Perhaps the most difficult aspect of studying Louisiana folklife is defining it. The Louisiana Folklife Program describes folklife as “living traditions currently practiced and passed along by word of mouth, imitation, and observation over time and space within groups, such as family, ethnic, social class, regional, and others.” Key to this definition is the idea that folklife is passed from one generation to the next. Folklife takes many forms—from songs to quilts, healing rituals to legends, recipes to hunting strategies—but almost always expresses a culture’s traditional values or beliefs. Since everyone belongs to some kind of group (and usually more than one), everyone has folklife. Like fish unaware of water, people sometimes have trouble identifying folklife because they are immersed in it.
Despite the diversity of forms, scholars who study folklife generally agree that folklife has five characteristics. (1) It is shared by a group of people who have something in common. This “something” might be ethnicity, religion, region, occupation, age, gender, or a other factors. (2) Folklife is passed from one generation to the next. Children generally learn folk traditions from their parents or other adults in their community. Many people learn to cook, for example, by watching relatives. (3) Folklife is primarily learned informally by observation, verbal instruction, or imitation. A young person might learn how to carve wood or make a fishing net by observing a relative rather than at school or from a book. (4) Somewhat paradoxically, folklife is both static or unchanging and dynamic. While certain elements of folk traditions stay the same over time, other aspects change with each transmission. Quilt patterns, for example, may be repeated over and over again, yet each quilt is unique because of the fabrics used and the skill of the quilter. Similarly, a folktale changes slightly with each new teller. (5) Folklife is usually anonymous in origin. By definition, it is generally created by a group rather than an individual.
Another way to think about folklife is to consider it within the context of culture. Scholars sometimes divide culture into three categories—elite, popular, and folk—each of which is learned in a different way. Forms of elite culture, such as sculpture, opera, easel painting, and theater, are generally learned and enjoyed in formal social institutions such as museums, concert halls, and universities. Popular culture includes things like television programs, comic strips, popular music, and movies, generally available through the mass media. Folk culture, on the other hand, is learned by word of mouth, observation, and imitation, and practiced in informal settings such as the family, the club, or a peer group. There is, of course, overlap among these categories. Cajun music—a traditional music genre perpetuated largely though folk cultures—has crossed over into popular culture. Though this cultural model is overly simplistic, it helps illuminate the role folklife plays in our society.
Louisiana Folk Groups
The diversity of the state’s culture makes it difficult to study Louisiana folklife as such. Instead, folklorists generally study specific folk groups in the state. These groups may be defined by any number of factors, including region, ethnicity, class, religion, occupation, age, and gender. Many folkloristsdivide the state into three folk regions—northern Louisiana, southern Louisiana, and the New Orleans metropolitan area—each of which is populated by a unique folk group. These regions can, of course, be divided almost endlessly into various subregions. Shreveport and Ruston are both in northern Louisiana, for example, but they are quite different culturally. Similarly, the “Neutral Strip” on the Louisiana-Texas border could be considered a separate folk region, as could Acadiana in southwestern Louisiana.
Folk regions reflect the ethnic and religious heritage of their residents. While French-speaking Catholics helped settle New Orleans and much of southern Louisiana, the northern part of the state was settled primarily by Protestants, often of British descent. As a result, Mardi Gras celebrations tend to be more elaborate and central in southern Louisiana, whose population includes many Catholics. In contrast, dinner on the ground, a Protestant tradition, continues to be more prevalent in northern Louisiana. Not all Louisianans are Protestant or Catholic, of course. Hindu immigrants from India introduced the celebration of Navarati, a nine-day commemoration of the Divine Mother, to Baton Rouge, while Vietnamese Buddhists celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
As the above suggests, religion and ethnicity are often inextricably intertwined. Within predominately Catholic southern Louisiana, for example, the food traditions of Cajuns are distinct from those known as Creoles. Creole foodways tend to echo the traditions of French immigrants and their descendents, using sometimes expensive ingredients and complicated cooking procedures. In contrast, Cajun foodways reflect the modest economic means of the Acadians, French Canadians who immigrated to the region in the mid-to late eighteenth century. As a result, Cajun food tends to be somewhat less expensive and simpler to prepare.
The list of ethnic groups who contributed to Louisiana’s folklife is long. To name just a few, German immigrants brought and maintain a distinctive Christmas tradition—the St. Nicholas celebration—when they settled near Robert’s Cove in southwestern Louisiana. Celebrated on December 5, St. Nichols Eve, the tradition involves a parade of costumed characters accompanied by a choir. Italian immigrants introduced the celebration of St. Joseph’s Day in Louisiana, while the Irish helped popularize and propagate St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in New Orleans. While these the celebrations have changed over time, they continue to serve as reminders of the region’s distinctive ethnic heritage.
Louisiana’s African American population also added a wealth of traditions to the state’s folklife. Much of the Louisiana’s musical heritage, particularly the genres of jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel, utilize distinctly African rhythms, call and response patterns, and performance techniques. African American oral traditions like toasting and “playing the dozens”—exercises in verbal wit—have shaped the language of Louisianans, black and white. African oral, musical, costuming, and dance traditions come together in the performances of New Orleans’s Mardi Gras Indians. Dressed in elaborate, handmade costumes, the Mardi Gras Indians lead unofficial parades on the back streets of New Orleans, enacting a carefully choreographed ritual when they encounter another tribe.
Native Americans themselves, of course, began contributing to Louisiana folklife long before the arrival of other ethnic groups. Members of several tribes—including the Chitimacha and the Choctaw—continue a cane basketry tradition going back hundreds of years, while members of the Coushatta tribe are known for their carefully crafted pinestraw baskets. The intricate designs commonly found on Chitamacha basketry in particular have earned praised and attention around the globe. Native American folklife, including storytelling, dance, and food traditions, also survive, though they are often modified for contemporary audiences.
While groups defined by region, religion, and ethnicity are perhaps the most frequently studied, there are many others. Occupational folk groups such as ranchers, midwives, shrimpers, and trappers often have rich folk traditions. Riverboat workers, for example, develop their own language, lore, and rituals, as they work together in close quarters. Age can also define a folk group. Children’s folklife, including handmade toys, jump rope rhymes, and clap games, reveals much about the values of the broader folk group. Gender, social class, and a host of other shared interests may also define folk groups.
Another way of organizing Louisiana’s folklife is by genre or type. Rather than examining the folklife of a specific folk group, folklorists working with this model explore categories or types of folklife. Though their exact terminology varies, folklorists often divide Louisiana folklife into the following genres: oral traditions, folk music and dance, material culture, and rituals and beliefs.
Oral traditions include the jokes, proverbs, stories, anecdotes, and other narratives that members of a folk group exchange verbally. One of the best known Louisiana legends is the legend of Evangeline, a young Acadian woman separated from her lover when the British evicted French Canadians from what is now Nova Scotia. Though based on a fictional poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline’s story has taken on a reality of its own, inspiring a statute in St. Martinsville as well as the names of nearby businesses and public facilities. While Louisiana folktales resemble those told in other cultures, they often exhibit a regionally specific twist. Animal trickster tales are common in many cultures, for example, but few other cultures feature the alligator as prominently. Similarly, while stories of evil spirits are widespread, Louisiana’s cauchemar tales—stories of a witch, devil, or other evil spirit riding an individual in his or her sleep—are particularly common among African Americans of French descent.
Folk music and dance traditions consist of the traditional songs and styles of music and dance within a community. As opposed to commercial music, which tends to come into communities from other places, folk music develops within a community. The brass band music featured in New Orleans’ jazz funerals and second line parades, though increasingly popular outside the region, represents the perpetuation of long-standing musical and social traditions. It is music from the community for the community and makes sense within the context of a larger folk ritual. Similarly, the Cajun two-step represents a regional variation of a dance style associated with country western music in general.
The term material culture refers to the traditional artifacts and objects within a community. Often the creator of these artifacts, the folk artist, learned his or her craft from a family member or mentor in the community, and passes this skill on to his or her children. Quilting, a popular activity throughout the state, has been documented more frequently in northern Louisiana. While allowing for innovation, quilters perpetuate specific quilting techniques and patterns over time. In the southern part of the state, where contemporary versions of the traditional pirogue can be seen, there is a strong boat-building tradition. Instead of simply buying a commercially made boat, traditional boat builders construct vessels specifically designed for use in their community. Another important type of material culture is foodways, a group’s traditional ways of obtaining, preparing, serving, and consuming food. Traditional dishes, like the gumbo, the Natchitoches meat pie, reveal much about a region’s ethnic heritage—in the latter case Spanish—agricultural economy, and social values.
The genre of folk rituals and customs includes traditional activities or practices within a folk group, often based on a shared set of beliefs. These rituals may include religious ceremonies, holiday celebrations, superstitions, and rites of passage (e.g., birth, marriage). Near the northeastern Louisiana town of Winnsboro, African Americans gather at the True Light Baptist Church to participate in an Easter eve ceremony called Easter Rock, which dates to the antebellum era. As participants sing, they “rock” by taking rhythmic steps from side to side, while simultaneously circling a table decorated with lamps, cake, and punch. In Marksville, Easter marks the recurrence of a very different ritual: an egg knocking contest to determine who has the “hardest” hard-boiled and decorated egg. Though often religious in nature, folk rituals may be secular as well. Tailgating before a sporting event, singing Happy Birthday, and gardening are common nonreligious rituals throughout the state.
Whether studied by folk group, genre, or some combination thereof, Louisiana’s folklife is worth exploring. It has become a cliché to describe Louisiana’s culture in general and folklife in particular as a gumbo in which the individual elements enrich the whole while maintaining their unique identities. Though overused, the metaphor remains apt. Only by studying Louisiana’s unique folk groups can scholars begin to understand the culture as a whole. Organizations like the Louisiana Folklife Program, the Louisiana Folklife Center (LFC) at Northwestern State University, the Louisiana Folklife Society, and the program in Folklore Studies at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, continue to encourage the study of this important cultural resource.