- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2000

ELKINS, W.Va. A crescent moon, flashing like a silver scimitar between dark tree branches, their leaves fluttering coyly in a cool breeze, gives the night a glimmering magic.

Cajun music rises and falls with every sough, like a distantly remembered dream, wafting from the wide veranda wrapping around Halliehurst Hall, a century-old Victorian mansion on the hilltop campus of Davis and Elkins College here.

On this veranda, musicians jam night and day during a weeklong celebration of Louisiana traditions at the college's 28-year-old Augusta Heritage Center. Called Cajun/Creole Week, the celebration kicks off Augusta's five-week summer session boisterously. Of 400 adult students enrolled for the week, about one-quarter take Cajun and zydeco dance classes, but everyone comes to hear and dance to dyed-in-the-wool Cajun and zydeco musicians at the after-dinner concerts and the nightly dances after them, some of which spin on well past midnight.

One of 10 "theme weeks" at this summer camp for adults, the Cajun/Creole fest sets the pattern for succeeding weeks through mid-August, when the Augusta festival seals another unforgettable summer.

Along the way Irish, swing, contra, square, clog and Argentinian tango music and dance take their turns. Appalachian flatfooting and old-time music courses compete with craft classes of every fiber from pottery to pysanki (Ukrainian egg dying), from felting to accordion repairing and mountain dulcimer making.

Probably the most comprehensive of a half-dozen similar folk schools and dance camps within a day's drive of Washington, Augusta keeps the crowds coming back every year for more. Last year 2,200 folks from 47 states and eight foreign countries convened to celebrate their roots in this Allegheny Mountain paradise, on the western edge of the Monongahela National Forest.

Before the Civil War, Augusta was the westernmost county of Virginia. Most of the county seceded from Virginia in 1863 and became West Virginia, the 35th state to join the Union. Augusta County no longer exists, but when Davis and Elkins College founded the Heritage Center in 1973 to hand down the disappearing cultural traditions of Augusta settlers, it named the school to honor them.

Now Augusta has become known for honoring a far broader range of traditions than simply those of West Virginia. Consider the Cajun music that dominates this week: While Dewey Balfa first introduced Cajun music to the outside world some 30 years ago at the Newport Festival in Newport, R.I., it didn't catch on until Augusta director Margot Blevin heard Mr. Balfa jamming at her school in 1984.

Fascinated, she invited him to teach a Cajun music workshop at Augusta the following year. About a dozen people attended that workshop, Ms. Blevin estimates, adding that they all went on to start their own Cajun bands. But, she says, Mr. Balfa's workshop was the first class to teach Cajun music anywhere.

So it all started here.

And here it continues. Dance student Karen Hillner, 54, a physics teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, is at Augusta for her seventh summer in a row. She came originally to chaperone her son Sam, now 22, who took saxophone and guitar classes here in 1993. (The school requires that children be accompanied by an adult.)

"I was hooked," Mrs. Hillner says over lunch in the school's spacious cafeteria after her daily morning dance class. "I felt utter amazement and rapture."

Her first year she took swing-dancing lessons, coming back the next year to fulfill a long-cherished dream to build a mountain dulcimer and learn how to play it. So rewarding was her second summer at Augusta that she talked a friend and fellow teacher at Blair High into coming with her the third time back her friend, biology teacher Marilyn Yeung, 57, of Rockville.

They have come to Augusta every summer since, because they both love rolling up their sleeves and participating in folk arts rather than looking on from the sidelines. And the freedom is exhilarating: For this extended "girls' night out," they leave their husbands at home. Looking forward to next year, Mrs. Hillner wants to learn rug hooking and Mrs. Yeung, who says, "We always have fun," wants to try stonemasonry.

A culture session after lunch every day features staff musicians like accordion virtuoso Eddie LeJeune, from Lacassine, La., talking about Acadiana, the 22-parish (read "county") area in southwest Louisiana that Cajuns and Creoles call home. This delta region is the home of the irresistible, swinging, syncopated, bittersweet music in the blood of these musicians.

Like many Acadians, Mr. LeJeune, 49, grew up speaking Cajun French, which blends English and French words and grammar, and only learned standard English in school.

Cajuns and Creoles often learn music and dance from their parents, effectively preserving the culture like an inheritance. Mr. LeJeune and his brother Ervin both learned to play from their father, the late Iry LeJeune, a skilled accordionist in his own right. Having been taught by ear, they play by ear, and when composing songs, they never write anything down. Mr. LeJeune says the his songs can change, but their meaning remains the same.

A living tradition, the music and dance of Acadiana continually renews itself.

Mr. LeJeune never finished eighth grade because his mother needed his help in feeding their large family. He worked in the rice mills and as a roughneck on Gulf Coast offshore oil rigs. He tilled the soil as a tenant farmer.

Straining to keep the tradition up, he and Ervin spent their spare time playing in bars, restaurants and at house parties, a community event that Cajuns call a "fait do-do." Eddie and Ervin started a traditional Cajun band of accordion, acoustic guitar and fiddle. When the bars and restaurants began demanding electric guitars and trap sets, Mr. LeJeune thought the gig was up.

He wanted to quit. After all, he had four children and a wife to support, but the love of "playing what the Cajuns played when they came here," as he puts it, kept him going.

The gritty musician takes pride in his three compact discs of traditional Cajun music on Rounder Records but is prouder still that all four of his children play traditional music, just like his father did. And Mr. LeJeune gets to share the inheritance he loves at Augusta by teaching a beginners' accordion class.

That he and other Cajuns celebrate the pain as well as the pleasure in their fight for cultural identity mightily impresses Linda Smelser, 49, an Augusta dance student from Columbia, Md. She is enjoying a break during one of the dance classes she takes every afternoon on the sprung, wood floor of the open-air dance pavilion.

Augusta "is about their struggle and that they never gave up," says the slim brunette, who now coordinates volunteer services for a women's support network in Baltimore. "They celebrate the good and the bad. This gives you something that's about you. It's about humanity and celebrating your life."

And celebration is what Cheryl Devall is all about. Ms. Devall flew to Augusta from Los Angeles for her second Cajun/ Creole Week. The 41-year-old, self-described "news junkie," a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, shakes her booty with the best of them at this week's unfettered zydeco dances.

"My idea of a good vacation is two or three days in New York or Chicago, but this is a delightful way of spending time," she says during a break.

A modern woman with a traditional streak for example, she'll tell you that her dreadlocks are neatly arranged Ms. Devall finds "a parallel reality" at Augusta. "It's not my real life, but it's a welcome change," she says.

A parallel reality also exists in southern Louisiana, where Creoles and Cajuns live side by side but seldom mix. Each population remains largely invisible to and separate from the other. This creates distinct differences in their music and dance.

Cajuns prefer the pure strain brought by their ancestors 250 years ago from Acadia, a French-speaking region in Nova Scotia. French warmth and grace soften the Celtic cadences. Dance styles are subtle, low-keyed and without much variation.

Creoles, on the other hand, long ago began coloring Cajun music with African-American shades of blues and gospel to come up with zydeco. When rock 'n' roll came along, they added that to the mix. Now hip-hop goes into it, too. The dance is flashy, eclectic, fast.

The two groups are here together. And playing for Augusta's zydeco dance classes, concerts and dances is LeRoy Thomas and the Zydeco Roadrunners, from Houston. Its high-energy sound includes accordion, traps, two electric guitars (one a bass) and a rub board. The latter looks like a scrub board hung from the neck of the player, who rubs it vigorously with egg whisks and church keys. Everything is amplified to the max.

Begun only last May, the young band already has two CDs on the label owned by Mr. Thomas, who also wrote most of the songs on the second CD, "The Monkey and the Baboon."

Teaching zydeco dance the way she learned it growing up in Cade, La., 10 miles south of Lafayette, Mona "Zydeco Queen" Wilson doesn't really tell her students how it's done she shows them. As on her video, "Zydeco Dancing, Etc.," she demonstrates her patented "zydeco-robics" and "Mona-robics" so smoothly that it looks as though she has WD-40 flowing through her veins.

Dance on.

WHAT: Augusta Heritage Center Summer Session

WHERE: Davis and Elkins College, 100 Campus Drive, Elkins, W.Va. 26241-1317

WHEN: "Theme weeks" offered every week for five weeks, July 9 through Aug. 13, including Cajun/Creole Week, Guitar Week, Blues Week, Swing Week and Irish Week. Theme weeks still to come this year include:

Dance Week, French-Canadian Week and Bluegrass Week, July 30-Aug. 4: contra, square, clog, step and couple dances and dance calling.

Old-Time Week, Vocal Week, Aug. 6-13 (includes the Augusta Festival, Aug. 11-13).

COST: $325 to $355 for courses, $265 to $275 for dorm room and cafeteria meals per week.

INFORMATION: Call 304/637-1209, visit www.augustaheritage.com or e-mail [email protected]

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