In the Creole Twilight: Poems and Songs from Louisiana Folklore

In the Creole Twilight: Poems and Songs from Louisiana Folklore
By Joshua Clegg Caffery. 2015. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 74 pages. ISBN: 9780807161548 (hard cover).
Reviewed by Frank de Caro, Louisiana State University
At one time the phrase “Creole twilight” would have been used to mean
the period of the mid- and late- nineteenth century, when New Orleans
Creole society was in its final stages of development, when it was in
a period of decline and on its last legs. (It was during such a time
period that the Louisiana Association of the American Folklore
Society, led by arch-Creole Alcée Fortier, flourished, when Fortier
looked into Creole French language.) But Joshua Clegg Caffery with
his use of the title In the Creole Twilight for his collection of
poetry seems to have quite a different meaning in mind (though what
those poets who provided jacket comments, which seem mostly slightly
puzzled, make of the collection or its title is another matter).
Caffery takes off from Louisiana folklore, referencing such material
as saints’ legends, folk beliefs, and folktale characters, building
mostly on song genres (he is himself a musician, and has been a
member of two bands, the bluegrass/Western swing group the Red Stick
Ramblers and the largely Cajun band Feufollet, itself named after a
folkloric phenomenon) to produce his own poems. The material he works
from is mostly rural and comes from Cajun French tradition, so urban
New Orleans does not come into play, and Caffery’s use of “Creole” (a
term which as widely used today seems to mostly refer to Afro-French
groups) is more a reference to the Louisiana French tradition and
perhaps also to creole-ness, that is, to the cultural process of
creolization and its end-results in Louisiana. Of course, the fact
that Caffery’s poetry is itself in English points toward the
abandonment of French as a language in much of Louisiana, a kind of
“twilight” in itself, from which he draws his folk material.
Caffery is a scholar as well as a poet and musician, author of
Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana, and recently a visiting
professor in folklore at Indiana University, an authority on the work
of Alan Lomax, particularly Lomax’s work in the Bayou State. And
perhaps it was inevitable that he find his way into the study of
folklore. I wrote about the work of his mother, the very talented
Debbie Fleming Caffery, in my book Folklife in Louisiana Photography
(and later reviewed her book), a photographer who has given much of
her artistic attention to documenting folklife, especially that of
the local sugar industry (she is also a distant cousin of the
folklorist Henry Glassie). And his uncle, the Baton Rouge attorney
Taylor Caffery, maintained a local folk music show for many years on
public radio.
Caffery is one of a number of folklorists who have also looked to
poetry as a means of further expression, a group that includes Ed
Hirsch, Susan Stewart, Margaret Yocom, Solimar Otero, and Leslie
Prosterman. The extent to which folklore has played a role in that
poetry has varied. Caffery’s book is an indication that the role may
be considerable, and in In the Creole Twilight he provides a section
of notes in which he points out how individual poems relate to
Louisiana folklore and the Louisiana locality, a section perhaps
unneeded by someone who knows Louisiana culture well (and Louisiana
culture is very much its own thing, an amalgam-a creole mishmash, if
you will-of the Southern and the French), though some of Caffery’s
references are very local and obscure.
He has a poem entitled “Captain Russel,” based on the well-known
Cajun song usually called “Cadet Roussel,” based in turn, according
the Caffery’s notes, on an actual person who in 1780 became something
of a laughingstock. The song recounts some of the absurd things that
Cadet Roussel has done. For instance, in a version recorded by Harry
Oster, who traces the song back to France and the sixteenth century
though he says that it descends from another song, Cadet Roussel has
a dog which runs away when called. In Caffery’s poem Captain Russel
has daughters who spend most of their time in bed and on the phone
and horses with legs “thin as reeds,” even with “wooden pegs” (53).
Some of Caffery’s notes are rather scholarly and interesting from
that perspective. For example, he sets his poem “Claude Martin’s Last
Request” in the “historical frame” (71) of the Acadian removal from
Nova Scotia by the British. Yet he comments in his notes to the poem
that this tale of “cannibalism and self-sacrifice” (71) that he has
partly from family lore about his ancestor Claude Martin, the first
Acadian settler in the area around Breaux Bridge, is well known in
Portuguese tradition and one song in which it figures “remains
popular to this day in Brazil, where it is often accompanied by a
dramatic dance” (71). He remembers that he first came across the
“idea and image” (72) he works with in an African-American spiritual
recorded from Albert Bradford and Becky Elzy “who sang it before the
Civil War” on Avery Island.
But mostly Caffery’s work is interesting to the folklorist because of
the ways in which it incorporates Louisiana French folklore (and
certainly rewards re-reading). For example, in “The Loup-Garou”
Caffery uses the widespread local belief in werewolves (though today
the loup-garou may have become more of a generalized spirit) in a
poem in which a man encounters one after ridding himself of his woman
(who takes him back), suggesting that the werewolf appears in
woman-less times of stress. Or in “Father January” Caffery sees an
anti-Santa Claus in a folk figure “still preserved in the folklore of
south Louisiana” (71), a figure far more sinister than the Santa of
the American imagination (though in his notes he reminds us that
Santa himself may have a more sinister history).
Caffery’s poetry, based on Louisiana folklore and brought to us by a
poet who is both local boy and scholar and who draws on both of these
identities in making his poems, makes for haunting reading and
expresses the local and the folkloric well.
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