From the Editor: Galloping Through the Decades
An anniversary for the Cajun Mardi Gras
Hardly anyone knows it, but this year the Cajun Courir De Mardi Gras approaches the 70th anniversary of its revival. Had it not been for a few men wanting to rescue a lost ritual there would be no customs to talk about today and only faded ancient memories.
Carnival, especially as practiced in New Orleans and in the Cajun country has ancient roots. In Acadiana there is the tradition of maskers riding through the fields seeking ingredients for gumbo. That practice extended from the medieval customs of Europe, especially France, where peasants would re-enact the ritual of begging from their lords for food to prepare a meal. This line of celebration, practiced especially at Mardi Gras, is known by Carnival scholars as “begging traditions.” Over the years the custom became a little too rowdy and disorganized. Professor Barry Ancelet in a booklet (“Capitaine , voyage ton flag: The Traditional Cajun Country Mardi Gras,” (ULL) wrote that with the arrival of Americanization and the “civilizing” effects of schools and churches the rowdy celebrations were “banned from many communities and eventually disappeared from the annual cycle of Louisiana folk life.” However, in the early 1950s, according to Ancelet, some “cultural activists in the Mamou area” led by Revon Reed and Paul Tate, worked to revive what had been the traditional Mardi Gras ritual. From interviewing the old-timers they developed guidelines and reconstructed the songs of their day including “Le Chanson de Mardi Gras” (opening line: “Capitaine, Capitaine voyage ton flag,” meaning, roughly to carry the flag).
This year marks the beginning of that revitalization seven decades ago. During that period much has happened to popularize the Cajun culture such as: Paul Prudhomme redefining Cajun cooking and putting it on the map; The Jazz Fest in New Orleans (established in 1970) giving Cajun music, along with other native forms, a national stage; the building of I-10 (beginning in 1957) creating a faster route across Southern Louisiana and then eventually I-49 from the north; new festivals in the Lafayette area and the emergence of the once lowly crawfish as a force so powerful as to become a symbol of a culture.
Cajun Carnival was re-worked yet deeply rooted in tradition.
This occasional spiffing up of a celebration that had gone amuck is not without precedent. In 1872 a king of Carnival, Rex, was created in New Orleans partially to provide a structured parade to replace the miscellaneous, unorganized activities that were giving Mardi Gras a bad name.
Not even New Orleans though had a Revon Reed. He became a fixture in Cajun country by hosting a live radio show from Fred’s Lounge in Mamou. Each Saturday morning, as the lounge recovered from Friday night, the music of Acadiana would be transmitted across the prairies and along the Atchafalaya basin.
Cajun music was alive, and like the Capitaines, Revon Reed was carrying the flag.
Thusly has the culture been embellished and preserved — and at the end of the ride there is still a good gumbo.