Book review: Acadian Driftwood: The Roots of Acadian and Cajun Music

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Paul-Emile Comeau
"Acadian Driftwood: The Roots of Acadian and Cajun Music"
Fox Music Books

The lucky among us grow up in a musical tradition. That's how many learn gospel, blues, or bluegrass, even rock and roll. Music like that needs no explanation; it's just part of who we are. For the rest of us, we must discover, learn about, and then adopt the music that becomes the soundtrack for our lives. Recordings are there for us, sure, but sometimes we can use a guide to show us the way. Paul-Emile Comeau is such a guide and his "Acadian Driftwood: The Roots of Acadian and Cajun Music" will take you into one of North America's most appealing vernacular genres and introduce you to its musicians and their discographies.

Through the years I have heard the story of Cajun and Acadian music many times. Each time, the story seems as improbable as it is true. It's not that migrations of people and their music are that unusual. But every time I consider Cajun music I have to recall the Grand Dérangement, or Great Expulsion of 1755, to appreciate the origins of this genre and its import.

The very short version of the story is that French Acadians migrated to Nova Scotia in 1604. During the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), thousands were sent into exile, including a group that settled in Louisiana. Some of the exiles returned to Nova Scotia. Those who settled in the south became known as Cajuns. Both Acadians and Cajuns have maintained musical traditions, but their history is complicated enough that Comeau's guide to its nuances is indeed welcome.

For many baby boomers, our first exposure to Cajun sensibilities was seeing crossover star Doug Kershaw breaking his bow strings on old television shows. Something different, for sure, but it wasn't long before other Cajun musicians caught hold of the revival and took it further into the consciousness of America's folk music renaissance.

"Acadian Driftwood" will introduce you to Nathan Abshire, The Balfa Brothers, the Savoy Family and a whole lot more. When it covers Zydeco you'll find Clifton Chenier, Queen Ida, and Buckwheat Zydeco. I've never had the ear needed to discern the regional styles of Acadian music. That's where "Acadian Driftwood" lends a hand, offering descriptions of the music from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. For all of these styles, the strength of the volume is its selected and annotated discographies, plus featured treatments of hallmark songs. You will surely want to check out the musical legacy of the song “Évangéline," a story brought to life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and discover the history and versions of "Jambalaya," which was performed by many more than Hank Williams.

If there are people who don't like Cajun music, I don't know them. Consumed live, it's the sort of sexy, down and dirty vibe that makes you think you're going to get lucky. The author writes that there "has never been a Canadian book on Cajun music and, more importantly, there has never been a book about Acadian music." Now there is, and it tells its improbable story and offers a treat for all. - Richard Dorsett

Visit the author's web site.
You'll also find Paul's commentary on The Band's song that gave the book its name, "Acadian Driftwood"


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