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Old Mines Music June 17, 2004

Fiddler Dennis Stroughmatt talks about French colonial heritage in the Midwest


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Stroughmatt playing fiddle with Morris Ardoin on accordion (Courtesy Dennis Stroughmatt) [LARGER IMAGE]

While researching the archaeology of French colonial settlements in North America, and especially in the Midwest (see "Nouvelle-France"), I purchased a cd of traditional music played by Dennis Stroughmatt. Intrigued by the survival of French music over the centuries in Missouri, where Dennis learned to play fiddle, I spoke to him over the phone about this aspect of culture, which is "invisible" in the archaeological record.

Dennis, in his mid-30s, has played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and been featured on NPR's Prairie Home Companion. He has been supported and recognized by such groups as the Illinois Arts Council, Mid-America Arts Alliance, Missouri Humanities Council, and Cajun French Music Association. With the band Creole Stomp, he recently completed tours in states from Missouri to New York. They will be in various concerts later this summer in Louisiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

His cd Entré Le Passé et L'Avenir (2001) has the most traditional music (including Old Mines Reel, Old Man Portell, Quand J'étais Pauvre, Madame Sosthene, McGee One Step, La Riviere Jaune, and Le Table Ronde), while Enfin...At Last (2002-2003) is billed as "hard driving Cajun, Creole, and Zydeco" on the Creole Stomp website. A new Creole Stomp cd is slated for recording this summer. For more on Dennis and Creole Stomp, see www.creolestomp.com.

You're originally from Southern Illinois?
Actually, Albion Illinois, which is an English community. An extremely English community. If you know anything about Albion, or ever hear about it, it's the farthest western true English immigration in the United States, actually after the Revolutionary War. I came from an area that was interesting in that it's a lot of the ethnic groups are kind of polarized, in a sense. You had Germans, people knew that people were German in one place and they knew they were French in another and they knew they were English in another. So it's kind of interesting.

And kept to themselves, to some extent?
Yeah, I mean, with marrying, family ties, and everything. People tended to keep themselves, until the last 60 years or so, historians noted that a lot of the families in southeastern Illinois tended to stick to their group, you might say.

That probably helped preserve the cultures.
Yeah, it has. That's helped preserve cultures throughout the Midwest, because you find that in Indiana, where I grew up was less than 45 minutes from Vincennes, Indiana, [had] of course, a very large French population, and in fact there's still a French population. And these, you know, these families continue to farm, continue to be who they are. The French language has stopped, in Vincennes, it pretty well stopped about 80 years ago, being effective. But the families continue, you know, to be, the religion, being Catholic, observing Catholic French holidays. Some customs, you know, with Twelfth Night Balls after New Year's. They tend to stick together with their farming patterns, too.

You cut your teeth on French culture in the Old Mines area. Tell me, what is Old Mines, who lives there? What is the size of the community?
Old Mines is, in the technical sense, it's a small village on Route 21 North of Potosi, Missouri, about 45 to 50 miles due west of Ste. Genevieve. That kind of gives you a geographic location. But really, Old Mines is much, much bigger than just the small village. The small village is maybe 20 houses, you know, and the St. Joachim church and school. But the Old Mines region itself is anywhere from 40 to 50 miles square. Because that's what the locals call it, they call it the Old Mines district, which is a combination of the mines of Cadet, Mine à Breton (Potosi), and Mine Renault (the Renault mine). All the way basically from Potosi up to just south of Desoto is considered by the locals to be Old Mines. And in this area there have been French miners who have mined originally lead, for the king of France, and then tiff [barite], a chalky white substance that is the base of lead paint. And it basically, you find it concurrent with lead, in lead veins, and it was something they were able to continue to do independently. And this independence allowed them, in many way--because of their isolation in the Ozarks--the independence of being miners has allowed them to continue their language, continue their culture, their music. Whereas cousins of theirs, ancestors who may have originally been in Vincennes, or, some of them were originally in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, others in Peoria, Illinois, some in Belleville, some in Cahokia. Many moved across the river to Ste. Genevieve, St. Louis, you know, Florissant, St. Charles. But then as the Americans, the English, the Germans started approaching, it was only the very few, wealthier families, who actually stayed along the Mississippi River, directly along the Mississippi. Of course, there are French families still there, but it was the largest groups that moved west into places like Potosi, Old Mines, Desoto, and Festus, because there was such an intensive French population there.

So there was a two-stage movement, first across the Mississippi, then farther west?
Right. Missouri was a little bit different than Louisiana in the sense that in Louisiana the population was huge. You know, thousands and thousands and thousands of French Creoles and Cajuns, and it was much more difficult for Americans, English Americans to move in amongst them. Whereas in Missouri, the population was not as large, and in a city like Ste. Genevieve, a city at the time, or St. Louis, it was easier for the "Americans" to kind of come in. The French, some of them dealt with it for a while, and in certain places like I say, Florissant and St. Charles, the French even remained pretty well strong in their identity, even up through the twentieth century. But a great number of them did move into these isolated regions like Old Mines.

So Old Mines has a combination of isolation and a concentration of people, in part those from elsewhere?
Right. And the Catholic church. St. Joachim Catholic church is very important to that. The fact that the Catholic church there gave mass in French and gave sacraments in French, it's very important you know to the French creoles.

So if I go to Old Mines, am I going to immediately know that I'm not in, say, Columbus, Ohio?
Oh, yeah. You'll know it.

And how will I know?
A lot of the ways, when you start looking--well, landscape, when you start looking at the homes. If you look at a few of the homes there you'll notice, one of the homes actually was built by Moses Austin. He built the home based on, stylistically, homes in Ste. Genevieve. And another thing is, homes in the Old Mines area, you know, typically have continued to be built on a three-room pattern, Norman style, as were predecessors. They did not stop with the long galleries and the long porches and the wraparounds. They didn't stop this. It never ended.

So they're nineteenth-century houses built on the same pattern?
Yes. Yes.

And language and music?
Oh, the language is dying. That's something that is unfortunate. When I went into the mines in the late '80s, there were probably nearly a thousand French speakers in the entire Old Mines region from Festus, you know, to Potosi, and as far west as, you know, farther west of Richwood, east to Bonterre. There were French get-togethers within the church. You'd find them in retirement homes, getting together and at houses and the parties that I went to. A lot of the French were there. They were elderly, but still very strong, getting out. Many of them were in their 60s, 70s. Some of them, probably the most intensive speakers were in their 80s. Even early 90s. Fact, I interviewed one time, videotaped an herbalist by the name of Robert Robard, who was 94. This was in 1992. And French was his first language, and he chose to speak French rather than English. But, like I say, that sort of dates where they were age-wise over a decade ago.

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(Courtesy Dennis Stroughmatt)

It was still vibrant at the turn of the last century?
Exactly. A lot of historians, and even the locals point to one climactic thing that kind of changed things for them in a great way, and that was World War II. Because many of the young men were drafted. And most of them never have having to leave the mines, were drafted into the army and were forced to leave. And either kept stateside or sent abroad. This forced them, you know, they were minorities, huge minorities amongst English speakers. Not only did they learn about English, you know, but about the greater world around them, as well, you know? And this offered them other opportunities that maybe they never even considered. So, you started seeing a lot of movement in the late 1940s and '50s of French Creoles moving into St. Louis, you know, quite a bit of movement, some to Chicago. And so, and what happened was, another thing that people talk about also is the fact that in the early 1900s the Catholic church, began focusing on English, no longer giving the sacraments in French. And this is not intentionally to harm anyone. One Catholic parish is an awfully hard to provide for, you know, a French-speaking Catholic parish is pretty hard for the Catholic Church to deal with, when there are so many English speaking parishioners that need to be dealt with, why focus on just one small parish? So I mean, those two events, you know, probably held a lot of it. TV, small things like TV, radio, have an involvement. But one of the things that actually helped to keep the French language alive in some ways, it's kind of funny but it's true, is that the Old Mines area, they had party-line phone systems until the late '70s. I don't know if you're familiar with the party-line phone system; several people were on the same circuit, and what would oftentimes, some of the older people would use only French on the phone.

As a way of...
Yeah, as a way of keeping the English speakers out of the conversation. And there are some ladies that I talk to who joke about it. And they said, ah, it was wonderful, to be able to use...

Like a secret code, that was also part of their identity?
Right. You know, beyond the use of French at the bouillons, you know, at the house parties, there were other ways that they could use it, and that was another way that it was actually useful. Because one thing that I know very specifically about the French is that they've always felt simple because of the world around them, they never felt that their language was good enough. That the language they spoke was not real. Simply because everyone told them that it wasn't. You know, that outsiders would say, "that's not French."

Even people from French-speaking countries?
Yeah, some. Some. Not all. There was a gentlemen in the '20s named Joseph Médard Carrière who was working for the Smithsonian, and he was Canadian, who did recordings both in Louisiana, Indiana, and in Wisconsin, and did recordings in Missouri. And he transcribed the language, was one of the first to actually write down stories and songs from Missouri, in the '20s and '30s. He was one of the scholarly people who showed at an early time that the language was very much intact. And in fact held certain words and gestures and stories, songs, that had disappeared in France.

Like the Appalachians and English and Scottish folksongs?
Yes, very much so.

Turning to the music, is there in the Old Mines music stuff that goes back a couple hundred years?
Well, one good example, there are several, but one good example is the song La Guillanée, which is the New Year's song. Now there's a song that has medieval connotations to it. It actually comes from a pagan ritual, in a sense. Even pre-Catholic church, because of it's idea, some say that it dates to the medieval period. But the thing about it is, it is known that it came from northern France--from Normandy, Brittany, from the very Celtic region for France--and that there is a ceremony, an event very similar to it in Scotland and in Ireland, called the Hogmanay, that happens around New Year's, when they sing a song that is similar to the Guillanée. A lot of it is about a time of the year, of being charitable and giving. And that's in the song, and also revelry, being happy, dancing, and a lot of this is in response to wintertime. You know, the fact that it's a very dark time of the year. And this is a way to sort of combat that, to combat the spirits of the year, and to combat the human spirit that becomes so depressed. Parts of this song are actually known in Louisiana, too. Missouri is Upper Louisiana, the modern-day state of Louisiana is Lower Louisiana. But there are songs, if you're familiar with the Mardi Gras in Louisiana, basically the idea of the Mardi Gras and the actual festival, the way that it is sung, danced, the way they actually handle themselves, begging for food, begging for items in the evening to make a gumbo. They do this in Missouri, begging to make a bouillon. There's actually verses to the Guillanée, that is in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Wisconsin, and words from the Guillanée in the Midwest that are present in the Mardi Gras song in Louisiana.

In other songs, you find many songs and stories that talk about travel. Travel is a theme, longing for home is often a theme because there's actually songs amongst the Missouri French that are songs about being at sea. And there is no way that they could know anything about the sea, because none of these people have ever even seen it.

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(Courtesy Dennis Stroughmatt)

So you think those are ones that came over to Canada and then down the river, as opposed to coming up from the Gulf, later?
There are, well, they could have come from both directions, because you have--there are songs that, you know, such as a song called J'ai Fait une Maitresse, which is "I have a maiden, or I made a maiden for marriage," it's a song that exists in New Orleans amongst the old Creoles of New Orleans and Louisiana, St. Martinville, and it exists in Indiana and Missouri. And then there's a song called Chevalier de la Table Ronde, or "Knight of the Round Table," it's basically about the Arthurian search for the Holy Grail. That song exists in Canada, as well as Louisiana, as well as Missouri. And Illinois. These songs, you know, they're traveling songs, and so, you find these all over the place. And of course that theme or the Arthurian theme, that's ancient.

You went from your experience in Old Mines back to school and became a historian. Was that to understand more what you were experiencing? Did it add new insights to what you saw in Old Mines?
After Old Mines I moved to Louisiana, where I worked, first as an intern and then as a fulltime employee, at Vermilionville Folklife Center. I guess I really wanted to expand further my knowledge of just historical research? And my abilities to be a historical researcher. Actually at that point in time, I know this sounds silly, but I really didn't think about the fact that I would be involved in being a musician, playing French music. I had no intention to do it. None at all. I was interested more in military history. Actually that's what brought me, in some ways, to French study, was because I was so interested in the French military tradition in Canada and the United States, as early as the 1600s, you know. And I continued to sort of pursue that, even after living in Louisiana. What I did is I went to get my master's degree, actually pursuing the study of military history. But, concurrently, while I was doing that, I was consistently working on projects, you know, studying continually in Old Mines, as well as in Lafayette, Louisiana, just being involved with French Creoles. And it's probably really important I actually spent a year at Old Miss, University of Mississippi. I worked there for a year and also was in the graduate department there just part time. And I had a professor there say something to me that really angered me at the time that he said it--probably six to eight months to a year later, I understood what he really meant. He told me one day--we were talking about history and the discussion of history and the research of it--you know, history from the top down, from the bottom up. And determining I was always more interested in trying to find the history of the people rather than the individual. And he said, "You know, you're not a historian, you're a folklorist." And that really angered me, but, I eventually accepted that, that I am more of a folklorist rather than a historian, a historian in the traditional sense.

The academic sense?
Exactly. But that didn't stop me from continuing on, to finish my master's in history. Because I wanted my tools of the trade, more than anything, I wanted to academically have the credentials that would allow me to become involved not only in more research, but in publishing my findings. So that was kind of what led me to continue to do that, but it was probably an epiphany in my lifetime, when I came back to Illinois to finish my master's. It was a pretty important time in my life, because I started then realizing the importance of French culture in America. Along the Mississippi, and that the Mississippi River was a lifeline in many ways for French culture in America. A lot of people talk about the Mississippi as the great river road, and in a lot of ways it is. For the French culture it's very important. And I guess what happened was, I was called upon while I was in Carbondale, working on my master's degree, by the French Les Amis organization in Missouri to provide music for them, and to give talks about my experiences. Basically, from that point, what happened was people began tracking me down. Wanting to know what I knew, and wanting to know why I knew what I knew. And what I have always been is nothing more than just a cheerleader for the preservation of French culture in the Midwest, as well as the Deep South. You know, because I love the language. I love the music. And I think it's important that we remember it and that some people utilize it, because I guess looking at society in general, I thought it was important because it pointed to a diversity, linguistically and culturally, that has been here for 300 years, and that we often forget about. And I thought it was really important because one thing it did for me was it really made me proud of that "melting pot" that we have in America. That all of these diverse cultures that we have make us who we are in America. And that, and it was just the French culture just really excited me, and it's even hard to even put into words how and why. But the fact that this culture that entered this area, over 300 years ago, still is struggling to keep its identity despite massive migrations and infusions of other races and other cultures--that it is still working to be who it is. That is why, like I say, why I focused in upon finishing my master's, so that I could use the tools that I learned to work for that French history, French culture, and that led me also to go on, to come back as well. Because I had learned to speak French, become fluent in Creole French, but I could not read and write the language. I was illiterate. And that was why I wanted to go back.

Going to Québec must have been--by the time you were so steeped in French culture--like going home.
Very much so. It was really strange at first, because, I say I didn't really, I say I was illiterate. I had taken a couple courses in French at one point or another, here and there, but I spoke Creole French, and when I got there, the Québecois thought that, they thought that I was actually Cajun, because of my dialect. And the only reason I say that they thought I was Cajun when I got there was because I had spent so many years in Louisiana and around Cajuns that my dialect had been influenced in some ways. And of course actually Missouri French is an interesting language in itself, because, via its accent, it's very much more close to Canadian French than it is Louisiana French. But the vocabulary used by the Missouri French is almost identical to that of Louisiana, and that stands to reason because Missouri is Upper Louisiana, in that sense. And I guess, when I did go to Québec, in a lot of ways I really did feel like I was home. I used to sit down...I lived with a family there, and I remember many nights where I would sit out in the backyard at a campfire with the father of the household, and we would just sit and talk, and every now and again I would say words and he would get on me for using certain words. Because he would say "that's Old French," he said, "We don't use that anymore."

I remember one night, probably the very first night that happened. I remember it was a little cold, because when I got there it was the early part of the year and it was cold at night. And I said something like, "Mais, ca fait fraitte dehors," like "man it's cold outside." And he looked at me, he agreed, he said, "Yeah, yeah, it's cold." Then he stopped and he said, "Wait a second. Why do you know that word?" I said, "What word?" He said "cold," but of course "fraitte," which is a Missouri word. A Missouri French word for froid, for cold. But it's an old, old, old word that hasn't been...I didn't know this at the time, but it's a word that hasn't been in use in the language for hundreds of years. And he asked me where I learned this, and I told him where, and he said, "That's impossible." He said, "There are no French speakers in the Midwest. That's impossible." You know, and I got out the map, we got out the map of Illinois and Missouri, and started looking at it, going over all the little place names. Rivers, town names. And he set back and I remember him just looking at me like, "Wow, I never knew." He said, "I never would have guessed that there were French there." And I said, "Well, that's where I learned my French." And he told me, he said, "Well, you know, I've always found it really weird," because, he said, "You're not from Canada. You're not anywhere near from Canada, but yet your accent is strangely familiar." And the only thing I can say on that is that accent is coming through from the Missouri French. So, because there is a great similarity. I would go down to the pub and I would sing songs with some of the local bands that would come in, and it amazed me that I was able--and even playing the fiddle, I would sit in and play with them--that I was able to play tunes that I had learned in Missouri, play with them almost note for note. And this is a separation of what, a thousand miles? Fifteen hundred?

And effectively what, 200 years?
Yeah. And a 200-year separation beyond that. And the fact that it has continued, you know, that these cultures have developed on their own, the greater Québecois culture of Eastern Canada, having developed very differently in some ways from that of the Métis culture, you know, the Red River, central Canada, as opposed to the French of Missouri, and the Midwest, Illinois. Well, the Illinois country as it's called [Le Pays de Illinois after the region's Native American inhabitants], as opposed to Lower Louisiana. But yet, that all of these cultures still carry the same footprints. You know, the same basic documentation, to be who they are--is what has amazed me. And I guess that's what always has excited me, you know, is that real strength of identity. Is the thing that all the French have continued to fight for. And that inspires me.

And when we talk now about the culture, for much of it is it really now at a point where it's a matter of preserving it?
That was probably one of the reasons why I did enjoy being in Québec so much, was because it was so much just a part of everyday life that it wasn't about preserving it anymore, it just was. It's a fight in Missouri and Illinois. It's a fight in Louisiana. You know, it's a fight in North Dakota, the French Métis, it's a fight in Maine amongst the Acadians of Maine. It is a fight to preserve that culture; they are up against time.

An archaeologist might look at artifacts out of the ground or at the foundations of a building, which will give them one part of a culture. From your experience, what is it that you've observed--the knowledge, the habits, and so forth--that won't be found in the ground?
You know, you cannot find the spirit, you cannot find that heart. It's hard to find the joy of just being in the ground, you might say. I'm not sure that if I had not been and continued to go to the bouillons and the parties, that I'm not sure that any written word or any object or artifact could convey to me the joy of sitting and singing along with songs that were 200, 300, 400 years old, with some people, sometimes two or three, four times my age. In a language that by all historical accounts should have been dead 200 years ago. You know, and I guess that's something that is really hard for me to convey in writing or even through words. And it's, I'm not sure that it's something that may survive. That idea, that spirit may or may not survive the passing of the spiritual culture.

And do you think the next quarter century is critical?
Probably the next 50 years. I would say, maybe the next 50 years. Definitely in Old Mines. You know, it's still gonna be, I might say, material culture is a little bit different. It still survives, like I say, in the ways that homes are built. The whole horticulture of the area, the farming techniques. But you know, I do think that the music is gonna survive. I do think that some of the music is going to survive, even if the language doesn't. I have a feeling that some of that will remain. And not to sound overextending here, but if I have anything to do with it, I am going to make sure that it remains, at least in my lifetime.

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