By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

November 6, 2003

If not for the Louisiana Purchase 200 years ago, Michael Doucet laughs, Cajuns and St. Louisans alike would be "driving our Peugeots to McDonald's for paté."

It's that sense of humor and appreciation of history and tradition that has made fiddler Doucet's Cajun dance band BeauSoleil a favorite around the world.

With about 20 albums on its résumé and multiple Grammy Awards on its mantel, BeauSoleil, which stops at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on Saturday, has charmed audiences for 25 years with a "Cajunized" mix of waltzes, swing, reels, country, jazz, blues, Tex-Mex, Caribbean and swamp rock - sung mostly in French.

Even the band's name (beautiful sun) is steeped in history. When Doucet was a child, he attended family reunions at a house called BeauSoleil, which was built by the son of Joseph Broussard, who was nicknamed BeauSoleil. In the mid-1700s, Broussard was a leader of the Acadians who resisted their exile by the British from what is now Nova Scotia. Many Acadians ended up in the Louisiana bayous.

"The grandparents would be there (at the reunions), and they'd tell us stories, in French, about our heritage," Doucet says by phone from his home near Lafayette, La.

Later, his band had to come up with a name. Voilá: BeauSoleil. Today the band consists of Doucet; brother David Doucet on guitar; Jimmy Breaux on accordion; Billy Ware on percussion; Tommy Alesi on drums; and Al Tharp on bass, fiddle, banjo and electric guitar.

From an early age, Michael Doucet had a vision of the kind of music he wanted to make, fueled by access to people of previous generations who lived a simple, self-sustaining, old-world kind of life, he says.

"I guess I just had a bond with these people," he says. "They had more time, they knew how to live their lives with integrity. That's what really struck me."

That vision crystallized in 1974, when Doucet, then 22, and his cousin, accordion master Zachary Richard, were invited to France for two weeks to play a folk festival.

Doucet, stunned that young French musicians were playing the folk music he heard from his elders in Louisiana, stayed for six months.

"I came back a folklorist," he says, and won a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study Cajun music. He interviewed and recorded the old masters, people including Dennis McGee, Dewey Balfa, Canray Fontenot, Amédé Ardoin. He also taught both elementary and college students for many years.

"I had the chance to tape (the old-timers') music, to play and hang out with them and bring them out to more of an audience," Doucet says. "The music was definitely underground. It was not commercially viable. People would turn away because they felt it was unsophisticated. But it has incredible sophistication that goes back hundreds of years."

Doucet says one of his goals was to reclaim the word "Cajun," which is derived from "Acadian," or, in French, "Cadjin."

"People would say it was derogatory, like calling a Native American an 'Injun,'" he says. "We never termed the music 'Cajun'; we termed it French music to differentiate it from American music. But the correct term, Cajun, is homegrown in Louisiana."

Although Doucet and his band play in a traditional style, he is not a slave to the past.

"I wasn't born in 1900, I was born in 1951," he says. "But traditional music didn't just fall out of the sky. Someone created it. I'm just trying to be me and relate to being of Acadian heritage and to live now, and be true to that, and at the same time to understand what we've learned and push it again."

The songs, Doucet says, "touch your heart because they are universal in appeal. We sing in French, but it doesn't seem to make a difference. I explain the songs, but if you listen, you get the gist of them. Most of the songs we play weren't crafted for a commercial or pop ideal. These things are straightforward, true things."

A major influence on Doucet was British folk-rocker Richard Thompson, whose band Fairport Convention led the English folk revival in the 1960s.

"I loved what they did to folk music," Doucet says. "When I heard (Thompson's) 'Cajun Woman,' it blew my mind. Where did this guy hear about Cajuns? We were so isolated. We were put down for our accents and for the food we ate."

Doucet chuckles: "I mean, who had the last laugh?"