La courte paille (The Short Straw)

Traditional, c. 1755

What happens in this song? More than one story is being told. What are the overlapping stories? Expulsion of Acadians and cabin boy.

Do you think the cabin boy really saw land? What would you do under the circumstances if you were the cabin boy? If you were the captain? If you were someone else on the ship? Why did the captain try to get out of it? Everyone would have been lost if they ate the captain. What do you think of his decision? What else could he have done?

Do you think this event really happened? Did they really sail for seven years? What could “seven years” be symbolic of? What is the cabin boy symbolic of? Bravery, duty, cleverness. What is the message of the song?

Why did these people have to leave their homes? Where was their home? When did this song happen?

Research where the Acadians went on their search for a land where they could be free. Which places fulfilled the promise and which didn’t? Why did they feel like they’d been wandering for seven years?

Is all migration voluntary? What forces affect migration? What forces “pushed” the Acadians to migrate? Why wasn’t there a good place to settle? They were not welcome in the British colonies. Where did many of them finally go? Louisiana.

What current cultural group in Louisiana descended from the Acadians? Cajuns.

 

"Le courte paille - The Short Straw" performed by Alan Mills on O Canada: a History of Canada in Folk Song, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, © 1956. Available on Spotify, iTunes and YouTube.

The sad tone of the solo singer in this recording echoes the sadness of the text. His frustration grows from verse to verse, as he repeats the question of the refrain.

View the music and lyrics for "La courte paille."

This song chronicles the event known as the Expulsion of the Acadians, which began in 1755 when British soldiers removed more than six-thousand French settlers from their homes in what is now Nova Scotia. The Maritime Provinces of Canada (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick) had been hotly contested by the French and British throughout the 1600s and 1700s because of their strategic location. The British removed the French-speaking Acadians when war with France became imminent. They moved the French people to other British colonies along the Atlantic coast, where they were not always welcome. Some eventually returned to Canada, while others made their way to Louisiana, where their descendants became known as Cajuns.
Engraving of the Expulsion of the Acadians

Engraving of the Expulsion of the Acadians.

This song does not exist as a broadside but was handed down orally until it was eventually published. Although the text of the verses is clearly fictional, the refrain reiterates the question foremost in the minds of the Acadians, who perhaps felt that they were forced to drift for seven years, while in reality it may have been less. A question for speculation is whether the boy actually sees land in the last three verses or whether he is prevaricating in an attempt to save himself. In either case, the reference to sheep and shepherdesses at this point may be viewed as symbolic; as the Acadians were devout Roman Catholics, the song draws on the Biblical metaphor of people as sheep shepherded by Christ.

The English translation contains additional verses not performed in the French version and extends verse 4 of the French lyrics to two verses.

 

 

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