Compère Bouki pi Compère Lapin:
par Kent Beaulne dit Bone, pas Os - Vieille Mine au Missouri
What does West Africa have in common with the Créoles of the St Francis Mountains of southeast Missouri? Well pay attention, and I’m gonna explain it to you. Cette psite histoire est un peu compliqué, il faut faire attention, vous autres.
The area between Potosi, Old Mines and Richwoods, Missouri was an outpost of surviving French identity in Upper Louisiana well into the 20th century. This is where the language, the culture, and the stories were still thriving in the 1930s. It is important to note that Indian and African slavery were part of the history of Franco-Spanish Louisiana, and therefore a part of this story. There were still French speaking Blacks in the area in the early 1900s, most of them the descendants of slaves.
« Ah ben, c’est bon de vous dzire. Ah well, it’s good to tell you.” That’s how the old French folktales started. None of that “Once upon a time stuff”, icitte, non. Although the majority came from Canada, and France, there were a few that did not. Dozens of these stories had been handed down for generations, here in the hills of Washington County, anciennement, Pays des Illinois, haute Louisiane. I first heard these stories in americain, as the old francophones here called English. Later I was told them en français.
In the age before radio, and television, house parties, with live music, dancing, and storytelling were the principle modes of entertainment. In this isolated rural area, electricity did not come to most homes off the main roads until the 1940s, and in some cases the 1950s. Imagine the miners sitting on piles of tiff (barite) at the diggings, or on the porches of their log houses, listening to these vieux contes by kerosene lamp. Although they may seem like simple children’s tales to today’s more sophisticated audiences, but they often purvey a message on morality, and good behavior, and like the Loony Tunes characters, the grownups liked them too.
There was a series of contes known as Compère Bouki pi Compère Lapin. As far as I could tell, compère meant partner or buddy, as Bouki and Lapin were usually partners on some project in these stories. They were always trying to outsmart or cheat each other, with Lapin usually getting the best of Bouki. I knew right away that Lapin was a Wabbit, but couldn’t find bouki in any dictionnaire français. Ma grand-mère Ida Portelle m’a dit, Bouki est un autre lapin. Hmmm j’ai cru. Others said he was some kind of animal but couldn’t describe him, or even the devil.
After a few years of wondering about this, quite by accident, I found out what a bouki was.
While doing some digging at the County Library in Potosi I found an 1895 book, Louisiana Folk-Tales, by Alcèe Fortier. M. Fortier was Professor of Romance languages at Tulane University, Nouvelle Orleans. He was also first president of the American Folk-Lore Society. His book is a collection of stories collected among the old French speaking, black folks of Louisiana. Here is a part of the introduction from that 1895 book; “It is very difficult to make a complete collection of the negro tales, as the young generation knows nothing about them. It is a strange fact that the old negroes do not like to relate those tales with which they enchanted their little masters before the war. It was with great trouble that I succeeded in getting the following stories.” It should be noted that the now archaic word negro, was a perfectly respectful word at the time.
Fortier included 42 tales in his book. Fifteen are Bouki pi Lapin stories. Mr. Fortier explains that bouki is an African word for the hyena, specifically the Oulof or Wolof language of Senegal. Many Africans brought to the Louisiana Colony were captured in West Africa. These stories were collected, and written in the Créole dialect, which is a mixture of an African tongue, and French. There is an English translation of each story, making them available to everyone.
The Créole dialect is still spoken by both whites and blacks, in parts of Louisiana, as well as the island nation of Haiti. The word Créole in another context is the name given to a person of French or mixed French ancestry, born in the huge Louisiana Colony, regardless of what language they speak. Although the term “Pawpaw French” is the most common term heard today, in the 1930s, the tiff miners still referred to themselves as Créoles.
A decade and a half before Mr. Fortiers’, efforts, similar stories were collected from English speaking Black folks in the south by Joel Chandler Harris, a Journalist from Atlanta. In writing his stories he recreated the dialect he remembered when he lived at a plantation in Georgia in 1862. He patterned Uncle Remus after a couple of elderly black storytellers he knew.
From UncleRemus.com; “On July 20, 1879 an undersized thirty-year old journalist from Atlanta known as Joel Harris began a journey from relative obscurity to interregional fame. On that day the Atlanta Constitution published the young copy editor’s “Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox as told by Uncle Remus” Within months, magazines across the country were reprinting his tales, and after more than 1,000 written requests for a collection, the first Uncle Remus book was published in Nov, 1880. At the time, Harris said his purpose was not ethnology, or folklore analysis, but simply documentation.” As a result of his Uncle Remus book, millions of Southerners grew up with them, and they became a part of the collective folk-lore of the South. I remember hearing some of them, back when I was a pup. These books are still available, online.
In the 1970s, talk about a Mr. Carrière who had come down from le Canada, was still floating around the community. He had collected the old stories in a book, and the songs on a wax cylinder recording machine that fit snugly into a round-top metal lunch box, so common at the time. Although never really lost, his recording machine and cylinders were eventually discovered by researchers. They were stored at the University of Southwest Louisiana, at Lafayette. The library of Congress made magnetic tape copies, so that they are now in the Public Domain, meaning no individual can claim ownership of the material. I am lucky to have many of them as MP3 in my collection.
Joseph Médard Carrière was a native of Curran Ontario, and at the time, a professor at Northwestern University, Chicago. He eventually settled at the University of Virginia, where he taught until his death in 1970. The introduction to his book, Tales From The French Folk-Lore of Missouri states; “I was fortunate in meeting with a good score of persons [at Prairie du Rocher IL, and Ste. Genevieve MO] who still speak French fluently and are intimately acquainted with the customs and traditions of an age long past. It is impossible to reconstruct with any degree of accuracy the social history of an ethnical group practically extinct merely from the study of a few scattered individuals who have, for some mysterious reasons, survived a movement of assimilation completed almost a half-century ago. The reader will understand readily my emotion when in Old Mines, Missouri I came into contact with an isolated group, practically unknown to the outside world. I found six-hundred French speaking families living in this community. As a native of Canada, I was at once welcomed into their midst by the Creoles, since the tradition of their Canadian origin has been handed down from father to son, and is still quite alive.”
He spent two summers in the tiff mining country in 1934 and 35. According to his daughter Henrietta, he even brought his wife once, for a visit. He must have seemed at first a peculiar fellow to the rough tiff miners, highly educated, dressed in his white clothes, and a Panama hat, but he spoke their language. He showed up at the Paco Boyer store looking for French-speakers. He met Pete Boyer who showed him around. He found lodging at the home of Miss Suzzie Coleman. His principal conteurs were Joseph Ben Colman, and Frank Bourisaw. When Mr. Carrière first showed up at the diggings asking Joseph Benjamin Colman to tell him stories, Uncle Ben told him “I don’t have time for that, I’ve got a family to raise.” He was a widower. When Carrière responded, “Je peut payer, ben”, Uncle Ben says. “ Ça c’est un autre histoire.” Et voilà, Carrière got his stories.
His son, who we called Joe Ben, was fluent in the local French. He related that Mr. Carrière would bring them presents, and always had a bottle of wine, to loosen up the tongues of his storytellers. His daughter, Leona Thurman of Potosi had her dad’s autographed copy of the Carrière book, of which she let me make a copy.
Unlike the Uncle Remus book, the audience for the Carrière collection was very limited. With the impending death of the language they were told in, the stories nearly died out here. His book contains 73 contes, written in French, in a phonetic way as to be able to hear exactly how the miners spoke. For the bizarre looking script to make sense, it is necessary to read the stories out loud, to hear them. Simply looking at them, they seem garbled. There is an English synopsis at the beginning of each story.
So now we have collections of African Folk-Tales from three regions, in the styles of Southern English, the Creole dialect of Louisiana, and Missouri French.
Most of the Bouki pi Lapin contes are humorous, with Bouki being the dupe, and Lapin coming out on top. While reading them Bugs Bunny immediately popped into my head. With Daffy Duck taking the place of the Bouki, I can imagine him saying to Lapin, “you’re diths-picable”. It might be that the guys at Warner Brothers who came up with Bugs and Daffy, grew up hearing Uncle Remus. An idea to pursue. If my memory serves me correctly, Bugs Bunny even did a version of the Tar Baby. Upon meeting her he says “What’s up Doc”? When she doesn’t answer him, he gets pissed and slaps her, getting first one, than all four paws stuck to the cute gal with the dress and straw hat. Lots of folks should remember the classic trickster line from Rabbit. “Oh please don’t throw me in the briar patch, throw me down the well.” So depending on the version, the farmer, fox, or bouki, threw Rabbit in the briar patch, which is exactly where he wanted to be.
In one story from the Louisiana, 1895 Fortier book where Lapin is not included, Bouki is a very malicious creature. The parents of three daughters kept them in a tree house for safety. The sly Bouki after being rejected many times by the daughters finally convinces them into pulling him up in the basket used for hauling up their food deliveries. He then murders them while they sleep. Their mother, upon discovering this crime, cons him into putting his head in her lap so she can delouse him. Upon falling asleep in her lap, she cuts his throat in revenge. This is the true nature of the hyena: cunning, and bloodthirsty. Hyenas run in packs at night, and can kill an adult lion if persistent enough.
One day in 1980 at the Potosi home of Ida Portell; While “looking at the TV” as she used to say, a hyena came into view. I said to her, mais gardez donc, ça c’est un bouki. She says “pew, il est laid, comme le guiable” (he is ugly as the devil). It is important to remember, no one who told these stories in Missouri for 300 years, knew what a bouki was, nor had seen or could describe a hyena. Now after hearing the stories all her life, she finally got to see what he looked like.
So what the Missouri Créoles thought were French or Canadian folktales, are in fact African stories their ancestors had learned from their slaves. Over time, and with the abolishment of slavery in 1865, these stories blended into the collective memory of their European, and Canadian heritage.
It would be interesting to know if any stories from the Indian ancestors became part of the Créole repertoire.
Be sure and check out our websites and Facebook groups:
Old Mines French, and L’Académie Français du Pays des Illinois.
Next time; the story of Bouki pi Lapin growing wheat together. Lapin is lazy and has to leave to be a god-father, more than once. Bouki is stuck working in the heat. What Lapin is doing, is sneaking into the cellar of Bouki house, eating his butter, and stealing water. When Bouki finds out, he makes a catin de gomme, to catch and punish him.
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