Posts Tagged With: music

Allons Danser

Dancing is one of the most joyful things I know.  I don’t remember not knowing how to dance.  In fact, when I was a toddler, my grandmother Ella taught me how to dance by having me stand on her feet so that I simply got danced — and eventually I knew the steps by myself.

She grew up in South Louisiana in Cajun country.  Though she often denied any Cajun heritage (only claiming the Irish), our family genealogy clearly indicates her own grandmother was a LeJeune.  Sorry, Ella — that’s Cajun.  

Besides, the music and food she shared with me — and with all of us grandchildren?  Cajun.

She loved to dance.  She’d dance around the house while she cleaned, or dance in the kitchen as she cooked.  Sometimes she’d simply break into dance and sing along.  It was as natural to her as breathing.  Music was just part of her.

And so it is with me, in part because of her.  Recently, my cousin Carolyn and I were talking about this.  She too learned to dance — though she says our grandmother placed her on the vacuum cleaner and danced her around with that.  Carolyn and I share similar memories, but we also share the result:  we both dance around our houses while we sing or clean house.  

For me, that music was Cajun music, requiring a two-step dance or a waltz.  Even now I feel my feet moving on their own if I hear particularly evocative music.  Last night, for example, while I was watching the Louisiana Public Broadcasting channel, I caught a program about the song “You Are My Sunshine.”  The state song, it is credited to the late Governor Jimmy Davis, who used it as his campaign song.  The entire program was this one song — as sung by a wide variety of Louisiana artists.  Every style from gospel to blues to jazz to Cajun and zydeco, from singers like Marcia Ball, Allen Toussaint, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Rebirth Jazz Band, Buddy Guy, Zachary Richard, and the Marsalis family band — all narrated by Harry Connick, Jr., who also performed the song.  

And I found myself getting up and two-stepping around the room.  Couldn’t resist it.  The music just pulled me up, set my feet to steps so familiar.  The dogs and cats weren’t quite sure what was going on.  They never quite know what to do when I start dancing.

Cajun music is part of our heritage from the French-speaking Acadians who left Nova Scotia — and there are also obviously ties to older French music.  Dancing to Cajun music might be with a quick two-step or a smooth, lilting waltz.  Closely related is zydeco music, the music of black Creoles.  Cajun music involves fiddles, accordions, triangles, as well as drums and guitars (linked to country music).  Zydeco music shares the same instruments, plus the washboard.  

When I was growing up, we called Cajun music “chanky-chank” music.  But in the late 1950s, 60s, and 70s, younger musicians began to play and record traditional Cajun music, writing original music in the style, and revealing the influences of not only country-western music but also rock and roll.  So we had “swamp pop” (usually in English) with lots of local bands.  And a group from the Lafayette area, Beausoleil, became one of the best-known and most popular of the younger musicians keeping the old music alive — and making it new again.  I saw them only a couple of years ago, and it’s impossible to stay still when they’re playing.

Thanks to YouTube, it’s easy to link you to some videos of Beausoleil performing live.  the following link also includes dancing, so if you’re not sure what Cajun music sounds like and what Cajun dance looks like, follow this link: 

And if you go to any number of local restaurants in Acadiana (the parishes in South Louisiana that are the Cajun prairie area), there will be  Cajun bands playing on Friday and Saturday nights, and there will be a big dance floor — filled with couples, but also with parents or grandparents and children.  It’s very much a family affair.  

The love of music and dance is deeply embedded in the Cajun culture of Louisiana (especially South Louisiana).  Add the love of good food.  Add some beer.  And you have a festival.  There are more festivals than I can count — there’s even at least one calendar  simply for festivals in the state.  You name the product or animal/seafood or music, and you’ll find a festival.  In Acadia Parish, where I grew up, the festival is The International Rice Festival, in October.  Here in Lake Charles, we have Contraband Days in May (celebrating Jean Lafitte).  In Rayne, you’ll find the Frog Festival.  Go a little more east and you’ll find the Crawfish Festival.  In Cameron Parish, south of Calcasieu Parish where I live, you’ll find the Fur and Wildlife Festival.  There’s a Swine Festival.  a Shrimp Festival, an Arts and Crabs Festival, an International Zydeco Festival, several Cajun music festivals.  Lafayette is home to Festival International, celebrating the Francophone countries and their music and foods.  I think you get the picture. 

I love to dance — and to watch really good dancers.  Some older couples who’ve danced together for decades make the Cajun waltz or two-step an art form, a thing of amazing beauty.  

A child of the 60s, I also loved to dance to rock and roll.  Still do, though not at clubs anymore.  Just around the house.

My grandmother was still going out to dance well into her late 60s and early 70s.  She had a brother who actually had a heart attack and died on the dance floor — when he was dancing with his second wife.  

Today I was driving around, listening to a new CD by Hugh Laurie — pure New Orleans Dixieland music.  And I’m sure anyone watching me would see me and think I was having some problem.  Yes, I move to music even while driving.   My head and shoulders move in time to the music, though I’m seated.  It’s the car version of seat-dancing, which I do at concerts even if I can’t get up and stand while moving.

When I was in high school, I’d go to Saturday night dances at the Knights of Columbus hall in Iota — and for what we called “fast dances,” girls danced together most of the time because guys wouldn’t.  Slow dances?  That’s when they most often got out on the dance floor with us.  But at school dances they were more likely to dance to all the tunes.

In college, I’d go dancing whenever I could.  it wasn’t unusual to head to the Keg on Wednesday nights.  And Friday nights.  Maybe Saturday nights too.  Another local hangout was the Lighthouse, complete with black light and a mirror ball.  

When I moved to Texas to teach at Lamar University, in 1975, it was possible to find disco music, but it was also possible to find a place like Momma’s Worry, where you could dance to all kinds of music, including progressive country.  Once when a group of us were out there dancing, Sam Gwynn and I were jitterbugging and our hands slipped apart — and I went sailing through some doors.  No damage, luckily.

Of course, we danced in parks when we went to some festival or to hear a band.  We danced at our own parties.  When I lived in College Station, after I went to grad school for my Ph.D., we’ d spent some weekend nights at Grins, a bar owned by parents of one of my fellow students — and dance.  We’d also occasionally end up at the Hall of Fame (aka the Hall of Shame), where we’d dance to country-western music.  This was the height of the Cotton-eyed Joe craze, complete with the dance floor  jam-packed with us line-dancing and yelling “Bullshit” while we kicked and laughed.  The dance, by the way, was an adaptation of a German schottische.  

Only in Texas can you find a blending of German and Mexican music — with Mexican polkas.   And you can also find the Cajun influence as well, since Cajuns moved westward along with oil-field work, bringing their music and food.

So in Texas I can find gumbo and kolaches, enchiladas and barbecue.  

Even my dad danced, though he grew up in a church that did not approve of dancing.  He and Mother would occasionally dance at friends’ houses and small parties, and also around the house.  They also sang, separately and together.  We sang together.

Music was part of my DNA.  Singing was just what we did.  And I was destined to dance.  

So if you pass me in a car tomorrow, don’t be surprised by the crazy lady seat-dancing in the driver’s seat.  Just turn your own music up and appreciate it.


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Sweet Bluebonnet Spring

Well, it’s still spring, though the bluebonnets are gone now.

Despite that, as I drove up to San Augustine on Friday I kept hearing Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” in my head, especially the lines “And when he dies he says he’ll catch some blackbird’s wing/Then he will fly away to Heaven come some sweet bluebonnet spring.”  That beautifully simple song of hers has been one of my favorites for a long time.

Music was in my mind a lot this week.  One of the things Kay and I had to do was select music — for the memorial photo DVD that the funeral home created and for the funeral service itself.  There were actually a few clear choices — hymns we grew up hearing Dad and Mother sing together around the house, harmonizing.  Songs we sang when we went to church with Dad, the shape-notes of the Church of Christ hymnal.

We grew up hearing Mother and Dad sing a lot — they sang to us, with us, sacred music, popular music, country music.  She had a lovely alto voice and he had a beautiful baritone.  Many nights he sang me to sleep — with Jimmy Rodgers songs, songs like Gene Autry’s “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” “Red River Valley” . . . more songs than I can list.  We sang in the car when we traveled to Beaumont to my maternal grandmother’s house or to San Augustine to the farm. That’s what most people don’t know, that we sang together so much.

Music was an important part of our lives together and thus of planning Dad’s service.  Selecting music wasn’t hard.  On the DVD:  “Precious Memories,” “I’ll Fly Away.”  During the service:  “I’ll Fly Away,” “Shall We Gather At the River,” “Trust and Obey,” “Blessed Assurance,” “In the Garden.”  Each of those songs had some connection with Dad.  He enjoyed listening to Alan Jackson’s “Precious Memories” album.  The others are songs I have many memories of — of listening to Dad sing them in church, of his baritone in harmony, especially if he was singing with Mother, which he often did.  “Shall We Gather at the River” was important to him; it was sung at his mother’s funeral.  But while “In the Garden” was playing, my cousin Carolyn leaned over and whispered to me that she remembered that song.  At our great-grandmother’s house in Beaumont, she remembered our grandmother playing the piano while Mother and Dad sang “In The Garden.”‘ And at the end of it, my mother immediately segued into “Tampico Bay” — that was Mother.  Playful, humorous — and Dad loved that about her.

Music was just something we always shared.

All of us kids loved music.  I’m the only one who took piano lessons — for 6 years.  I still play at times.  I have the piano that Mother and Dad bought when I was in fourth grade.  My Aunt Jean, who taught piano, actually picked it out.  I remember my mother’s mother sitting down and playing it every time she and Poppa came to visit us, though she didn’t read music.  Mother had lots of albums, everything from pop music of the 1950s to sacred music.  Dad had albums we bought him– Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson.  He had lots of country music.

If you look at my house, you’ll find what I refer to as the “wall of vinyl.”  My first music purchase was “Elvis’s Golden Hits.”  The second:  “Rick Is 21” — Ricky Nelson.  You’ll find the Beatles, the Stones, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Steppenwolf, Willie Nelson. You’ll also find classical music.  Then there are the CDs.

My grandmother Ella, Mother’s mother, taught me to dance to Cajun music the way most kids learn here:  she put me on her feet and that’s how I learned.  She’d put music on and dance around the house as she cleaned house.  She loved to dance — indeed, when I lived in Beaumont in 1975, I was out one night with friends at a local honky-tonk in the boonies of the Golden Triangle area.  Club 88.  I was out on the dance floor and when I got back to our table, one of them asked who the old lady I’d bumped into and hugged was.  “Be careful how you talk about my grandmother,” I answered.  “No, seriously.  Who was it?” he popped back.  “My grandmother.  Really.”  And over she came, meeting everyone.  She was 67 at the time, widowed, and out with friends.  We still have her records too, from 78s to 45s, and her stereo cabinet.

Even a couple of days ago, a friend sent me a message of condolence, telling me he’d thought of a Lucinda Williams song, “Lake Charles” (appropriately enough) —

“Did an angel whisper in your ear
And hold you close and take away your fear
In those long last moments.”

Oddly enough, I replied, that very song had been rolling around in my head too.  I found it very sweet that he thought of it, and very comforting.

That’s what music is for me, many times, as it is for many people, I think:  comforting.  I use music to calm me, to express my frustration or anger, to energize me for driving, to contemplate.  I used it to grade for decades.  Like literature, it serves a multitude of purposes in my life.  I cannot imagine life without it.

I’ve been in Lake Charles for a couple of days now, with my pets and my house, sleeping in my bed and feeling both at home and at odds.  Readjusting will take time, I know, and I’ll be back and forth to Egan.  I’ll stay there at times too.  There’s still business to take care of, a house to pack up and things to put into storage.

But tomorrow I’ll be on the road to San Augustine, to the farm, to pick up the plants we could’t fit into the car on Sunday.  Then I’ll head to Kay’s to spend the night, because on Friday I’ll be there to watch her get her master’s degree.  Dad knew she was getting it and was very proud of her.  I want to applaud her and celebrate with her.  So I’ll be packing some CDs and the iPod.

But today I’m here in my house, sitting at the dining room table that was Mother’s.  Today, a bit over a week after Dad died, I am playing Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams songs, gently soothing me into my newest life, a journey without Dad’s physical presence, but not really without Dad.

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