Documenting a Disappearing Culture
Most people at Southwestern know Jim Shelton as the university’s head baseball coach. But this summer he is involved with a totally different endeavor. And the topic couldn’t be more timely.
Shelton and his friend and travel cohort of 20 years, Don Howard, have received a grant of $108,000 from PBS to make a documentary about southern Louisiana’s disappearing Cajun culture. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded them an additional $40,000 for the project, and Southwestern University, the Austin Film Society and The University of Texas have also donated funds for it.
Howard is a filmmaker and professor at The University of Texas. He has produced and edited a variety of films, including “Dazed and Confused” featuring Matthew McConaughey.
Shelton and Howard began traveling to Louisiana to enjoy the culture 20 years ago. They initially explored New Orleans, but then discovered the unique Cajun country of southern Louisiana. “We were looking for a place with authenticity and the feeling that we had in Austin growing up,” Shelton said.
After a while they started noticing that some of their favorite places in southern Louisiana were disappearing. About three years ago, they decided to delve into the issue and began to plan the documentary. Among the books that inspired them was Bayou Farewell by Mike Tidwell, which featured a trip down the Mississippi River through the bayous.
Originally, the documentary was just going to focus on dance halls in the area. “Everybody has a story about dance halls,” Shelton said. “It was such a prevalent part of all of their lives growing up in southern Louisiana. They started to fade out in the 1960s and 1970s and now they are pretty much all gone.”
Eventually, however, they decided to broaden the scope of their project to the disappearance of the Cajun culture in general and the environmental issues facing the area. “The buildings, land and wildlife have all been affected and are continuing to be damaged by the flooding caused by both storms and river reconstruction,” Shelton said.
Though there have been some efforts to try to restore the area, Shelton says he doesn’t know if it will ever be the same. “Louisiana is an incredible resource that is being destroyed bit by bit,” he said. “A football field is lost about every 15 minutes.”
As Shelton and Howard were departing for their first trip to Louisiana in May, even more flooding was predicted for the central and southern part of the state as spillways were opened to relieve the swollen Mississippi River. “I hope we are still able to work consistently,” Shelton said.
The two have several trips planned this summer to prepare for actual filming of the documentary in August. The hour-long documentary, which they have titled “Say Hello to Mr. Go: An Elegy for South Louisiana,” is slated to air on PBS next summer. “Mr. Go” stands for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which was dredged straight through wetlands to give oil tankers a direct shot to the Gulf of Mexico without having to navigate the windy Mississippi.
One aspect Shelton said he has enjoyed most about the project is the people he has met in the process. Among the people they have gotten to know is Macon Fry, a Louisiana resident who wrote the Cajun Country Guide. One couple has even let Shelton and Howard stay with them during their many trips.
Shelton is in his 18th year at Southwestern University. He’s also been the assistant baseball coach, the sports information director and an assistant professor. Shelton said he is appreciative that Southwestern is so supportive and encouraging when it comes to endeavors such as this documentary.
“The liberal arts philosophy at Southwestern is something I believe in,” he said. “It provides the environment for people to pursue other interests to make your life more enriching.”