This weekend we will motor down to Baton Rouge to see a performance by one of the foremost exponents of Louisiana French culture and music — Zachary Richard.
You may well have heard of Zachary, a singer, musician, composer, poet and a devoted and emotional champion of la Louisiane Francaise.
His songs range from the hauntingly beautiful love song, “Au Bord du Lac Bijou” (On the Shore of Jewel Lake) to the angry “Le Fou” (The Madness) about the Deep Water Horizon oil rig explosion and its devastating effect on the state’s coastal environment. He also mournfully sings of the grand derangement, the expulsion by the British of the French Acadians from Nova Scotia in the mid 18th century. Thankfully, many of those exiles ended up in Louisiana, to be known as the Cajuns.
Since I have a lot of French dna in my system, though, unlike Zachary none of it Cajun, I have become emotionally involved in the struggles of my own Gallic ancestors. The first Darby in my line to come to Louisiana arrived in New Orleans in 1719. Jonathas was an Englishman, the son of an Anglican priest, but Jonathas had converted to Catholicism and came here as a clerk for a huge private concession, or land grant holder, just outside New Orleans.
Jonathas married a French girl, as did his son, grandson and great-grandson. In the late 1700s the son, Jean Baptiste Darby, settled along Bayou Teche, or the Attakapas country, and Attakapas just happens to be the name of Zachary Richard’s show.
Like many folks I’m intensely interested in my ancestors and I often wonder what they all looked like. I have images in my mind, but I’m sure they are completely inaccurate. But I like to think about how they dealt with all the challenges that Louisiana residents faced throughout the centuries, disease, crop failures, civil war, economic depressions, etc.
The Louisiana French also had to deal with the clash of cultures after the United States made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. All the history books on early Louisiana are rife with stories of how the French and the Anglos struggled to get along. They had different dining and eating habits, religious differences, social customs (for example the French didn’t mind a drink or two on Sunday but the Protestant Anglos thought it sinful), and different political traditions.
They even disagreed on music. When Americans began pouring into New Orleans after the Purchase, the Anglos and French would get into fights at dances and balls over whether “English” or French music should be played. Gov. Claiborne eventually had to decree that the styles of music would be alternated at all dances.
Natchitoches, of course, was founded by the French, French Canadians to be exact. We’ve all heard of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, the colorful and intrepid founder of our little town in 1714. (Can it already be three years since we celebrated our tricentennial?) I also happen to be a descendant of St. Denis, but that’s a whole other story.
Anyway, the French culture was dominant here for many years, until the more prominent Anglo-Saxon culture of the rest of north Louisiana finally took hold in the late 19th and early 20th century.
I enjoy the fact that my pastor, Father Marc Noel of Holy Cross Catholic Church, is of French Canadian ancestry. Around holiday time I tease him that his name in French, Pere Noel, means Father Christmas. “That’s why I go by Father Marc,” he answers.
I could probably write forever on Louisiana’s French culture. It has contributed ever so much to our state, as have all the other cultures and peoples who have settled here in the past 300 years Suffice it for me to say at this time, Vive la Louisiane Francaise.