The Passing of D.L. Menard
[Full 30 minute interview at the bottom of this post]
Today, we mark the passing of Doris Leon Menard, “D.L.” to those who met him, knew him, or knew of him. Much of the country has little idea of who he is (he wasn’t nearly as famous as Louisiana’s Britney Spears, after all), but the influence he had on our Louisiana culture is immeasurable.
First, some background: After the US Civil War and up until around 1970 or so, the United States was working hard to become a homogenized culture, and certain groups had made it their goal (for good or bad) to rid Louisiana of its French language, and most of the Cajun and Creole cultures associated with it. And, while New Orleans thrived as a tourism destination by leveraging its French Creole history, the Cajun culture of South-central and South-west Louisiana was slowly being erased from history. Speaking French in school was forbidden, even for children whose family’s native language was French. Children were often punished for speaking French on the playgrounds at school, even as late as my own father-in-law’s childhood years in the French speaking river region of Louisiana.
The only place Cajun culture, food and music (and hence, the Cajun French dialect) could thrive was out in the small towns, on small farms, hidden away from the bureaucrats who would rather have seen it go away. By the 1970s or so, many forward-thinking folks saw the value in keeping the Cajun culture and its French dialect alive. In towns like Lafayette and Mamou and Erath, full-swing efforts were undertaken to save the language and culture.
The city of Lafayette and organizations such as CODOFIL were early pioneers in helping to save the Cajun culture, but one might argue that it was the revival of Cajun music that helped bring enough national and international attention to the “Cajun Cause” that forged a lasting and solid effort to preserve this unique and beautiful culture.
Today, if you search the Internet for Cajun musicians, you will find a relatively few. But historically, no single musician marked the launching of the Cajun culture catapult as did Mr. D.L. Menard. He launched his career as a small town farmer, when country music was king. He found ways to meld his French-language, homespun Cajun tunes into the vast melting pot of country music, thus giving it a place where it could find a safe home in which to survive and then grow.
Purists could argue that he was not the finest guitar player. Critics might mention that his voice was not the strongest. But what this very talented man was able to do was to take the homespun talents that he had, hone them to their very finest, and create a reachable, likable, danceable sound that entranced listeners locally at first, and by the end of his time, worldwide. We owe him a great debt for what he, and his very original music, did for Cajun music and thus Cajun culture.
Thank you, D.L. We’ll see you again one day, at “The Back Door.”
July 29, 2017
ceo @ Write2Grow. org
[Special thanks to Professor Tom McHardy and Dr. Inkie Landry.]