VSW Day Three: Sound [Doing]

[Day Three, part 2 of 2]

Jolie Blonde: Acadiana’s National Anthem [Work in progress: This is conceived as one episode of a podcast series called Cajun Nation, an exploration of writing a dissertation through the podcasting format. Episodes would include: The Grand Derrangement (expulsion, and its historical memory); Evangeline Country (all about the iconography of Evangeline in Louisiana); La Francophonie (LA’s connection other other French-speaking places); Jolie Blonde (partial script here); Bicentennial (the use of commemoration to form a new identity); From Fais Do Do to Radio (history of radio in the region); etc.]

[Script]: By the 1960s, the region of Southwest Louisiana that was home to the Cajuns came to be known as Acadiana. A mix of television marketing and economic policy gave the region its name: mixing the word Acadia–the region in present-day Nova Scotia where Acadians were expelled in 1765–and Louisiana–the state where many of these Acadians settled and eventually became Cajuns. However, Acadiana was more than just a marketing strategy. In this 23-parish region over the last two centuries, there was a sense of nation-building, of trying to reclaim what was lost in Nova Scotia. And what’s one thing that every nation needs? A national anthem. And we’ve got one for you today. I’m your host Jessica Dauterive. Welcome to Cajun Nation.

[intro clip plays-sample of various Cajun sounds]

The song is Jolie Blonde. If you’re familiar with Cajun music, or even if you’re not, it might sound familiar [fade in clip of Jolie Blonde by Michael Doucet].

Jolie Blonde is a traditional Cajun waltz. This matters because, more than anything else, Cajun music is meant for dancing. Walk into any dancehall or small town bar with a Cajun band and you’ll see a dance floor alive with people two-stepping, waltzing. Young couples try to keep up with the older ones who move together effortlessly across the floor. Children sit around on bleachers in the side of the floor, waiting for the moment when they, too, get to dance. The band has one job: keep people moving.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering a waltz is in three while a two-step is in four. Dancing to a waltz requires two dance partners, swooshing in almost circular motions across the floor. A two-step is choppier, built on a 4/4 rhythm, and is where dancers really show off. Just so you know, the two-step sounds something like this [fade in clip of DL Menard, the Back Door].

In fact, this song, The Back Door, was marketed as a kind of rival to Jolie Blonde’s “national anthem” status, but more on that later. In any case, if you can identity a waltz or a two step, you’re halfway to Cajun dancing.

So, who is Jolie Blonde anyway? To first understand the song, let’s break down the lyrics a bit. Jolie Blonde basically means pretty blonde. Unlike Evangeline, the dark-haired beauty from Longfellow’s poem we heard about in episode two, Jolie Blonde was, well, blonde. She didn’t look like her Acadian ancestors. Jolie Blonde is rooted in Louisiana and in newer ideas about beauty and youth and, well, being blonde. Remember how we talked about beauty pageants a few episodes back? That’s the world of Jolie Blonde: a local beauty.

The song, like many Cajun songs, is one of lost love. Every Cajun band sings the song a little differently but the story goes something like this: A pretty blonde has gone and left the singer. He’s sad about it, and depending on the version he gets drunk, then says some mean things to her before declaring that he will find another. Sweet, right? She’s never given a name: just a pretty, blonde, heartbreaker.

Like many folk songs, the origins of Jolie Blonde are hazy. Many Cajun musicians remember learning this song, and it follows a pretty traditional waltz pattern. So, how did this simple Cajun waltz become the “Cajun national anthem”?

The first known recording of the song is 1929 by the Breaux Freres, or the Breaux Brothers. These were a group of brothers, and their soon-to-be-famous sister Cleoma, who traveled to New Orelans to record the song for Columbia. During this moment, when record companies realized a market interest in ethnic recordings, they sent field scouts across the nation and the world. Musicians flooded into hotel rooms to meet these record producers with the hope of being selected to record. In the process, these musicians created a vast archive of early sound recording that would surprise those only familiar with the popular, tin pan alley version of American popular music. Well, the Breaux Brothers recorded Jolie Blonde during one of these recording sprees, and embedded the song into American music.

However, after this moment record companies largely lost interest in recording ethnic cultures. The Great Depression overshadowed much of the next decade, and popular music shifted to a national level. The song continued to be played in the region, where dancehalls and radio provided venues for local musicians and their audiences, but national commercial companies were no longer interested in the non-Anglo sounds of Jolie Blonde.

However, the 1930s brought a wave of folkloric interest into the cultures the commercial industry forget. Enter the famous father and son, ballad hunting duo John and Alan Lomax. In 1934, their work, sponsored by the federal government, took them to Louisiana. The pair was tasked with tracking down and recording folk songs they thought should be archived as part of the American songbook. During this trip, they came across the Segura brothers, who recorded a version of Jolie Blonde recorded only as “Cajun waltz, a fais-do-dos tune.”

“Cajun waltz”
Thanks to Josh Caffery’s https://www.lomax1934.com/jolie-blonde-la-fille-de-la-veuve.html for making this available.

Now, the song had been doubly marked: first in the commercial catalog and then in the folkloric record of American music. In both cases Cajuns were coded as ethnic, as an Other group, a curiosity waiting to be discovered and recorded by folklorists before they slipped away forever. Many groups fell under this folkloric gaze during this period, none with such violent and destructive outcomes than Native Americans. Cajuns, however, were nimble, and most of all appeared white. They would use this to their advantage in commercial ventures, moving between their ethnicity and their whiteness when it suited them. The fact that Jolie Blonde’s early history sits between these two poles makes it a perfect choice for a national anthem.

In 1936, the Hackberry Ramblers recorded another version of this…[this would continue to trace the song and use the different recordings to locate Cajuns in different moments of folk/commercial recording, and ultimately in their larger project of building an “imagined community.”]

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