Grab Yourself a Cup of Coffee
Fred Charlie was speaking Cajun French to me even before I met him last summer in his gift shop and recording studio in Eunice. A few years back he made a tape entitled “You Can Speak Cajun French,” which I bought through a catalog and have used in addition to Father Daigle’s’ tapes. Fred’s store is around the corner from the Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center and on my initial visit to the Cultural Center I went by there. When I walked in Fred greeted me in English, but his raspy, throaty-voice caught my ear. It was familiar, but I couldn’t place it; it had an almost dream-like quality. And, quite possibly, I could have heard it in one, since I was in the habit of putting on the tape some nights when I lay down to sleep. I told Fred this, and he said, “I bet I put you right to sleep.”
Fred wore black jeans with tan cowboy boots and a cowboy shirt with horizontal lines -- white, turquoise, teal, purple, black -- breaking away from each other. Fred stood six feet, maybe a little taller, with raven hair, beard, and eyes. His sandpaper-voice projected well and he cleared his throat after nearly every time he spoke, adding to his imposing figure. But the softness of his French accent, along with his sincerity and warmness of speech, told me the man was no brute.
We sat in front of the soundboard in the sound room. Fred sat tall and erect in his chair, but dark-rings shadowed his eyes. That morning he went on the air for his weekly radio show on KJJB 105.5, simulcast on KEUN 1490 AM, at seven. The show airs until noon.
With all that was done to eradicate our language, I wondered how the tape came to be.
Fred cleared his throat and began: “There are a lot of tourists who come to south Louisiana and they gave me the idea because they were looking for something to pick up on. But then I started thinking there are a lot of people here that would like to be able to speak French but just don’t have a way of doing it. The tape was really basic: numbers, days of the week, addressing people, counting money, parts of the body. We used a French dictionary to write our notes because there are no lyrics or booklet. I’d say it my way, then we’d write down. My wife stayed on me, because a lot of times I wanted to say it like they would say it in France. She said, ‘No. I want you to say it like you say it,’ because that’s how we speak here.”
Fred definitely did that. I noticed he pronounced the days of the week slightly different from Father Daigle. The difference, however, does not make one unintelligible from the other. Pronunciations vary within in the same language. People in Boston don’t sound like people in Birmingham, but they’re all speaking English -- American English. And Father Daigle and Fred were doing the same thing.
Other than the days of the week, Father Daigle and Fred are one and the same in their pronunciation. As far as their tapes are concerned, Father Daigle goes into more detail. His is a four tape set, beginning with vowels, consonants, phonetics, and covering time to money matters to the home to food, and a whole lot more in between. Father Daigle, in addition, has a three hundred plus page book accompanying his tapes. Fred’s tape covers many of the same topics: time, money matters, numbers, and even includes a section on common Cajun expressions. Fred spoke more about his tape: “The most flattering experience was when a teacher from New York came in one day with a bus tour. She asked me who I was, so I introduced myself. She went back out on the street, and came back in with all of her kids from the tour bus. One of the kids saw the tape in the rack. And she said, ‘That’s the tape I use to teach y’all French. Now class, I’d like for you to meet the man that’s on the tape.’ It was pretty neat that they were using my tape, somebody that can’t read or write French.”
The language Mom was beaten for speaking at school is now taught to New York City children. Who would have thunk it. I do not expect the New York children to all become fluent. Most, I assume, will probably not continue with the language after that class is finished. But children who most likely had never known for certain what a Cajun was have been exposed to our language.
While New York children are learning our language, Fred Charlie told me some disturbing news about his own four grown children: “None of them speak French. They understand some of it. But they don’t speak it. And that’s the sad part about it, because there’s a generation or two that got stuck in that gap where for a long time it wasn’t passed on. I was never whipped for speaking French on the school grounds, but we were encouraged not to. My parents and grandparents probably were actually spanked for speaking French. And I can understand where the teachers were coming from. Here you have some educated people that have a degree in teaching and you’re handed twenty first-graders that speak French. So you have to teach them a whole new language and get them prepared for life.”
One cannot simply speak French and function in America is what the government told us, but Fred told another story: “Even as of today, and I’m fifty-one, I still do business in French. I was a painting-contractor for twenty-five years here in Eunice and I got more jobs because I spoke French. It’s a closeness and a trust people have with each other. In my painting business I know a lot of times I was high bidder. But because I sat down and drank coffee with these old people and just kinda shot the breeze in French with them, I’d get the job, because again, it was more of a trust type thing. When we were growing up our parents and grandparents, if somebody spoke English, they’d say, “Ca c’est les Amercain,’ There’s those Americans, and here we were the Cajuns.”
Closeness is what I’m looking for in trying to learn Cajun French. I cannot wait until the day arrives when I can express myself fully through the language of my ancestors. This, I believe, will better enable me to understand how earlier generations of my family thought and what helped shape them. Also, and this may be just a hang-up of my own, I will not feel authentically Cajun until I can speak our particular brand of French, can rattle it off to folk in small south Louisiana towns.
Cajun bands, by and large, sing in French. Even, in some cases, if they don’t know the language. But I was curious about Fred Charlie’s band, one in which the members did know French. Did they still speak the language when they weren’t on stage? “We speak French,” he said, “but not all the time. It’s more Frenglish. We use it in and out. Pretty much like how Cajuns speak. You meet two Cajuns on a street corner and they can start talking in French, and if they speak for ten minutes, they have changed from French to English maybe twenty-five or thirty times. You go to a certain point and it’s just automatic. I went to France in 1990 and a lot of the French people think that we were brilliant because our brain was working in both languages. When I switch from one to another, a lot of it’s because I get stumped on a word. Anyway I speak fluent French, sometimes there are some words that you just can’t think of right away. When I get stuck, I jump to English. Then when I feel comfortable again, I switch back to French.”
Due to the fact that Cajun French uses many English words, we are often criticized by other Francophones who want us to retain a purer French. Fred had another view of the situation. “I find that French in France has incorporated more English in some senses than we have. I was totally disappointed when I got there. They gave us a car once we had arrived and I couldn’t wait to get to the first stop sign where it would say "Arret." But it had "Stop." So I asked one of the guides and he said, ‘We don’t put out everything in French.’ They call it stop, only they put a little French to it. Our whole conversations jump between the two languages, where they only use certain English words. But you do catch a lot of it when you’re in France.”
Some English aside, France also provides Cajuns with a chance to hear old words that have been lost during our time in the New World. “I enjoy that part of France,” Fred said, “where I can speak and I hear words that I haven’t heard since I was a kid. It’s amazing how many words you get in the habit of not using. My program on Saturday mornings, we try to have an old French word that hasn’t been used in a long time. One time we asked how do you say ‘unless’ in French. 'Ormis' is one of the oldest French words, and we stumped everybody. The phone rang off the hook, people giving us all kinds of different sayings. I said, ‘No. I use that one too.’ It’s not that it’s incorrect, I just wanted to see if they knew that old word. I caught it in here in the studio. One night this little girl was recording and she called her song “Tee Vas Pas Me Courtiser Ormis Parler Francaise!” -- You Can’t Court Me Unless You Speak French. But when I heard it, and it’s a beautiful old French word, I said, ‘Man, I hadn’t heard that in a long time.’ So the next Saturday, I put it on the show and people were calling and calling and talking about it. So we brought that one back to life.”
That alone makes me wish I had heard Fred’s radio program, which sounds wonderful -- music and language lessons. Fred has had his show on the air for thirteen years. “I have a friend who owns the Chevy dealership and he comes in for an hour with me,” Fred said, “which he buys exclusively. We’re more like a Cajun talk-show. We talk about anything and everything. We do news in French, but it’s our news. What’s happening in our lives. We talk about ourselves, where our kids live, if they came this weekend. We say you won’t hear that kind of news anywhere else. We don’t put anything down on paper. He comes in there with his thoughts about his vehicles, his programs, his incentives, his rebates, services. We can be selling a GMC truck or Buick Park Avenue and the next sentence we’ll be duck hunting. It’s a fun part of the show. We tell people, ‘Grab yourself a cup of coffee, call your neighbor in, or call them and tell them to tune us in and let’s visit. A lot of people say that’s exactly what it is, a visit, because people don’t have time to do that anymore.”
Translations of song lyrics in liner notes have been a godsend for me, giving me mini-French lessons, and enabling me to, finally, understand the songs. The CDs I own that were recorded by Fred, however, don’t have song translations. “They want us to put it in French and English to try and bring back the French,” he said. “I feel it’s ok to do it, if you want to do it. But again, we never had it. It’s not as important as the language. We’ve proven that the language can survive, because we’ve been here three hundred years and can still speak French. That’s a pretty good track-record. Cajun is a language that is basically phonetically written, and you get into trouble fast, because some of these guys read French and if you do it phonetically it’s not gonna be spelled right. They may come back and get all over you because you misspelled something. It’s misspelled to him, because he’s reading French. But it’s not misspelled to us because we wrote it as we sound it. Some of the old songs we do that have been spelled in French already, we follow that. If I misspell something, I blame the guy I took it from.” A quick laugh and he cleared his throat.
Being able to read and write our language is a good, beneficial practice. My sentiments, however, may be skewed as an author and avid reader. But as more Cajuns become literate in French, the more outlets we will have to maintain the language and ensure its survival into the future. The only down side I can possibly foresee is the risk of losing idiomatic expressions common only to spoken Cajun French. These things can only be passed on by word of mouth, generation to generation. These expressions, undoubtedly, can and will not vanish all at once; and the future generations of Cajuns fluent in French will, in all likelihood, do as our ancestors: create their own expressions.
Last summer, during that first visit to Fred’s, he and his band had just came out with their first CD entitled “En Travers Les Annees” -- Through The Years. The first song on it is titled “Trois Cent Annees” -- Three Hundred Years. When Fred sings, he annunciates extremely well. I don’t know if it is because he has been singing since he was small boy, or if making the Cajun French language tape made him more conscious of his pronunciation. Either way, I can understand more of his lyrics than most other Cajun singers. Yet, I was only able to understand some of the words to his song. While I had the composer sitting with me, I decided to ask him how the song came about and to give a brief synopsis.
“I wanted to write something about the Franco-Fete,” he said. In 1999, Franco-Fete was a year long celebration all over Louisiana honoring the three hundred years of French settlement in the state. “Once it was written, then I found out there was a contest going on for songs about the culture. I went ahead and entered it and came out in the top ten. ‘Trois Cent Annees’ says, We’ve been here for three hundred years, our grandfathers came here and found this place for us to live. And after three hundred years, we can still speak French. And the second verse goes into the government tried to stop us, but we didn’t listen. Again, three hundred years and we still speak French.”
Helping to carry the language and music to future generations of Cajuns and non-Cajuns alike, I wanted to get Fred’s take on where he saw Cajun culture headed. “Twenty, thirty years ago we were in bad shape. We’re probably close to the top, but it’s going to take us a long time to peak out. It’s growing and not just with Cajun people. People throughout the United States and abroad get into this Cajun thing and just love it. The Cajun people have recognized that what we are is like a commodity and there are things to sell. Not sell yourself, but we can sell our culture because they think we’re so different.”
Before we can sell ourselves, however, we must know ourselves. Selling our culture while we are ignorant or not fully informed about it shows a lack of respect and equals making a dishonest dollar. I do not worry about Fred doing this. He lived through our dark period and now prospers. With him and other older Cajuns leading the way, younger ones such as myself will have no problem bringing our food, music, and language to the world.
Cajuns have never been strong economically, but in the latter part of the twentieth century we made strides with folk such as Fred Charlie. Others, who are not Cajun and know little or nothing about us, in the past have profited from us, but it was good to see we were taking the initiative. Unlike most entrepreneurs, Fred is cultural as well as economic, protecting our ways as he profits from them. As long as Fred and other cognizant Cajuns are the ones doling out our culture to the rest of the world, we control our image, and can paint accurate pictures. Responsibility comes along with this too. For if Cajuns as a whole do like Fred and assume charge of our culture, whatever aspects of it that are lost will be our fault. A weighty position, indeed, but one I relish. And after hearing what Fred had to say about the popularity of his language tape, it is a position I am certain all Cajuns can handle.