apart from each other are assets and not stigmas. The teachers should allow the students to comprehend that the marvelous advancements that mankind has achieved have not developed from the fact that everyone was trying to look, think, act and be like everyone else. These advancements came about because someone in the room had a better way of doing something and were not satisfied with accepting the status quo. Antibiotics would have never been developed if everyone were comfortable with gangrene. Remind parents and other teachers that it is so often very difficult to recognize the form that genius takes. Advise the students that it isn't what you miss out on by not joining the herd but rather what you escape from. Go spend an evening visiting with a friend who finds that going to casinos is entertaining. Help him understand that gambling is the surest way to get nothing for something. Demand that your government be accountable for your tax dollars so that you can get better schools and facilities for the public and not just fatten up the mob of bureaucrats. Take responsibility for yourself. Go out and visit your grandparents and learn their stories and their language, and while you're there go out in the barnyard and watch the chickens, cows and pigs. Notice how they have to spend the better part of their day rooting around for food just to survive, unless of course someone gives them a handout.
What effect does advertising have on you? I never buy anything that is advertised or that is on sale. Actually, I don't by anything (on sale or not) because I don't want anything.
Why do you speak out so much? Because of values. I think that there is some confusion out there about the words "progress" and "change". "Progress" is a movement in the positive direction, whereas "change" can be either positive or negative. What is so great about the English language that would make someone want to abandon French? Personally I find French much more beautiful and wish that I could speak several languages. What is so great about a mobile home or a brick shoebox that would make someone tear down a beautiful, old Acadian home and replace it with something of lesser beauty? What is so great about the fabled American "rat race" that would make us want to give up our lifestyle and join the herd? I speak out because I think that what we have here in Acadiana has always been the best. We have the best food, the best lifestyle and the most beautiful language; best because we didn't borrow them from anyone else; best because they are road tested and belong to us. I would like to see these values survive and not become distorted as they have in many other places. I would like to see these traditions and values taken out of the closet and put where the entire family can use them. I think that if these traditions and values were cultivated in the home, you would not have the problems to the degree that they are in the world today. I think that the world problems have escalated because of the degradation of the family unit. I think that people would have more respect for themselves and in turn have more respect for their environment.
What do you see for the future? I'm very optimistic about the future. I see more and more people moving to Louisiana to live in our area, because they have embraced our traditions. They seem to be fleeing from the bland, homogenized "United States of Generica." While their vision of this culture may be a little romanticized, I think their attitude is positive, and their love of all things Cajun is very sincere. For this romantic vision to remain, or better yet become a reality, I would remind these newcomers to please not infect our heritage with the same homogenizing process that destroyed their own personal culture by unknowingly implementing or embracing too many drastic changes upon ours. I would ask these new arrivals to accept our culture for what it is, and as Ralph Renzler said, "to understand why life here is like it is here nowhere else, and why in some ways it should remain that way." I would remind everyone that you can only dilute gumbo so far before you eventually have something tasteless and bland. I think everything will work out and that our heritage as we remember it will regroup and propel itself into the future. I believe this because there is a lot more good than there is bad and a lot more sunny days than stormy ones. And I know for sure that humans are a very resilient species. I think the media may impose a few bad trends on us and get away with it for a while, and that we may tolerate mediocrity for a while, but before too long we will come to our senses and make the necessary corrections. I think that the human race is always fine-tuning itself. I remember when I was a kid; one of my chores was slopping the hogs. Man, I hated those hogs more than anything else. They'd knock the bucket out of your hand, bite you if they could, walk all over your feet, and try to eat the trough just to get at the slop. They reminded me a lot, in certain ways, of some people I knew. I had observed many times how smart these animals were, but I couldn't understand why they loved slop so much. So one day I decided to try an experiment. I went into the barn, got a bucket of clean, fresh corn and poured it into an empty trough next to the one filled with slop. At first not one pig would touch the corn, but after a few days of repeated tries, they gradually made the switch from slop to corn and eventually wouldn't touch the slop. That I think is every person's responsibility; TO OFFER A BETTER CHOICE AND SPEAK OUT AGAINST BAD TRENDS.
"No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." H. L. Mencken