South Louisiana is famous for a number of things, the food, the festivals, the language, the joie de vivre. But most all, it is the music that has carried the culture into the international spotlight.
It wasn’t always that way. You can buy t-shirts that read ‘Chank-a-Chank’, which is one of those pejorative-cum-pride things. Chank-a-chank was originally a complaint about how objectionable the music was to naïve ears.
Naïve is a critical insight. When I was in our school stage band the musicians all enjoyed big band music, particularly Stan Kenton. It was a great surprise years later to hear a joke from the 1940’s, “A waiter dropped a tray at a Stan Kenton performance, and three couples got up and started dancing.” Once you’re comfortable with something, it’s hard to believe it was ever objectionable.
This happens with other music as well. Ragtime was originally thought offensive, as was Jazz, another south Louisiana export. And of course there is the Mark Twain quip, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” So even though I wince at music such as heavy metal, rap, et al., I try to remember the problem may be me, not the music.
As we are exposed to new experiences, they can go from noise and noisome, to music.
We can also use that insight to expand our cultural experiences. At one point, I decided to look into all the hoopla about opera, because it just sounded nasty to me. I got some recordings, and played them over and over. It took a while, but I learned to really enjoy it. Recently I tried the same thing with my kids: Puccini’s Turandot was to be simulcast here in Acadiana, and for weeks my wife and I played the music in the background while the kids did other things. When we went to see the opera both of them sat attentively and enjoyed it.
And you know, it wasn’t even in English.
Of course, as fun as it can be to try new things, sometimes we want the familiar. Years ago I spent two weeks in Italy, where the food is fantastic. My last night there I specifically chose to eat at a McDonalds by the Spanish Steps. And I don’t even like McDonalds. I just wanted something familiar.
I have talked about what wisdom may be, and about how we can find happiness with less, and with letting go. How much of joy and happiness are a willingness to listen to the ‘new music’ in our lives, to relax and allow ourselves to become familiar with something different in our environment, in our habits, and in our work? When I was a kid, washing the dishes, mowing the lawn and cleaning the bathroom were particularly unpleasant. Now I rather enjoy them as a break from more difficult problems in work and life that don’t have an obvious solution, nor even a clear endpoint.
We like the comfortable and the familiar. So it can be hard to adjust to new things. We often prefer things the way they are, or the way they were.
Or more accurately, we prefer how we imagine they were. Because everything comfortable and familiar was new and challenging at some earlier point.
In Cajun music a group has appeared in the last few decades that objects to some of the ‘modern’ Cajun music, and who want to keep the old ways. They are musically conservative, they want to stick to the familiar, to the traditional Cajun music.
That poses a problem, however. Noted folklorist Barry Ancelet and other scholars of Cajun and Creole culture politely respond with a question:
Which traditional music?
The Cajun music that was such a hit at the Newport Folk Music Festival in 1964 was different from the Cajun music that Alan Lomax recorded in the 1930’s. That music is very different from the music that the Acadians brought with them from France. In their 400+ years in the New World,1)The first ancestors of the Cajuns arrived in modern Nova Scotia in 1604, 16 years before the Mayflower sailed and three years before Jamestown was founded. the Cajuns have incorporated influences from many musical traditions, including English, Scottish, African, Country & Western, Bluegrass.
Oh, and don’t forget German. The accordion comes from the Germans.
This pattern can be seen in other areas of human activity. For instance, there is much talk about preserving ‘Christian values’. Which Christian values? The Puritans would have found the lifestyle of even the most staid modern Christians to be wildly libertine. Torquemada, however, would have put the Puritans to the rack for their radical ideas and beliefs. We can keep going back to the earliest Biblical origins: it is important to remember that the ancient Hebrews really did sell their daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), execute people for failing to observe the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), and stone them for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16).
We see the same thing with Constitutional fundamentalism. Forget about whether the Founders intended to protect weapons that fire 30 rounds/second with treble the effective range of a muzzle-loader. What would Washington and Jefferson think about women voting, African Americans holding national positions in the military and government, publicly funded schools and national parks, and even a massive, standing military that consumes over half the federal budget?
Despite protestations otherwise, conservatives are not all that conservative, they change with time. We all change with time.
Sometimes, we are forced to change by our children. I have watched friends struggle with conflicts they could not imagine when they were younger, unmarried daughters taking birth control pills, adult children who come out as LGBT, and my favorite, interracial marriage. I say it’s my favorite, because I have witnessed quite a few parents who disowned a child for marrying outside of the race2)I wonder what my WASP ancestors would have thought of my blue-eyed mother marrying an Arab. only to capitulate when the first baby was born. If our children don’t make us change, sometimes our grandchildren do.
The world changes, and despite insistence otherwise, we all move with it, conservatives and everyone. That’s not a knock against conservatism. I have made the point here that conservatism is absolutely essential, we must carry on in most of life the same way people have done for years. We should examine new ideas thoroughly, skeptically, test them, and be willing to reverse when something isn’t working. Which, by the way, is a criticism I have of liberals: it is just as hard for some liberals to reverse when confronted with evidence and logic, as it is for some conservatives to progress when confronted with evidence and logic.
Rather, this is a criticism of stick-your-fingers-in-your-ears conservatism, I’m-not-listening-to-your-music-conservatism, the conservatism that says we have to do things the way they’ve been done, for no other reason than that’s the way they’ve been done. Just as with my comments on prejudice, the problem is not conservatism.
The problem is closed-mindedness.
Accordion courtesy of Excalibur Accordions.