Two local professors return a piece of history to a French community in Missouri.
November 27, 2002
Folklorist Barry Ancelet and anthropologist Ray Brassieur recently completed a journey that began some 70 years ago. The two men, professors at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, recently returned from a trip to Old Mines, Mo., to return a piece of history.
Today, Old Mines is a three-mile stretch of a community in Missouri’s Washington County, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. The center of the primarily French town was once St. Joachim’s Catholic Center. At the turn of the century, the town’s primary industry was mining barium sulfate, known as “tiff.” Thirty years ago, only 100 of the residents spoke French. Today, there are some 3,000 residents of Old Mines and only six of them speak French.
In 1934, Joseph Médard Carrière was a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. Carrière was originally from Ontario, but studied North American French cultures. In addition to recording French folktales and folk songs in Missouri, he also documented the lives of the French in Illinois and Michigan.
At the time, John Lomax and his son, Alan, were traveling through the South collecting folk songs on a 315-pound, aluminum disc engraving machine provided by the Library of Congress and mounted in their automobile. Carrière utilized a portable Edison wax cylinder machine, about the size of a lunchbox, to record the mineworkers of the Old Mines region.
“It would have been like equipping a field worker (today) to go out and record with an eight-track,” Ancelet says. “It would work, but it wouldn’t be exactly the most modern format.” Although the technology was outdated for the time, the compact size allowed Carrière to record the mineworkers in their natural environment. Carrière produced 87 wax cylinder field recordings of French folktales and songs from Old Mines.
Ancelet says that Lomax recorded some of the same songs in Louisiana.
“It indicates that there was more of a connection in what used to be called Louisiana than we sometimes remember,” he says. “We forget that the Mississippi River was basically a super highway back then. It’s easy to think today that Missouri is pretty far away and doesn’t have much to do with us.”
Carrière’s career would later shift directions when he went to work at the University of Virginia. He left his recordings with one of his Northwestern colleagues, Andrew Torrielli, who was also studying North American French cultures. Then in 1971, Carrière passed away.
“He was one of the cornerstones of how American folklore studies developed,” Ancelet says. “People knew that he had made these recordings but nobody knew where they were.”
Then 15 years ago, on a Friday evening while Ancelet was working in his office, he received a phone call from Torrielli. He told Ancelet that he was retiring soon and that he was in possession of Carrière’s original field recordings. He asked Ancelet if he would be interested in having them. Ancelet thought the caller might be pulling his leg. “It was like finding the original manuscript for Dante’s Inferno,” he says.
Two weeks later, two boxes of Carrière’s wax cylinders and the Edison machine arrived at Ancelet’s office, intact, by way of parcel post. Ancelet contacted the Library of Congress and informed them that he was in possession of Carrière’s work. Fortunately, at the time, the library was engaged in a project of transferring wax cylinder recordings to modern audiotape for preservation. Ancelet drove the materials to Washington, D.C., to dub the field recordings. Since then, the recordings and the machine have been part of the collections at the university’s Center for Acadian and Creole Folklore.
Brassieur has long been familiar with Carrière’s work. When he was working on his dissertation at University of Missouri at Columbia, he relied on Carrière’s work while studying the Old Mines region. He spent 10 years with the Missouri Folklife Program. Brassieur knew the area well enough to make some contacts and help Ancelet return the field recordings and Edison machine to the community from which it originated.
“The machine itself has very powerful symbolic value to (the community),” he says. “It has some educational value, too, but to them it has a lot more symbolic value than it could possibly have here in Lafayette.
“They never had had anyone interested in their culture. So here this guy comes in. He’s educated and he’s French-speaking, speaking their language. That was surprising enough to them, but here he was, this fancy professor from Chicago. And it made such an impact on that community that in 1973, when they had their 250th anniversary of the founding of Old Mines, they had a pageant, like small communities will have that perform their history. Carrière was in there, just like a famous hero of the past … It’s part of their identity today, that historical event that happened in 1934 is still remembered by the descendants of the people who were visited by that fellow.
“This piece is going to help them somehow conserve whatever French and local identity they have there.”
Ancelet also acknowledges the importance of returning artifacts to the communities that produced them.
“This university found itself in a position to provide historically significant artifacts to a community where they really belonged and we took that opportunity,” he says. “One of the reasons why we did that is because when we went out looking out for things that needed to be here, we were able to accomplish that. We got the Lomax collection here. We got a lot of things here that needed to be here so that we could understand ourselves. This university was in a position to provide a similar service to another community even less connected than we are. I’m proud that we did that.”
Natalie Villmer is a member of the Old Mines Area Historical Society, the organization now in possession of Carrière’s materials. She says she’s pleased to have the items back in the village’s possession. “We feel like they’ve been brought home.”
Villmer says that because so few of the residents still speak French, there would be no other way for the community to pass on the old folk songs without the recordings. “We’re grateful to the University of Louisiana who found it in their hearts to share this material with us,” she says.
Brassieur points out the importance of music to a community, particularly the old folk songs.
“That’s what we’ve been doing here in Louisiana,” he says. “Our old music and our new music helps to buoy our identity and our culture. There’s been a great revival in Cajun identity. It’s been going on now for the last 25 or 30 years, and the old music has helped to fuel that revival. This old music, the old recordings, will help those people there in Old Mines.”