Mudcat Café message #546849 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #38525   Message #546849
Posted By: Joe Offer
11-Sep-01 - 04:57 AM
Thread Name: Cajun Mardi Gras songs
Subject: RE: Cajun Mardi Gras songs
Une `Tite Poule Grasse ou la File Ainee
[A Little Fat Chicken or The Eldest Daughter]:
A Comparative Analysis of Cajun and Creole Mardi Gras Songs
(Rocky L. Sexton and Harry Oster)
Journal of American Folklore 114(452):204-224 © 2001, American Folklore Society

Rocky L. Sexton is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Welfare, Augustana College. (posted with permission from Rocky Sexton)
Harry Oster was Professor Emeritus, University of Iowa


A common aspect of rural Louisiana Mardi Gras is the Courir du Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras Run), a begging quest in which a band of costumed merrymakers travel house-to-house to solicit donations of food and money to provision a communal feast. The songs associated with the Mardi Gras run fall into two broad categories: those derived from continental French and French Canadian drinking songs and others with origins in continental French and French Canadian begging songs. Both forms represent combinations of direct survivals of earlier song texts, slight modifications that occurred through generations of oral transmission, and signficant changes introduced because of the desire to develop distinct local song variants.


In recent years, there has been a growing body of research on various aspects of the Louisiana Cajun and Creole country Mardi Gras celebration that is characterized by a begging quest.1. The songs associated with this manifestation of the celebration are a topic that has received little attention. This article explores the origins and evolution of Louisiana country Mardi Gras song texts by examining their relationship to continental French and North American French song traditions. It outlines scenarios for textual transformations linked to inevitable changes that occur in the oral transmission of songs, the conscious desire to develop new variants, and modifications stimulated by a new sociocultural and physical environment. Contemporary Mardi Gras songs fall into two categories: songs derived from generic French drinking songs and modified to fit the theme of Louisiana Mardi Gras, and similarly modified songs with connections to French and French Canadian begging songs and begging quest customs. There are, however, similarities across these types because of borrowing among traditions in France and North America. 2.

Mardi Gras and Related Traditions

The roots of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) lie in pre-Christian rites of winter. Bakhtin (1984) suggests a genetic link between celebrations like Mardi Gras and ancient pagan festivities that included comic elements in their rituals (Bakhtin 1984). By the Middle Ages, many such celebrations were loosely associated with the Catholic liturgical calendar (Spitzer 1986). Mardi Gras is now popularly viewed as a time of excess before Ash Wednesday ushers in Lent, a 40-thy period of abstinence and solemnity, during which music, dancing, eating, and drinking are curtailed among devout Catholics. Mardi Gras in Louisiana, as in France, the Caribbean, and Brazil, is generally associated with urban carnival. In Louisiana, this atmosphere dominates in New Orleans where Mardi Gras, in much of its current form, developed in the late 19th century as a season characterized by lavish parades and balls extending over weeks and culminating on Fat Tuesday.
The Louisiana country Courir du Mardi Gras, with a begging quest as a defining element, is different from its urban counterpart, although both versions of the holiday derive from the same broad carnival tradition. It has been postulated that the rural Mardi Gras is merely an extension of the New Orleans celebration (Post 1962), but it is impossible to ignore its connection to continental French and French Canadian celebrations that were characterized by a begging quest. In order to understand the development of Louisiana Mardi Gras songs, it is necessary to understand the sociohistorical contexts in which songs associated with begging quests originated in both France and North America. Begging quests occurred primarily within a carnival season that began as early as Christmas and lasted until the onset of Lent (Van Gennep 1947). In France, begging quests associated with Mardi Gras (also called "carnival") occurred on one or more of les fours gras (the fat days), generally the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday (Van Gennep 1947). Other holidays with associated begging quests included l'Eginane/Guignol‚e. This tradition was not linked to a particular Catholic holiday and it could occur anytime between Christmas and Mardi Gras. However, it was staged much more frequently between Christmas and New Year's day (Postic and Laurent 1986). La Chandeleur (Candleniass) commemorates the presentation of Christ at the temple in Jerusalem and the purification of the Virgin Mary. It is celebrated on 2 February and is known as "Chandeleur" because it is a day for the blessing of candles in church ceremonies (Arsenault 1982) 3.. Mi-Careme (Mid-Lent) falls outside of the carnival season and seems to have evolved as a brief suspension of Lenten restrictions (Van Gennep 1947). However, the structure and theme of its begging quest were the same as the above mentioned traditions. 4.
Although constituting different holidays, these events often featured begging quests that could be known as a courir (run) in reference to the highly mobile tour that occurred. This was especially true in Mardi Gras/Carnival, for example, Van Gennep (1947) noted the phrase faire courir carnaval (run carnival) in reference to 19th-century begging quests in areas of France. In some portions of France such as Anjou, the panicipants were specifically referred to as Les Mardi Gras (the Mardi Gras) (Van Gennep 1947). Begging quest participants traveled house-to-house where they sang, danced, and performed comical acts in exchange for meat, flour, butter, grease, chickens, eggs, candy, and money (Gallet-Villechange n.d.; Van Gennep 1947). These items were
consumed on the spot, accumulated for a communal feast to climax the holiday, or in some instances of the Guignolee celebration, they benefited the poor of a community (Postic and Laurent 1986).
Costumes included grotesque masks, blackface, ragged clothing, clothing worn inside out or backwards, and outrageous hats and bonnets. Also common was crossdressing by both sexes. Disguise ensured the anonymity of participants and promoted an atmosphere of inversion and disruption of notions of everyday or normal behavior. This carnivalesque imagery is articulated by Bahktin "We find here a characteristic logic, the peculiar logic of the `inside out,' of the `turnabout,' of a continual shift from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings" (1984:11).
These celebrations included outrageous behavior by the participants; for example, using whips or sticks to discourage overly curious spectators who might attempt to unmask them, or carrying muddy brooms to soil the clothes of innocent passersby (Van Gennep 1947). One 17th-century continental French description of a Guignolee celebration portrayed the conduct of overzealous celebrants as approaching extortion when they went to extremes in obtaining food and money from reluctant households (Postic and Laurent 1986). However, begging quests often had participants with honorific titles such as capitaine (captain) and chef(boss) who provided leadership. These leaders often carried a long staff or walking stick decorated with ribbons as a symbol of their status (Postic and Laurent 1986). A common feature of these festivities was begging songs with humbly worded lines that alluded to the group being hungry or which articulated the group's quest for particular foodstuffs. These songs were performed as bands of beggars sought entry into households where they would entertain the hosts in exchange for offerings of food and drink.
These holidays were introduced to North America and survived in various forms well into the 20th century, if not into the present. As in France, French North American communities often celebrated only one holiday with a begging quest. This varied distribution of North American begging quests was undoubtedly linked to the different regional origins of French colonists who settled North America. For example, the Guignol‚e celebration was widespread in Quebec, although Mardi Gras and MiCareme were common to many districts (Dallaire 1982; Desdouits 1987). Guignol‚e was also the primary celebration in the French settlements of present day Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana (Brassieur 1999). Begging quests associated with Mardi Gras/Les Jours Gras, La Chandeleur, and Mi-Careme were prevalent in different portions of Acadia (Arsenault 1982; Daigle 1993; Thomas 1995). 5. However, Mardi Gras is the only celebration with a begging quest that took root in Louisiana.
Tracing the introduction of Mardi Gras to Louisiana to a specific time or wave of French settlement is problematic considering Louisiana's complex settlement history and incomplete historical documentation of the subject. A large component of early Louisiana settlers came directly from various regions of France. However, many of the French involved in the earliest exploration, colonization, and trade in Louisiana were from Quebec and French settlements in the upper Mississippi Valley (Hall 1992). There was also contact between upper and lower Mississippi Valley French settlements throughout the colonial era. The later colonial era was characterized by a large influx of Acadians (the ancestors of contemporary Cajuns) who had been deported from what is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick during the Seven Years War (Brasseaux 1987). A significant number of French refugees from the Haitian Revolution relocated to Louisiana in the first decade of the 19th century. Additional continental French immigrants arrived in Louisiana throughout the 19th century (Brasseaux 1992).
There is little written record of rural Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana prior to the early 20th century, but oral history indicates that Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras songs were a long-standing tradition by the mid-l9th century. One story from southwestern Acadia Parish (in the heart of the southwest Louisiana prairie region) relayed to the authors, tells of Jayhawkers (outlaw marauders) singing the Mardi Gras song when approaching a fiirmstead to commandeer food during the Civil War. Another account was given by a very elderly gendeman from northwestern Acadia Parish who was taught the Mardi Gras song as a young child by his then-elderly grandfather, who learned it as a boy during the Civil War era.
By the early 20th century, the annual Mardi Gras run was found in rural Cajun and Creole communities throughout French Louisiana, especially in southwest Louisiana (Ancelet 1989; Saucier 1956; Sexton 1996; Ware 1994). 6. The tradition declined sharply by the mid-20th century but it was revived or revitalized in many communities as part of a broad, late 20th-century Cajun French ethnic revival movement. Since then, the custom has been most associated with Cajun-French ethnicity although it is still found in a few Creole (Afro-French) communities (Sexton 1999).
The contemporary Mardi Gras run unfolds as a rowdy band of costumed characters, 7. known individually and collectively as Mardi Gras, travel house-to-house on horseback and/or in wagons soliciting charite (charity) - provisions for a communal gumbo to be served at an evening bal de Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras dance). 8. Hence, basic gumbo ingredients like flour, oil, rice, sausage, and chickens were collected. Live chickens are the most desired item of charity; they are thrown into the air by the host, resulting in a wild chase by the Mardi Gras. 9. As with many rites of reversal, Mardi Gras entails considerable alcohol consumption and non-normative behavior. Hence, each Mardi Gras group is headed by an unmasked capitaine, a highly respected member of the community who often carries a flag as a symbol of his considerable authority. The capitaine usually approaches homes and asks permission for the Mardi Gras to visit. He also maintains order within the group with the help of assistants, also called captains, and he serves as a responsible mediator between the Mardi Gras and the community (Ancelet 1989; Oster and Reed 1960; Ware 1994).
There is significant variation in Mardi Gras groups from community to community. This is reflected, for example, in the many differences between the Cajun Mardi Gras runs of Tee Mamou and Grand Marais, rural communities that are only a short distance apart. 10. Tee Mamou is completely mechanized as the group uses a large modified livestock trailer for transportation. The group has a pair of intermediate characters known as the negre (black man) and negresse (black woman), a clear instance of racial and gender inversion. These characters fall midway in the hierarchy of the Mardi Gras, between the captain and rank and file members (known individually and collectively as Mardi Gras, who wear clownlike suits, tall peaked hats, and highly decorated screen masks). The Grand Marais Mardi Gras, on the other hand, is half mechanized while the remainder of the group is mounted on horseback. The group is led by a captain but also utilizes four or five whip-wielding men in blackface (les negre) who are responsible for much of the begging and for maintaining order among the other members known as soldats (soldiers) who dress in ragged clothing, hats, and wear face paint. Other groups are eclectic in costume styles and the use of intermediate characters."
Further variation can be seen in the structure of visits by Mardi Gras groups. In Tee Mamou, after the capitaine receives permission for the Mardi Gras to visit a home, the group slowly advances in ranks toward the hosts while singing the Mardi Gras song under the leadership of the negre and negresse. In Grand Marais, les negre range ahead of the group in order to approach households and beg. If a host offers a substantial gift such as a live chicken and requests a visit, then the entire group will slowly approach the house. The Grand Marais song is sung after the soldiers have entered the host's yard and have formed a circle while seated on the ground.
The Mardi Gras run is climaxed by a bal de Mardi Gras held in a central location in each community. Traditionally, a communal supper of gumbo made from the various ingredients collected by the Mardi Gras was served as a final feast before Lent ushered in 40 days of austerity. However, fewer households maintain chicken flocks, so contemporary groups use the money collected the previous year to purchase food for the supper.


Variation in Mardi Gras Song Texts

A common feature of the Mardi Gras run is the performance of a Mardi Gras song. The diversity in Louisiana country Mardi Gras runs is paralleled by variation in Mardi Gras song texts and performance styles. The first category consists of texts derived from drinking songs. This type is now limited to three Cajun Mardi Gras groups, Lacassine, Tee Mamou, and Grand Marais, the latter two of which will be discussed in this paper. Of the Tee Mamou and Grand Marais songs, the Tee Mamou song is the best known and it has been transcribed and transliterated to facilitate its transmission to non-French-speaking participants. It is now in a highly standardized form. The Grand Marais song is still transmitted orally and, therefore, is more open to interpretation and improvisation by participants. Neither the Tee Mamou nor Grand Marais song is accompanied by music. Tee Mamou, however, does utilize a lively instrumental called the "Hee Haw Breakdown" as part of the group's entrance into the evening dance.