Stroughmatt returns to Cape with different goal in mind

Friday, October 14, 2005
Dennis Stroughmatt played with Creole Stomp at the Southeast Missourian centennial celebration. (FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@ semissourian.com)

Dennis Stroughmatt is about to make his second trip to Southeast Missouri in two weeks.

On Oct. 1 his band Creole Stomp entertained the throngs at the Southeast Missourian centennial party with its Creole sound.

This time, instead of entertaining crowds with the Stomp, Stroughmatt will take the scholarly role of musician-historian, presenting an informational music program at the Red House Interpretive Center on Sunday. The program, brought to the area with the help of the Missouri Humanities Council, is free and educational.

"Just so people know what to expect, they should not come expecting a full-blown musical performance," said Stroughmatt. "I would characterize it as an informational program on French Missouri Creole music, history and culture."

The role of lecturing on French Creole culture in the area is one that suits Stroughmatt perfectly. The fiddler has spent the last 15 years immersed in Creole culture, studying that culture in places with large French-speaking populations like Old Mines, Mo., Lafayette, La., and Quebec.

During his time in those places Stroughmatt learned the French Creole fiddle style that has brought him great acclaim, but he also became somewhat of an expert on the French experience in Missouri and North America.

What started Stroughmatt on the road to becoming a respected scholar-musician and expert on French Creole culture and heritage, complete with long hair and puffy shirts?

"Two words: Frank Nickell," Stroughmatt said.

Nickell first told a young Stroughmatt about the French-speaking community of Old Mines 15 years ago, when Stroughmatt was a student at Southeast Missouri State University. Stroughmatt visited the town, talked with the people, and soon found himself hanging out there most weekends, attending local house parties and learning to speak French and play French fiddle.

"I think one of the reasons was that I was actually able to touch the past, to touch some of our American history, to touch it and interact with it," said Stroughmatt. "But then I found out that French Creole culture is not just history, it's very alive and very American."

According to Nickell, Stroughmatt is at the forefront of documenting French culture and musical traditions in North America.

"He is probably the one person in the entire North American continent who is trying to connect the songs of the French from Montreal to Old Mines, Mo., to Lafayette, La," Nickell said.

Stroughmatt's Red House performance will educate visitors on a great Mississippi River French tradition started 300 years ago and still practiced in some areas of Missouri today -- La Guillannee (several spellings exist, Stroughmatt uses this one).

"It's essentially what you would call a 'mumming' tradition, like caroling or trick or treating," Stroughmatt said. "It's similar to Halloween. People dress up, put on masks, paint their faces black and go house to house begging for food and drink. In return the performers give song and dance."

At night's end, the food is used for a big stew that is used not only to feed the performers, but anyone in the community with hunger.

The tradition is carried on in Ste. Genevieve and was probably once part of Cape Girardeau's culture, said Stroughmatt. Cape Girardeau's strong French heritage makes the presentation an appropriate one, especially at the Red House, a place meant to recreate the days of French city founder Louis Lorimier.

Stroughmatt has spent a lot of time in Cape Girardeau, and sees a lot of French heritage here. "When a lot of people look at Cape they kind of get a feel of somewhat of a Louisiana connection. And there is, because Cape Girardeau was a part of Louisiana at one time. Missouri is really upper Louisiana.

"Cape Girardeau is not your typical Midwestern town. It has a Mississippi River culture that has been carried through the years."

And one of the best ways to understand any cultural origin is through its music.

"Music is a part of the cultural life on the frontier," said Nickell. "People wanted culture, they wanted religion, and music was a connector from past to present, and a lot of people knew the old songs."

The presentation at the Red House will begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by a reception in the carriage house behind the Glenn House at 7 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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