Dennis Stroughmatt et l'Esprit Creole


“An energetic and driving combination of Celtic, Canadian, and Old-Time styles … enjoy this infectious music!” —Sing Out! magazine

Fingers and bow flying, Dennis Stroughmatt takes listeners on a musical odyssey not so different from his own musical journeys into Upper Louisiana Creole culture. Taught to play fiddle by local Creole fiddlers living along the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Dennis is now the authority on this regional pocket of American antiquity. A vibrant blend of Celtic, Canadian and Old Time sounds, this unique music bridges gaps between contemporary Canadian and Louisiana Cajun styles. Preserved by families in the Ozark foothills, the music remains largely intact and true to the traditions that have been passed down over three centuries.

About Dennis Stroughmatt et l'Esprit Creole

In the Heart of North America is a story that remains to be told, the story of the French Creoles who founded the Illinois Country over three hundred years ago. Along the Wabash and Mississippi River corridors, today they remain with their songs, stories and language, and one music group continues to carry the torch of this enduring culture … Dennis Stroughmatt et l’Esprit Creole. Fingers and bow flying, Dennis Stroughmatt takes listeners on a musical odyssey. This is the story of the French Creoles who founded the Illinois-Missouri Country near the Ozark foothills, more than 300 years ago. Their songs, stories, and language remain largely intact and true to the traditions that have been passed down for generations. L’Esprit Creole’s music bridges the gap between contemporary Canadian and Louisiana Cajun styles. Originally from southeastern Illinois, Dennis Stroughmatt was taught to play fiddle by Missouri Creole fiddlers Roy Boyer and Charlie Pashia in the tradition of their fathers. He became an adopted son of the French Midwest Creoles who settled near St Louis, playing at weekly house parties or “bouillons.” As a result of physical journeys that also included also included French studies in Louisiana and Quebec, Dennis finds himself in a unique position as one who can speak knowledgeably and play in a variety of French styles. He has an innate sense of what is needed to get an audience on their feet, and keep a band on its toes. Dennis Stroughmatt et l’Esprit Creole are passionate ambassadors of Creole music and traditions, expanding interest and excitement in a region that has been ignored by the history books. As they say in the hills, “On est toujours icitte: We are still here!” “I loved this program because this Scotch-Choctaw lad from Illinois had, by nature of his very nature, become a Missouri Frenchman, in a manner of speaking. He has become the living continuation of a vanishing culture in the hills near Potosi. He had studied with older people during the last decade of the 20th century, people who were not connected to the internet or MTV, and who gathered to speak the old language and to sing the old songs. Precious cargo, this store of experience and memory in the soul of Dennis. I felt lucky to encounter him and his French music, it is a reflection of a time past that we are fortunate to carry forward for future generations.” —Michael Bouman, Executive Director Missouri Humanities Council


Solo and Educator

Dennis Stroughmatt also offers solo performances for University, Library and small groups, in addition to his busy careers as bandleader for the traditional band l’Esprit Creole and the dance/swamp pop band Creole Stomp. Recipient of numerous fellowship awards in arts and humanities, Dennis takes his work as ambassador for the Creole French heritage of North America, and its language, music and stories, very seriously—serious fun. A frequent speaker for language conferences, including the keynote speaker at the National Conference of the AATF —American Association of Teachers of French, and workshop leader at conferences on Colonial American French, the National Honor Society, and at the Festival Internationale de Louisianne, to name just a few, Dennis is recognized as the authority on regional French. Read the Missouri Humanities Council Story on Dennis.  [link to pdf file –in new window  ESPRITmissourihumanitiesreview.pdf] Workshops for French students at all grade levels, from Middle school through high school and college, can be tailored to the event and experience level of the organization. French immersion workshops, more. The State Historical Society of Missouri and The Illinois Humanities Council and the Illinois Arts Council have recognized Dennis’s work with fellowship grants and inclusion in funding for Speakers’ Bureau and Arts Tour grant rosters. The following program ideas flow mostly from past offerings of various speakers’ bureaus, and are all engaging presentations by one man and his fiddle—charismatic programs filled with an obvious love for the people he’s learned from and a passion for sharing this amazing heritage.

French Creole Fiddle and Tales from the Illinois Country

Beginning in 1699 with the building of villages like Cahokia and Kaskaskia, Illinois, along the Mississippi River, French colonists from Western France and Quebec would merge with the native populations of Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana to create a Creole culture that is still unique from its cousins in Louisiana and Canada even today. This program will take the listener on a fascinating trip through The Illinois Country from both a historical and modern perspective, highlighting the enduring French identity of places like Prairie du Rocher, Illinois and Old Mines, Missouri through ancient French folktales, haunting ballads, and foot stomping fiddle tunes.

La Guillanee: Ancient French Traditions in “The New World” through Music and Food

Who could have imagined a tradition that began centuries ago, one now extinct in western France, would remain alive in the “Illinois Country” of Illinois and Missouri? The guillanee, originally a Celtic tradition to share food and bounty throughout the community during winter, began in Europe as a gesture of charity over two thousand years ago. In France it also brought the community together to celebrate the New Year and joie de vivre (joy of life). This musical and educational presentation will explore the European, Canadian, and French Creole roots of this now Missouri tradition as well as the fiddle music performed and food eaten during the festivities. (A good program for December, New Years, Mardi Gras, or year-round)

French Creole Music and Language from the Missouri Mines: 1723-Today

With the arrival of French lead miner Phillipe Renault in 1723, the face of Upper Louisiana and the future state of Missouri changed forever. Known by the French government as a credible source of lead and other minerals, southeast Missouri enticed French miners and eventually, voyageurs, clergy, farmers, and craftsmen. For over three-quarters of the eighteenth century, a steady flow of colonists from Canada, Lower Louisiana, and northwestern France formed the nucleus of a French Missouri that eventually included villages and towns such as St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve, Cape Girardeau, New Madrid, St. Charles, and the modern-day “Old Mines” region. The mix of French immigrants brought slight variances of French dialects, foods, and music into Upper Louisiana. But through creolization, a Midwest French Creole culture was born and has survived in Missouri for over 250 years. With discussion and song, this program explores the history of French Missouri and traces its musical and linguistic ties to Canada, Louisiana, and France.

Mardi Gras: The 300 Year Old French Creole Tradition

Though most often associated with states further to the south, Mardi Gras has its own 300-year history as a day of celebration and feasting amongst the Illinois-Missouri French, with a nod to western European and Celtic nature of Mardi Gras, how it relates to other celebrations throughout the year, and of course,  the Illinois French Creole songs performed by this widely-recognized folklorist and fiddler. ****And here are a couple pieces of music and folklore, not necessarily in the French or Creole heritage:

Mussels, Moonshine, and Music: Mississippi Valley Migrant Life in the Early Twentieth Century

In a time almost forgotten, the Midwest and upper South were once home to thousands of Americans who lived and worked on the rivers as share croppers, fishermen, mussel shellers, button cutters, traveling minstrels, and even moonshiners. Once they were  the backbone of industry in cities like Muscatine and Cairo, here are their stories and the music they played, a slice Memphis and St. Louis along their way. [Note: this program has been included in the Illinois Humanities Council’s Road Scholars Speakers Bureau for the 2015-16 season. It is also available in other states, or for Illinois performances that are not part of the Road Scholars series. This program will likely be used as interpretive programming as the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit “Water/Ways” travels to Illinois venues this year.]

Play that Hot Fiddle! Old Time Radio and the Life of Southern Illinois Swing Fiddle “Pappy” Wade Ray

On live radio like Chicago’s “National Barn Dance,” Wade Ray gained national prestige alongside performers such as Patsy Montana and Rex Allen. Presenting the fast swing fiddling and humorous stories of his mentor Wade Ray, Dennis Stroughmatt will lead audiences through the early years of Old Time Radio and share how music brought America through The Great Depression, WWII, and beyond.

Band Member Bios

Doug Hawf – guitar From southeastern Illinois—near the Wabash River in a region known for its rich French heritage—Doug Hawf has played music all of his life and is a wizard of stringed instruments. Besides performing with L’Esprit Creole, Doug also performs with his family bluegrass band as well as the Vincennes University string ensemble. When he’s not out playing music, he enjoys working in his music store and sharing the joy of music with his many students. Jim Willgoose – upright bass A long-time, experienced musician originally from Boston, MA, Jim Willgoose came to Illinois in search of a PhD in Philosophy and graduated from SIU Carbondale. He has played with a variety of groups ranging from country to rock, and he once toured with members of the famed rock band NRBQ. Jim has accompanied Dennis for many years, in l’Esprit Creole and often in the Creole Stomp band as well. He also teaches at the Kaskaskia Community College in Centralia, IL. Dennis Stroughmatt – lead vocals and fiddle Dennis Stroughmatt is a rare musician and scholar of several North American Creole traditions, having made the full circle of the North American continent in his passion to follow the migrations of French roots music. As a result of those physical journeys and musical odysseys, Dennis finds himself in a unique position within Creole and Cajun music scene, as one who can speak knowledgeably and play alongside the huge variety of French styles: Cajun, Zydeco, Blues, Swamp Pop. Though his credentials are unmatched as a scholar and tradition-bearer, Dennis still has the innate “sense” of what is needed to get an audience on their feet, and to keep a band on its toes. Recipient of numerous fellowship grants and awards, Dennis takes his band and the music history to festivals large and small, museums, civic concerts, University stages and master classes, schools, and in smaller ensembles, to libraries, service clubs and more. Some recent credits: Wayne County Historical Society (Wooster OH), Swamp Romp (Kettering), Bastille Days (Milwaukee), Crawfish Fest (St Petersburg, FL), Grey Fox Bluegrass Fest. Originally from southern Illinois, Dennis grew up in the shadow of the French Creoles of Vincennes, IN and and always wanted to become more informed about this part of American culture. While attending college in Cape Girardeau, MO, Dennis “accidentally” became involved with the French Creole population of Old Mines, MO. He spent about three years attending weekly house parties or “bouillons,” learning to speak Creole French with Kent Beaulne, and learning to play the fiddle styles of the Missouri French. Following the trail of French music and culture, Dennis later moved to Lafayette, LA where he worked and interned at the famous Vermilionville Folklife Village. There Dennis increased his fluency in French (though more heavily Cajun) thanks to Blanche Quebedeaux and Evelyn Goller, spent countless hours with Cajun and Creole master fiddlers including Faren Serrette, Black Allemand, Canray Fontenot, and Merlin Fontenot, and eventually just became one of the locals. Dennis finally returned to Illinois to complete a Masters of History at Southern Illinois University, and soon after, he attended The University of Quebec at Chicoutimi, Canada where he was awarded a Certificate in Quebec French Language and Culture in the Fall of 1999. After returning to the United States, he continued to work with his Illinois based band but went back to his roots and started traveling with Louisiana based groups such as Sheryl Cormier and Cajun Sounds, The Acadian Aces, The Bayou Teche Band, and the Creole group The Ardoin Family Band. He still works occasionally with the Morris Ardoin Creole Trio and Dexter Ardoin and the Creole Ramblers. Dennis Stroughmatt also offers solo performances for library and small groups (see Dennis as Educator). L’Esprit Creole tours as a duo or trio.

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