Coon-ass on the dance floor…

Will you pass me another Bud Light?

This is the first time since my college days that these words came out of my mouth.  That night I threw back four of ’em and finished off with a shot of everclear.  For those of you that know me…you will understand that this is quite a feat.  I hardly ever drink alcohol.  For multiple reasons, the atmosphere and company on this particular night inspired me to throw back a few…and my microbrew, yogic San Francisco-cultured-self was given a much needed rest.  Living in the present is a sweet sweet thing.

This past weekend at the Black Pot Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting many great folk, most of whom traveled long distances to get there.  I met folks from Alaska and North Carolina, Tennessee and New Mexico.  Many of the musicians and cooks were local, but aside from them, the majority of the festival attendees were from afar…people who were simply interested in making, listening, and/or participating in Zydeco, Honky Tonk, Old-Time, and Cajun music.  My home-base was the RV of my lovely grandparents, who in their late 70’s, came to enjoy and share in the experience.  I was lucky to have them, along with my aunt, to pal around with….and together we came to realize that our background and culture had found its way into younger generations, as well as the lives of folks living in all parts of the United States.  “It makes me proud to see so many young folks enjoying this music”, said my grandma.  And indeed, I came upon a subculture that I didn’t even know existed!

The experience that continues to jump out at me the most after taking this trip happened on the last night of the festival.  Feeling slightly frustrated at my inability to keep up with the extremely talented fire-side music-circles happening throughout the campground, I started my jaunt back to the RV, where I was planning on putting my banjo to sleep for the night.  Before I could make it inside the trailer, I ran into my neighbor Bob, who was headed over to what he called “Cajun camp”.  I was curious what this camp name meant, seeing as I’d met maybe 7 Cajuns the entire time I’d been at this festival….and most of them were on the stage right now playing music.  Out of curiosity, I accepted his invitation to come along.  Looking back…this was the best decision I’d made all weekend.   On the other side of our RV, was the camp of a family that lived about 30 minutes away from Lafayette.  With their thick Cajun accents and big smiles, they immediately welcomed me around the fire.  Handing me a freshly-opened can of beer, the fella who introduced himself as Uncle Ray, told me to grab my banjo.  Hesitating…and expressing my frustrated-beginner status…they simply wouldn’t have it.  “Sha–now why the hell wouldn’t you play the banjo that you have?  It’s all about having fun…now go get your banjo and let’s play!”  These people were fun, ya’ll.  And they were having a great time.  The kids were running around putting sticks in the fire and taking turns plucking on a bass they had fashioned out of old tractor gas tank. Grandma was relaxing in a lazy-boy chair, just like the one I have at home. I was immediately introduced to everyone in the circle.  Almost instantaneously, I felt comfortable and welcomed.  Roaming around a music festival solo can be challenging and slightly intimidating.  Most of the time I approached social circles and felt like a bit of an outsider.  People were very friendly…but there was still an element of awkwardness.  I’m not sure what it was that made this experience different.  But this family had a lightness and comfort in their atmosphere.  They were excited to meet new people, were having a good time, and emanated a feeling of inclusion.  There was no status or talent to uphold, it was just a matter of keeping good company and enjoying the time as it came.  I finally found a place to relax, with lots of laughter, and it felt great.  We spent the next 45 minutes or so playing music and making up lyrics together, then headed out to the pavilion to see live music.  The night ended with me dancing hand-in-hand with two relatively large men wearing overalls, as we hooted and hollered to the Cajun tunes being blasted across the dance floor.  The energy of this music is incredible and it’s even better when you’re enjoying it with others who love it just as much.  It was the music we all grew up on…and this was enough in common to keep us bouncing to the tunes with grins from ear to ear.  My new family of the evening identified as proud coon-asses.  And from this moment on, I decided to (re)claim my coon-ass status.

In the past, the term ‘coon-ass’ was seen as offensive and used to disregard and discriminate against Cajuns.  There are a few different theories marking the origin of this phrase.  In the book titled The Cajuns: Americanization of a People by Shane Bernard, linguist Barry Ancelet states the term was coined in or near Acadiana and derived from the Cajuns’ occasional habit of eating raccoons or, more likely, from the doubly racist notion that Cajuns were even lower on the social scale than ‘coons’, a derogatory term for blacks.  In the 1970’s, the term began to gain popularity amongst communities that sought empowerment, specifically as a badge of working-class ethnic pride, states Bernard.  For some, the word still holds alot of painful memories and remains seated in a negative light.  But for others, the term ‘coon-ass’ may be thrown out to a neighbor or family member of Cajun ethnicity to mark a shared unity or ancestry, to make a joke, or to recognize that the action you are doing is distinctly Cajun…and perhaps slightly different than your ‘higher-class’ neighbors.

Taking this short musical-inspired trip to Louisiana was quite powerful for me.  I realized that there are many levels of experiences and diversity within what one might define as Cajun culture.  There are historians who spend their lives dedicated to learning and teaching our past.  They remind us that we all came from somewhere.  There are musicians that endlessly practice and honor the music of our ancestors and create new tunes for people to enjoy.  They help us to remember, feel and be inspired.  There are the dancers, cooks, and hunters…the craftspeople and farmers.  They remind us that Cajun is more than just a label.  Some people have grown up in communities where Cajun culture flourishes and others, like myself, have grown up away from our roots but still feel connected through family and memories.  We are young and old, with and without money…people of many walks of life.

This trip reminded me that the presentation of a culture is only a portion of what it means to identify with and respect your roots.  With the risk of sounding too naive, idealistic, and in-discriminatory, I believe that much of what we perceive as culture is largely carried out in our relationships and how we approach the world and our experiences in it.  Meeting my fellow coon-ass friends on the last day reminded me that Cajun is also defined by how we treat one another and the beauty we choose to bring and contribute to our everyday.  While it is honorable to dedicate the time to learn our dialect, play our music, and pass down our recipes…it is also about sharing, having fun, relating and accepting difference.  It was a nice lesson to remember.  I feel extremely lucky for my roots and as I continue to embark on paths to keep them strong and alive….I’ll remember my generous family, the beautiful stories of my grandparents, and being on the dance floor with a couple of coon-asses that truly understand how awesome it is to be Cajun.

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2 thoughts on “Coon-ass on the dance floor…

  1. Hello Lisa
    I have read your story on the events that you exsperianced at Black Pot Festival.That was some real good observations that you mentioned.I’m glad to see that you enjoyed your time with my family and friend’s as much as you did.We really did enjoyed having you there to share the fun with us.Thanks for e-mailing the story to me.I enjoyed it very much.Please keep in touch with us and hopefully we can share more goodtimes in the future.May your travels be safe and allways lead you back home.Your Coon-Ass Friend WildBill

    PS:If you get back to Louisiana and would like to hang out with my family and I.Please feel free to call Bill @ (337)828-1012 or Vickie @ (337)579-3234

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