Barry Ancelet talks about the Cajun & Zydeco music collection assembled in The Center for Acadian and Creole Folklore Archives, the innovative aspect of Cajun & Creole culture, and how UL has benefited from and built upon that creative spirit.

You have achieved a great deal of recognition as a folklorist.

I have been so fortunate. I'm involved in an academic area, a scholarly endeavor that also happens to be popular and genuinely interesting to people outside the academic community

Look at the opportunities I've had for, for Pete's sake, not just support for scholarly projects, put support for popular media, film, liner notes, popular articles.

I've been knighted twice by the French, admitted to l'Ordre Francophone from Quebec, but I've always felt like they weren't honoring me, they were honoring what I do, honoring the whole community, the musicians and storytellers who have been so generous to me. I've pretty much been a conduit for them.

Talk about your work promoting Cajun & Creole music.

There are some things that I'm very proud of.  One of the biggest is The Center for Acadian and Creole Folklore Archives.

The only way we can understand Cajun & Creole music today is because we can trace it back through history to Lomax, Rinzler, Brandon, Oster and others. Those were researchers who came to South Louisiana from the '30s to '60s, did field work and recordings, then left with them.

When I arrived in '78, I realized we needed to gather that stuff here, and get a sense of the sweep, the continuity of the traditions. If it's scattered all over the place, you can't 'grab' it. So I went about getting copies of all of it. 

In 1980, I literally found the Alan Lomax recordings in a closet at the Library of Congress. I contacted Lomax, said, "It's not enough that it's in the Library of Congress, we needed it here at UL." So he authorized them to give a copy to us.

So I drove it back to UL in my Dad's '63 Chevrolet pickup truck. Now, what other university professor would drive that far, in an un-airconditioned truck, to pick that stuff up? People here will do it. That's what makes us different.

Anyway, it was the same thing with the Ralph Rinzler collection, 60 reels of music on old magnetic tape. The reels were in his personal collection, he was an ethnographer at the Smithsonian Institute. So I went to his house in D.C., and said "We need a copy here in Lafayette," he said, "You're right."

So there I was with Frank Prochan, this young guy we had just hired to work on the Festival of American Folklife, in Rinzler's basement.  We spent two white nights-- that is, working all night long-- and recorded all 60 reels, in real time. I drove those back to Lafayette, too.

In the same 1963 pickup truck.

So now we started to get all this stuff together. I didn't know what we had until I got back, and it changed everything. For example, Rinzler had recorded the Balfa Brothers back then, so we found out what they sounded like before they went to Newport [The 1964 Newport Folk Festival, where the Balfas were last-minute additions, and created an international sensation]. We could hear how they sounded before that change of context.

Anyway, in 1980 Michael Doucet & I are listening to the Lomax collection, and neither of us had ever heard this stuff. The first recording was Wilfred Charles. It was the first recording on the first tape, because obviously Lomax was traveling along US 90; his recordings start in New Iberia, then Lafayette, then Crowley, Jennings, etc.

And there, on the very first song, Wilfred uses the term "Zydeco." Michael and I are puzzled, we're thinking "Wait a minute, we thought the term Zydeco appeared in the '50's... but this recording was 1934."

By the third song, we just sat there and stared at each other, slack-jawed. After listening to just three recordings, we were both realizing, "Oh my God, we're going to have to re-think everything we thought we knew about Cajun & Zydeco music."

I never saw this collection as a mausoleum, but as a recycling plant. I wanted to make sure that as many people as possible had the same reaction we had.  In order to do that, we had to make this available to everyone. Repatriating this stuff to Louisiana was only the first step. Next step, how do we make it available to the public?

So I called Floyd Soileau at Soileau Records in Ville Platte. I put the recordings in the same '63 pickup, and he put out a two-album set, Cajun & Creole Music 1934: The Lomax Recordings.

[Ancelet slaps the table] Nominated for a Grammy!

More recently, it was re-released on Rounder as a CD set. You listen to those CDs, then look at groups today, the Pine Leaf Boys, Feu Follet, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, Beau Soleil, and you find in their music a number of re-workings of those songs. That was what I was going for, the point was to keep that music alive.

We have digitized the entire folklore collection, and you access the entire thing on-line. That is the contribution Kristi Guillory, Chris Segura, and Jennifer Ritter, Carl Brasseaux's gang over there in the Center for Louisiana Studies, all those young kids who listened to this music, fell in love with it, and took it to the next step.

Anyway, as we're putting the records together, I told people, Michael Doucet included, we need to take this stuff all the way back home. I wanted to know if the families of the people who recorded this are still around. We found Davous Berard's daughter. She was so overwhelmed, to have a copy of her beloved father, singing the songs her family treasured, music they hadn't heard for decades.

We found the Hoffpauir family in New Iberia, who had also contributed. Tim Hoffpauir, an optometrist, assembled as many people as possible at his house. Everyone is crowded into the living room, and they are so moved, there's not a dry eye in the place. I was standing next to a young lady, she had tears running down her cheek. I said to her, "This is a moving moment, isn't it?"

"It is," she said. "That was my mother. She died when I was young. Everyone always said how beautifully she sang.

"This is the first time I have ever heard her."

I was never so happy to be folklorist in my life.

Then we were looking for the families of Lanese Vincent, and his cousin Sidney Richard, who had sung for Lomax in 1934. They were from the Kaplan area. So I had Lionel Leleux help me look for them for a whole year, and he can't find anything. I'm thinking, "You have to be able to find someone named 'Lanese'."

Then Lionel calls me one day and says, "You owe me some gas money. I thought you wanted me to find a musician."

I said "No, I'm looking for a singer."

Lionel said, "I know him.'

So I drive down there. There was Lanese, 72 years old. Michael Doucet and Phillip Gould came with me, Phillip took beautiful photos.

And Lanese explains to us, "I was 18 years old when this guy showed up in a bar on a Sunday morning. My cousin and I had borrowed Père-Père's mule to go to church... but we went to the bar instead.

"This guy there said he was looking for people who sing old songs. The bartender said, 'Those guys do.' So he asked us to sing.

"We had a hard time finding a place that was quiet enough to record. In order to get away from the street noise, we went into one of the loading chutes at the rice mill."

They sang several songs that day for Lomax, and the songs ended up on the album. They never heard the original Lomax recordings, but I had brought them a tape, and Lanese was very happy to have it.

I asked him, "What about Sidney?"

"Oh, he lives in Cow Island," Lanese said.

So we jump in the car right there, went to Sidney Richard's house. When we get to his house, Lanese says, "These guys are here with a copy of a recording we made in 1934."

Sidney says, "I didn't do anything like that."

Lanese says, "Yeah, don't your remember, we were in that bar?"

"I don't remember anything about that, that wasn't me." They went back and forth like that.

So we listened to the tapes. After a few minutes, Sidney says, "You know, that sounds like me."

Sidney tells him, "It is you, you old fool!"

Sidney's wife and son were there. His son was listening, and you could see on his face an appreciation of his father that he would never have had otherwise, realizing that in 1934, his father had been recorded for the Library of Congress.

Then Lanese explained, "We never told anybody we did this, because we were supposed to be in church. But we were in that bar instead."

And because those archives are here, we have been able to press them into service for linguistic projects, even thought they were gathered for a folklore project.

You frequently talk about the innovative character of our local culture. Explain that.

Here's an example. As part of the Folklore Archive, [the late] Elemore Morgan and I, and others, have been documenting vernacular architecture around the region, based on our investigation of an existing tradition. We had a stock of documentation from which to compare what happened after Katrina & Rita, when people started responding in a vernacular way.

Down around Cow Island, I saw a guy elevating his house, and I asked how he had decided how high to place it. He walked over to a tree, pointed to the highest mud on the trunk, and said "See that?" Then he put his hand about a foot above it and said "I'm going this much higher."

It was blindingly obvious. But that makes sense only in terms of historical continuity.

At the heart of all this is the remarkable ability of the Cajuns & Creoles to improvise vernacular solutions to everything. Festivals Acadiens, the production is improvised every year... it's very similar to our crawfish boats innovated to move the through shallow paddies. Crawfishermen needed something to move in very shallow water, and so they added paddle-wheels to the boats. We were faced with a problem, we needed to get through shallow ponds, we needed to put on a festival. We improvised.

We didn't do anything our ancestors didn't do every day. At first, the Acadians built saltbox houses that they brought down from the Canadian maritimes.

The African-Americans said, "Add an overhang to it, get the sun off." The Cajuns added porches. The Native Americans said, "Get it off the water." The Cajuns built them on piers.

We've improvised for every problem. The answer here is 'What works?' not what you've inherited. Does it work? That's the approach.

When I look at my work, I compare myself to the welder on the back to the dredge boat where I worked in college. I was talking to him one day. He stopped paying attention to me, and was staring at a contraption. He said to me, "Hey, if that thing opened this way instead of that way, it would work better." I went out the next day, it was changed the way he said... and it worked better.

We do the same thing in response to the hurricanes. What we did was what we've always done:  innovate. Whenever we're hit with a hurricane, everybody gets together, "What's wrong, let's fix it." On the periphery of New Orleans, frequently they didn't know how to address what was wrong.

I gave a paper on this. The conference theme was "Power in Social Imagery." My paper looked at the vernacular power of people in response to Katrina and Rita.

When Cajuns & Creoles see people on the roof, we get boat and get 'em off. In New Orleans, I saw a news 'copter flying over a woman with a poster-board, 'I need help.' The reporter said 'Look at the poor lady,' and my thought was 'Damn, shut up, go help her!'

To paraphrase the old saw, we don't depend on miracles. We make them.

How does that culture express itself at UL?

A perfect example of that approach is UL's Francophone Studies program. It started with a few of us talking about how Cajun & Creole culture evolved. As we did this, it took us back through the Caribbean to Africa, through the Canada maritimes to France, and then up the Mississippi River Valley. In doing so, we ended up reaching the rest of the world.

That doesn't happen everywhere. It happens here, because of our people, because of our culture.

In 1978 or '79, Roger Abraham, who was then-President of the American Folklore Society and now Eminent Professor of Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, said about UL: "This University is to be commended for willingly breaking down its own ivory tower, to involve itself meaningfully in its own community."

Early on, Ray [President Authément] realized the value of community & cultural studies in a very real way. For example, back in the late '70s and early '80s, my colleagues at the American Folklore Society meetings complained about not being taken seriously in their communities, about things they knew were important: festivals, film, folk art in the schools, museology. They routinely complained that their universities didn't take these things seriously.

I always got to tell them that, not only does our University take me seriously, but repeatedly it has honored me, including raises and promotions.

I think this University has been remarkable in its support for something that for a long time was marginalized in the scholarly community. UL saw research into our culture as a powerful way to address concerns that nobody else was looking at. And it had to do with culture in general, music, arts, architecture, vernacular construction, but also language.

When we made Dennis McGee honorary Dean of Cajun Music here, and we invited him to perform with his brother-in-law Sady Courville and Michael Doucet, at the 50 yard line of a home football game, that was unique. Home football games don't look like that anywhere else. It happened here, because this University is genuinely interested in this culture, and it is genuinely involved in this community.

We are right now finishing the Dictionary of French, as spoken in Louisiana, it's on the verge of coming out. That derived in part from the collections that we have made since the 1970s, of storytellers and musicians. So this improvisation is not just fortuitous, it is the main thrust of what we do here at UL.

Lafayette is a very hip place, in part because of the University. We have a lot of arts, restaurants, festivals, theatre, that was driven by curious people in the community and at the University, people like Elemore Morgan, Francis Pavy, and Randall Labrie.

Another great thing that this University realized, you don't do universal research with no basis. Research needs to be rooted in something. This place realized that the universe is composed of an infinity of localities, of which we are one. So by understanding our context here, you can begin to make statements about the universal.

Something else I love about this University? I've been involved in the Interdisciplinary Humanities Program, and I've taught some really exciting courses: Heroes & Outlaws, Imaging the Cajuns, Imaging the Indians.

I pretty much say to the Coordinator of the Program, Lisa Graley, 'I have an idea,' and she says 'Run with it.' There's no stodginess here, it's flexible. There's this hot creativity here at UL, and I love that.

For instance, I wanted to look at lyrics of rock & roll. I mentioned this to Lisa as an idea for a class, next thing, it's in the schedule and we created a course for it. It was fantastic. The written papers were amazing, the kids were so validated to talk about the music and musicians they know.

I mention to her that I want to teach a course on politics & religion from a historical perspective. It's in the schedule! I love that about this place

There is this constant thrill of discovery here. One of the most important things I can give to a class, particularly upperclassmen, is not content, but process; not what to think, but how. The most powerful way I have found to do that, is to think in front of them, to think with them. You have to see that happen.

I constantly try to put myself on the edge, where I will offer a class when I'm not sure what I think about it, and we find out as we go.

Ian Kinsella and I offered a class on the problem of Good & Evil.... I didn't know where that would go. We looked at problematic issues, manifest destiny, colonial expansion, torture, rendition, looking at very difficult historical issues. We brought in Mary Howell, a New Orleans civil rights attorney, looking at police brutality, and looking at the 1980 Battle of Algiers.

It's difficult reading. One of the things we do in the class after we read the selections, is to discuss it. A lot of students ask, Why are we just finding out about this, Why haven't we read about it before?

At the end of the class we tell them, You will never again be able to say you didn't know. Now that you've been exposed to these things, you can never say I didn't know.

To me that process is what education is all about. It's not an accumulation of facts. Google does that, but Google won't connect the dots, it can't peel the onion. It takes people. You have to figure how to watch the news, read the magazines, listen to the debates.

My goal is that they always think about this, think critically about it. Put yourself in a place where you can think about the heart of it.

One of the things that occurred to me early, that the only way to understand this was to come at it from a lot of ways at once.

Not just using language, but how we interact, how we play... from Mardi Gras, to boucheries, to disasters, to how we laugh. Which is why it's so great that I'm a folklorist. When I first heard of the Interdisciplinary Program here I said, That's just good folklore.

One of the things that makes this University wonderful is that it values nontraditional approaches, because it has seen nontraditional approaches produce phenomenal results.

What this place has realized, is what the Cajun & Creole culture has realized, that the real value is the guy who comes up with an entirely new way of looking at things.