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Dancing in Cajun Country

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, 1976. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1972, Ron Stanford and his wife were recent college graduates with few prospects. So, they packed their bags and headed to Louisiana’s Bayou Country to photograph and record Cajun and Creole musicians:

Having no career plans after college, Fay and I decided to move to southwest Louisiana to study French music. In 1972, that seemed to make sense. I knew a little bit about Cajun and zydeco music because for a couple of summers I had a job helping to produce the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife. It was there in D.C. that I heard The Balfa Brothers’ irresistible tunes, and when I returned to Grinnell College in the fall, I hired them to drive up to Iowa for a weekend folk festival in February of 1970.

The band consisted of Dewey Balfa, his brothers Rodney and Will, accordionist Nathan Abshire, and Rodney’s son, Tony, on triangle. We put them up in a couple of spare dorm rooms. One snowy night, they shared their whiskey with us. Late in the evening, Dewey, who was already an ambassador for Cajun music, said earnestly, ‘Mais, Ron, you should really come live down in Louisiana someday.’

Fay and I left Iowa a couple of years later, having graduated with liberal arts degrees. After experiencing several weeks of underemployment back home in suburban Washington, I remembered Dewey’s invitation. I called information, dialed Dewey, and asked if he recalled inviting me to Louisiana. Without hesitation he assured me that we were welcome in Basile.

We now had a destination and a vague mission: to do a survey of the regional French music and to record an album that would include extensive liner notes and some photographs.

In other news: What did Ernest Hemingway and Walter Benjamin read when they stayed in Paris? “A project to digitise records from the bookshop and lending library Shakespeare and Company offers a window into Paris during the jazz age . . . When Sylvia Beach opened Shakespeare and Company in 1919, English-language books were expensive and hard to find in Paris. Writers and artists who had flocked to the capital of literary modernism rushed to sign up for Beach’s library service. Along with Hemingway and Stein, writers from Aimé Césaire to Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Lacan, Walter Benjamin and Joyce all became members – and would have been chased up for late returns with a drawing of an exasperated Shakespeare pulling out his hair.”

What connects the young “radical” Wordsworth to the older Tory one? A preoccupation with place: “Place is at the center of the tensions in Wordsworth’s life and work. For all his commitment to home in the Lake District, the poet had a wanderer’s restless spirit. He loved to walk, covering some 175,000 miles over his lifetime. His long poem, The Prelude, may have started in the Lake District, but it took him to London, the Swiss Alps, and France. Moreover, much as he wrote of nature, as a teacher he always hungered for books and gratefully acknowledged how his writing drew upon reading. Romanticism has tensions of its own both in the debt owed to classical influences and conflicting political strains that developed from it. The young-radical-turned-middle-aged-conservative may be a cliché, but for Wordsworth it involved more than different stages of life.”

John Wilson reviews Daniel Taylor’s novel Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees: “It is the third novel in a series, but you don’t have to have read the first two in order to enjoy and profit from this one. The protagonist of all three books is Jon Mote, a lapsed Baptist and fugitive from the academy (he stopped just short of getting a PhD in English). He is also, as I’ve described him elsewhere, ‘a low-key 21st-century version of the accidental amateur sleuth.’”

Matt Hanson takes stock of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: “The years between the two world wars were a particularly feverish and fertile time for German cinema. A quick glance of some of the images filling the screens at the time says a lot about the zeitgeist they reflected: stories of skull-faced vampires stalking the night, eerily possessed hands that drive their owners to murder, ghoulish smiles, humiliated civil servants, and an unforgettable serial killer who whistles Greig’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ to drown out the voices in his head. Visual media is so omnipresent these days that its ubiquity is often taken for granted. Imagine what it must have felt like to enter one of those elegant new movie houses where a mysterious and alluring new medium held sway. It would have been impossible to ignore the warning signs of a society still reeling from defeat in the Great War and teetering on the brink. One of the most significant films made during this uniquely febrile time in German history was Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which turns 100 this year. Caligari is a pioneering horror flick, a still-potent example of how silent films can work their unique magic today.”

“A stolen de Kooning was found in the New Mexico home of a pair of Jewish retirees. It wasn’t their only secret.” Emily Benedek reports.

What is Britain’s greatest film about WWII? Simon Heffer explores: “British films about the Second World War are a game of two halves; those made during the fight for survival, and those made afterwards. However, after the Fifties, too few writers and actors had experienced war to evoke it credibly, and audiences, filling with generations unborn on VE Day, could not tell the difference. Recent films such as Darkest Hour, in which Churchill rides the Tube, and Dunkirk, in which no actor looks the part, make the point. I wrote a few weeks ago about The Way to the Stars (1945), and reiterate that it is not just one of the finest films about the war, but one of our finest films. A rival, from 1942, is Ealing’s chilling Went the Day Well?: story by Graham Greene, music by William Walton. It depicts the arrival of Nazi stormtroopers in an English village, and shows levels of violence that were shocking at the time. In a politically pivotal moment, the lady of the manor blows herself up with a hand grenade to shield a roomful of child evacuees from that fate. We really were all in it together.” (HT: Barton Swaim)


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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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