Before the days of online payments, it was a Cajun tradition among the farming people to get all gussied up on Saturday; go to town to shop and/or pay their accounts at the feed store, hardware store, tractor supply, etc. The owners of these establishments, as a show of appreciation for the farmers' business, would always have a hot pot of coffee on the counter, along with either doughnuts, boudin or cracklins. The farmer would meet his neighbors in these establishments and would discuss farming practices, crop prices and yields, weather conditions, etc. Although my father came from a long line of farmers, I myself never developed an interest in any aspect of farming. However, I always accompanied him because I liked the doughnuts and boudin. I also enjoyed the sense of community that was strongly present in these establishments.
When I opened the doors to this business, I set out to try and create the same spirit I had so much enjoyed as a child. Since I didn't sell tractor fuel or chicken feed, the only other thing I had to offer was music. Saturdays were always considered non-work days for the Cajuns, so a few customers would drop by to drink a cup of coffee, take an instrument off the counter, and play a few tunes.
Very slowly the word got out that a few guys were playing music at Savoy Music Center every Saturday morning. Very slowly I began seeing a few other local faces that I knew were not musicians, but rather, people who just enjoyed listening to the music. It was especially appealing to the older generation of musicians who didn't play the style of music that was currently popular in the dancehalls. This older generation included my old friends and mentors whom I had grown up with and had first heard their music in the Bal de Maison at my father's home in the 50's. Perhaps they were no longer popular and in demand in the current scene, but to me they were my heroes. I made certain that they knew that here at Savoy Music Center they were important, and that they were considered valuable assets to the Cajun music scene. To list all the names of the early jammers at Savoy Music Center would read like a Who's Who of Cajun Music in Louisiana.
However, there was one important element missing in this scene that would ensure its sustainability – the younger generation! If this culture would be propelled into the next time period, that feat would have to be accomplished by the younger generation. In the late 50's and early 60's an interest in Cajun music from the younger generation was virtually non-existent. America's propaganda machine, so effective homogenizing all ethnic cultures, had done as good a job here in Louisiana as it had with the hillbillies of Appalachia, the Native Americans, the Swedes in the Midwest, the Germans in Texas, etc. Evidently no one from these cultures ever questioned the credibility of the propaganda machine in order to determine if it really was an improvement in individuality and personal value to give up one's roots in favor of a bland, all-American existence. Also, no one apparently realized that heritage and culture could co-exist and do so very favorably.
There was a change looming on the horizon that was destined to change all this, and that change was to be brought about by the Newport Folk Festival of Newport, Rhode Island. If any one thing can account for the renaissance of Cajun culture, it definitely was the Newport Folk Festival of 1964. Cajun culture would never be the same. Louisiana was in for a big awakening, but that wouldn't happen before another two decades had passed. Cajun culture would eventually be listed as one of Louisiana's greatest natural resources, but at that time very few state officials, if any, were aware of the value and potential of any culture to be attractive for tourism.
The musicians returned from Newport with stories about how the audience responded more favorably to Cajun music than they had to the headliners such as Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul, and Mary. They would tell stories about how the media--CBS, NBC, BBC, ABC--would follow them around every day for interviews to find out more about this mystical place called Louisiana, where the people speak French instead of English, play this wonderful dance music instead of rock'n'roll, cook this wonderful food instead of American hot dogs. So began the filmmakers' and media's exodus into Louisiana. Wow! Some brand-new news for the media to present to the world! Imagine the pride in the Cajuns of Louisiana when the media began coming into Louisiana to film all things Cajun. The media and filmmakers were here, not to film and document things "all American," but rather, to film and document everything that wasn't "all American." If any one thing can be credited with Cajuns seeing their heritage as an asset instead of the stigma it had become, it was definitely the media and filmmakers of those days.
These stories that the musicians told when they returned from Newport in 1964 were very instrumental in my concept of building Savoy Music Center, a music store that would specialize in all things Cajun. I had always felt that it was only a matter of time before the world would discover that the culture we had here in Louisiana behind this cultural "Iron Curtain" was a very unique treasure. The words "cultural tourism" had not been coined yet, and it would take almost two decades before I would begin seeing strangers in our area.
I felt positive that if the world could somehow find out about this amazing culture of ours, people from all over the world would want to come to Louisiana and experience it. The early media and filmmakers most certainly accomplished this. The Savoy Music Center jam session has been filmed by "Good Morning America" of New York and featured in both the "National Geographic" and "Smithsonian" magazines to name just a few.
Besides attracting visitors from all over the world, this publicity by the media also created a cultural awareness among the younger generation of Cajuns in their desire to learn the language, music, stories and all other facets of their heritage. Some of the most popular young Cajun musicians playing Cajun music today learned their music from sitting quietly in the corner of the room playing behind such masters as Dennis McGee, Dewey Balfa, Aldus Roger, Octa Clark, Milton Adams, Jack Leger, etc.
Because of their age and valuable knowledge of this culture, it has always been my attitude that the older musicians lead this jam session. Children are most welcome, but are encouraged to remain and play in the background to listen to and learn not just the tunes, but also the stories exchanged between the older musicians about the music and how it fits into their lives. It's a learning situation in which the younger generation can acquire a sensibility about the music and culture.
The jam session today seems to function very naturally. Structured scheduling concerning repertoire or who-plays-what does not exist. The musicians themselves are all old friends and seem to have an innate sense of "jam session etiquette". During the three hour session the line up of musicians seems to be constantly changing; one wave comes in, plays a few tunes, socializes a while with friends, then leaves while another wave is coming in to take their places. The feeling of the jam session is that of an old-time house dance. It isn't a performance because no one is "performing;" rather it's a get-together of friends to play the music of their heritage.
Cajun culture has come a long way. Once on the brink of being buried under the United States of Generica, it has surfaced stronger than ever. The word "Cajun" has become an international word. Cajun music has been played for the Presidents of this country and for the Monarchs of Europe--not bad for a people who were once ostracized and stigmatized for being who they were and who they wanted to remain.
So, where does this culture go from here? Is it rooted deeply enough to withstand all the hype and commercialization of the current day? Will it continue to evolve with the values that made it what it is and define what it should be? Will the younger generation continue to realize that this wonderful and very unique culture has withstood the test of time for 250 years, and the grass, which appears greener across the fence, is in reality Astroturf?
Here at this jam session we continue doing our part to ensure that this Astroturf does not take root.