Southern Illinois man plays the music of Northern France

Sunday, November 16, 2008
Linda Redeffer ~ Banner Press
Dennis Stroughmatt plays a rollicking Old French song on his greatgrandfather's fiddle at the Bollinger County Library last week. Stroughmatt's appearance was through the State Historical Society of Missouri's History Speakers' Bureau.

When asked what he does for a living, Dennis Stroughmatt of Albion, Ill., will say that he plays music and has fun.

What he really does goes far beyond just fiddling around. With his up-tempo fiddle tunes and songs that stretch on for many verses, Stroughmatt brings to life an old French Creole culture that has lingered in Missouri since the 1600s.

He brought some of his knowledge and music last week to the Bollinger County Library through the Historical Society of Missouri.

When Stroughmatt was a student at Southeast Missouri State University 20 years ago, one of his professors turned him on to the old French settlement of Old Mines, Mo., near Potosi, Mo. Stroughmatt was working toward a degree he eventually earned in historical preservation at the time.

He began cutting his Friday classes and spending his weekends in Old Mines, fascinated by the culture and the music. He found that in that historical area, where the French were settlers long before English-speaking settlers moved in, many French traditions remained.

He was so taken by the jam sessions the men would have during the soirees, playing traditional tunes, that he wanted to join in.

"They made me sit on the porch," he said. "My playing was too poor for me to join in."

He had a fascination with history, and he had his great-grandfather's fiddle.

"Not because my great-grandfather was a musician; he wasn't," Stroughmatt said. "He won it in a card game. He was a card shark. I had my great-grandfather's fiddle and no idea how to play it."

But by listening to the stories the older folks told, he gained their confidence and that opened up more information to him. By learning the Old French dialect, and getting better at his fiddle-playing, Stroughmatt became fluent in the dialect, if not in standard French, proficient in the music and through the music and storytelling has pieced together a history of the area that needs to be preserved.

It is no accident that the settlers in what eventually became the Louisiana Purchase were French, according to Stroughmatt. The Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto had traveled up the Mississippi River in the 1500s into what is now Southern Missouri.

When he returned to Europe, he told people he had found gold, and more people began migrating to the area. It turned out to be pyrite -- fool's gold -- but that led to the discovery of iron and lead deposits, which attracted miners from the lead mines of Northern France. They brought with them their mining experience, customs, dialect, religion and music.

Stroughmatt pointed out the similarities between the rollicking Old French tunes and Irish jigs.

"They're jigs," he said, "but they're not Irish."

The musical similarities go back hundreds of years when Brittany, the northern area of France, was considered to be a Celtic state. French and Gaelic were spoken there, and the traditions and customs of that area also had a Gaelic flavor. It would seem unusual, then, that the reason for the fading away of the Old French dialect in Old Mines has a Gaelic connection.

The French descendants lived and raised their families in Old Mines and the surrounding area with their old-country traditions which held strong, Stroughmatt said, until the Catholic Church replaced the French priests and nuns with Irish clergy in the early years of the 20th century. Children in schools were punished for speaking French and were made to learn English.

The older residents still speak the French that Stroughmatt learned to speak, but were afraid to teach French to the younger generations because of the punishment they received for speaking it. When Stroughmatt traveled to French-speaking areas in Canada and to France and spoke there, older people there questioned why he used certain words.

"They said, 'where did you learn that word? My grandmother used to say that, but no one says that anymore,'" he said.

Stroughmatt went on to live and work in southwest Louisiana as an assistant curator at the Vermilionville Folklife Center in Lafayette, La., and also became fluent in "Lower Louisiana" Creole Music and Cajun/Creole French. He earned a master's degree in history at Southern Illinois University and eventually a certificate of Quebecois Studies and Language at the University of Quebec.

He says he has a book started but admits that he isn't really working very hard on it. But he is preserving the Old French heritage through his music and the presentations he gives through the historical society and other venues.

No longer do the revelers in Old Mines make him sit on the porch. He can play their lively music expertly and sing their traditional songs fluently. He travels with his band throughout the country promoting the Creole French music and history. His music is available on CDs through his website creolefiddle.com.

This article first appeared in the Banner Press, a Rust Communications publication in Marble Hill. Contact Linda Redeffer at 573-238-2821.

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