Elista and Moriah Istre are graduating from the Arkansas State University Heritage Studies Ph.D. program on Aug. 2 in high Cajun style.
The sisters, who have been heavily involved in the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home restoration project in the tiny farm community Dyess—near ASU’s Jonesboro campus–hail from Cajun Louisiana’s capital city Lafayette. Providing the entertainment at their graduation party will be Vikki McGee, great-granddaughter of legendary Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee, who’s been living in Jonesboro for 20 years.”
“She still hasn’t lost her Cajun accent!” says Moriah Istre—who hasn’t lost hers, either.
“She’s originally from Port Barre [La.], and moved to Arkansas with a previous husband and couldn’t get away!” Moriah continues. “She was playing music on the lawn over at the library a couple years ago and we checked her out and when she did [legendary Cajun singer] D.L. Menard’s ‘La porte d’en arrière,’ Elista and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is danceable!’–our measurement for a good song!”
McGee followed it with the Cajun classic “Johnny Can’t Dance” and “did a fabulous job,” continues Moriah. “We danced the whole time and it was the closest thing to home since we’d been up here. We started talking: She said she was from Port Barre, we said we’re from Lafayette. She asked what we were doing, and I said we were Ph.D. candidates in Heritage Studies, that I was working on a Cajun/zydeco film and Elista was writing a book on Lousiana Creoles. She said, ‘Just so you know, my great-grandfather was Dennis McGee.’ I had chills through my body! We completely connected in a manner of moments.”
ASU’s Heritage Studies Ph.D. Program explores the interrelationships of history, folklore, literature, geography, culture, and environment in distinctive regions of the United States and the world–especially the Mississippi River Delta.
“A lot of doctoral candidates end up as teaching assistants–depending on the program,” Moriah notes. “Ours was designed to be more hands-on with work in the field, like museum work or preservation. One of our options was to help restore Dyess—which I’d never heard of, and thought it was spelled like the dice you roll!”
Dyess is the Depression-era agricultural resettlement colony, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s as part of the New Deal program. It provided an opportunity for destitute farmers, who were advanced 20 or 40 acres of farmland, a mule, a small home and money to buy food and plant crops–with the understanding that if they were successful they’d pay back the government.
Johnny Cash moved to Dyess with his family when he was three, and lived there until he graduated high school in 1950.
“We took a drive to Dyess—now a farming community of 500 people who live there–and fell in love with the area,” says Elista. “At the time the Cash house was in terrible, terrible shape.”
Elista had worked in museums, while Moriah had worked with music festivals—and suggested a festival to raise money to help fund the Cash Home restoration.
“They thought we were the perfect team, and from that day forward we worked together on all the restoration stuff,” continues Elista. “The project is so huge, and that’s kind of what our role has been.”
The Istre sisters began at ASU in August, 2009.
“A Ph.D. is normally a five- to eight-year program and we finished everything in four years,” says Moriah. “I’m not sure why we’re still alive at this point! It’s a good thing we had each other to commiserate and celebrate with!”
The Cash project, she says, took 40-60 hours a week—in addition to regular school work.
“But honestly, it was a labor of love, and the relationship we developed with the Cash family and people in Dyess and local historians who have dedicated their lives to preserving Dyess is stuff you can’t put a price on—and we don’t’ regret those hours at all,” adds Moriah. “But we’re both worn out from our graduation party—and it hasn’t even begun!”
The sisters have a dozen or so friends and family making the nine-hour drive from Lafayette to “the thriving metropolis in Northeast Arkansas,” says Elista. Adds Moriah, “It’s like a wedding reception—without the wedding part!”
Members of the Cash family are also coming in from Nashville.
“We feel so blessed,” says Elista. “Rosanne [Cash] sent a beautiful graduation card. It said: ‘I can’t conceive of the hours and years of labor you’ve done to reach this moment, and my family has benefited so greatly from so many of those hours of intelligence, service, patience and diligence. My dad would be so thrilled and would love you ladies to pieces!’”
Moriah, whose dissertation, Music Is The Voice Of The Culture, involved extensive interviews with musicians regarding their perspective on language, performance and the relationships within the music world, now hopes to finish her Cajun/zydeco documentary.
Elista, whose paper The Creole Culture Of Southwest Louisiana provides a historical overview of both the meaning of the term Creole as well as its cultural heritage, looks to turn it into a book.
And as for the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, a grand opening and dedication ceremony is set for sometime next year, perhaps to include a fourth Johnny Cash music festival. The third annual Johnny Cash Music Festival is slated for Aug. 17 at the Arkansas State University (ASU) Convocation Center in Jonesboro.
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