Mark F. DeWitt is Professor of Music and holds the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Chair in Traditional Music at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he directs an undergraduate curriculum and degree program in traditional music. His primary research area is Cajun and Creole French music of Louisiana and its diaspora, and he is author of Cajun and Zydeco Dance Music in Northern California: Modern Pleasures in a Postmodern World (University Press of Mississippi, 2008). He received a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of California, Berkeley and an MM in music theory from the New England Conservatory of Music.
TRAINING IN LOCAL ORAL TRADITIONS
Photo by Nicole LaCour: Zydeco Ragin' Steppers at Blue Moon Saloon, December 2, 2015. L-r: Marie-Laure Boudreau (student, accordion), Nathan Williams, Jr (instructor, keyboard)
DeWitt, Mark F. 2017. “Training in Local Oral Traditions: Analysis of Postsecondary Music Programs in North America.” In College Music Curricula for a New Century, edited by Robin D. Moore, 69-97. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
A study of programs that offer performance training in oral-tradition musics at accredited two- and four-year postsecondary institutions in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, especially but not exclusively those that focus on traditions that developed in the region where the institution is located. Six criteria intended to identify non-trivial performance training are used to develop a list of twenty-six programs which meet at least two of the criteria. These programs award a range of credentials, from certificates and minors on up through associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. Their various specialties include Cajun, French Canadian, Hawaiian, Mexican, blues, bluegrass, and old-time Appalachian music.
FROM THE BAYOU TO THE BAY
Photo: Opelousas Playboys, San Francisco, California, circa 1968. L-r: Junior Felton, George Broussard, Ben Guillory, John Semien.
DeWitt, Mark F. 2016. “From the Bayou to the Bay: Louisiana French Dance Music in Northern California.” In The Music of Multicultural America: Performance, Identity, and Community in the United States, edited by Kip Lornell and Anne Rasmussen, 311-339. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
A small but loyal cadre of musicians and dancers in the San Francisco Bay Area of California provides a fascinating window to diverse and complex topics involving ethnic identities, heritage, folk revivals, tourism, migration, and cultural sustainability. Most of the these themes flow through the folk dance club Ashkenaz, which is the first musical context that the chapter describes. The chapter then guides the reader through the twists and turns of Cajun and Creole ethnic identity and the origins of Cajun and zydeco music in Louisiana and east Texas, comparing and contrasting these two related musical styles. It goes on to describe the movement of significant numbers of Creoles from Louisiana and Texas to California starting in the 1940s, as part of a larger black migration out of the South during that time. For Creoles on the West Coast, music became a symbolically important leisure activity for maintaining their distinct identity in a highly diverse urban milieu. Some musicians who emerged from this community of expatriate Louisianians in California are profiled, including John Semien, Queen Ida (Guillory), and Danny Poullard. From there, the chapter narrates how bridges to other social networks were built. At the national level, this took the form of Cajun and zydeco music’s inclusion in the folk and blues revivals of the 1950s-60s and the appearance of “world music” as a category in the 1980s. At the local level, it meant that the Creoles in California came into contact with musicians and dancers who were involved in the folk revival, such as Eric and Suzy Thompson, as well nationally prominent figures such as record producer Chris Strachwitz and filmmaker Les Blank who were based in the Bay Area. Two noteworthy intersections for these social and musical worlds were the California Cajun Orchestra and Danny Poullard’s garage, where Poullard’s mentorship played a crucial role. The chapter ends by asking readers to reflect on the sustainability of musical communities in the face of musical and generational change, issues that all styles of music face at one time or another.
FROM CHANKY-CHANK TO YANKEE CHANKS
Photo by Mark DeWitt: Crown brand accordion, 'tit noir style, made by John Hebert, Scott, Louisiana, purchased used in 1994.
DeWitt, Mark F. 2012. “From Chanky-Chank to Yankee Chanks: The Cajun Accordion as Identity Symbol.” In The Accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, Polka, Tango, Zydeco, and More! edited by Helena Simonett, 44-65. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
The diatonic button accordion has been played by musicians the world over, but it has attained a uniquely prominent status in Louisiana Cajun culture. Over the decades, this simple instrument has served as a tabula rasa onto which have been projected changing views of Cajun music and the status of Cajun ethnic identity. Chanky-chank was a term that upwardly mobile Cajuns and others derisively applied to the dance music that many Cajuns enjoyed. The music and its lead instrument, the accordion, were seen as low-class reminders of an inferior socioeconomic position that many were trying to leave behind in the mid-twentieth century. It is not surprising then that accordion-based Cajun dance music has made a resurgence in periods when ethnic pride has been on the rise. Cajuns have also employed the accordion in rhythm and blues (in a regional variant known as “swamp pop”), country music, rock, punk, and other styles. Therefore this essay not only traces the vicissitudes in popularity of the Cajun accordion and its evolving traditional dance music, but also examines the use of the Cajun accordion in other styles and what this implies about the open-ended character of the accordion and of Cajun identity.
CAJUN AND ZYDECO DANCE MUSIC IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
Photo by Jim Block | jimblock.com
DeWitt, Mark F. 2008. Cajun and Zydeco Dance Music in Northern California: Modern Pleasures in a Postmodern World. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Queen Ida. Danny Poullard. Documentary filmmaker Les Blank. Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records. These are names that are familiar to many fans of Cajun music and zydeco, and they have one other thing in common--longtime residence in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are all part of a vibrant scene of dancing and live Louisiana-French music that has evolved over several decades. The book traces how this region of California has been able to develop and sustain dances several times a week with more than a dozen bands. Description of this active regional scene opens into a discussion of several historical trends that have affected life and music in Louisiana and the nation. The book portrays the diversity of people who have come together to adopt Cajun and Creole dance music as a way to cope with a globalized, media-saturated world.
OVERVIEW OF COURSES
MUS 360 CAJUN AND ZYDECO MUSIC
Fall semesters, online
A chronological survey of the music that has made Lafayette and the rest of Acadiana world-famous, from old French ballads and Creole juré singing to the latest Cajun and zydeco crossover experiments. This course affords the opportunity to read about and listen to lots of music: commercial and field recordings, as well as some live music. There is also a service learning project, to volunteer at a festival that features Cajun and/or zydeco music, but alternative projects may be developed for students who live outside of Acadiana. Prerequisite: none.
MUS 364 MUSIC OF THE WORLD
Introduction to music cultures from other parts of the world, primarily traditional music. The importance of cultural context--that music is not a universal language--is stressed. Three culture areas are covered in fifteen weeks; in recent offerings these have been Irish music, East African music, and Indonesian music. A performance lab (singing, playing, and or dancing) accompanies the lectures; no prior experience necessary. Prerequisite: none.
MUS 450 (G) TRADITIONAL MUSICS OF NORTH AMERICA
Spring semester, odd-numbered years
Study of preservation, transmission, and change in traditional music, using North American examples, from several disciplinary perspectives including ethnomusicology, folkloristics, and cultural anthropology. Focus is usually on Native American music, blues, and old-time Appalachian music. What is “traditional music?” What about “folk music,” “roots music,” and “popular music” – how do they fit in? Why should we care about old obscure genres when everyone is listening to hip hop, punk, alternative, reggae, and so on? Term research paper and presentation may be drawn from a wide variety of music rooted in traditional culture present in North America, from Tex-Mex music to gospel to French Canadian to music of any enclave of immigrants who have settled in North America. Available for graduate credit; graduate students do extra assignments. Prerequisite: junior-level (third-year) standing
MUS 565 TOPICS IN ETHNOMUSICOLOGY
Spring semester, even-numbered years
Selected topics within the discipline of ethnomusicology and the study of the world's music. In addition to learning what ethnomusicology is, what ethnomusicologists do and why, each student will also get an opportunity to learn about music from different parts of the world, identify and develop one area of interest outside of his or her primary area of study. Graduate students from any department are welcome. Experience playing and reading music is helpful but not absolutely necessary. Prerequisite: graduate standing.
University of Louisiana at Lafayette