Cajun Music, Melbourne in the 1970’s, Studying at Monash

ALLONS A LAFAYETTE…VIA WEST MELBOURNE, TAMWORTH AND PLACES IN BETWEEN……

If you stopped to listen,you could hear strange sounds spilling out of the half-open door of an old shop in West Melbourne and onto the footpath of Victoria Street, North Melbourne.

Rhythms mixed with traffic noise in the late afternoon sun to create an unexpected and exotic sound-scape. The c-chanka-chank-a -chank of de-tuned fiddles clashed against the screech of brakes, and the soulful, high-lonesome voice with its “eerie- cheerie” melody cut through the low rumblings of big ,old trucks. The hypnotic ringing of the triangle blended with the sounding bell of the passing trams, almost in tune.

Most people just walked on by, on their way to the pub, the train station or the markets. They were completely disinterested in musical sounds and their minds were filled with the worries and concerns of the day. As for me, I just couldn’t wait to push open the door, forget the world outside, and get a closer listen to the music.
Hound Dogs Bop Shop was open for business – rhythm was it’s business-rhythm and blues, rhythm and country, rhythm and rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll rhythm, bluegrass, western swing, be-bop, funk, gospel, old- timey , hillbilly….and Cajun.

It was 1976, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The ‘60’s had livened things up a bit, and we were still rolling along in the wake of that huge wave. Music was on the agenda…pop music, blues, swing, cool be -bop, hip country music of days gone by, exotic regional styles, you name it …there was interest in it. Historical recordings of obscure American music had become, for the first time, readily available on LP and a group of crazy young musicians, ratbags, music- lovers, artists and rockers regularly jammed into the Bop Shop for the latest update on what was new…or should I say ,what was old.
Most of us were already disillusioned, or just plain bored with mainstream popular music- it was packaged, stylised, emasculated, and were searching for other sounds. We looked back to a time before the mass marketing of popular music, back when the music was raw, regional and exotic;a time, so we theorised, when music was still free and expressive like an uncaged beast roaming in its natural habitat– untamed, rich with vitality. We were Romantics, a kind of modern -day Antipodean Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood who wanted sounds that were pure and pre-Beatles. We didn’t know anything about post-modernism, but somehow the recordings that brought the music to us made time stand still.

As a guitarist and fiddle player with an already growing interest in string-band music of the 20’s and 30’s, I was ready for the sounds of Cajun music. I remember being moved by the strange hypnotic rhythms, the unusual melodious fiddle, the plaintive singing and above an uncanny simplicity in the music.

I didn’t know where it came from, who the Cajuns were or what their history was. Like an innocent with open heart and mind I just heard the music and thought that I would like to play music like that. It was a bit like falling in love-it came out of nowhere, felt right, and I wanted to be swept up by it.
I bought some compilations of historical Cajun recordings from the late 20’s and 30’s, on labels such as Old Timey and Arhoolie. They were well –packaged with photos and interesting liner notes and it’s here that I caught my first glimpses of Cajun musicians and learned a little about their history and influences. I went about learning a few tunes by ear, playing the songs over and over until the strains of melody found their way under the fall of my fingers and into my head. I didn’t always get it exactly right but near enough was good enough for me-it was quite often the feel or the flavour that I was looking for rather than a note-for-note copy.

One of the first things that I noticed, and liked, about the music was that, even though the melodies were relatively simple, there were strange rhythmic twists and turns-the music seemed rhythmically ragged -the tunes seemed “crooked”, but totally natural and always right. It was rough and real. This was in direct contrast to the commercial evenness of a lot of other music which I had heard on the radio.

There were other aspects of the music which caught my ear: it had an emotional depth of expression that belied the simplicity and forms of the style; there was a primitive blues content which permeated every performance; the songs exuded an exuberant, happy rhythm and an ‘other-worldly’ feel. It was different but at the same time grounded and accessible. It had elements of Southern blues and country music with which I was already familiar, but Cajun music seemed to possess the added component of highly syncopated rhythms. It didn’t seem to matter that the singing was in an un-translate-able Cajun patois. Somehow this only added to the listening experience and the performer always seemed to get their message across with a series of primal moans and yells. The record covers provided rough translations of the songs – they all dealt with simple themes-lost love, new-found love, dispossession, death, loneliness, food and feasting, dancing, joy and happiness, all eternal human themes.I remember thinking that this kind of music tied-in with the kind of pastoral poetic tradition that I had become familiar with in my studies of Classical literature.
VIRGIL AND CLASSICAL LITERATURE, THE POWER OF SONG, REAL VERSUS IDEAL, HISTORY,SIMPLICITY, INTELLECTUAL AND FOLK TRADITIONS INTERTWINED…..

Before I became a fully professional musician I did a B.A. degree at Monash University. I used to study by day and play music by night.

Monash was an oasis of learning and a repository of history,a world of ideas and culture stuck out in the wilds of an outer -suburban industrial wasteland .Talk about chalk and cheese.

The Uni was surrounded by pre-fabricated estates where the new homeowner could buy a new muffler for your car or get the latest air -conditioning unit. One could order building materials, a motorbike, a clothesline, a barbecue, insulation for your roof, or measure up a concrete slab or a new fence. There were huge shopping marts which fed off the burgeoning suburban culture that was growing ever- outwards to the misty blue hills beyond.

The Ming Wing, as it was called (Menzies Building), was a stark rectangular box which rose up above the factories and brick veneers of Springvale. It towered over the suburban plains, a strange surreal sort of modernistic Aussie ‘60’s architecture -all little square windows, stairs, corridors, elevators and rooms. It swayed in the wind and everyone was expecting that one day it would topple over in one of those strong gusts that came up from the South.

In its small cramped rooms with windows looking over the busy sprawl of the suburbs, people discussed philosophy ( “Is that chair really there?” I remember the eccentric professor Grant asking one sleepy afternoon in an attempt to elucidate the nature of reality to a bunch of stoned, sleepy hippy students);the meaning of T. S. Eliot( “Let us go then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky…”);the passion of the famous “Cynthia” poems of the poet Propertius; Virgil’s theories of Empire and the Individual; The role of art in the French Revolution- all kinds of intellectual enquiry. Very subversive stuff which had little or nothing to do with the contemporary Australian society in which we found ourselves.

Education was free then and I had no vocational interests except art and music so I took subjects which I thought were connected to the pursuit of the arts(I guess that, in retrospect, I was vocationally oriented-I just didn’t have a highly-payed job waiting for me when I graduated).

Amongst other things, I majored in Latin, which I had learned at school and had stuck with, much to the dismay of my schoolmates .There was something about it which I loved. It took me away to far -away places and distant times when the world was just beginning. The beauty and rhythm of the hexameters and pentameters delighted and comforted me.

I read Virgil, Horace, Catullus, Propertius and immersed myself in the meaning of their work. This literary period was fascinating to me because it was the beginning of the Anglo/European intellectual tradition. I felt as though I was really finding out where things came from- words, sayings, philosophical ideas, poetic forms and themes. This knowledge somehow set me outside the confines of current popular dogmas, trends and gave me a real sense of history. It put things in perspective. To me, it seemed that just about all European poetry had been inspired and influenced by the Roman classics-from Dante, through to Milton, Shakespeare , Keats, T. S. Eliot and beyond .

One of the works that I read and studied was Virgil’s Eclogues .This famous set of poems was a series of songs sung by shepherds reclining in the shade of olive groves and dealt with subjects ranging from dispossession, love, spirituality, politics and state, identity and simple pleasures. It was Virgil’s version of the Greek poet Theocritus and was a work in the pastoral tradition- a style of poetry in which learned poets attempted to mimic the simple, heartfelt songs of shepherds and other rural folk.
The pastoral poetic tradition demonstrates how intellectuals and artists have recognised and admired the inherent genius in the arts of “simple” people .Poets have appreciated qualities such as emotional directness; power and vitality; uncluttered humanity; wit and humour; form, rhythm and meter; a well-developed sense of natural beauty ;and above all, a direct simplicity which reflected an intimate relationship with nature .

All these qualities were prized and imitated by poets such as Theocritus in Greece and Virgil in Rome. These poets created a whole style-a bucolic or pastoral tradition and they, in turn, influenced many succeeding poets, artists and writers.

For me,it is interesting to note how many instances there are of well-known Western artists being inspired by “folk” art and ethnic traditions which were outside European intellectual circles . Claude Debussy was deeply influenced by gamelan orchestras which he heard at the 1890 Paris exhibition. His experience inspired the use of pentatonic scales in his compositions-a seemingly ‘avant-garde’ development in classical European music circles but ,ironically, an ancient traditional system in Indonesia and many other non-western countries. In France, in the late 19th century, we have numerous examples of painters(Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh amongst others) being deeply influenced with Japanese prints. And there’s famous examples such as Modigliani and Picasso and their use of African masks to inspire their own portraiture.These works were once again hailed as ‘avant-garde’. One could also mention Bela Bartok and his keen interest in Hungarian folk music and there are many examples…( In the 20th century, it seems, that whenever popular music is in need of a new sound or direction it turns to some kind of ethnic, uncommercial tradition to infuse it with new vitality and fresh ideas….)

So, when I read the Eclogues I was intrigued by the world which Virgil created- a world of shepherds and goatherds who seemed to possess an elegance of expression and who prized song above all else as a form of communication and a way of controlling their environment. As an aspiring musician I was very interested in this idea-the transformative power of song and art.

These shepherds could affect the world with their songs. They could put a spell on a lover, affect the weather, communicate with Gods, improvise in contest with each other. They had sad laments ,celebratory wedding songs, powerful rhythmic chants used for dancing and all kinds of magic, dirty, coarse ditties to excite and woo prospective lovers. They possessed a host of other songs up their sleeve for any occasion-like contemporary bluesmen .Song was a potent, living art and,in Virgil’s case, a central component of an idealised world removed from the one we live in.

In the real world, art and song, according to Virgil, was constantly rendered impotent -people did not listen to the song and learn from it. They did not look at the picture, they did not understand or take notice of the powerful truths which art conveyed. In the real world people were too distracted to learn from art. These ideas run through Virgil’s work and find their strongest and most eloquent expression in his great (and ironically most misinterpreted) epic, The Aeneid,an epic tale of dispossession, imperialism and individual destiny. It is Virgil’s exploration of the power of art (poetry and song) and its ultimate failure to reach people and effect changes in the real world that contributed to his notorious pessimism –his belief in a tragic cycle of history.

I did not necessarily agree with his pessimistic aspect of his view of history, but was very interested and motivated by his ideas about the power of art, poetry and song. These ideas have fuelled my own efforts in trying to make music which has power, vitality and meaning.