Lauren E. Stirnaman
"It is two hours past sunset on the eve of the New Year. We gather, twenty of us, shivering from the icy wind that is gusting beneath the bluffs. The fiddler is near, and the leader, too, attired in his traditional suit of cornshucks loosely sewn together. Men in knickers stride up, with their ladies in long dresses. The group is animated, good-naturedly cursing the intense cold, talking of Christmas just passed. Now, here is the guitarist, and we are ready. We arrive at the first home, its porch light reflecting dull yellow on the crusted snow. The musicians strike up their introductory bars, and the leader, tapping time with his cane, intones, "Bon soir, Ie maitre et la maitresse et tout Ie monde du logis." In English this means, "Good master and mistress of the house and the lodgers all, good night to you." As the others echo his verse in the traditional French dialogue, the door is opened and the troupe enters. In lyrics that are centuries old, the troupe requests the indulgence of the host, a pork backbone for a fricassee, and the oldest daughter to join them. When the song is done, cries of "Bonne annee!" ("Happy New Year!") ring out, and the host brings forth a bottle of wine or whiskey to warm his guests against the chill of the night. Then, on to the next home."
This is the interpretation of La Guiannee by Dan Franklin, lead singer in La Guiannee, held annually in Prairie du Rocher. La Guiannee, described above, is a custom dating from Druid times. The singers began as poor people seeking food and fun for the New Year. Prairie du Rocher has witnessed La Guiannee for more than 250 years without interruption. The custom was brought to Illinois in 1699 and has been performed annually by the residents in the form passed down since the Middle Ages. The French, who settled in the Prairie du Rocher-Kaskaskia-Cahokia area, surrounded themselves with the religious, political, and social customs of their native France. Among the social customs relating to the new year was La Guiannee. The celebration of La Guiannee has been a social custom in France. The performers were the poor who sang with sacks in their hands and hopes in their hearts
for a gift of food for their New Year's feast. The residents turned on their porch lights or lit candles in their windows to invite the singers into their homes. The performers were costumed and sang one verse outside each of the houses they visited. When they finished, the singers and those present exchanged New Year's greetings, and the hostess served refreshments.
Through the years, La Guiannee has remained a timeless tradition with only a few alterations from the tradition brought to Illinois. Today, La Guiannee is open to all participants. As opposed to earlier times, the wealthy and middle class also participate. The ages of La Guiannee participants range from nine- or ten-year old performers to some at the age of ninety. The instruments traditionally used were the fiddle and the guitar and now, on occasion, the mandolin. All the songs were sung in unison, as there was no attempted harmony. The songs were sung in French, and no hint of religion can be traced in the songs because La Guiannee was a secular custom. The average size of the group varies from about twenty to twenty-five members, who start their journey at 7:30 P.M. on New Year's Eve. The current transportation for the performers is by bus, and the event has never been cancelled because of weather. La Guiannee makes its appearance at Fort de Chartres and at homes and taverns in Prairie du Rocher, Modoc, Ruma, Fults, with the final destination at the American Legion at midnight for the New Year's Dance.
"La Guiannee Song" is significant in many ways. Many of the songs that are sung by La Guiannee are old French drinking songs. "La Guiannee Song" is different than the others that have been passed down for many generations. It begins with a greeting to the master and mistress of the house and then asks for food and for a dance with the oldest daughter. Then, the song talks about love in a poetic tone. The song continues with a plea to be excused if anything that the group did was silly, or they committed any folly. The closing is usually a funny line that has nothing to do with the rest of the song. Most traditional songs appear to be plain, yet "La Guiannee Song" is philosophical, because of its talk of love and feelings.
Dan Franklin talked of his experience with the song and the group. "I think it is fabulous to continue and be part of a tradition that predates the Declaration of Independence by at least half a century," said Franklin. "We are continuing a tradition that the earliest white settlers brought with them. La Guiannee has been an unbroken chain for nearly two and a half centuries and that aspect amazes me."—[From "La Guignolee Welcomes in the New Year," Chester Herald Tribune (date unknown); Theodore Fadler, "Memoirs of a French Village—A Chronicle of Old"; student historian's interview with Daniel D. Franklin, December 28, 1995; Arthur P. LeClerc, "Echoes of Old Prairie du Rocher"; Missouri Historical Society, "Missouri Heritage Fair 1993."]