Monday, February 4, 2013

A Glimpse from 1968: Historic Films Looked at Cajuns and Creoles in Epic Year

A couple months ago or so Cajun fiddler David Greely sent me a link to a 1968 film on YouTube. The film showed elderly Cajun couples dancing to late Cajun accordionist Aldus Roger (pronounced RO-ZHAY in the French manner).

Aldus Roger and his band perform for dancers.
Source: La Louisiane (1968)

The video captivated me because moving images of Cajun musicians from the late 1960s or earlier are rare. I was not alone in my interest — the video caused a momentary stir among others interested in Cajun culture.

I say "momentary" because almost as soon as David spread the word about this YouTube footage, the original poster suddenly yanked it from the Internet. This is quite possibly my fault, because when I saw the film I immediately e-mailed the original poster to ask, "Where did you get this? Do you know where I can get a copy? It is extremely important to those who study Cajun culture, and I would like to obtain dubs for preservation and research purposes." (I paraphrase.)

Within a few hours the YouTube video was gone and the poster never answered my query. Indeed, with the video removed I had no way to contact the poster, even to ask the name of the film.

Today I decided to see if I could track down the documentary in question. And, by Googling the words "cadien," "documentaire," "musique," and "1968," I was able to find the film.

Logo of the ORTF.
Source: Les archives de la télévision

Actually, I found three films (and there are perhaps more), all shot between 1968 and 1969 by the Office de radiodiffusion télévision française (ORTF), operated by the French government.

This was a vital time in Cajun and Creole history. As I note in my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People:
That year, 1968, was remarkable nationally and internationally. The Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the Vietnam War. LBJ announced he would not seek reelection to the presidency. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  Campus rallies erupted into violence amid cries of “Revolution!” Police bullied protestors and innocent bystanders at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. . . .
Acadiana [i.e., Cajun Louisiana] also witnessed incredible events of its own during 1968. Besides the creation of [French education group] CODOFIL, it saw the passage of several laws that bolstered the status of French in Louisiana. The state legislature mandated that public elementary schools offer at least five years of French instruction, and that public high schools offer the subject for at least three years, along with at least one course on the history and culture of French America. It required state colleges and universities to offer teacher certification in elementary school French, and it approved the publication of legal notices and other public documents in French. It also demanded that state-funded educational television be bilingual, showing French programming in equal proportion to its French-speaking viewers. Finally, the legislature authorized the establishment of a non-profit French-language television corporation in conjunction with [local university] USL, to be called Télévision-Louisiane.
Cover of my book
The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2003)
Other events contributed to making 1968 an astounding year for the French preservation movement. USL committed itself to becoming “a world linguistic center” by establishing an Institute of French Studies and by expanding its role in training French educators. Civic leaders opened cultural exchanges with other French-speaking regions, symbolically pairing Lafayette with the city of Longueuil, Quebec, in what became known as a jumelage (twinning). Business leaders conducted a trade mission to Quebec in order to develop commercial ties. Educators started a summer student exchange program, sending Cajun children to Quebec, and hosting French Canadian children in south Louisiana. An International Acadian Festival took placed in Lafayette, attracting over one hundred governmental and media visitors from Canada and France for two days of receptions, lectures, exhibits, films, tours, and other events that highlighted the region’s French heritage.
Cajuns quickly grasped the significance of this amazing period. “Historians will circle calendar year 1968,” announced Acadiana Profile, a new bilingual magazine, “as the time when the . . . French Renaissance took form and shape and direction in Louisiana.” . . .
Shot in 1968, two of the films appeared in a French series called "En Couleur des U.S.A" ("In Color USA"). Both are available for viewing in their entirety per the website of the Institut national de l'audiovisuel (INA), or National Audiovisual Institute, of France.

La Louisiane : Fête de l'écrevisse, May 1968 (14 mins. 31 secs.)

One of the two films, titled "La Louisiane : Fête de l'écrevisse" ("Louisiana: Crawish Festival"), features the 1968 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. It originally aired in May that year and its summary reads: 
Reportage sur le festival de l'écrevisse à Breaux Bridge, en Louisiane, dans le pays cajun, avec de nombreuses festivités : course d'écrevisses, fanfares, danses, concours d'épluchage d'écrevisses et parades (une pour les blancs et une autre pour les noirs, alors qu'en théorie la ségrégation n'a plus cours).
Report on the Crawfish Festival of Breaux, Bridge, in Louisiana, in Cajun country, with many festivities: crawfish races, bands, dances, crawfish peeling contests, and parades (one for whites and another for blacks, even though segregation is no longer acceptable).
The absence of black people among the festival goers struck me as peculiar, even as the film itself depicts a black parade and a white parade. This was, of course, 1968, about a year before south Louisiana finally integrated its elementary and high schools (despite the fact that fifteen years earlier the Supreme Court, per the case Brown v. the Board of Education, had declared "separate-but-equal" education to be unconstitutional).

A crawfish float on Bayou Teche,
Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival.
Source: La Louisiane: Fête de l'écrevisse (1968)

On a less serious note, the film depicts a boat parade on Bayou Teche, a crawfish race, and, in one scene, a van decorated to promote Cajun musician Happy Fats LeBlanc's live Saturday TV program, Mariné, which aired on KLFY-TV 10.

The other film, titled "La Louisiane," was originally released in September 1968 and documents French culture in general in and around Lafayette, Louisiana. It begins with Cajun fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and, later, includes that priceless footage of Cajun musician Aldus Roger playing for elderly Cajun dancers. It appears to me that the Roger footage was shot at KLFY's studio, originally located on Jefferson Street near its intersection with Pinhook Road. I assume the event is Roger's weekend live Cajun music TV program, which aired on KLFY from the mid-1950s through the 1960s. (I'm unsure when it fell from the station's lineup.) The only reason I doubt we are seeing Roger's weekend program, however, is the inclusion of news in French — unless that was actually part of Roger's program. (The show might be one of KLFY's other long-running local programs, Passe Partout or Meet Your Neighbor, but I've never heard of either having live studio dancers.)

La Louisiane, September 1968 (15 mins. 2 secs.)

Intriguingly, this second film includes an interview in French with future Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards and a rare interview with former U.S. congressman James "Jimmy" Domengeaux (pronounced in the French manner as DUH-MAZH-ZHEE-O, much like the surname of baseball great Joe DiMaggio). (I mention Domengeaux in previous articles here and here.) The same year this documentary appeared, Domengeaux became president of the newly created Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) — a group that in coming decades would spearhead the teaching of French in Louisiana public schools. It was a revolutionary idea, for less than a decade earlier Louisiana children had been punished in schools for speaking French.

The summary of this film reads:
Ce reportage en Louisiane du sud part à la découverte des habitants francophones du pays acadien, dans la région de Lafayette : les trappeurs (piégeurs) des marécages du bayou Vermilion, les pêcheurs de crevettes (descendants de bretons ou normands installés d'abord au Canada) dans le port de Delcambre, les noirs descendants de créoles de Saint Domingue et Haiti. A Lafayette, une chaine de télévision et une station de radio émettent des programmes en français. James Domegeaux (un avocat de Lafayette), un représentant du Congrès et le gouverneur de Louisiane témoignent de leur volonté de sauvegarder le français en Louisiane.
This report on south Louisiana sets out to discover the French-speaking residents of Acadian country in the Lafayette area: trappers of the wetlands of Bayou Vermilion, shrimp fishermen (descendants of Bretons and Normans who first settled in Canada) at the port of Delcambre, black descendants of Creoles from Santo Domingo and Haiti. In Lafayette, a television station and a radio station broadcast programs in French. James Domegeaux (a lawyer from Lafayette), a congressman [Edwards, who was not yet governor], and a governor of Louisiana [John McKeithen], show their desire to preserve French in Louisiana. 
Jimmy Domengeaux interviewed.
Source: La Louisiane (1968)

A third film, shot the next year, is available per the INA website, but only as a short preview: it is titled, "Les Enfants de Francien : En Louisiane," which I suppose could be translated as "The Children of Old French: In Louisiana." It originally aired in June 1969 and according to the summary it asks: 
Comment peut-on être de culture française sans être français ? Ce reportage présente la communauté acadienne située dans les marais du delta du Mississippi.
Can French culture exist without being French? This report presents the Acadian community located in the marshes of the Mississippi delta. [I suspect the geography is off slightly.]
I re-post these videos because they afford a fascinating glimpse into the state of south Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole culture in the late 1960s, right at the birth of the French revival movement — as perceived at the time by the French media.

Addendum of 12 February 2013

A third south Louisiana-related film is available for viewing in its entirety through the INA website. Shot in 1976 — eight years after the above two La Louisiane films — it depicts, among other subjects, Louisiana schoolchildren singing "Frère Jacques"; Cajun radio-and-TV personality (and sometimes Cajun singer) Jim Olivier giving a weather forecast in French (another KLFY reference, possibly from the Passe Partout morning program); a second interview with Jimmy Domengeaux (whose group, CODOFIL, is mistakenly called the "Comité du defense du français" — unless a distinct group by this name existed, but I've never heard of it); and a glimpse of Michael Doucet and a few other Cajun musicians performing for the camera.  (The musicians may comprise an early version of the band BeauSoleil or perhaps another of Doucet's groups, Coteau.)


  1. Cajun musician Pat Savant, formerly of the Sundown Playboys, e-mailed me this nice note and gave me permission to post it here:

    Dr. Bernard,

    Thanks for uncovering a wonderful and most memorable part of my childhood. As a young boy, learning to play the Cajun accordion, I grew up watching Aldus Roger and the Lafayette Playboys on KLFY Channel 10 in Lafayette. This was before cable and one had to have an outside antenna to view Channel 10 in Lake Charles. In the TV Guide the program was simply entitled "The Lafayette Playboys". It aired on both Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. It was the same program with different commercials. I watched both shows. When I finally got a cassette recorder for Christmas, I would record the audio portion of the show.

    The band playing on the video was comprised of Aldus Roger on the accordion, Phillip Alleman on the steel guitar and the vocalist, Louis Foreman and Tony Thibodeaux on violins, Clarence Alleman on guitar, Gerald Touchet on bass, and Vernon Bergeron on drums. At the time of this writing, I think all of the band members are deceased except for Vernon Bergeron. In my estimation that was THE BAND as far as Cajun music was concerned! The program had such an audience! The show lasted until the fall of 1969. At that time Aldus was having health issues. I was told that when I telephoned KLFY to inquire about the program's cancellation.

    Back in the 1980s, I visited Jim Olivier at the Channel 10 studios. I asked him if it were possible to obtain a copy of a videotape of the shows. He informed me that none of the videotapes had been spared; all were erased! How could anyone destroy such an important part of Cajun history? I just knew that someone, somewhere had to have a tape.Thanks to the French government for preserving a little bit of our history--even if it is only one song. I wonder if there exists any raw, unedited footage of other songs?

    Sharing this story with you has brought back fond memories of my passion for Aldus Roger's music. On my album I recorded "Aldus Roger Medley" in his honor. I finally got to meet him in the 1970s and we became good friends. He came to some of my dances and one night I was invited to his house for a gumbo supper along with Wayne Toups and Shine Mouton, the accordion maker from Crowley. At that gathering Aldus gave me a photograph of the band playing on Channel 10. I remember Shine Mouton telling me that he made an accordion for Aldus with multi-colored bellows because the programs at that time were beginning to be colorcasts. That is the same accordion pictured in my photograph and in the video.

    Thanks for your great work in preserving Cajun history and thanks again for making the video available!


    Pat Savant

  2. The group at the end of the last segment is indeed the first version of Beausoleil, featuring Michael Doucet (on fiddle), Bessyl Duhon (on accordion), Bruce McDonald on (guitar-right), and bothers Kenneth (on mandolin) and Sterling (on guitar) Richard.