Spirit of Creole rouses French fiddle

Thursday August 30, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- The Guthrie name invokes folk music -- and tomorrow night, the soul of a Creole music jam will fill the center owned by Woody's son, Arlo, when Den nis Stroughmatt et l'Esprit Creole perform there for the first time.

As a 19-year-old student of historic preservation and folklore, Stroughmatt started playing his great grandfather's fiddle and jamming with musicians every weekend.

By phone, he explained he grew up in southern Illinois in a heavily French area near the Wabash River.

"My family worked on the Wabash for four generations," he said.

As a boy he grew curious about the French music and the language. In his town, Strough matt, 40, said, people gave musical house parties called "Chow ders," named for the French "chaudière" or soup pot. The guests would play music by ear on family instruments. Over in southeast Mis souri, he ex plained, this longstanding tradition is called a "Bouillon."

Across the Mississippi River in southeastern Missouri he "found these enclaves where people still spoke French," he said, whose ancestors came not just from Quebec but directly from early 18th-century France, long before Acadians arrived in Louisiana.

"They sang mostly in French, and I didn't understand any of it, he recalled, "and they told a lot of stories."

"We're not a scientific experiment," they told him, "so don't just sit there with a pen and paper -- come hang out."

He still has a 20-year-old photo of the time "they put (him) out on the porch and would only let (him) in if (he) played on a box with spoons!"

"The older ladies were the ones who knew all the old songs," Stroughmatt said, "but no-one had focused on the older men."

His college professor encouraged him to record the songs and stories, and his two mentors, Creole fiddlers Roy Boyer and Charlie Pashia, insisted he learn them as well.

Stroughmatt would play with Boyer at his barbershop be tween haircuts and listen to customers' stories, often in French.

"They'd make fun of me and say ‘hey Dennis, did you understand what we said?'"

Eventually he could converse with them and expanded his vocabulary.

"I really started to learn a great deal more," he said, "not only about the people, but culturally who they were."

These are not the African Creole of the south, he ex plained, but are mixed native Indian French Creole, primarily of Shawnee and Osage heritage. 18th century Catholic Church records show no French women migrated at that time, Strough matt said, "yet families were cropping up, and kids were being born."

While his name is Dutch, Stroughmatt is Anglo-Scots-Irish, with no French ancestry; but, he said, "people look at me and think that I am [Creole] because I have a strong Native American bloodline."

His wife (and now his daughter) are of French extraction from Maine.

While most of his mentors are now gone, he still plays at French festivals in the area, including the annual "la Fete d'Automne" in Old Mines, which then-90 year old Boyer handed over to him in 1998 (it has since grown from 250 people to over 1,000, he said).

Compared to more familiar Creole, Cajun and Zydeco music, he said, the music he plays "is older, faster and more energetic," and his band plays it on fiddle, upright bass and sometimes mandolin and banjo.

As Guthrie Center director George Laye -- Arlo's right hand man for some 40 years, and venue booker for the past decade -- explained in a recent phone conversation, "we like to have diversified music here, all kinds of music from Broadway to folk."

Hosting music was a natural for the center which Arlo created 20 years ago for cultural exchange and spiritual service, that was once home to Alice Brock of "Alice's Restaurant" fame, said Laye.

Known for its year-round Thursday night Hootenanny, the summer-long Troubador series features musicians known and unknown, from the three Toms -- Rush, Paxton and Chapin -- to Thula Sizwe from South Africa, and Arlo and his musical children. Audiences sit at cab aret-style tables and can enjoy pizza, homemade chili and cornbread, beer, wine and desserts.

"We need to have some revenue to do the work that we do of feeding and taking care of people," Laye explained, as the center hosts free community lunches each Wednesday and at Thanksgiving.

Laye also lets talented young local musicians open for national acts, giving them exposure and the chance to be on a professional stage. Now, thanks to the Guthrie Center, a Berkshire audience can get an authentic taste of this long-held Creole musical tradition.

As Stroughmatt explained, "We bring the ‘bouillon party' to whoever we are playing to -- we're going to have some fun!"

What: Dennis Stroughmatt et l'Esprit Creole

Where: The Guthrie Center, 4 Van Deusenville Road, Great Barrington

When: Friday at 8 p.m. (doors open 6 p.m. for dining)

Admission: $18, reservations recommended

Information: (413) 528-1955


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