Sunday, May 11, 2008

History: Acadian Driftwood
(Now updated with a cover of the original!)

The Band, Acadian Driftwood


The story of the Great Acadian Upheaval, and the subsequent diaspora which brought so many Acadians down the coast to Louisiana to become Cajuns, has always fascinated me. Primarily, this is because it explains the close relationship between two geographically and musically distinct American folk forms, Acadian music and Cajun/Zydeco; this, in turn, provides a vehicle to understand the way folk music is grounded in place, and how folk forms can change in response to the new cultures and environmental factors which surround it after displacement.

But as fodder for song itself, the Great Upheaval doesn't really stand up and scream "write about me" in the same way a story about a historical figure or a school shooting might. This is a story with no familiar heroes to focus upon when the tale is told; neither does it contain a single pivotal moment which might make for a popular song. How, then, to make song from this history?

The standard way to "solve" this sort of problem is to invent a fictional focal point -- to refocus the lens in tight on a soldier on a battlefield, or show the plight of the people in microcosm through the eyes of a single child or lover. This is the bardic approach to historical song, and it's been around for centuries: it works, it is engaging, and we'll surely hear plenty more of it as the week goes on.

But in telling the story of the Acadian people, The Band takes a daring approach, one with little modern precedence in the world of music or poetics. Instead of making up a historical figure or event to tell the tale, Robbie Robertson pens the story of the Great Upheaval first in first person plural, and then through the eyes of an unnamed narrator with no true characteristics other than the shared despair and longing that all Acadians felt.

The result is startling: rather than asking us to find commonality with a particular character's prespective, the song allows us to find our own place in the story. Doing so makes a battered hero of the entire Acadian people, vividly portraying their sense of despair as they struggle to retain their identity and their love of the place they still consider home in spite of politics and mistreatment.

History without characters or gunfire is generally thought of as dry and easily forgotten. But three decades after it was first recorded, Acadian Driftwood remains one of the most vivid portrayals of history in song, in part because of the way it challenges our thinking about historical songs so effectively.

Afterthought: This song is generally considered one of the best of this seminal musical group, and for good reason; the Band is in fine form here, bringing their ragged country folkrock to bear in a way which perfectly expresses both the despair and the determination of the lyric. But I also really like this 2007 version from folk musician Richard Shindell, which sets the song in a much more plaintive voice, and uses much more typically Acadian/Cajun instrumentation. So here's today's bonus -- if you like the original, you'll love this cover:

Richard Shindell, Acadian Driftwood


Anonymous said...

I've always loved the song Acadian Driftwood but was unawate of Shindell's cover. Thank you very much!


Matt said...

A wonderful writeup, and it makes me almost want to listen, but...
In the 6th and 7th grade I had a choir teacher that was rabid about The Band, and he turned me off...
I hope, one day, to get past it, but not today. I just can't listen to that band, The Band.
It's a shame, because I've read about them, and a lot of artists I enjoy enjoy them, but... everytime even a single note of them gets to my ear-holes I shut down and won't give them a chance.
But (and I hope this wasn't obscured by all that), it was a great write-up... I'm taking a break from reading about Acadians to type this, yo!

boyhowdy said...

Did you try the Richard Shindell cover OF the song, Matt?

One of the reasons I choose to focus on covers in my own blogging is that I believe coversongs provide a unique entry point for listening -- one which can, for example, let you try something new in a way that starts with the benefit of the familiar.

Maybe, in this case, trying the cover first could help you listen to the writing OF the Band without having to hear them...who knows, maybe it will make you curious enough about the original to come to it with fresh ears?

Anonymous said...

matt, just rest easy knowing that that all the joy in discovering the band's music lies ahead of you, rather than behind.

Eve Siegel said...

a very exquisite cover that allows the listener to focus on the lyrics and the underlying story. Makes me want to research it more in Wikipedia.

Thank you for posting this tasty cover.

To Matt (the commenter who refuses to get into the band) - I give you 5 years and you will be a diehard fan. :)

Matt said...

OK, I've DL'd the tunes, and I'm going to (tomorrow, probably) cleanse my pallate and give it a go...
Maybe after this I can finally allow myself to bother with the Dylan/Band stuff...
XX-ed fingers (and "damn you mr. ______!" [that teacher who was so rabid])
-deep breath-