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Thursday, June 19, 2003 02:20 pm

French for a Night

Some things never change: La Guiannee, a Gallic caroling festival, has been celebrated in Prairie du Rocher for 280 years.

The Illinois Country was once part of a French colonial empire that formed a great crescent from Quebec to New Orleans. New France embraced the Great Lakes and followed the Mississippi to the sea. Three villes--Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Prairie du Rocher--drew voyageurs from Canada and migrants from the mother country. They farmed the rich American Bottom, growing grapes so sweet that their wine was banned in France, lest it outsell the native vintage.

The seigneurs vanished from Illinois in the 1760s, after losing the French and Indian War to the dour English. Their Gallic culture is almost extinct. The last elderly Francophones, born before radio, were buried a decade ago. Now Illinois is French only one night a year, and in one small town. On New Year's Eve, Prairie du Rocher celebrates La Guiannee--"Geoney" in the Franco-American patois--an ancient French caroling festival. They've done it every year since the village was founded in 1722, making it the oldest continuous La Guiannee in the country. Cahokia used to do it. So did Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. But their celebrations died out as the towns were overrun by Americans.

Of course, old Jackie made it to this year's Geoney. He's been coming since the 1940s. Jacques Laurent--tall and merry-faced--showed up in the American Legion Hall wearing a top hat, a jerkin tied with a tasseled sash, and a half-grin, like he'd just heard the funniest damn joke in the world and couldn't wait to tell the whole room. Jackie started slapping shoulders in the back of the bar, where it appeared someone had shaken all the characters out of a Victor Hugo novel: Carol Dufrenne's round face was enclosed in a bonnet, Dave Doiron peered through tiny rectangular spectacles, and John Hobgood's multi-colored cloak made him look like a psychedelic La Salle.

Jackie's stepfather was a fiddler in the Geoney, and his Uncle Willie always made sure the carolers got a shot of wine or whiskey at every house they serenaded.

"He'd pour three fingers for everybody," Jackie reminisced. "His three fingers were pretty big too. Willie's famous last words were 'You're a young man. You can handle it.' He knew where the best wine was too. Freddy Donjon, he made the best wine."

Dan Franklin sat down with Jackie.

"In the last four or five years, alcohol hasn't been as big a deal," he insisted.

Dan, a blond-haired Anglo, but a Rocher native, has led the Geoney since the 1970s. A leather sash jangling with sleigh bells hung from his neck, and he gripped a thorny walking stick. When it was time to rehearse the Geoney song, he gathered his two dozen carolers in a ring and nodded at the three fiddlers. The fiddlers' hands were glossy with callus, their fingertips creased by catgut. Dan's brother Gerry played the guitar.

"Bon soir, le maitre et le maitresse et tout le monde du logis," Dan sang, pounding his stick to keep time. "Pour le dernier jour de l'annee la Guiannee vous nous devez."

The crowd sang these lines back, as though it were the national anthem--a song so familiar that everyone knows the words but no one remembers the meaning. It's a French begging song, possibly dating back to the Druids. On New Year's Eve, the poor walked house-to-house, visiting the wealthy, who were in a generous mood during Epiphany. Facetiously, the poor asked for a pork backbone to make fricassee. They also asked the household to send out its eldest maiden daughter, so they could warm her feet. Usually, they had to settle for a snack and a stiff drink.

Prairie du Rocher's Geoney singers are not so poor: they travel by charter bus. As the carolers filed out of the Legion Hall, Jackie stood by the door, offering a swig from a bottle of Seagram's 7 that had just gone missing from the bar.

"This'll make you play better," he promised Ted Mueller, a fiddler.

Ted tilted and swallowed: "Whoo! Ow!"

The bus called first at Fort de Chartes--"Fort Charters," if you're from around here--which was built in 1718 to secure trade along the river and rebuilt in the 20th century to secure tourism for Prairie du Rocher. The carolers crowded into a stuffy, candlelit chamber. After they sang the Geoney for the tourists, there was a murmuring moment when the weight of the room shifted toward a table spread with wine, cheese, and Christmas cookies.

"Sing something!" a voice shouted.

Dan and his fiddlers conferred.

"What do you want to do?" he asked.

"Chevaliers," they agreed.

So "Chevaliers de le Table Ronde" echoed off the stone walls. After the last chord vibrated to silence, the fiddlers chased off on "Prairie du Rocher Motion." The sprightly instrumental was a local addition to the Geoney canon. It was composed by Percy Clerc, the most colorful Geoney leader in living memory. Back on the bus, Dan Franklin told Percy's story.

Percy was an old bachelor who farmed up on the hill. He inherited the Geoney from his father, Charles. Every New Year's Eve, Percy dressed in blue pajamas with corn husks sewn on and wore a feathered headdress that waggled atop his scalp. It wasn't French, but it let everyone know who the number one caroler was. To amplify his voice, Percy shouted the songs through his "megaphone," an old oatmeal can with the bottom punched out.

"He lived for this French heritage thing," Dan said. "This was far and away the most important night of his life. He was all business."

Toward the end of his life, Percy changed his surname, to make it sound even more Gallic. Everyone had to call him "Le Clerc." He died in a house fire, a few weeks after his last Geoney.

"What year did Percy die?" Dan asked Jackie. The question circulated the bus, but no one remembered for sure.

The Geoney bus rolled up and down highways that followed the shape of the river. It was filled with whiskey, talk, and music. When the bus stopped at the Braun house, Vernon stood up on his walker and shook hands all around. Vernon was an old Geoney singer. When he got too old, he followed the carolers in his car. This year, he turned 91, so the Geoney came to him. At the home of the Dieterdings, a musical family, the mother played along on piano. Dan Franklin's daughter, Johanna, unfolded a cell phone so her mother and sister could hear the singing back home in Belleville. After the Geoney song, the fiddlers sawed away at "Alouette." Ted Mueller's wife, Diane, flung herself around the room in a Gallic frenzy, pointing out every body part mentioned in the lyrics.

As midnight neared, the spirit of Uncle Willie rose from the town graveyard and began whispering to some of the male carolers: "You're a young man. You can handle it." The bus called at the Boondocks Tavern in Modoc, where a collection of tired-looking smokers sat around a pillar wrapped with Christmas lights. The bartender brought out bottles of Jim Beam and Mogen David. Darrell Duensing and Ted Mueller sipped their New Year's drinks from paper cups. Then the two big men danced wobbly jigs while the fiddlers played "Ragtime Annie." They couldn't get Darrell out of the tavern. He stayed behind when the DJ cued up "Man of Constant Sorrow."

"Hell, I'll go get him," Ted volunteered.

He returned with Darrell, and a whiskey bottle, which he clutched like a trophy.

"I lifted this bottle of Jim Beam from the tavern," Ted shouted, as he stomped down the bus's center aisle.

Darrell followed with his own find, a can of Milwaukee's Best.

Back at the Legion Hall, where the Geoney ended, Dave Doiron invited everyone back to his house for a bowl of chicken soup.

"That's the traditional end," he told an out-of-towner. "My relatives, the Bievenues, did it for years. Chicken soup."

Was that French?

"I don't know," he said. "It was good chicken soup, though."

Meanwhile, Ted Mueller was trying to join his fellow fiddlers in "Arkansas Traveler." But after a few bars, he laid his fiddle and bow on the pool table and waved at them hopelessly.

In Prairie du Rocher, New Year's Eve traditions never die.

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