The first time I heard Doug Kershaw’s classic song “Louisiana Man,” it made me want to move to the swamp.
The lyrics described a time when Cajuns lived close to the land, making their living from fishing, trapping and hunting. Kershaw’s vibrant fiddle — which he played pointing upside-down — added a lush quality to the story.
“The clock strikes three and Papa jumps to his feet,” Kershaw sang. “Already Mama’s cooking Papa something to eat. At half past, Papa he’s ready to go, he jumps in his pirogue headed down the bayou.”
It was around 1980 when I first heard that song. I fell in love with Cajun music, especially the fiddling.
I was intrigued last month by a lengthy Associated Press article, “At 84, Cajun musician Doug Kershaw still going strong on stage.”
But what really brought back those memories was the other day when Jewel Watts of Amite County loaned me his childhood schoolbook, “Louisiana Nature Guardian Handbook for the Schools of the State,” published in 1931. It was still in use when Watts was a student at Norco Elementary School in 1966.
Watts, by the way, is a “Louisiana man” himself, growing up in St. Charles Parish hunting, fishing and trapping. Now he and his wife Crystal own a farm in Amite County.
The “Louisiana Nature Guardian Handbook” profiles a long list of birds, mammals, fish, trees, flowers and minerals, and includes poetry to go along with the science.
While some facts never change, other information in the book is specific to the times — such as details on fur trapping.
Back in the day, the muskrat was the No. 1 furbearer in south Louisiana. As Kershaw sang, “Muskrat hides hanging by the dozens, even got a lady mink, a muskrat’s cousin. Got ’em out drying in the hot, hot sun. Tomorrow Papa’s gonna turn ’em into money.”
That changed when the non-native and much larger nutria rat was introduced into the swamp. It took the place of muskrats but didn’t prove to be as valuable. It also destroys the marsh habitat.
When the Louisiana handbook was written, the muskrat was still king, though showing signs of declining. In 1924-25, trappers took 6.2 million muskrats. In 1925-26 that dropped to 3.6 million, then to 3 million a year later and 2.9 million a year after that.
Prices for pelts were steadily rising, however, from 8 cents in 1915 to $1.25 in 1928.
Raccoons were another important furbearer. “Louisiana has more raccoons than any other state, and her annual catch is the largest,” the book claimed.
“The Louisiana raccoons are of two distinct colors. The marsh animal is known to the trapper as ‘Louisiana tide water’ or ‘salt water’ coon, and is reddish or yellowish, as compared to the darker inhabitants of the wooded swamps. The darker raccoon brings a higher price than the marsh animal does.”
The book profiles what it calls “the wild cat or bay lynx,” which we would call a bobcat today. The pelts brought $1.50 each back then, but trappers only brought in a few hundred annually.
The chapter on the wolf identifies it as “the ordinary gray wolf, the timber wolf, or the ‘buffalo wolf’ of song and story.” It doesn’t mention the red wolf, which was indigenous to the Southeastern United States all the way to Texas.
On the other hand, the book says red fox, unlike gray, were not indigenous to the state.
“The fur of our gray fox is not especially valuable, although our trappers take from 350 to 500 each winter.”
The mink was the most valuable furbearer, though the book doesn’t give a price.
“It is said that the so-called ‘French Settlement Minks’ found in Ascension, St. James, Livingston, and Tangipahoa, brings the highest price in the raw pelt market, because they are a rich dark brown, and because the pelts grade easily.”
Louisiana trappers caught 84,000 mink in 1924-25, down to 67,000 the next year and up to nearly 100,000 in 1928-29.
“A trapper’s license costs $2.00 and must be secured from the sheriff of the parish where the trapper operates,” the book explains. “A trapper is permitted to set 250 traps only, and these traps must be visited daily.”
Otters also were highly valuable, bringing in an astonishing $15 to $25 per pelt, with some 2,000 caught per season.
Another big commodity from the swamp was Spanish moss, a $2.5 to $3 million industry.
“In the early days the settlers or pioneers gathered the moss, cured and ginned it by hand, making braids, and manufacturing from it bridles, saddle blankets, and horse collars,” the book says. “In addition to this, they used the moss for pillows and mattresses. In the last twenty years, the reputation of Spanish moss as a filler for mattresses, cushions, and pillows, became known to the public.”
All this, along with Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man,” paints an idyllic picture of life in a cabin or houseboat in the swamp.
The reality would have been much harsher. Kershaw based his song on his father, but what the song doesn’t mention is that Papa committed suicide when Kershaw was 7 years old.
The nutria replaced the muskrat just as the oil industry replaced living off the land — bringing much higher and more dependable pay, but at great cost to the environment.
The old days may be gone, but they live on in writing and song. Back in 1980 I would put my 33-speed Doug Kershaw album on my record player. Now I can just look the songs up on youtube.
“On the river floats Papa’s great big boat, and that’s how my papa goes into town. Takes him every bit of a night and a day to even reach a place where the people stay,” Kershaw sings, sawing on his upside-down fiddle.
“He’s got fishing lines strung across the Louisiana rivers, gotta catch a big fish for us to eat. He’s setting traps in the swamp catching anything he can. Gotta make a living, he’s a Louisiana man. Gotta make a living, he’s a Louisiana man.”