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Old Language, New Clothes: Sweet Crude On Singing Modern Pop In Louisiana French

Apr 24, 2020
Originally published on April 24, 2020 8:03 pm

Listen close to the New Orleans band Sweet Crude, and you'll hear a linguistic relic from America's deep South. They sing in Louisiana French, a dialect spoken for generations in Louisiana — until the 20th century, when schools in the state became more Anglicized.

"My grandfather's first language is Louisiana French — and he would get punished in school if he spoke French," singer Alexis Marceau says. "So it started to dissipate and go away."

Marceaux started Sweet Crude with multi-instrumentalist and singer Sam Craft, hoping it would help preserve Louisiana French and put the dialect in a new light for younger listeners. Together with fellow band members Jack Craft, Skyler Stroup, Stephen MacDonald and Dave Shirley, Sweet Crude has a new album out today called Officiel-Artificiel. It's an energetic soundtrack for a new generation trying to bring an old language back to life.

NPR's Ailsa Chang spoke to Sam Craft and Alexis Marceaux about using modern music to preserve living history, reimagining a Cajun myth in the song "Rougarou" and how they and other members of the New Orleans musical community are coping with the coronavirus crisis. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above, and read on for highlights from the interview.

YouTube


Interview Highlights

On the history of Louisiana French

Sam Craft: Louisiana French is a mixture of French that was brought here from France, from the Maritime provinces of Canada, from Quebec, from the Caribbean islands, as well as bits of German and Native American languages that were spoken around here. So it really is kind of a special dialect that hangs onto some old artifacts from Middle French, and it mixes together with English to make a really special and unique linguistic cocktail.

Alexis Marceaux: My grandfather's first language was Louisiana French, and so I grew up speaking a little bit. I would know my colors and my numbers. My great-grandmother didn't speak any English, so when she was alive it was always in the house, but when she passed away it kind of went away for me. But for my grandfather, it was his first language and he would get punished in school if he spoke French. And so it started to kind of dissipate and go away, because people were just not allowing it, and it became pretty problematic.

It made my father's generation feel bad about being French. It's a strange thing to think of, but he just felt self-conscious about his French Cajun culture. But when Sam and I met we had this love for it, and that's a huge reason why we wanted to start this band, because we wanted to explore our heritage and be proud of our heritage, and we just thought it was so absurd that people were punished for speaking their native language.

On singing modern pop songs in centuries old dialect

Craft: We had this intention of giving this very old dialect a brand new set of clothes. We started this band with the knowledge that the last group of people for whom French was their first language are slowly fading away — and that's pretty insane, after 300 and some odd years that people are still speaking French. But beyond that, we don't want this thing to be some museum piece where Louisiana French attracts a voyeuristic curiosity, but that it really is viable, new, fresh and exciting. We knew that, until very recently, it was the "language of the grandparents" and it has been the language of traditional music and traditional customs — and those things are very special and important. And then on the other hand, we also believe we can do a thing to give Louisiana French a seat at the modern table through modern music.

On the impact of the coronavirus on New Orleans and the city's resilience

Craft: New Orleans is a very "go out and party" culture and so many people in the entertainment, hospitality, restaurant industries who have been deeply affected by it are really needing to get creative. Another thing we do really well in New Orleans is we love to collaborate with one another, so it's led us all to commiserate and attempt to reach out to each other, see what each other needs. We understand that there's a huge community of musicians in New Orleans who are needing to totally reinvent their business. But what we see is that the fact that we're all in the same boat has led us to supporting each other, in the digital way that we can. We're used to disasters happening down here — usually of the hurricane variety — but we know the value of reaching out to one another and helping each other is priceless.

Marceaux: It really does remind me of evacuating for Katrina. We had to stay put, but in a different place, right? But now we have to stay put in our own homes, so there is a strange comparison happening for us in that sense. But I think New Orleans has always been strong, especially because of all the tragic hurricane seasons we've gone through. I think, like Sam said, we're able to relate to that and just try to lift each other up.

NPR's Noah Caldwell and Sarah Handel produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Listen closely to the band Sweet Crude, and you'll hear a linguistic relic from America's Deep South.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEBALLEZ")

SWEET CRUDE: (Singing in French).

CHANG: That is Louisiana French, a dialect spoken for generations in Louisiana until the 20th century, when schools in the state became more anglicized.

ALEXIS MARCEAUX: My grandfather's first language is Louisiana French, and he would get punished in school if he spoke French. And so it started to dissipate and go away.

CHANG: Alexis Marceaux started Sweet Crude along with Sam Craft, hoping it would help revive Louisiana French.

SAM CRAFT: We started this band with the knowledge that the last group of people for whom French was their first language are slowly fading away. And that's pretty insane after 300-some odd years.

CHANG: Their new album is called "Officiel Artificiel," and it's an energetic soundtrack for a new generation trying to bring an old language back to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEBALLEZ")

SWEET CRUDE: (Singing in French).

CHANG: So what I want to know more about is, you know, like - Louisiana French is - what? - a couple centuries old as a language. But when I hear your music, your sound is really modern. I mean, it's almost poppy with heavy synthesizers and dance beats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORKUPINE")

SWEET CRUDE: (Singing in French).

CHANG: Was that on purpose to sort of lace the old with the new?

CRAFT: Yeah, absolutely. We had this intention of giving this very old dialect a brand-new set of clothes. But beyond that, we're like, we don't want this thing to just be some museum piece where Louisiana French attracts sort of just a voyeuristic curiosity but that...

CHANG: Yeah.

CRAFT: ...It really - it's viable, new, fresh and exciting. And we knew that until very recently, it was the language of the grandparents, and it has been the language of traditional music and traditional customs. And those things are very special and important. And then on the other hand, we also believe that we can do a thing to give Louisiana French a seat at the modern table through modern music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORKUPINE")

SWEET CRUDE: (Singing in French).

CHANG: I know that, Sam, you're the one who's fluent in Louisiana French. Alexis, are you fluent or functional? How would you describe your proficiency?

MARCEAUX: I am not completely fluent. I'm getting there. But I have been singing in it, like, all my life.

CHANG: What did you grow up singing in French? Can you sing a little bit for me?

MARCEAUX: There's an old Cajun song that is about drinking.

CHANG: (Laughter) That you would sing as a young girl?

MARCEAUX: Yeah, that's one of those traditional Cajun songs. And actually, Sweet Crude has redone that song as well.

CHANG: Could I ask you to sing a little bit of it for me?

MARCEAUX: Sure. And maybe Sam can join me.

CHANG: Yeah. Get in on this, Sam.

MARCEAUX: All right.

ALEXIS MARCEAUX AND SAM CRAFT: (Singing in French).

CHANG: That's terrific.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: What did you just sing at me?

MARCEAUX: Let's talk about drinking and not about marriage.

CHANG: Yeah. That's what I'm talking about (laughter).

MARCEAUX: Very funny child Alexis, 6-year-old - yeah - singing about drinking and not getting married.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARLEZ-NOUS A BOIRE")

SWEET CRUDE: (Singing in French).

CHANG: There's this one song called "Rougarou" that I want to ask you guys about because I understand that rougarou is from a Louisiana legend. Can you tell me this story?

MARCEAUX: Sure. I guess the rougarou is sort of like the boogie monster in Louisiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROUGAROU")

SWEET CRUDE: (Singing) Always wears a watch, never has the time - he waits in the wings for his turn to sing.

CRAFT: It's like a werewolf, but it's, you know, made out of - it's got - it's covered in, like, sticks and branches and bugs and stuff.

MARCEAUX: Throughout that song, we wanted to show that the girl in the story is strong. And she may fear this monster, but she can get through it, and she'll find a way out.

CHANG: Was this a legend that you guys would hear about his kids? Like, would you be scared of the rougarou growing up?

MARCEAUX: Oh, definitely. My grandpa always joked about it. Even my father would joke about it coming after you or it being under your bed just like the boogie monster or something of that nature.

CRAFT: Yeah, definitely had some fear of that thing growing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROUGAROU")

SWEET CRUDE: (Singing) Love's only burden is to open the door to pretty-eyed wolves hungry for naive blood. One thing's for certain. You'll be begging for more. (Singing in French).

CHANG: I want to turn the corner a little bit now because obviously, we're talking in a really different time. Can you just tell me what it's been like the last few months as this pandemic has been unfolding? What has it been like for your band?

MARCEAUX: Well, unfortunately, we're releasing a record during a pandemic, which is interesting. And it's kind of forced us to find different ways to talk about our music and sing the new songs for our fans in a different way. Sam and I have been going live - Facebook Live, Instagram Live - just to show our fans what all this new music might even just sound like on a guitar. And I think without the quarantining, that might not have happened. But, you know, we lost all our gigs, and that was very hard on us just because we were so excited about all the things that were coming up.

CHANG: What about the wider music scene where you are in Louisiana? What have you been hearing from other musicians?

CRAFT: A lot of us are all adapting in similar ways and trying to find our own niche in this new, weird landscape. So it's led us all to reach out to each other, see what each other needs. There is a lot of social media posts and people reaching out. Does anyone need help with your streams, with your broadcasts? Cheering each other on, asking each other questions - what worked for you? How did you pull that off? Well, I use this app and this gadget and this device - everyone sharing wisdom, everyone - because everyone wants it to be better.

CHANG: Right.

CRAFT: And, you know, we're used to disasters happening here, usually of the hurricane variety. But we know the value of reaching out to one another and helping each other is priceless.

CHANG: I love hearing you talk about how connections have strengthened during this time. That is some light during this dark time, isn't it?

MARCEAUX: Absolutely. It really does remind me of evacuating for Katrina. And we had to stay put but in a different place, right? But now we have to stay put in our own homes. But I think New Orleans has always been strong, especially because of all the tragic hurricane seasons we've gone through. And I think, like Sam said, we're able to relate to that and just try to lift each other up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWEET CRUDE SONG, "THE PURGE")

CHANG: Alexis Marceaux and Sam Craft of the band Sweet Crude, thank you so much for sharing this time with us - really appreciate it.

CRAFT: Thank you so much for having us.

MARCEAUX: Thank you so much.

CHANG: Sweet Crude's new album "Officiel Artificiel" is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PURGE")

SWEET CRUDE: (Singing in French). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.