Cajun Renaissance Part Two: Louisiana Rural Mardi Gras

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In a rural Louisiana pasture, near Mamou Louisiana, pre-Lenten celebrants erect a 20-foot metal pole covered in grease. On the top of the pole is a chicken in a cage. The challenge is to climb this pole and get the chicken for a community gumbo. At first, the mob around the slick pole is a drunken frenzy, all individually trying to climb it. They fall onto the crowd gathered below—no one can do it alone. But then, a collective mentality takes hold and the crowd starts to work together. A sturdy male from the crowd is drafted to be the chicken grabber. The others form a knitted ladder of bodies to assist the draftee to the summit. When the chicken is released from its cage and flies into the air, screams and victory dances break out in the crowd below.

Every year at Mardi Gras, thousands of tourists flood New Orleans for parades, productions, and parties that have taken a year create. Gallons of drinks named after the natural disaster that pounds the city at the end of summer are sloshed onto the brick streets. This is what most people think of as Mardi Gras. But a hundred miles northwest of this urban center, masqueraded descendants of the Acadians engage in chicken chasing, roof climbing, horseback dancing, hard drinking, accordion squeezing, and hollering to ring in the most decadent of pre-Easter rituals. Rural towns with populations of less than five-hundred farmers, merchants, cannery workers, and teachers don costumes of colorful ragged cloth to sing and drink their way down main street. It’s called Courir de Mardi Gras. Led by Le Capitaine, a caped, horseback-riding town leader, they collect ingredients for a community gumbo from everyone, including those who agreed to the onslaught of the Mardi Gras on their lawns. At the end of the day, everyone gathers in the center of town to serve from the giant cauldron. The ingredients aren’t just donated—some must be caught—like the chickens.

Courir de Mardi Gras celebrations take us closer to our primal roots, and away from organized social club (krewe) parades of New Orleans. By the time the swale of men standing on horses, the wagons and tractors move down the street, the Mardi Gras is intoxicated by it all. It’s difficult to discern gender, ethnicity, or age. Challenge to the usual order of life is the theme of the day. Burly shapes that walk like men are dressed in women’s clothes, with bosoms and hugely padded hips. Many top off their baggy suits of fringe and bells and with handmade painted masks and tall, conical hooded capuchons. It imparts the appearance of a comical gathering of the Klan, but the picturesque exaggeration portends none of the Klan’s malice. The capuchons worn by Mardi Gras celebrants are completely unrelated to the pointy hats worn by the Klan, founded after the American Civil War. These medieval costumes predate the KKK by hundreds of years.

According to renowned Cajun folklorist, Barry Ancelet, the first director of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Center for Acadian and Creole Folklore, the origins of these rural customs are in Catholic medieval European practices, specifically the fête de la quémande, the feast of begging in medieval France. During the fête, house-to-house begging was a socially acceptable behavior, when disguised revelers would go through the countryside visiting households and performing for offerings. These traditions originated in a time when most of the land and money was held by the upper classes. The poor, at the end of long winters and short on food, would gather in groups and make their way from castle to manor house to beg from the wealthy, then sing and dance in for the gratitude for generosity of the nobles. French medieval carnival celebrations also featured contests and races, and possibly how the chicken chase associated with the courir began. A few runs have whipping and penance as part of their traditions. Medieval Flagellants, who held processions through the streets, attempted to whip the sin out of themselves and others. Other rituals associated with the courir are derived from the fertility and renewal rituals of Pre-Christian Celtic Europe. The tune on which the Chanson de Mardi Gras is based can be traced back to Brittany, a Celtic enclave on the Northwestern French coast near where the original settlers of Acadia lived.

Around 1755, the Acadian settlers of the Canadian Maritimes were forcibly deported by the English and took their traditions with them. Many made their way to Spanish South Louisiana, settling in what would become known as the Acadiana region and the immigrants as “Cajuns.” This determination to hold on to their religious customs and faith has been a major factor in creating the atmosphere that has allowed for the celebration of life, or “la joie de vivre,” that is so characteristic of the food, dance, and music in South Louisiana culture.

Modern revival

Although the tradition never died out, during the 1930s and 1940s it had begun to fade away, especially during the World War II era as many of the young men who participated were away serving in the armed forces. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the tradition began to be revived and in the 1960s got a major boost with the “Cajun renaissance”, a grass roots effort to promote the unique local food, culture, music and language. In 1993, documentary filmmaker Pat Mire chronicled the tradition in “Dance for a Chicken: The Cajun Mardi Gras.”

La Chanson de Mardi Gras

The Mardi Gras song, known in the local Cajun French as “La Danse de Mardi Gras” and “La Vieille Chanson de Mardi Gras,” is a traditional tune sung by the participants, although the exact lyrics vary greatly from town to town. The melody of the traditional folk song is similar to melodies of the Bretons from the northern coast of France. The tune is played in a minor key and lends a mysticism to its sound, not generally found in other Cajun music.

This French version is sung at the Church Point Courir de Mardi Gras:

Les Mardi Gras vient de tout partout, tout le tour du moyeu.

Vient une fois par an pour demander la charité.

Une vieille patate, une patate et des gratons.

Les Mardi Gras vient de tout partout, tout le tour du moyeu.

Vient une par an pour demander la charité.

Une vieille patate, une patate et des gratons.

Capitaine, capitaine voyage ton flag, tout le tour du moyeu.

Une fois par an pour demander la charité.

Et des patates, des patates et des gratons.

Les Mardi Gras vient de l’Angleterre, tout le tour du moyeu.

Vient une fois par an pour demander la charité.

Une vieille patate, une patate et des gratons.

Le Chanson de Mardi Gras, in English:                                                                    

The Mardi Gras come from everywhere around the hub.

Once each year to ask for charity.

An old potato, a potato and some cracklins.

The Mardi Gras come from everywhere around the hub.

Once each year to ask for charity.

An old potato, a potato and some cracklins.

Captain, captain wave your flag, all around the hub.

Once each year to ask for charity.

And for potatoes, for potatoes and some cracklins.

The Mardi Gras come from England, all around the hub.

Once each year to ask for charity.

And potatoes, potatoes and cracklins.

Video of Mamou Courir de Mardi Gras

Video of Mamou Courir de Mardi Gras

Barry Ancelet Bibliography:

The Makers of Cajun Music / Musiciens cadiens et créoles (1984)

Cajun Music: Its Origins and Development (1989)

Cajun Country (Folklife in the South Series) [contributor] (1991)

Cajun and Creole Folktales: The French Oral Tradition of South Louisiana (1994)

Capitaine, Voyage Ton Flag: The Traditional Cajun Country Mardi Gras (1989)

Cajun and Creole Music Makers: Musicians Cadians Et Creoles [contributor] (1999)

One Generation at a Time: Biography of a Cajun and Creole Music Festival [contributor] (2007)

Cadiens D’Asteur – Today’s Cajuns [contributor] (1984).

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