Culture and Resistance
achary Richard is a unique
voice, expressing both remembered loss and retained hope, rooted
in historical awareness and crossing cultural and national boundaries.
Richard is a direct descendant of Les Acadiens (later known as Cajuns),
French-speaking farmer-settlers who long ago forged a peaceful,
durable social alliance (
or Acadia) with the
Micmac people of maritime Canada—perhaps the best example of
European-indigenous socioeconomic cooperation on this continent.
That rich achievement was destroyed by an imperial land grab—the
forced British expulsion in the late 1700s of the Acadian settlers
from what was renamed Nova Scotia.
That dispossession sent Richard’s ancestors to eventual refuge
in Louisiana where, over centuries, they’ve carved out a new
culture still rooted in French language and a dedication to hard
work and love of both the land and the people of their adopted home.
In Richard’s historical songs, Native American heroes like
Crazy Horse stand side by side with Acadian leaders like Beausoleil
Broussard and Jackie Vautour.
Cajun songs, like those of many exiles, are often happy explorations
of heartbreaking subjects. Richard’s original ballads in both
French and English are delivered in a smooth baritone that can soar
to a weeping wail. Story songs of Canadian voyageurs, indigenous
rebel heroes, jaded Louisiana pirates, economic exploitation, and
environmental concerns color his three decades of recordings and
legendary live performances.
Zachary Richard is a songwriter noted for his many benefit concerts,
most recently on behalf of Gulf Coast relief. In the last decade,
he’s established himself as both a published, prize-winning
poet (in French and English) and as an astute, journalistic observer
Richard’s perspective, both as a writer and as an activist,
is at the same time generously global and intensely local. Born
and raised in the southwest Louisiana Cajun country, he still lives
there on a ten acre family farm, but he is a cultural icon in Canada—revered
as a returned exile—and far better known in France than in
the U.S. His album
went double platinum in Canada
and his signature song “Travailler, C’est Trop Dur”
has become a transAtlantic Francophone standard.
Richard started out in the early 1970s to study law, but, as he
puts it, the lure of zydeco party music distracted him from that
career path. He taught himself Cajun accordion and mastered songwriting.
After he graduated from Tulane University, frenetic performing quickly
took over for “Zack.”
Over the decades, with two dozen albums, he has become known as
one of our continent’s most thoughtful and sensitive musical
social commentators, as well as the author of mature love ballads
and jump-up novelties like “Crawfish.”
I spoke with Zachary Richard recently by phone from his home in
Scott, Louisiana. At the time, he was preparing to record a new
album in Montreal.
NEVINS: In view of the devastation caused by the hurricanes of
2005, what are your cultural and environmental priorities?
RICHARD: My interests and priorities are the same as they’ve
always been, with two major areas of focus: the French language
and Acadian culture of Louisiana and Lousiana’s natural environment.
What are you doing to defend language and culture at present?
There are some 250,000 people in Louisiana who still speak French,
but the numbers are decreasing each year. The most effective way
to counter this is through language immersion school programs. There
are now at least 28 French immersion programs in Louisiana public
schools, as well as many Spanish language immersion programs.
As you know, education these days has become focused on tests under
the No Child Left Behind policies. In fact, recent results have
shown that kids in these language immersion programs score much
higher in standardized testing, and there are volumes of proof of
how language education makes you a better student and a better citizen.
However, not all school boards have embraced these programs,
despite their demonstrated value. Those 28 French immersion programs
are in a fragile state. About half are well-established, as in Lafayette,
but others are in danger. For me, such programs preserve the local
culture and develop a sense of tolerance and openness to other cultures.
Why is language so important?
the language you have only a vestige of the culture. Other aspects
of the culture, such as music or cuisine, may survive, but the language
may disappear here in a generation. That is unacceptable.
What was the cultural impact of the hurricanes last year in your
part of southwestern Louisiana?
Many schools were destroyed and classes had to be merged. We raised
more than $300,000 this past fall through concerts in Canada and
France, specifically for hurricane relief to help Acadian Louisiana
rebuild itself, and we are now trying to get that money into the
hands of the people who need it.
In Vermillion Parish, and other areas here, the school boards seem
paralyzed. There’s been no movement from FEMA on rebuilding
schools and some schools will have to be built 14 feet off the ground
according to the flood protection standards they are tossing out.
In these conditions, preservation and expansion of language immersion
programs are not a priority and I fear they may become “hurricane
victims” themselves unless the recovery process is managed
with cultural awareness. We are doing what we can do to encourage
What about the situation in New Orleans? You were recently there
to do some recording and to tour flooded neighborhoods.
I was also there just after Katrina hit. Not much has changed in
those several months’ time. A general lethargy has installed
itself in the city. There’s no way the city of New Orleans
and the state of Louisiana can afford the repairs. Two-thirds of
the city is still uninhabitable. There are 175,000 people now in
New Orleans. There had been 500,000 before Katrina.
What about the environment and the social effect of the hurricanes?
Who knows what they pumped into Lake Pontchartrain? The oyster beds
and the farmers’ fields are all polluted. There has been no
rain to wash them out. The land in southern Louisiana is slipping
into the sea at the rate of a football field every 38 minutes. Entire
communities, places I hung out in as a child, are now gone. Before
the hurricanes, there were plans to allocate $14 billion to re-route
the Mississippi River. Now it will cost $32 billion to protect New
Orleans by rebuilding the levees and restoring the marshlands. Right
now, a few restaurants are open in the French Quarter, but they’re
half empty. Everybody has glazed looks on their faces. The city
Lafayette has assumed the role of new cultural capitol. Most of
the New Orleans musicians have relocated there—a few of them
stayed with me for a while after Katrina. FEMA trailers have sprung
up everywhere, but there is no real plan for what most of the people
are going to do. Desperate people from New Orleans are out in the
country, walking the roads with no transportation and no way to
look for work. It is very sad.
In songs such as “No French No More” you expressed
the sorrow of the loss of language and culture and official callousness
and discrimination. Your parents did not speak their native French
language while you were growing up. Still, you continue to write
and record in French. Do you see hope?
I’ve said that my parents suffered the cultural prejudice that
hit their entire generation. French was strongly discouraged, even
outlawed right here in French Louisiana. But I loved my grandparents
and their way of speaking, and I have always loved how Cajun singers
preserve the language in songs. French programs here are trying
to create positive relationships.
The notion of Acadian identity, with links to the surviving Acadians
still living in maritime Canada, remains strong. This is the 250th
anniversary of the forced deportation of the Acadians from Nova
Scotia. That’s a watershed event. It was ethnic cleansing,
in our modern terms. Seven thousand people were expelled, and two
thirds died along the way. Just a remnant made it here to rebuild
A sense of outrage has fueled my commitment to the culture. But
it’s not about hating. When Acadians meet each other they are
always talking about “that thing,” that sense of identity.
A poet I met said, “To be Acadian is to have forgiveness in
your heart.” It’s really about remembering and honoring
the memory of ancestors who were subjected to a genocide and still
kept going forward.
This past year we created a statewide curriculum guide for teaching
Acadian history in Louisiana. Textbooks here had few, and often
derogatory, mentions of the “Cajun” people. It’s
a miracle that the Acadian identity survived here.
In the midst of disaster, what is your role as an artist?
Songwriting, for me, is not a political exercise. I was glad to
be able to raise some money for relief efforts here with recent
concerts. But when I write songs, I think in three categories: (1)
the troubadour romantic singer; (2) the tradition of the U.S. protest
song; and (3) storytelling. Sometimes they overlap, as when she/he
breaks your heart, but she’s/he’s an environmental activist
so it will be okay. But I just have to write my songs as they come
to me. “Reveille,” for instance, is a call to wake up,
to think about what is happening to us. If people then take productive
action, that is a good thing, too. I heard Steve Earle say that
the right wing has loudmouth radio talk show hosts, but we don’t
do that. We write songs.
This next French record I will be recording has songs about whales
and about the restoration of the St. Lawrence. It pleases me a great
deal to help, but as a songwriter I am not a politician. It has
to mean something.
Your career has always crossed back and forth over language lines.
Your 1990s records
Women in the Room
Snake Bite Love
were quite successful in the U.S., with mostly English lyrics. But
since then you have recorded songs just in French. Do you plan more
English language recordings in the future?
Oh, yes. My career has long been French based, with my most successful
albums recorded in Canada, though I still write songs in English.
I am even exploring the idea of doing some songs in Spanish as a
collaboration with a Mexican poet I met recently. I consider myself
bilingual in French and English, but, as another poet once said,
to take away one of my languages is to cut off one of my hands.
Musically, you have moved from pretty wild accordion dance tunes
to more quiet, thoughtful songs based in guitar and piano backing,
though you’ve always kept a rocker’s edge, especially
in your live shows. What sort of sounds can we expect on this next
I’m working with musicians from here in Louisiana—M.K.
Napolitano and C.C. Adcock. They’re young enough to be my kids,
but they bring a “walk on the wild side” to my music.
You have worked quite a bit in film, acting in a Canadian dramatic
series and producing your own feature length documentary on Acadian
Against the Tide
. Do you have any other film projects
in the works?
We’ll be filming an on-location documentary movie this winter
in New Brunswick, focused on Jackie Vautour, the Acadian who led
the resistance to the Canadian government’s expropriation of
peoples’ homes and lands in 1968 to build a national park there.
In the early 1970s, Jackie Vautour was a celebrated hero to Acadians.
I did benefit shows for him then and even wrote a song about him.
He sort of faded from the public view until six years ago when Canadian
Park Rangers arrested and jailed him. He is still living on the
park grounds in New Brunswick, in a squalid little hut with no electricity
and has to walk through the snow to the outhouse.
How do you feel about the Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest in New Orleans
I know there is controversy and concern. It may seem hard to be
having a good time when people are hurting deeply. But New Orleans
is a celebrating culture. Even in the toughest times, you can’t
dissociate celebration from life. I think it’s really necessary
for this culture to re-affirm itself. We all still have the right
to pursue happiness, don’t we? That’s a very French idea,
Richard’s bilingual website is www.zacharyrichard.com.