In English, If you Please
The Original Social Network
Rendezvous Club, 1941
Photos Courtesy of Richard DeShotels - Mamou, LA
Well before Facebook, well before the Internet, well before even telephones and electricity, not to mention television, were the norm in South Louisiana, there was a social network so vast, so powerful and so omniscient that often a young man got engaged before he knew it himself. After a week of back-breaking work, whether it was in the rice or cane fields, in households of a dozen children or in the emerging oil industry, Acadiana’s inhabitants liked nothing better than to gather in the innumerable dance halls spread across the Cajun countryside of yesteryear like stars in a constellation. It wasn’t only local musicians playing “chanky-chank” there. Harry James and his orchestra, for example, appeared at the Silver Slipper in Eunice. Among these establishments of varying reputation, one brings to mind the French Casino or the Holiday Club in Mamou; Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki or the Moonlight Inn in Opelousas; the Evangeline Club, the Rendezvous Club or Snook’s in Ville Platte – and at the risk of upsetting some people, I would stop there. But being from down Bayou Lafourche, I must mention the Stagecoach Lounge in Galliano where I would spend a little time every now and then listening to the sweet melodies of Vin Bruce, Leroy Martin and Doc Guidry before heading to the Safari Club to become prematurely deaf with that good old rock ’n’ roll at the dawn of the MTV era.
For many generations and between generations, one’s social life revolved around those clubs whose names the mere mention of which transports people to another time when men wore hats, ties and long-sleeve shirts in the sweltering summer heat and a young lady’s virtue was closely watched by matrons. They were also places where young couples could put their little ones to sleep on mattresses reserved for them, whence came the nickname “fais dodo” for these dances. The rules of conduct, without being written, were known by all and strictly observed. If, for example, a young woman declined a young man’s request to dance, she had to wait until the next song before she could hit the dance floor. Some clubs had a reputation for fights as frequent as they were legendary, like the aptly named “Bloody Bucket” in Lake Charles. As one can read on page 105 of Ancelet, Edwards and Pitre’s Cajun Country, “Dances rarely passed without incident, because making trouble was a traditional form of amusement for some.” There is talk even of some places where one had to plant his knife into a post before he could put his elbows on the bar. It is even said that they sometimes hung their hat on the knife to make sure no one took it. A major source of trouble was the arrival of “outsiders,”which means the inhabitants of the next town over. One liked one’s own network and knew who belonged in it and who would do better to look elsewhere. In today’s virtual world, instead of being labeled a “troublemaker” and getting banned from this bar or that, one gets tagged as a “troll” and because of that, is chased out of chat rooms.
Now that we can know with certainty what the weather is like in Bangkok, the relationship status of our favorite movie stars or the price of a bushel of corn on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in real time with a few touches on our iPhones, we can feel a certain nostalgia, like we are missing something. I would not pretend to be a Luddite or a follower of Rousseau when it comes to technology. To the contrary, in today’s world, this is probably crucial information and an essential means of communication. Nonetheless, yesterday like today, the most important knowledge, like the weather in the next parish, the matters of the heart in the neighborhood or the new businesses in the community are all the more important and more pleasurably learned in a gathering of friends around a cold beer and a dance floor.