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Barry Ancelet, acclaimed Cajun folklorist, author, and songwriter, as well as the founder of Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, joined Discover Lafayette to share his love of our culture and his journey as a folklorist. We look forward to celebrating the Festival on Friday, March 18, 2022, after a hiatus due to the COVID shutdown.
Barry served on the faculty of UL-Lafayette from 1977 until his retirement in 2016. He was a professor in the Department of Modern Languages, serving as chair of the department and as the first director of the University’s Center for Acadian and Creole Folklore. He developed and taught the first course on Cajun and Creole music at the university. He has been involved in over 50 record projects, providing notes, transcriptions and translations, and has written almost two dozen books on Cajun music and culture.
“My dad told me when I was a kid, ‘Find something you really love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ I got paid to visit with artists like Dewey Balfa, Dennis Magee, Canray Fontenot, and Nathan Abshire, listen to their stories and turn it into coursework and publications. When I retired, in my speech I said I was happy to be retiring before the university realized I would have done it for free.”
It wasn’t that long ago in Louisiana that speaking French was shunned and children were not allowed to speak the language in school for fear of reprisal. However, Barry says that he grew up in a French-speaking family who enjoyed Cajun music, and, “we never felt French was a liability.” His grandmother always quoted a French proverb, “A man who speaks two languages is worth two men,” translated in French as “Un home qui parle deux langues vaut deux hommes.”
Barry excelled early in his French studies and loved it. At Cathedral Carmel High School, he represented the school at the Literary Rally, winning a medal. “It was like getting paid to eat candy.”
Majoring in French at USL (now UL-Lafayette), he went on to study French at Indiana University where he realized his love of French was grounded in our local French-Acadian culture, not strictly traditional French history. The pre-eminent American folklorist, Henry Glassie, was on the faculty at Indiana U. and encouraged Barry to transfer into folklore, to learn about the cultural side of life, and Barry graduated with an MA in folklore from the university.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the same time as Barry’s college days, Louisiana French history was beginning to be recognized for its significance. He mentions local historian Carl Brasseaux and musician Zachary Richard as two others also drawn to finding out how the region’s culture came about and asking questions such as “Who are we? Why does our music sound this way? Why does gumbo taste like that? Why do our homes look like that?” Out of curiosity, they started digging and learning about the French-Canadian, African-Caribbean, and French influences which shaped the region’s unique culture.
While studying French in Nice, France in the Spring of 1973, Barry was miserable and homesick. One day while walking in downtown Nice, Barry heard Cajun music floating from a store owned by Roger Mason. Barry wanted to know more about this store that showcased music that he missed, such as the Crowley Two-Step; Mason shared that he had a mentor, Dewey Balfa, who he had learned from, and encouraged Barry to go to Basile, Louisiana to meet Balfa upon his return to the States.
Dewey Balfa wasn’t just a mentor to Roger Mason, he was an ambassador of Cajun culture and advocated for the revival of traditional Cajun music. In 1964, Balfa had been invited by the renowned music Smithsonian folklorist Ralph Rinzler (along with Gladdie Thibodeaux and Louis Vinesse Lejeune) to play at the Newport Folk Festival where Balfa’s music was met with great excitement. He appeared twice more at the Festival and with the warm acceptance of his music, he was inspired to become an advocate for the Cajun culture back home and to help people feel proud of their culture instead of ashamed by it.
Barry showed up at Dewey Balfa’s house unannounced one day and Balfa welcomed the young man into his home, glad to have a local from Lafayette in his fold. Others who wanted more information on Cajun music typically were from out-of-state and would leave. He knew Barry Ancelet would stick around to help promote the culture.
In the Spring of 1974, Barry was 23 years old and working for CODIFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana). Its director, Jimmy Domengeaux, wanted Barry to organize a concert for 150 French journalists visiting the area, but he wasn’t necessarily interested in having Cajun music played as he preferred jazz and had never been exposed to great Cajun music. Barry went to Dewey Balfa for help and when Domengeaux heard Balfa’s beautiful music he agreed plans could move forward for a Cajun music concert.
The team solicited Ralph Rinzler of the Newport Folklore Festival to come and help them conceptualize the event, along with local musicians who were experienced in playing on stage. At that time, most Cajun musicians only played in smoky dance halls and didn’t have stage experience where people stayed seated (rather than dance). Balfa felt it was important for people to stay seated so that they could truly experience the music; this was quite a novel concept at that time for Cajun performers. No performers would be paid but they wanted to participate to be part of something bigger than themselves. Barry spoke of the four-foot-high stage they played on along with a first-rate sound system, a novel concept in that day and time.
As word spread of the upcoming performance, local residents wanted to attend. To meet the demand, the event was moved from smaller venues to Blackham Coliseum which had a capacity of 8,000 people. On March 26, 1974, this “Tribute to Cajun Music,” was held on a torrential rainy night with people lined up outside in the mud waiting to enter the coliseum. Barry estimates that almost 12,000 people showed up, many coming to hear the popular song, “Lache Pas La Patate” (The Potato Song) performed by Jimmy C. Newman. Musicians such as Dennis Magee, Sady Courville, Nathan Abshire, and more played to the great joy of the attendees.
The Tribute to Cajun Music was only intended to be performed one time for the visiting journalists, but it was repeated in 1975 while Barry was away at grad school. Upon his return in 1976, he learned there were no local plans to put on the concert so he jumped in headfirst to resurrect it and keep its momentum as an annual favorite event.
The Tribute to Cajun Music was moved outdoors to Girard Park and held in October 1976. CODIFIL joined forces with the Bayou Food Festival and the Native Craft Festival in 1977, creating was is now known as Festival Acadiens et Creoles. Barry Ancelet has remained active each year in facilitating this annual event which celebrates our local music culture like no other and will be coming up on its fifty-year anniversary in 2024.
Barry compared Lafayette’s two main festivals as follows: “Festival International focuses on partnering with Francophone countries throughout the world. Festival Acadiens et Creoles is more inward, a self-celebration of our own music. In the beginning, musicians were paid a pittance but wanted to be able to showcase their music. It was like a homecoming, where they could visit like at a family reunion. We (still) get together and visitors get to see us get together and participate in what we’re doing. There’s a lot of love, a lot of emotion, and we’ve had remarkable moments through the years.”
Barry Ancelet looks at his involvement in Festivals Acadiens et Creoles as his entree into storytelling. As a folklorist, he loves learning about the cultural side of life. At Indiana University where he got his MA in folklore, he learned how to do field work in identifying, examining, and comparing cultural elements. Now a prolific published author, Barry’s first book was “Makers of Cajun and Creole Music: Musiciens Cadiens et Creoles” featuring artwork by Elemore Morgan. Pictured on the cover is Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil.
Barry has been a leader not only in the academic study of Cajun and Creole folk culture but in creating archives where the culture has been preserved. The folklorist Ralph Rinzler volunteered 59 music fieldwork tapes for Barry to copy so as to assist him in building an archive of music folklore for the university. This led to the inspiration to get the Center for Acadian Folklore started and Barry reached out to other folklorists such as Harry Oster (founder of the Louisiana Folklore Society) and Alan Lomax (who worked on behalf of the Library of Congress during the Depression-era to record noncommercial Cajun music recordings along with his dad, John Lomax) to contribute to the archives. Alan Lomax’s recordings, in particular, were important because the singing ballads and fiddle tunes reflected an era that went farther back in time to capture the unvarnished Cajun culture of days gone by. And, Barry’s department also worked on recording local artists through the years to add to the archives.
Barry Ancelet also writes books, poetry, and song lyrics under the pseudonym Jean Arceneaux. In 2016, his CD with Sam Broussard, “Broken Promised Land,” was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Regional Roots Music category. They are currently working on a second song tentatively titled, “Your Heart is Blacker than the Devil’s Feet.” Photo created by Philip Gould.
We thoroughly enjoyed this historical look at how Festivals Acadiens et Creole came to be. The festival will open Friday, March 18, 2022, at 5:30 pm. with Steve Riley & Mamou Playboys and will close on Sunday, March 20th with a 5:15 performance with Horace Trahan and the Ossun Express.
Discover Lafayette is grateful for the lifelong commitment of Barry Ancelet to sharing the history and value of our local Cajun and Creole culture! We are glad he is still engaged in our community and look forward to more outstanding contributions from Barry in sharing our stories with the world.
For more information on Festival Acadiens et Creole, its lineup, and how you can support this free event, visit https://www.festivalsacadiens.com/music-and-events/lineup/