Pretty, Little, and Fickle: Images of Women in Cajun Music
By Laura Westbrook
The songs sung by a people reflect general cultural attitudes about a variety of issues. For example, love songs can give a glimpse into gender relations and gender roles. The lyrics of Cajun performance songs frequently concern romantic or domestic relationships. Most scholarly work on Cajun music has focused on the men who have written and performed these songs. But what image do they paint of the women to whom the songs are so often addressed, or who they describe?
A Very Brief Overview of Cajun Performance Music
Cajun music, or the songs of the French-speaking Acadians whose ancestors came to Louisiana from Nova Scotia in the 18th century, includes songs of the 17th- and 18th-century France as well as Cajun versions of familiar Southern songs. With the advent (in the early 1900s) of the accordion as the most popular lead instrument, many of the older songs which relied on a strong fiddle lead fell into obscurity. At about the turn of the century, a core of what are now regarded as traditional Cajun songs, the stock repertoire of Cajun and Creole performers, was formed. Many of the songs were "newly" written, based on variations of traditional tunes and utilizing the new instrumentation, and some included more recognizable remnants of the earlier musical tradition.
Influences in Cajun music lyrics which will be most recognizable to modern listeners are those of traditional blues songs, particularly of the Mississippi Delta variety. The plaintive, wailing tone of Cajun singers, which came about partly as an effort to be heard over the shuffling feet on a crowded dance floor, is well-suited to the tales of romantic woe which are common to both blues and Cajun songs.
The songs of South Louisiana are primarily told from the viewpoint of a male narrator. Though there have historically been occasional exceptions to the norm of male performers, such as Cleoma Breaux Falcon in the 1920s and '30s, until very recently the shapers and singers of the songs have been men. While some of the older European songs which came over with the Acadians were originally sung by women, the strong social prohibition against women performing outside the home put these songs into a different category from what came to be know publicly as Cajun dance music. Women who performed in public were suspect, and although Cleoma Falcon was considered to be a curiosity, she escaped public censure because she performed with her husband Joe Falcon.
When a traditional Cajun dance-hall song is sung by a woman, which happens more and more, the song is usually still expressed from the male viewpoint. The emphasis is on maintaining the traditional song and not on "updating" it, as happens with many popular tunes which get gender-switched when re-recorded by an artist of the opposite sex of the original singer. Changes in these traditional Cajun songs are more likely to be changes in person- or place-names and come about as the result of which version of a song the individual singer learned or likes best.
In recent years, women have enlarged their musical spheres. They now exhibit a renewed interest in the nearly-extinct songs which were once commonly transmitted to youngsters by women in the home as well as a facility for writing and playing the dance songs passed down by men. As a result, there are more women writing and performing Cajun music than ever before. The songs that they write tend to combine elements of the "home songs" sung by women in the private domain, not primarily intended to accompany dancing, the traditional performance songs, geared toward the dance hall audience. Modern Cajun women write songs about their own lives, including domestic situations, as well as about romantic entanglements. Songs penned by writer like Kristi Guillory or Becky Richard are as likely to be about a well-loved grandmother, or the tragic loss of a child, as about a lover. These and other female singers, however, still honor the traditional songs of their parents and of their culture and sing them with love.
The Traditional Standard Repertoire of Cajun Performers
In this article I will examine the images of women in the lyrics of the performance songs collected by Ann Allen Savoy for her book, Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People (1984). 1 This book gives lyrics, with music, of those tunes which comprise the standard repertoire of any traditionally-oriented Cajun musician. Although these songs are quite widely-known, I have not been able to discover any published material which examines lyrics of traditional Cajun performance music in any depth. Most of what has been written about this art form has been written by men and focuses on history and instrumentation, as does Savoy's book.
In her introduction, Savoy states her belief that "It is important now to have a book in which the lyrics are presented in written form whereas twenty years ago, such a book would not have been wanted" (Savoy 1984:xii).2 She expresses her concern about the gradual disappearance of the French language and the dilution of the culture of South Louisiana. It is her intention, with the publication of this book, to help to keep the culture alive and to give "the sung language and the old stories back to the new generations" (xii). This volume does not attempt to analyze the songs or to interpret lyrics. Savoy has made it her aim to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the tunes and lyrics as they were sung and played for her, or as they have been recorded.
The versions presented, then, can be assumed to be accurate transcriptions of songs as they were heard by the collector. They are quoted here exactly as they appear in Savoy's book. Savoy points out, however, that the words to these traditional songs are in a constant state of flux. For example, in her recording of the words to "Jolie Blonde," Savoy includes this final verse:
Jolie Blonde, mourir, ça serait pas rien,
C'est de rester dans la terre aussi longtemps,
Moi j'vois pas quoi faire si tu reviens pay, bébé,
T'en revenir avec moi dans la Louisiane. (84)
This verse was not included in her original source, but is usually performed today and so it is listed here. Many of the song lyrics included were taken from a representative performance or one recording "just to give a good basic set of words to the well loved tunes" (xiii). Most of the songs are performed pretty much as they are written in this book; many of them will vary slightly from performance to performance.
Savoy's collection includes 106 Cajun, Creole, and zydeco songs. Of these, twenty are tunes and lyrics of old Creole songs and more modern zydeco songs. This article focuses on the remaining 86 Cajun songs, 81 of which include representation of, or reference to, women. The voice in all of these songs is a male one. The fact that the music's lyrics so overwhelmingly concern domestic relations reflects the importance of family structure and well-defined gender roles among Louisiana's traditionally Catholic Cajuns. As this is a collection of songs most often performed in public, the male point of view of these songs is not surprising since it has traditionally been uncommon for Cajun women to perform in public. Until very recently there has been little societal support for such presentations. Traditional dance songs and their subject matter were thought to be inappropriate for women to perform in public. The rhythmic subtleties, subject matter, changeable tempos, and sometimes drawn-out styles of women's domestic songs made them more appropriate for intimate gatherings.
A Survey of the Lyrics
So what are the images of women promoted by Cajun performance music lyrics. With only a couple of exceptions, the woman is the cause of male misery. The primary female type in these songs is the unhappy heartbreaker who would find contentment if she would only choose the correct man (the singer), and settle down with him to be a "good little girl until death" ("Poche Town" 109). Only 8 of the 81 songs examined for this article specifically use the word "young" in depicting the female object of the singer's attention. However, 38 of the songs use the adjective "little" to describe the main female character. The listener can assume that these tiny women are also young because young women are usually smaller than adult women and because these songs typically describe episodes which would most likely occur in women's early lives.
We have no clues given to us about the personalities of the women in the songs, only of some of the characteristics which they have or should have. We cannot ascertain whether most of these women are active or passive; the act most often reported is that of abandoning a lover. Occasionally a woman is reported as abandoning not only her husband but her children, and that is clearly described as wrong or cruel. A few of the songs concern women who speak "good words that made me leave my house, "and then leave their men all alone. In these songs the male narrators are the ones who regret having been lured away from their family homes. A listener hearing or reading this catalog of wrongs done to men by young girls could hear in it the theme of immature females who are not yet quite up to the life of hard work which was traditionally the lot of the Cajun wife. Obedience is stressed as a valuable quality for a woman to exhibit.
Two of the songs mention women in more or less humorous ways. In "J'ai Ete-z-au Bal" (158), the singer laments that he cannot find a woman to love him no matter how hard he tries. The other, "Une Piastre Ici, Une Piastre Làbas" (126), is told from the point of view of a free-spending young husband who is forced to reform due to the pregnancy of his "dear little girl."
Of the 81 songs which mention a woman, all but one mention her in relation to a man. She is usually the love interest of the singer/narrator, but occasionally she is the mother of the singer's love. The references most often mentioned in connection with female characters are mentions of her being "little" or "young" (46 references). The second most common is the man who is made miserable because of a woman, sometimes not saying exactly why. In two cases he is imprisoned as a result of actions caused by his frustrated love, and in one he becomes a hobo (30 references).
Other frequently mentioned images relating to women are those of the physically beautiful female (mentioned 25 times), the woman who abandon or ceases to love the male protagonist of the song (23 times), the unfaithful man (11 times), the woman described as "unhappy" (10 times), the man who must leave his home for love of the woman he cannot have (9 times), the mother who abandons her children (6 times), the mother who must be persuaded to give away the hand of her daughter (6 times), the young woman who has trouble leaving her family and friends behind, or songs in which the singer/narrator stresses the importance of shifting allegiances to his proposed bride (five times), the idealized mother of the male singer (4 times), the repentant man who has wronged a woman (4 times), the beautiful dead woman (3 times), the wayward woman (twice), and the sick woman (once).
The clear implication of these songs is that women, although young and often small when they reach marriageable age, are nevertheless dangerous and a potential cause of misery to men. Young, small, ill, or even dead women are idealized, perhaps because they seem the least likely to thwart their men.
The unconventional woman
Two of the included songs mention girls who live a wild life. In one of them, "La Porte D'en Arriere" (275), the singer regrets his rowdy past with wild women. In the other, "Adieu, Rosa, Demain C'est Pas Dimanche" (61), the singer chastises a woman who stays out all night, saying "thank the good Lord / That Rosa isn't my sister." In others, the "Lafayette Two-Step" (200), the singer complains, "Everyone speaks badly of you / You dance too closely Why do you do that to me?" The clear message here is that the good life is to be enjoyed only in moderation by women. This song is the only one which specifically refers to societal attitudes of the singers function as signifiers of public opinion. There is also a song, "Si J'aurais de Aîles" (17), in which the singer describes a beautiful woman who is good to drink with, but not to marry. Marriage is depicted as a time of male regret, "He is there, long / Always regretting / The pretty past times."
The unavailable woman
Illness or death are given as causes for anxiety in a couple of songs in this collection. "Mon Cour T'Appelle" ("J'ai Passé Devant Ta Porte"] (105) concerns the misery caused by the death of a beautiful woman, and "Aux Natchitoches" (24) tells of a "lover who is living in languor" due to worry over the illness of his beloved, who lives far away in Natchitoches.
In only a rare few songs do we ever learn anything about the woman herself. The only song collected here in which we see anything of a female character's life or feelings (told from the male perspective) is "La Fille de Quatorze Ans" (22), in which an inconsolable fourteen-year-old girl is sent to a convent by her father, who says she is too young for marriage. When the sweetheart come back from war four years later, he learns that his girl has died just three days before, presumably of heartbreak. This song incorporates themes common to other Cajun songs, most notably the tragedy of a love which is not sanctioned by the girl's parents.
Une jeune fille de quatorze ans,
Z-ah oui, grand Dieu, quelle belle brune.
Un jour elle dit à son papa
"Papa, je veux me marier."
"Fille jeunette, now taisez-vous
Vous n'avez pas-t-encore quinze ans
Vous n'avez pas-t-encore quinze ans,
Z-a pour-e-plaire à-t-un amant."
This theme can be found in seven of the songs in this collection.
In Catholic South Louisiana, life in a convent was a very real threat or possibility for a young woman. Here one can still hear stories of wayward girls being sent to a convent, though these days it is more likely to be a convent school. This option has been a threat or a last resort available to parents since medieval times, and the ancestors to many of the Cajun songs probably have their roots in European folksongs which would have been informed by that history.
Filial vs. spousal loyalty
The theme of unhappiness caused to a young couple by a parent's refusal to accept their courtship is evident in many of the songs in this collection Of these, the majority concern a woman who has abandoned her lover in a remorseful return to her family. We can assume that the family to which the girl returns is one which did not approve the match, as she would otherwise most likely be sent back to her husband. Since these tales are told through the eyes of the men, we have no idea why these young brides felt compelled to leave their new households. The songs focus on the sadness who was ultimately more faithful to her parents than to her man. The second verse to "Ma Blonde est Partie" (84) (usually called "Jolie Blonde" and said to be "the Cajun 'National Anthem'") is a good example:
Jolie Blonde, tu m'as laissé moi tout seul,
Pour t'en aller chez ta famille,
Si t'aurais pas écouté tous les conseils de les autres,
Tu serais ici-t avec moi-z-aujourd'hui.
Many of the songs included in this collection concern the notion that a woman must demonstrate complete loyalty to whichever household she is a part of. The scenario most often described in which a female lover abandons her man is that in which she returns to her family. The hearer can only surmise that the young bride may have chafed at her new, more restrictive lifestyle. All of the songs focus on the difficulty of this situation for the men of Cajun society; the dilemma of torn feelings and divided loyalties on the woman's part can only be inferred. The words to "La Valse des Grand Chemins" (160) imply that a young wife has left her suffering husband in order to rejoin her parents:
Dis bye-bye à ton pop et ta mom, chère,
pour t'en rev'nir à la maison pour me rejoindre.
'Gardez donc, quoi qui t'aimait malheureuse.
Songs are cautionary rather than descriptive
Relationships between mothers and daughters are not explored in much detail in these songs. The mother-daughter connection is the only relationship between women which is mentioned in this collection. There are no friends or sisters, although the young girl in "La Fille de Quatorze Ans" does have a brother who warns her to be resigned to her father's wishes lest he place her in the convent. The mothers, aside from the idealized mothers of the singers, fall into two categories. These are the mother who must be persuaded to give away her daughter, or who takes in her runaway daughter, and the young mother, wife of the singer, who abandons her husband and/or children.
It is notable that, with the exception of the songs mentioned earlier, the portrayals of females in Cajun music do not generally include actively "wild" women, as the Cajun community has historically been a very closed Catholic society in which girls did not have a great deal of behavioral leeway. Young women were watched fairly closely by their parents, particularly their mothers. The songs suggest that the time in which most of these young women get themselves or others into trouble is early in their marriages, the first time most Cajun women would have experienced some decision-making freedom. However, the choice that most of these women make is to go back to their family home. While still limiting, the family would have offered comfort and be a bit less work than a household of her own. These songs do not imply any fear of sex on the part of the young brides; a listener is free to draw his own conclusions on the reasons for most female behavior. The male protagonist's interest is in recalling the woman to her new home and her proper role rather than in understanding what caused her to want to leave.
Most of the songs included in this collection function as subtle reinforcements of the status quo in traditional Cajun society. While not issuing direct injunctions for or against certain behaviors, they provide a negative illustration of a woman who steps out of her expected role. The exact consequences are usually left unclear, but the message of general misery all around leaves no doubt that disobedient, willful women are courting disaster. The message is that everyone involved will be unhappy if a young woman cannot buckle down and do what is expected of a young Cajun wife.
The Songs That the Women Have Sung
Since men have traditionally been the writers and performers of songs presented to the public, the songs in this "stock repertoire" do not give listeners or readers much insight into Cajun life from the female point of view. They give us no glimpse of women's experiences of relationship with men, their families, or each other. One of the included songs, the "Christmas Drinking Song" (27), differentiates "all the songs that the men have sung" from "all the songs that the women have sung," clearly indicating that men and women of the culture sang different songs.
Savoy, though not a native of Acadiana, has been collecting Acadian women's home songs and plans for a Volume 2 which will focus on women performers. In 1991, USL graduate student Susan Silver studied the songs sung by five women singers for her French-language M.A. thesis, "J'apprenais ça avec ma maman: etude de la femme dans les repertoires de cinq chanteuses traditionnelles en louisiane." These volumes, hopefully, will help to preserve the hardship epics, social drinking songs, call-and-response children's songs, ballads, and humorous romantic songs that comprise the domestic complement to the male-oriented public performance tunes.
Ancelet, Barry Jean. 1989. Cajun Music: It's Origins and Development. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies.
Ancelet, Barry Jean, and Elemore Morgan, Jr. 1984. The Makers of Cajun Music. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Savoy, Ann Allen. 1984. Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People. Eunice, Louisiana: Bluebird Press.
Silver, Susan K. 1991. "J'apprenais ça avec ma maman: etude de la femme dans les repertoires de cinq chanteuses traditionnelles en louisiane." Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Southwestern Louisiana.
Whitfield, Irène Thérèse. 1981 (orig. 1939). Louisiana French Folk Songs. Eunice, Louisiana Hebert Publications.
1. Though this study examines only Savoy's book, other important works on Cajun music are Barry Jean Ancelet's Cajun Music: Its Origins and Development and The Makers of Cajun Music. An important early study that includes lyrics to Cajun music is Irène Thérèse Whitfield's Louisiana French Folk Songs.
2. All subsequent page reference are also to Savoy 1984.