Dennis Stroughmatt didn’t like French at school. Despite this fact, the American musician and historian has become the sole guardian of a quickly-vanishing French dialect from Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. Today he is fighting to keep Illinois French alive by teaching seminars and playing concerts throughout the United States.
France-Amérique: How did you come upon “Illinois French”?
Dennis Stroughmatt: I grew up in Albion, in southeastern Illinois. This region of the Ozark Mountains [the current states of Illinois, Missouri and Indiana] was known as the “Upper Louisiana.” French-speaking settlers came from Canada and the Mississippi Valley as early as the 18th century to work in the lead mines. Growing up, my family used to go to Mardi Gras ceremonies in nearby Vincennes, Indiana, and to the rendezvous, a celebration of the region’s French heritage. Last names like Archambault, Aubouchon, Bouillet, Brasseur, Cardinal or Gilbert are very common in the Vincennes area, but nobody spoke French. By the time I went to college to study historic preservation, I was lamenting the loss of the French language. The historic homes were all we had left. But one of my professors told me that there were still a lot of French speakers in the area, scattered throughout southeast Missouri and southwest Illinois.
How is this dialect different from Cajun French or standard French?
Illinois French stands halfway between Canadian French and Cajun French. You can hear influences from all the settlers who passed through the area — French from Brittany and Normandy, Irish, Germans, and Native Americans. The words ouaouaron (“bullfrog”) or bête puante (“skunk”) are used in Louisiana but not in Canada. Guillannée (or guignolée) designates a New Year’s tradition where people dressed up and went from house to house begging for food. The first half means “mistletoe” in Gaelic and the second half means “year” in French. Illinois French evolved differently from one region to another, but overall it started to die off in the 1940s. Because the town of Old Mines, Missouri, was more isolated, it kept its version of the dialect — known as Paw-Paw French — pretty much intact throughout the years.
How did you learn Paw-Paw French?
I met people who were in their 80s and 90s, who grew up speaking Paw-Paw French as their first language and who invited me to bouillons — dinner and house parties. People would get together to eat, play cards and play music. It became a school research project. I spent three years in Old Mines, learning to play the fiddle with two old French Creoles, learning songs and stories, and doing recordings.* As they were teaching me the songs, people started to break down the words, as they would do with a child. We started from the ground up. “Me” is mouè. “You” is touè. That’s how I learned country French grammar! I learned it by ear.
How common is it to hear Illinois French today?
I and maybe twenty other people can have a full conversation. When I first traveled to Old Mines in the 1990s, there were still hundreds of French speakers in the area. The people who taught me have all passed away now. I was not born in the community, but I am now one of the most fluent speakers. At 45, I am also the youngest!
You are a prominent defender of Illinois French. How did you go from being an observer to a spokesperson?
In 1998, my fiddle teacher was getting too old to play at the Fête d’automne, the annual autumn festival in Old Mines. Because I knew the music and the songs, he asked me to stand in for him. I was reluctant at first. As an outsider, I didn’t feel I was qualified. But if I don’t pass on what I know, it is bound to disappear. I organized several workshops with the Old Mines Area Historical Society and the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF) and I recently started an 8-week seminar at Wabash Valley College in Illinois. Starting in the fall, there will be an online version so that people can take the class from anywhere. A few dozen people have already expressed their interest. Most of them are in their sixties. They are the children and the grandchildren of the people who taught me Illinois French in the 1990s. I am trying to give them their language back. Who knows? We may even be able to save the language!
What other ways can Illinois French be saved?
In Ste. Genevieve, a group of children and teenagers called Les Petits Chanteurs (The Little Singers) regularly dress up in historical costumes and sing traditional French ballads at festivals around Missouri — including the French Heritage Festival. Two years ago, a high school teacher of French in Old Mines asked me to help her introduce Illinois French to her students. One of their assignments was to speak with me and with older people. I was able to interest younger people in the language through music, songs and stories. We had 4,000 people singing “Chevaliers de la Table Ronde” at the Fête d’automne last year. At every festival I play with my band, L’Esprit Créole, people come and ask where they could learn this country French!
*Dennis Stroughmatt’s audio and video recordings of Illinois French songs and stories are kept at the Southeast Missouri State University archives.