Something From Nothing: Juré and A Cappella Singing

The simplest and most readily form of homemade instrument is your own voice, accompanied by percussive rhythm using your body. In the earliest period of French settlement in Louisiana, there was little music. As the frontier was explored and colonized, a new identity developed and along with it, a new repertoire of tall tales added to their European stock of animal and fairy tales. Their songs reflected both old and new worlds and their experiences. Exiled Acadians in Saint-Dominque (present-day Haiti), en route to Louisiana, were reported to have danced to reels à bouche, wordless dance music made only with their voices.

When instruments were unavailable or forbidden, the Acadians danced anyway, making music with their voices, stomping their feet and clapping their hands. If the round dances got stale, they hummed reels à bouche and danced, “the old and young alike, all dancing to a fast step.” At the same time, African slaves and gens libres de couleur were living and working in the same or nearby fields and singing their traditional songs, accompanied by other voices or sounds made with their hands, feet and nearby objects.

These African influences led to “la la” music, fast-paced dance music featuring French lyrics and a bluesy influence. Musician Hector Duhon recalls that “Tenant farmers would come up to the store. My old daddy would give them something to play. You’d also hear them singing in the fields, spirituals, hollers and yells. It was beautiful the way they sang.”

During Lent, those 40 days of restraint and reflection, music and dancing were forbidden. This restriction gave rise to juré in rural Creole Acadiana communities during the early twentieth century. This call-and-response group singing of typically men was accompanied by hand clapping and “shoeing,” shuffling of feet to the beat of the song. The juré circle is diplomatic in its role assignment, as the oldest of the group usually takes the lead and three or four other singers respond, echoing the verse.

Cecilia Broussard

Cecilia Broussard is a rare female juré singer from St. Landry Parish. “My daddy was the ‘juré man’ and sang the gospel songs at funerals and wakes.” He was often invited to gatherings to lead the singing in their sharecropping community. During Lent, they would travel from house to house on Friday and Saturday nights and share the week’s gossip, perhaps a meal and entertain each other with a cappella singing. “It was a way to get around not being able to dance,” Broussard says, adding that she enjoyed shoeing along to the singing. Other singers added various rhythmic elements by thumping their chests or thighs, snapping their fingers or humming. Broussard taught her daughters the songs as children, and now her grandchildren occasionally chime in.

Singer Mary Bias’ favorite song, “Brother Lee John is Dead,” reminds her of her mother, who sang it when she was angry with her husband. Folklorist Josh Caffery’s website, lomax1934.com, presents a version of this same song sung as a ring shout in the 1930s by a group of men led by Jimmy Peters of Jennings.

Most Creole juré songs deal with everyday situations, such as the well-known “les haricots son pas salé,” the future battle cry of the homegrown musical genre zydeco. Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot recounted a conversation with Clifton Chenier to historian Michael Tisserand, admitting that he’d never attended a juré because “they used to have that where they didn’t have no musicians, but I was born where they had some musicians.” He explained that “them old people would sit down, clap their hands, and make up a song. And they would dance on that, them people.” His hometown of Basile didn’t have a juré tradition and he always wanted to go to Mamou or Ville Platte to find “them juré.” Fontenot goes on to explain that Clifton Chenier’s father played “Zydeco est pas salé” as a juré but Clifton thought it was the wrong speed for dancing. He sped up the beat and sure enough, people danced to the song and early zydeco music was born.

Creole musician Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin remembered the juré forming a circle with a leader and a chorus, “nothing but tapping and clapping. That’s it, that’s it. Nothing but the people singing like that. It resembled a group. As if music was being played.” His wife, Marceline, also sang juré “on my own” and said the last person in the Basile area to remember the songs was a Fernand Lavergne, who, “because he’s a man, you know, he was in the same group” of singers. Both Ardoins hailed Bois Sec’s uncle Joe McIntyre as a great juré leader, “oh he could sing ‘Juré my Lord.’ Oh oh yaille, in Lent they didn’t have music, no dances, nothing. So that was their pastime.”
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