BLACK MUSIC CREO NEW ORLEANS DEEP SOUTH

At the time of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's birth in 1829, 'Caribbean' was "perhaps the best word to describe the musical atmosphere of New Orleans.


One possible definition of Creole folk music is this: melodies, sometimes including dance-related instrumental accompaniments, sung in Louisiana French and Louisiana Creole by Louisiana Creole people of French, Spanish, Native, and/or African. Congo Square in New Orleans In America's Music (2nd edition, p. 302-3)

 

Gilbert Chase describes the cultural setting in which Creole folk music developed. To summarize, in 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, including New Orleans, from France, and in 1809 and 1810, "more than ten thousand refugees from the West Indies arrived in New Orleans, most originally from [French-speaking Haiti]. Of these, about three thousand were free Negroes." At the time of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's birth in 1829, 'Caribbean' was "perhaps the best word to describe the musical atmosphere of New Orleans." Central to Creole musical activities was Place Congo (in English: Congo Square). The much quoted 1886 article by George Washington Cable offers this description: The booming of African drums and blast of huge wooden horns called to the gathering... . The drums were very long, hollowed, often from a single piece of wood, open at one end and having a sheep or goat skin stretched across the other... . The smaller drum was often made from a joint or two of very large bamboo...and this is said to be the origin of its name; for it was called the Bamboula. Cable then describes a variety of instruments used at Congo Square, including gourds, triangles, jaw harps, jawbones, and "the grand instrument at last", the four-stringed banjo.

 

The bamboula, or "bamboo-drum", accompanied the bamboula dance and bamboula songs. Chase writes, "For Cable, the bamboula represented 'a frightful triumph of body over the mind,' and 'Only the music deserved to survive, and does survive...'" Among other Creole dances mentioned by Chase (p. 312) are the babouilee, the cata (or chacta), the counjaille (or counjai), the voudou, the calinda, and the congo. "Perhaps the most widespread of all was the calinda..." The melody "Michié Préval", for example, was sung to the calinda. In Spanish, the name of this dance is calenda. Songs Sung at Good Hope Plantation, St. Charles Parish Songs numbered 130-136 in Slave Songs of the United States, according to a note on page 113, were obtained from a lady who heard them sung, before the war, on the "Good Hope" plantation, St. Charles Parish, Louisiana... Four of these songs, Nos. 130, 131, 132, and 133, were sung to a simple dance, a sort of minuet, called the Coonjai; the name and the dance are probably both of African origin. When the Coonjai is danced, the music is furnished by an orchestra of singers, the leader of whom—a man selected both for the quality of his voice and for his skill in improvising—sustains the solo part, while the others afford him an opportunity, as they shout in chorus, for inventing some neat verse to compliment some lovely danseuse, or celebrate the deeds of some plantation hero.

 

The dancers themselves never sing...and the usual musical accompaniment, besides that of the singers, is that furnished by a skilful performer on the barrel-head-drum, the jaw-bone and key, or some other rude instrument. ...It will be noticed that all these songs are "seculars"; and that while the words of most of them are of very little account, the music is as peculiar, as interesting, and, in the case of two or three of them, as difficult to write down, or to sing correctly, as any [of the 129 songs] that have preceded them. The words "obtained from a lady who heard them sung" suggest that the songs were written down by someone, perhaps the lady herself, but certainly someone adept at music notation who was able to understand and write down the patois.

 

It seems likely that she or he was a guest or a member of the La Branche family, who resided at the plantation until 1859, shortly after which the plantation was devastated by flood. This family included United States chargé d'affaires to Texas and a Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives, Alcée Louis la Branche. We may never know the identity of the person who wrote down the seven Creole folk songs as sung at Good Hope Plantation, but it is noteworthy that Good Hope (town), Good Hope Floodwall, Good Hope Oil and Gas Field, Bayou La Branche, and, especially, La Branche Wetlands are today well known names in St. Charles Parish, where the seven songs were once sung.

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Gottschalk's Use of Creole Melodies Louis Moreau Gottschalk pictured on an 1864 publication Louis Moreau Gottschalk, widely acknowledged as America's foremost concert artist of the nineteenth century, was born in New Orleans in 1829. Perone's bio-bibliography lists hundreds of Gottschalk's compositions. Among them are three solo piano works based on Creole melodies: Bamboula, danse des nègres, based on "Musieu Bainjo" and "Tan Patate-là Tcuite" ("Quan' patate la cuite"). La Savane, ballad crèole, based on "Lolotte", also known as "Pov'piti Lolotte". Le Bananier, chanson nègre, based on "En avan', Grenadie'", which like other Creole folk melodies, was also a popular French song. In America's Music (revised third edition, page 290), Chase writes: Le Bananier was one of the three pieces based on Creole tunes that had a tremendous success in Europe and that I have called the "Louisiana Trilogy." [The other two are Bamboula and La Savane.] All three were composed between 1844 and 1846, when Gottschalk was still a teenager... .

 

The piece that created the greatest sensation was Bamboula. Chase apparently overlooked a fourth Creole melody used by Gottschalk on his Op. 11 (Three other melodies had already been identified for this piece). In her 1902 compilation, Gottschalk's sister arranged "Po' Pitie Mamzé Zizi", and included a footnote: "L. M. Gottschalk used this melody for his piece entitled Le Mancenillier, sérénade, Op. 11." Regarding "Misieu Bainjo", used in Gottschalk's Bamboula, the editors of Slave Songs write "...the attempt of some enterprising negro to write a French song; he is certainly to be congratulated on his success." The song has been published in more than a dozen collections prior to 1963, listed by the Archive of Folk Culture, Library of Congress.