Cajun Music as Oral Poetry

By Carolyn Ware


Cajun music is widely recognized as the most eloquent expression of the beliefs and concerns of the Cajun people. Through their songs, Cajun song makers transfer their everyday experiences into oral poetry which speaks not only for the individual singers, but for the traditional culture.

Just as the ideas reflected in traditional music are important, so are the ways in which these ideas are expressed. The meaning of a song is conveyed in many ways: its lyrics, tune, structure, tempo, vocal styles and instrumental accompaniment all help the singer to establish a particular emotion. The high-pitched, emotional singing style characteristic of Cajun music works with the melody and words, for example, to establish the mood of loneliness and unhappy love at the heart of many Cajun songs.

The lyrics of Cajun songs often receive less attention than they deserve. Perhaps this is partially due to the improvisational nature of much of the music. The words to a song may be different each time it is performed, as the singer changes or creates a song according to his mood. Or perhaps it is because the language of Cajun music seems similar to that of everyday speech rather than the highly figurative language often associated with poetry.

Cajun music does, however, have its own conventions which make up its particular "poetic vocabulary." Certain stock situations, conventional images and phrases appear frequently in Cajun songs. Through repetition and association these become symbols or metaphors for singers and listeners, taking on significance beyond their surface meanings. These conventional devices along with stylistic features like verse, form, rhyme, and rhythm, make up the "poetics" of Cajun music.

The use of imagery is one of the most interesting forms of poetics. The use of colorful metaphors and similes is not as striking in Cajun music as it is in the blues, for instance. But there are certain images, whether they are expressed as single words or phrases, which are popular in Cajun music and which conjure up strong associations.

One common image is that of the house, often mentioned in relation to its opposition the road or street. "La maison" represents all of the stable attributes of home, community, morality and fidelity which are important in traditional Cajun culture.

The house is frequently used as a metaphor for love or marriage, so that leaving the house becomes a highly symbolic action in these songs. For instance, when the singer in Iry LeJeune's "J'ai Fai Une Grosse Erreur" (I Made a Big Mistake") says that:

Quand j'ai quitte la maison (When I left your house)
Je croyais j'avais raison. (I believed I had a reason.)

He is describing abandoning his relationship with his wife as well as leaving the house. In another very vivid example of such imagery, the successful lover in "Grand Bosco" informs his rival that he has stolen his wife and that his house, the embodiment of the marriage, is destroyed as well:

Ta femme est partie (Your woman is gone)
Ta maison elle a pris en feu. (Your house has caught on fire.)

The husband or lover who has been abandoned is a common figure in Cajun music, and he often uses the image of the empty house to refer to his unhappy state, complaining that he is left alone there, suffering, as he hopes for his wife's return. His request for reconciliation likewise takes the form of asking her to return to his house, as Iry LeJeune suggestion in "La Valse De Grands Chemins":

Dis bye-bye a ton pop et ta mom, chere (Say goodbye to your pop and mon, chere)
Pour revenir a la maison pour me rejoindre. (And come back to the house and join me.)

In the blues, the road—especially the railroad—is often understood as a route to adventure and new beginnings. In Cajun music, the road is generally portrayed negatively, as the opposite of what is traditionally valued in Cajun society: marriage, family, and community. Close ties with family, home, and friends, symbolized by the house, represent happiness, while the isolation and disconnectedness of the road brings mainly unhappiness.

Drinking, gambling, and general troublemaking is often mentioned in connection with the road or street. This behavior is seen as potentially disruptive to family and community. A Cajun song quoted by Irene Whitfield in French Louisiana Folksongs describes the men of Crowley as being troublemakers who are always in the street "a chercher a malfaire," carrying a jug on the saddle and dice in their pockets.

Whereas the house symbolizes a secure relationship, the road may connote its destruction. In "Lacassine Special," a husband threatens his wife with an end to their marriage by telling her that "tu peux voir le chemin et t'en aller" (but you can see the road and go"). In "Bayou Pon Pon Special" the unfaithful lover is sad to see the woman he has wronged, alone and "dans les chemins" (in the streets). Taking to the roads is often a response to a broken heart. References to turning to the roads out of desperation or unhappiness are frequent, and in "La Valse a Abe," Amédée Ardoin laments:

Il y a personne pour me faire mon besoins (Nobody to take care of my needs)
Comment je v'as faire (What am I going to do?)
Prend tout la, our, du chemin. (Take to the roads.)

This last song, in which Ardoin calls himself an "orphan," makes a connection between the road and homelessness. The figure of the hobo or "orphan," cut off from the family and community ties so important in Cajun society, is a recurrent one which adds another dimension of meaning to the symbol of the road.

These images of "la maison" and "le chemin" have then become metaphors which have cultural meaning far beyond their literal definitions. These symbols can travel from song to song as words or phrases, carrying their many levels of meaning with them.

Another conventional image, especially in Iry LeJeune's songs, is that of words as a means of deception or troublemaking. Singers complain of lover's promises or "bonnes paroles" which lure them from their homes but are never honored, of parental advice which destroys relationships, and of hurt at words spoken.

The exact content of these words is rarely made explicit but is implied in their consequences. Typically, the singer mourns a promise, presumably of fidelity, when the woman turns her back on him to join another. Or, as in "Duralde Waltz," her promise to return has not be kept.

At times, the words are not described at all, but are simply blamed for the man's misery, as when the singer in LeJeune's "Lacassine Special" says that he has suffered misery because of "tes paroles, que toi, catin, tu m'avais dit" ("Just because of your words, of your words that you, catin, you said to me"). The wronged lover in "The Convict Waltz" implies that the words spoken by this woman have caused his imprisonment:

Condemne pour quatre vingt-dix-neuf ans (Condemned for 99 years)
C'est juste rapport aux paroles toi t'as dit, (It's all because of the words you said,)
Qui m'a fait souffert aussi long temps pour ça. (I was made to suffer so long.)

Because these are familiar images to listeners, the singer does not need to detail exactly what these words are to effectively communicate his sense of betrayal and unhappiness.

These conventional images of the house, road, and deceptive words are only a few examples of the traditional imagery available to the Cajun songmaker. These poetic conventions make it clear that the use of language is important in Cajun song. Even when songs are improvised, words are not thrown together randomly but are shaped by a strong sense of what "fits" or is appropriate in the song.

As in most folk musical traditions, Cajun songmakers draw heavily on traditional sources as well as on new, popular music to create new songs, or recreate old ones. Early French, Acadian, Celtic, country music, and the blues are few of the musical styles which have left their marks on Cajun music. Tunes, themes, images, and entire phrases are borrowed and pass from song to song.

Images and phrases which are concisely and gracefully constructed as well as meaningful to a particular culture will become popular in that tradition. The songs of Amédée Ardoin, Iry LeJeune, and Lawrence Walker, for example, are still sung today not only because they speak for the Cajun people, but because they do so in words and images which, although commonplace, are beautiful and poetic.

The article first appeared in the 1990 Festival Internationale de Louisiane book and is presented here with permission. Dr. Carolyn Ware teaches folklore at Louisiana State University in the Department of English.