An Interview with Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil
The last time I saw BeauSoleil was a decade ago at the Liberty Theater in Eunice, LA. They were performing on a Saturday afternoon as part of some state tourism initiative. BeauSoleil, led by fiddler and songwriter Michael Doucet, could’ve torn through the standard Cajun fare of two-steps and waltzes without a blink. For 40 years, BeauSoleil has toured the world as not only one of South Louisiana’s more tireless ambassadors but also one its best bands. But BeauSoleil is also one of our more adventurous bands.
BeauSoleil’s music is South Louisiana infused with the world itself; western swing, African rhythms, rockabilly and everything else finds a way into their ebullient catalog. At the Liberty Theater, the old folks danced and then there was a Q&A session during which Doucet explained the history behind the songs, the oppression of the French language and Cajun culture through the decades. One expects they do this kind of show all the time.
Hours later, a line formed around the block because accordion rock star–cum–hometown hero Jo-El Sonnier, once a member of BeauSoleil, was playing the afternoon radio show broadcast from the theater. I asked a woman in line if she had seen BeauSoleil earlier that day and she gave a slight wince. “I respect what Michael Doucet does,” she said, pronouncing his full name the way an aunt might when admonishing a child, “but I prefer traditional music.”
“People thought I was from Mars when I started doing this,” laughs Doucet at a cramped Starbucks table in Lafayette. “It’s like the vision of Native Americans not seeing Columbus’s ships because they didn’t know what a ship was. It’s sort of the same thing, when people have a definition of Cajun music that most people perceive but that is just the tip of the iceberg.” BeauSoleil gets tapped as having a wide view and a particular vantage point of what Cajun music is. “People say that anyway,” says Doucet, “but maybe that’s because most of the other people who would are dead.”
“You wanna go to a bar?” he asks.
We repair to Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro just up the road, where Doucet knows the bartenders. “This guy makes a great Gin Fizz, Huey Long’s favorite drink.” We sit among the pre–Blue Dog George Rodrigue paintings that fill the dining room with their eerie swamp light as Doucet begins to lay out his musical vision.
“I never called it Cajun music,” says Doucet. “For me, it was always French music. There was always more to it because I learned it from the people that made it. Real individuals. When these people passed away, their personas and history went with them, and I was more interested in where this music came from, how it developed, how it became what it was. One of the leading components of this music is that it has got to be fun and sad; it’s got to be the opposites, that universal feel that everyone can relate to.”
In the late 1960s, Doucet took a class in Anglo-Saxon folklore at LSU. When discussing various types of folk music in that class, Doucet asked whether they were going to look at French music. “The professor said, ‘Oh, those are just translated English songs.’ That prompted me to do research.” Doucet found Harry Oster’s historic recordings of blues and Cajun performers along with Irene Whitfield’s 1939 thesis on Cajun and Creole songs.
“It wasn’t my idea to be famous or anything like that. My idea was that this was an underground music, and I was very fortunate to have been born in an era when a lot of people that recorded [French music] commercially in the 1920s and ’30s were still alive.”
Doucet applied for grants to have this music taught in schools and eventually created a class at UL Lafayette called “French Music in Louisiana: Opera to Zydeco.”
“That’s the gamut. That’s the difference in how I look at the music. Sure, you can just get up there and sing the same songs and make a lot of noise and gyrate and that’s Cajun music too, but for me—both sides of my family are of Acadian descent, and I’ve lived this life so long. It seems that you need somebody to do it right, somebody who understood the whole perspective, the whole view, no matter what it sounded like to someone on the street.”
The wide swath of music BeauSoleil has put out in their 40 years illustrates that perspective. My first exposure to them was their 1988 album Bayou Cadillac, which fit into one of the non–indie rock sections we had to play once an hour at KLSU, where Doucet was also once a DJ. I was all about their rendition of Clarence Garlow’s “Bon Temps Rouler,” reimagined as a clattery Meters funk strut. It was still Cajun music but in some ways, it wasn’t.
People thought I was from Mars when I first started doing this.
This Catholic view of French music stays with the group through their 2013 album, From Bamako to Carencro. Bamako is the capital of and largest city in Mali. Through much of the 20th century Bamako stood as the capital of France’s African colonies, until Mali gained its independence in 1959. The name Bamako comes from Bambara, meaning “crocodile river.” Carencro is a small suburb of Lafayette. Its name is Cajun French for “buzzard.” To the world, saying “from Bamako to Carencro” is going from one bad thing to another, going from nowhere to nowhere.
It is the nowhereness of the Louisiana settled by the Acadians that inspires Doucet, the fact that to live here one had to be self-reliant. To Doucet, that self-reliance is the thing that keeps South Louisiana culture intact.
“You’ve got to understand, they’ve been trying to destroy our culture for 250 years. Who’s ‘they’? The English, then the Americans and then who knows next. The fact is that it is tenacious enough to be a cohesive unit to still speak French. If you came here 100 or even 60 years ago, you had to speak French if you still wanted to get around.”
Doucet’s view of French music and South Louisiana culture is fraught with assimilation, what is gained and lost when it becomes part of the greater culture, first the customs, then the language, then the way of life down to the land itself.
“There are no bigger influences than the greed of America,” says Doucet, “and the biggest greed in America is oil. Guess what they found in Louisiana?” Doucet speaks of going out in the swamps with musician and wetland activist Tab Benoit to see where whole cypress groves have been decimated in the name of pursuing oil. “I can’t begrudge a farmer who leaves for the oil field because it pays four times the money, but it changes your psyche. It’s like what [musician and accordion maker] Marc Savoy says: ‘You trade that hot gumbo for a cold American hot dog, but you can’t just go back to the gumbo.’ But people try.”
BeauSoleil’s music mirrors that struggle to survive in the world, holding on to its character while living in the world as it is. The music they play is like the earliest French music in the region, the product of people playing the music they know and love. “But it survives here because they didn’t want to become part of ‘America.’ We were here long before the United States acquired Louisiana.” So while BeauSoleil may take French music out into the world, from Carnegie Hall to the Liberty Theater in Eunice, while they may pull the full breadth of the culture into their songs, Michael Doucet and crew are determined that this music will not get lost in the shuffle.
BeauSoleil performs Sunday, April 16 at 5:30 p.m. on the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage.