n 1919 Agnès Frugé and Jean Baptiste Bourque took their vows in the Catholic church in Lewisburg, Louisiana. Both had been raised on small farms, but after their wedding they moved to Eunice, where Mr. Bourque took a job as city hall janitor.

In 1935 their home burned to the ground. In 1937 Jean Baptiste died of tuberculosis. Agnès Frugé Bourque, now 77 years old, lives in Eunice with her daughter, Hilda, trying to make do on Social Security. Accepting the will of God, she observes, "J'ai passé un tas de la misère."

I've gone through a lot of misery.

When she lived with her family in Lewisburg, music for Agnès Bourque was just another part of life, something she loved but probably never thought about very much. There were the weddings, where someone would sing one of the lyrical songs meant specifically for the occasion. Each month there were several bals de maison, or house dances, where neighbors got together for dancing to fiddle and accordion music. And there were the times at home, hearing her mother sing while she worked, or listening to her old uncles tell stories and sing of wars and kings.

 


 

La Veuve de Sept Ans

Agnès Bourque  

rs. Bourque learned almost all of her songs, a repertoire of around ten ballads and lyrical pieces, before 1910 or 1915. Two uncles on her mother's side of the family, Jerome and Lucien Gotreaux, were the singers who taught her most of the songs, as well as reciting to her the details of her family's history. The song which she sings on this record, which she calls "La Veuve de Sept Ans" or "The Seven Years' Widow," was sung to her by her old uncles.

They told her that the song is true, a piece of family history, telling her that it recounts the story of her grandfather, who participated in the Civil War, "the first war that the United States fought." Many other old French-speaking people in Louisiana also call the Civil War "la première guerre Confedéré," or the First Confederate War. According to Mrs. Bourque, her grandfather fought in New Orleans throughout the war, which she believes lasted seven years, and returned to Lewisburg destitute, ''eating turnips out of the fields.'' She explains that he had to walk back from New Orleans because "after the war there were no horses left, and in those days there weren’t cars, trains, or airplanes.''

When he returned, Mrs. Bourque says, he found that his wife had remarried because she had thought him dead, as the song indicates. Her child was already more than six years old when her soldier returned from New Orleans. The dilemma is obviously a serious one, for the woman seeks advice from both the Virgin and her mother. It is her mother who advises her to accede to the rights of the first husband. According to Dr. Claudie Marcel-Dubois, the French ethnomusicologist, this ballad reflects a theme common in French folk song, le retour du soldat, the soldier's return. She says that it is definitely of French origin, and the seven years referred to in the song was the length of time that men had to serve in the French army, both before the French Revolution and in Napoleon's time.

rs. Bourque’s repertoire now includes more than ten songs, and she occasionally expands it by remembering songs or parts of songs which have rested dormant in her mind for over a half century. When her husband died in 1937, she stopped singing until this record was made, and not even her children had any idea that she knew how to sing.

It was only after hearing on Dewey Balfa's Saturday morning radio show a recording of a woman singing an unaccompanied ballad that she realized that someone might be interested in her own songs. Her music is indeed remarkable: many old people in south Louisiana remember that such songs were sung in their childhood, but only a few with exceptional memories can recall the tunes and lyrics. Agnès Bourque is one of those rare people who still possesses this ancient form of Cajun music.

 Dewey Balfa's radio show

Mme. Bourque

gnès Bourque offers glimpses of the isolated life of Cajuns before English was heard on the Louisiana prairies and even fleeting images of her ancestors' lives in France. In one strange ballad which she sings, the daughter of a king marries un ouvrier, Louisiana French for carpenter . Her father disapproves of the match, and the couple decides to marry and move away.

Ouvrier, viens avec moi.

Allons rester sur le bord du Tennessee.

et là ramasser des 'tits bébés.

Carpenter, come with me.

Let's live on the hanks of the Tennessee

And have some little babies there.

Mrs. Bourque has only a vague notion of what exactly a king is, and even less of an idea as to where the king in this song lived. Another lady in Eunice, 75 year-old Mrs. Loricier Guillory, also knows songs which depict courtly and obviously European themes. In one of Mrs. Guillory's songs, the daughter of the king is abducted by three captains of the army, who tell her that she will "coucherez avec un capitaine" – go to bed with a captain.

Foiling their scheme, she plays dead for three days, rises, and returns home to tell her father of how she has garder son honneur, kept her honor. Mrs. Guillory, who learned the song years ago in Mamou from her grandfather, Ulysse Billeaudeau, says that the king must have lived in Missouri, where Ulysse fought in the Civil War and learned the song, evidently from a fellow Cajun soldier. For Mrs. Guillory, Mrs. Bourque, and those who passed the songs on to them, many of' the ballads have by necessity taken on meaning which at least attempts to place them in the American context.

Loricier Guillory

gnès Bourque is in many ways exemplary of many Cajuns of her generation – quite traditional and conservative, yet seemingly not upset by the revolutionary changes that have transformed her homeland over the last several decades. Occasionally she will discuss her shock at girls and young women who wear miniskirts to mass or sorrow for the lessening of the closeness of family ties, but for the most part she willingly accepts the modernization of her surroundings.

While she speaks only several words of English ("Come on in, cher."; "C'est too bad."), she is able to understand at least the gist of an English conversation. She and her daughter watch television often, and she follows le Watergate and Agnew's troubles: "Nixon l'a donné ses leçons. Nixon gave him lessons," faithfully.

 Cajun chair  

ut her main concern is her family: throughout her home are framed photographs of her husband, her sons and daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Equally prominent are the many religious knick knacks and dimestore reproductions of such paintings as The Last Supper which hang on the varnished plywood walls. The one possession she was able to rescue from her house which burned down is one of her father's homemade cowhide seat chairs, the kind of old-time chair which is found only in Cajun country.

Her family has now discovered, however, that their oldest and oldest and most precious heirloom is not the old chair, but their mother’s song. Still strong of' voice, Mrs. Bourque is planning to sing her ancient wedding song at her granddaughter's wedding, The revival of a long forgotten Cajun tradition.


 

LISTEN TO
"La Veuve de Sept Ans"

 

copyright 1974 and 1999
Ron and Fay Stanford

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SPECIAL UPDATE!

A granddaughter's remembrance. See newly discovered photos of Mme. Bourque and her family

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