Half a century ago, Michael Doucet stumbled across an idea that helped transform American music.
Back from a six-month stint playing fiddle in France, he returned to his native Louisiana determined to promote aging Cajun musicians who seemed destined to be forgotten. The hope was to revive and preserve the Bayou sounds that were quickly being eclipsed by fast-changing popular musical and cultural trends in the United States.
So he jaunted around Louisiana parishes for a while, playing with some of his musical heroes before eventually forming his groundbreaking band BeauSoleil (French for “Beautiful Sun”). In doing so, he almost single-handedly introduced countless Americans to his beloved Cajun music, which you can experience March 25 at The Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, as the band tours for the last time.
“The whole culture was changing,” he says. “By the late 1960s, many of the elders had started to pass. They had great music and great stories, but nobody was recording them. Luckily for me, there were a few incredible musicians — some who recorded back in the 1920s — who were still alive. And I found them. What a treasure for me.”
The journey started almost by accident, though.
Doucet grew up in a small town called Scott, located about two hours west of New Orleans and, significantly, just five miles west of Lafayette. Now the fourth largest city in Louisiana, Lafayette began as an agricultural outpost and, for nearly two centuries, has been the heart of Acadiana, a region settled by French-speaking Acadians who arrived from Canada.
“We had our own Acadian culture,” he says. “Our parents, everyone, spoke French for the most part. It was a rural setting that was, basically, agricultural. The ground is so fertile here that if you throw seeds, you got to run.”
He let out a hearty laugh, then added, “but we kept our culture to ourselves. We’re still a second-class citizen.”
That became clear when he was attending Louisiana State University on a scholarship to study English.
As part of his studies, he also took classes in music, including one in Anglo-Saxon folk songs, which sparked a transformative moment. A book that he was instructed to read was co-authored by one of his professors and it reviewed Appalachian music, folk, blues and Native American songs. But there was no mention of any music by Acadians, who, by then, were also known as Cajuns.
“When I asked, ‘What about French music?,’ I was told, ‘Oh, that’s just translated English songs,’ ” Doucet recalls with a mix of bemusement and indignation. So he went to the university archives and came across research by Irene Whitfield, an ethnomusicologist who studied and collected Louisiana French folk songs and also assisted Alan Lomax, the famed folklorist, in gathering this music for the Library of Congress.
Determined to prove the professor wrong, Doucet did a report about the origins of the music for the class. “I got an A,” he says proudly. “And that’s what got me started on all this.”
After graduating, Doucet traveled to France to participate in a folk revival that was underway in the early 1970s. The French audiences embraced the Cajun music he played — initially on guitar and later on fiddle — but when he returned in 1974 to Louisiana, he realized that few people were paying much attention to Bayou folk music.
“The French knew our music better than we did,” he said. “But I’d become good friends with Dewey Balfa (a Cajun revivalist, largely unknown outside of folk circles) and got a grant to bring the music to schools. But I was turned down by some principals because of the connotation of ‘Cajun.’ We like a fais do-do (dance party) and have a good time, play songs. But they seemed to think it was about getting drunk.
“But I just kept playing. I was bringing out older musicians who were forgotten and brought them to life and showed their value. I wanted to show them for the gold that they were. Nobody was taping anything. I just ran around with these old guys.”
At that point, Doucet began looking to the future as much as the past.
He formed two bands. One was called Coteau, which some called the “Cajun Grateful Dead” because it fused Cajun with blues, country, Southern rock and jazz. Although popular in Louisiana parishes and festivals, the band never released an album during its short-lived reign in the 1970s, though a reunion recording did come out in 1977.
His other band, BeauSoleil, is rooted in more traditional Cajun sounds although, as he points out, with 40 French-speaking parishes in Louisiana, there are numerous different takes on a song, which opened up endless possibilities for the band to experiment even as the musicians sought to convey the original sounds of their culture.
“You’ve got to learn the songs, but you don’t have to be a Xerox,” he says. “I wanted to continue to compose and play.”
The notion worked. Since forming in 1977, BeauSoleil has released two dozen albums, including a few live recordings, which have made the band synonymous with Cajun music. “We were the only Cajun band that could do a show without a dance,” Doucet says.
The timing was also fortuitous as ethnic genres and world music — which include a wide array of ethnic sounds — became increasingly popular.
The band got a further lift when it was featured on the soundtrack to “The Big Easy,” a 1986 film about a New Orleans mobster starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. The soundtrack also included several other progenitors of various types of Louisiana music — including Professor Longhair, The Neville Brothers, Dewey Balfa and Buckwheat Zydeco — and propelled Cajun music into the American consciousness.
Perhaps the biggest moment in the beautiful sun came in 1997, when BeauSoleil accompanied Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Super Bowl playing “Down at the Twist and Shout,” a Cajun-themed song that she wrote and that won a Grammy after becoming a huge country hit. With an estimated 129 million viewers, the performance exposed BeauSoleil — and most likely Cajun music — to a wider audience than ever before.
Unlike many others, though, BeauSoleil has remained true to its roots. “To make a career, you usually have to leave Louisiana, maybe go to Nashville,” Doucet says. “You had to get out. But we didn’t want to get out. I love the place, I love the food, I love the people. We stayed here. We didn’t succumb to the Nashville thing, the New York, the Los Angeles thing. No one could tell me what to put on our records.”
And as the years have gone by, Doucet has also become something of an ambassador for the Bayou sound, appearing on numerous albums by others including Bonnie Raitt, Richard Thompson and J.J. Cale. There was also Keith Richards. “It’s like no big deal playing with him. He’s a nice guy, a regular guy, but don’t ask me to tell you what happened after we finished recording,” Doucet laughed.
Now, though, BeauSoleil is winding down.
Why? Doucet points to a combination of factors. There are fewer French-speaking people. Cultural and musical tastes are changing. And then there are the increasing costs of touring, which is a big expense for musicians who must now rely more heavily on ticket sales than revenue from album sales. For smaller acts, this is an overwhelming challenge.
“It was a wonderful wave. I’m not saying the culture is dead, but to some people, Cajun has become a commercial for blackened chicken at McDonald’s,” he laments. “And back in the 1970 census, there were more than 1 million French-speaking people in the 20 parishes in Southwest Louisiana. In 2000, there were less than 100,000.
“You can still find a good jam, a good dance. But there are no more dance halls, really. It’s nice we brought the music to the world, but make a living at this now? Ha! Good luck. It’s not worth it anymore. The planes, the crowds, the revenue … it doesn’t add up. I’m not a big fan of going out and losing money. You’ve got to make a decision. That’s why we’re down to three or four people.
“But that’s how we started, as a trio. And everything is a circle.”
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet performs at the Outpost in the Burbs at the First Congregational Church in Montclair at 8 p.m. March 25. For a chance to win two tickets, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by 11 a.m. March 22 with the word “BeauSoleil” in the subject line.
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