Skip to main content

Books French American Song

Dennis Stroughmatt
Dennis Stroughmatt performing songs of the French Creoles of Mississippi, Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana with his band l'Espirit Creole (not pictured), at the Library of Congress, June 21, 2012. Photo by Stephen Winick, (AFC 2012/021).

The songs and music of French Americans are tied to a complex history, which resulted in a diaspora of French-speaking people in several regions of what is now the United States. The story is further complicated through contact among French-speaking people of different histories, as well as subsequent contact with settlers from other countries and their descendants.

The French began establishing their formal claim to the Mississippi River basin in the late seventeenth century, with the first settlement of Cahokia, in present-day Illinois, in 1699. Prior to this, French fur trappers had made use of the river and established trade relations with American Indian tribes, and missionaries had arrived to preach to them. As the British and Spanish established colonies on the southern and eastern coasts of North America, forcing the French out of most of the ports through prior claims and warfare, the French focused their attention on colonizing the Mississippi and maintaining control of its port in present day New Orleans, Louisiana. The French retained their settlements in Newfoundland, the surrounding shores of the Hudson Bay, and part of the area they had called "Acadia," specifically the southern peninsula of what is now Nova Scotia and adjacent ports in New Brunswick. They ceded these regions to Great Britain in 1713 (though in subsequent battles they attempted to re-establish French ports in Nova Scotia), but retained their colonies in what are now Cape Breton Island (Nova Scotia), Prince Edward Island, and Quebec until 1763.

The French territory in what became the United States included the Mississippi Valley and all of its tributaries extending from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, a vast area that was called Louisiana. Referring to this original territory, the descendents of French colonists who settled along the Mississippi River in what is now Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana still call their region "Upper Louisiana."

Upper Louisiana included the earliest successful settlements of the French in what is now the United States. French is still spoken by descendents of the original settlers in the region, and the music includes both tunes and songs composed by French Americans and music colonists brought with them from France. Bands that preserve this music usually include a variety of stringed instruments and voice. The people refer to themselves as "French Creoles," meaning French people born in the new world, and the music is by extension called "French Creole Music." (Some make a further distinction between "French songs" brought from France and "French Creole songs" composed in North America, but this distinction is not universally recognized.)

The French-language music and songs of the central Mississippi basin were influenced by the music of settlers from other countries who followed the French, particularly the Irish and English settlers. Other "home grown" adaptations are apparent in the use of various stringed instruments. Some, like the violin and bass fiddle, were commonly used by the French, Irish, and English, while the Italian mandolin and the African American banjo were instruments that became widely available by mail order in about 1900 and began to be used by many ethnic groups other than those that originated them, including the French. The songs of the region include traditional dance songs performed at "boullions," or house parties, as well as ballads that tell stories of the French settlers in the region. Though this key region of French culture in America is often overlooked, the saying of the people in this region is "On est toujours icitte: We are still here!"

This presentation includes the webcast of a concert at the Library of Congress by Dennis Stroughmatt and his band, l'Espirit Creole, in 2012. As he began his career as a musician, Stroughmatt's ambition was to learn to perform music, songs, and ballads that would help revitalize the musical heritage of the descendants of French settlers in the Central Mississippi River region. He studied his own musical heritage extensively by performing with local musicians of previous generations and recording their folk songs and stories. He also made expeditions to study French folk music and song in New Orleans and Quebec, Canada.

The vital port city of New Orleans was established in 1718. As a result of its defeat in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), France ceded the territory west of the Mississippi to Spain and the areas east of the river to Great Britain in 1763. During this period Spain took control of the strategic port of New Orleans, briefly giving the United States the right to use the port between 1795 and 1798. As a result of a war between France and Spain, France took back the province of Louisiana in 1800. The volatility of relations between France and Spain, the value of the Mississippi as a waterway for transportation and commerce, repeated negotiations to use the port at New Orleans, and the desire to establish settlements in the territory all led to a strong United States interest in Louisiana. In 1803 the territory changed hands for the last time, when the United States bought Louisiana from France.

African Americans who settled in what is now Louisiana came from diverse backgrounds. Some were brought as slaves during the French and Spanish colonial period or brought in by settlers after the Louisiana Purchase. Under Spanish rule, slaves were allowed to buy their freedom, leading to an early population of free Blacks in southern Louisiana. People of African descent also came from the Caribbean, including French-speaking islands. During the revolution in Haiti between 1789 and 1791, French-speaking Haitians who fled the violence often chose the Louisiana coast as a destination.

People of African descent in Louisiana today often also have French or Spanish ancestry, or both, and one of the meanings of "Creole" in Southern Louisiana is people of this mixed heritage, sometimes called "Black Creoles" to distinguish them from the French "Creoles," American-born French who do not have African ancestry. French-speaking African Americans in Louisiana have a developed a unique variety of musical styles that bring together elements of African, Caribbean, and French music and song, and sometimes influences of other ethnic groups of the region. Some French folk songs are shared among the French-speaking people of different backgrounds. For example, a Black Creole version a folk song that originated in France, "Je veux me marier," sung by Jimmy Peters, was collected by John and Alan Lomax in Louisiana in 1935. An English-language version of a Black Creole funeral shout also recorded by the Lomaxes, "Rockaway," sung by a group led by Jimmy Peters in 1934, provides an example of the African Caribbean drumming style that has been incorporated into the Black Creole repertoire.

The next chapter in French American music and song is also the next chapter in Canadian and American colonial history. After France ceded its claims to the Maritime Provinces of what is now Canada in 1713, French settlers in the region, called Acadians, lived under British rule for forty-five years. But during a campaign against the French colony of New France, the British carried out what came to be called the Great Expulsion (or Le Grand Dérangement) of 1755–1763. Approximately 11,500 Acadians were expelled from the Maritime Provinces, their lands confiscated, and in some cases their houses were burned. Some of these settlers were deported to France and some put on boats to find their own way to a port that would accept them. Some fled to the wilder reaches of New Brunswick and Maine, where they were in danger of being expelled once again by the British. Others sought the regions where other French settlements could be found. Some went to Quebec, where the British chose a policy of assimilation of French setters rather than expulsion. Others migrated to settlements along the Mississippi River and in southern Louisiana. In the New England colonies, French settlers were also deported. But as the danger of further expulsions abated, and especially after the American Revolution, some of those who had fled British persecution migrated into New England along with settlers from Quebec who felt they would do better in the new United States.

Romeo and Georgette Berthiaume
Romeo and Georgette Berthiaume of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Mr. Berthiaume recorded French songs for the Rhode Island Folklife Project on August 30, 1979. Photo by Henry Horenstein (AFC 1991/022:HH33).

Northeastern French American music originates with the settlers from Canada. The music and song brought to this region draws upon the folk culture of the French settlers of Canada's Maritime Provinces and Quebec. Ties between people of French descent in the two countries has led to an ongoing exchange of music and songs. "La Soupe aux Pois," sung in French by Romeo Berthiaume of Rhode Island, is an example of such a song. It was composed by a Frenchman, Albert Larrieu (1872-1925), who toured extensively in Canada where his compositions were picked up and passed on among the French in both Canada and the United States. For more examples of French songs from the Northeast, view the video of the group Le Bon Hommes do Nord, consisting of Patrick Ross, Jean Theroux, Dalton Binette, and Bow Thayer presented a concert of French-Canadian fiddle music and songs from New Hampshire at the Library of Congress in 2012.[1]

Cajun music is a style of French American music characteristic to southwestern Louisiana and the adjacent region of Texas. "Cajun" derives from the word "Acadian." The original French settlers in this region had the same culture as those who settled farther north on the Mississippi River. The French "Creole" music of these settlers combined with that of the Acadians who settled in Louisiana after being expelled from Canada. Many of the Acadians settled in the bayous of southern Louisiana forming cultural enclaves where they developed music and other cultural features unique to their group. In Louisiana today there are people of French ancestry who identify themselves as "Creole," descended from the original French settlers, and others who identify themselves as "Cajun," or "Acadian," descended from the people expelled from Canada. Black Creoles may have Creole or Cajun ancestry, or both, or may have French Caribbean and another European ancestry. Also, because New Orleans was a vital port city for both the French and the Spanish before it was acquired by the United States, the music of the region has a number of influences from Spanish and other ethnic groups who settled there.

The instrumentation used for early Cajun music was often simple, with the fiddle being used as the original lead instrument. As diatonic button accordions became available in the later nineteenth century, they were adopted into the music and became the most popular lead instrument by the turn of the twentieth century. As was true for French Creole music elsewhere, fretted stringed instruments became readily available in the early twentieth century. They were added to the mix, with the guitar becoming particularly characteristic of Cajun music. Old-time music of the 1920s and 1930s by their non-French neighbors also became an influence, as did swing music. During the Great Depression and World War II, Cajuns in Louisiana were preoccupied with assimilation into mainstream American culture. This, and the limited availability of German-made accordions, encouraged Cajun musicians to adopt a style influenced by Western Swing, in which fiddle and steel guitar took the lead and the accordion faded briefly from the scene. In the aftermath of the war, Cajuns who had been in the armed forces returned home with a new sense of ethnic pride, and the older style of accordion-led music came back to the fore.

John and Alan Lomax recorded a wealth of Cajun songs for the Library of Congress in the 1930s. They made recordings of members of the Hoffpauir family in New Iberia, Louisiana in 1934. The three Hoffpauir sisters, Elita, Mary, and Ella performed the ballad "Six ans sur mer" (Six years at sea), which has origins in Europe. The narrative tells of people lost at sea who nearly resort to cannibalism to survive. The young man who is the intended victim spies land at the last moment and is saved. Folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet has speculated that this story might have appealed to the descendants of the Acadian exiles who suffered a similarly harrowing experience when they were put in boats in 1755 and denied entry or assistance in British-held ports along their long journey. [2]

Cajun music went through many changes as it responded to the influences of twentieth-century popular music and newly available instruments, such as electric guitar, pedal steel, and saxophone. A characteristically Cajun style of rock music, known as "swamp pop," developed in the 1950s in response to these new ideas and influences, and country stars such as Hank Williams, Sr., greatly influenced many Cajun singers. In the 1960s and 1970s a revitalization of traditional Cajun music began, which again used the accordion, triangle, fiddle, and acoustic guitar. Today it is possible to find a broad range of the varieties of Cajun music that has been developed over many years. In this presentation, a 2010 Library of Congress concert by Marce Lacouture, David Greeley, and Kristi Guillory presents the oldest part of the tradition, ballads and songs in the traditional Cajun style. These performers research the history of the songs that they perform and have learned many of them from recordings of Louisiana singers made by the Lomaxes for the Library of Congress in the 1930s. They have also sought out older performers of these traditional songs in order to find the earliest examples that are still being sung today. Marce Lacouture apprenticed with ballad singers Lula Landry and Inez Catalon in order to learn to perform authentic examples of early Cajun songs.

Among the Black Creoles, a style of singing for dancing called juré was popular when the Lomaxes made their field recordings in the 1930s. An example is "J'ai fait tout le tour du pays," performed by Jimmy Peters and a group of dancing singers in 1934. A phrase in the song, "les haricots ne sont pas salés," is one that appears in many juré songs, including this one. It translates as "the snap beans aren't salty," meaning that the character in the song is too poor to afford salt pork to season the beans.

The juré style of singing, combined with Cajun music and African American blues, gave rise to a new form of popular dance music and song in Louisiana in the 1950s, called "zydeco." According to most experts (including David Greely in the webcast linked to below), the word "zydeco" derives from the Creole pronunciation of the phrase "les haricots" in the juré song about unsalted beans. In the early twentieth century, the word "zydeco" appeared in many variant spellings, including "zodico," "zordico," and "zarico," until the spelling was standardized in the 1960s. In the webcast of the concert by Marce Lacouture, David Greeley, and Kristi Guillory, David Greely sings another version of "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés" (introduced at time code 30:58). Still another version of this song was adapted from tradition by Clifton Chenier, recorded under the title "Zydeco Sont Pas Salés," and became popular enough to standardize the name of the genre as "zydeco."

Zydeco developed in the Black Creole community from the combination of Cajun and African Caribbean musical styles, with influences from rock, blues and other forms of music. The lead instrument was the piano accordion, significantly different from the button accordion used in Cajun music. In addition, a washboard (called a "frottoir" in Creole French) became a common zydeco instrument, perhaps as a substitute for rasping gourds used in African Caribbean music. Electrified instruments were also added to the mix as they became available. Zydeco has a raucous beat with the songs sung in French, English, or some combination of the two. While it arose in house parties in the Black Creole community, zydeco today has influences from the many ethnic groups and styles of traditional music found in Louisiana, from American popular musical forms (such as blues, rock, and hip-hop), and from Caribbean popular music styles that have made their way into the United States (such as reggae). It has a broad appeal and is popular among Americans far removed from Louisiana.

In the classical tradition, French opera has always been popular in the United States. During the early twentieth century Victor produced French language recordings of stars on tour from France, Canada, and Belgium singing arias from operas and art songs. In some cases these stars chose to remain in the United States. One of the most famous of these was the French singer Jeanne Gerville-Réache. Born in France, she was of French and Spanish heritage and grew up in Martinique. After training in France and beginning her career on the French opera stage, she toured the United States in 1907 and stayed. Here she sings "O ma lyre immortelle," from the French work Sapho. Blanche Aral, who immigrated to the United States from Belgium, was another popular opera singer of the early twentieth century. In this selection she sings, "Valse d'oiseau," (Birds of the forest) composed by Louis Varney.

As World War I began, performers from Europe came to the United States to try to use inspiring songs to win support for the war. In 1915, composer Lucien Cailliet, at the time a bandmaster in the French Army, toured the United States with the French Army band and recorded this performance of his arrangement of a medley of French patriotic songs, "La Bataille," sung by Torcom Bézazian. After the war Cailliet immigrated to the United States and worked for the Philadelphia Orchestra as a clarinetist, saxophonist, and arranger. He also had a long career composing and arranging music for Hollywood films.

The worlds of French opera and French American folksong came together in the person of Eva Gauthier, a Canadian mezzo-soprano who sang operatic roles but specialized in recitals and concerts of arias and art songs. A world traveler as well as a singer, she sang throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand before World War I, and lived in the United States during and after the war. She performed both classical and popular music, and at one historic recital in New York in 1923 sang classical songs alongside works by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin, accompanied on piano by Gershwin himself. She was also influential on American song by introducing American popular songwriters to European classical composers; she was particularly proud of having introduced Maurice Ravel to Gershwin in 1928. From 1916 to 1918, the Victor corporation, which was pioneering the recording of ethnic songs for niche markets throughout the country, recorded Gauthier singing light classical arrangements of French Canadian folksongs for the New England and Canadian markets. The songs included old ballads such as "Isabeau S'y Promene," and children's songs such as "Alouette" and "Sur le pont d'Avignon." Gauthier also recorded classical art songs by Claude Debussy, Ferdinand Hérold, and others. She lived in New York until her death in 1958, bringing together French, French-Canadian, and American song.

  1. This concert is mainly instrumental, but Patrick Ross and Jean Theroux introduce and sing the song "Le Petit Oiseau" ("The Little Bird") at about 36 minutes into the video recording. [back to article]
  2. Ancelet, Barry Jean. Liner note for "Six ans sur mer" in Cajun & Creole Music: 1934/1937 a CD recording in the series Alan and John A. Lomax: The Classic Louisiana Recordings. Rounder Records 1999, p. 9. [back to article]

About this Item

French American Song
Subject Headings
-  Immigration and Migration
-  Songs and Music
-  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
-  Articles
Online Format
online text
Additional Metadata Formats

Rights & Access

Rights assessment is your responsibility.

More about Copyright and other Restrictions

For guidance about compiling full citations consult Citing Primary Sources.

Cite This Item

Citations are generated automatically from bibliographic data as a convenience, and may not be complete or accurate.

Chicago citation style:

French American Song. Online Text. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed October 24, 2016.)

APA citation style:

French American Song. [Online Text] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

MLA citation style:

French American Song. Online Text. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.