They signed a treaty
And our homes were taken
They didn't give a damn.
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Sea cliffs at Cap Enrage, New Brunswick
"Acadian Driftwood" appeared on the Band's 1975 album Northern Lights—Southern Cross.
Like the group's earlier classic, "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down
," it deals with an actual historical event. This time, though, Band songwriter Robbie Robertson casts his gaze much farther north, all the way to his home nation of Canada.
The Expulsion of the Acadians occurred in 1755–1764. The Acadians themselves were descendants of French immigrants who moved into Canada in the 1600s and made good terms with the Wabanaki Confederacy of First Nations and Native American peoples.
The Acadians' main area of residency straddled the dividing line between French Quebec and British lands in what is now the United States. This meant that they were often caught up in conflicts between the two colonial powers, so much so that they experienced six wars over a course of 74 years.
Tensions reached their peak during the French and Indian War that started in 1754. Though not indicated in the war's name, the conflict was between the French and British colonial forces occupying North America at the time.
Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia
The Acadians weren't looking to get caught up in the war, but they had also refused to swear allegiance to the British in the years preceding it. As the war progressed, the British began forcibly deporting Acadians. By the end of the Expulsion, approximately 11,500 Acadians were forced out of their home territory—they had only had about 14,100 to begin with. The remaining 2,600 or so Acadians evaded the British and manage to stay in their own territory, free but under constant duress.
None of this means that the Acadians went down without a fight. Along with their Wabanaki Confederacy allies, they fought a guerilla war for years. Alas, it was not enough to stop the vast majority of their people from being expelled.
It was not an easy journey out of their homeland. Among the expelled Acadians, disease and drowning claimed the lives of thousands.
Robertson learned about the event through a documentary titled L'Acadie, l'Acadie
, which he had seen in Montreal. He generally kept with historical accuracy in his song, though he switched around a couple details. The Expulsion didn't really start after "what went down on the Plains of Abraham," for instance, but instead after the Battle of Fort Beauséjour.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about the Expulsion of the Acadians, as well, in his 1847 poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie
. The poem influenced Robertson's lyrics. After "Acadian Driftwood," Robertson also wrote the song "Evangeline," which was performed by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris on the latter's album Evangeline
Lake Midway, Nova Scotia. Thanks Kelly Fines.
Robertson wanted the sound of "Acadian-Canadian-Cajun" for the song. In the documentary, he'd learned that the term "Cajun" was a southern pronunciation of "Acadian." It had become a common term because many of the expelled Acadians settled in and around New Orleans.
Band members Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko all take turns singing the lead vocal on the song and then harmonize together for the choruses.
Many notable rock critics consider "Acadian Driftwood" to be one of the Band's best songs, especially from the latter part of their career. The group's original lineup would produce only one more album after Northern Lights—Southern Cross
, with 1977's Islands
Many felt both of their final efforts had been slipping in quality. "Acadian Driftwood" is an exception, and it still holds up as one of Robertson's most appreciated songwriting efforts.
~ Jeff SuwakSongplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He writes for The Prague Revue, and has a blog about Pacific Northwest travel (Northwest Nomad.com). He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at beyondthetempestgate.com
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