Don’t Drop the Potato
directed by Alan Lomax, American Patchwork Series, PBS Home Video, 60 mins., 524.95 . CODE: MVD-8
At the start of this engaging hour-long documentary, a historian describes Cajun culture as “something new that happened only here in Louisiana.” That’s certainly true, as this program makes clear. The video is part of the American Patchwork Series, in which Alan Lomax—writer, director, producer, and narrator—traces specific forms of American music and the culture that fostered them. To present the Cajun world, Lomax combines a lively soundtrack with historical background, live performances, trips through the bayous, and interviews.
The film’s best moments occur when Lomax visits tiny villages in search of Cajun elders. With cameras rolling, he lets them tell their stories in clipped Southern-French accents so thick they must be subtitled. The black “music sage” Caryne Fontenot tells of using old cigar boxes and wire from a friend’s new screen door to make fiddles when he was young. Others recount the tragic story of Amedie Ardoin, a popular black musician of the 1920s. One night he accepted a handkerchief from a young white woman to wipe the sweat from his face, and because of it, a group of white men beat him up, ran over him with a car, and left him to die in a ditch. They were never charged with any crime.
Lomax describes how the culture was threatened by modernization during the oil boom of the 1930s, and the music held it together. In fact, he says, an oftrepeated lyric is “Don’t drop the potato,” meaning, hold on to the culture.