Historical Recordings of Cajun Music
by Steve Winick
A lonesome desperate voice is singing of heartbreak and love. Singing in French. A fiddle adds plaintive drones and harmony. A boisterous accordion, all staccato attack and ornate rolls, provides lift and bounce. Beneath this trinity of voice, fiddle and accordion, a rhythm guitar and a great iron triangle jangle out a rude chanky-chank. The result is the quintessential sound of the South Louisiana prairies and bayous, Cajun music. The early history of the Cajuns is a tale of endurance against outside forces bent on their destruction. In the seventeenth century, the first European settlers left western France and sailed for the new world. Their destination was Cadie, or Acadia, a region of New France that is now called Nova Scotia. There, they and their descendants lived until 1755, when they were forced to leave by the British authorities. Many Acadians were deported to English colonies in what is now the southern U.S. More wandered to the West Indies and elsewhere. Most of them eventually ended up as subsistence farmers in South Louisiana, where there was already a French population, and where the Spanish government welcomed Catholic immigrants. In Louisiana, they reconstructed their culture and made modifications to suit their new environment. They had contact with new groups, principally Native Americans and free people of color. This environment allowed Acadians, who in their rough and ready French called themselves "Cadiens" or "Cajuns", to combine elements of French, Celtic, Spanish, Native American and African music into a new and unique musical genre: Cajun music. This genre had almost two centuries to develop, mature and mellow before the first entrepreneurs and collectors arrived on the scene to make records.
The history of commercially recorded Cajun music, which goes back only to the late 1920s, can be read in part as the story of a long sibling rivalry. Big brother fiddle was with the Acadians in Canada, and its music was the base of the Cajun sound. Chromatic and fretless, it could easily handle all the subtleties of Cajun music, and was in many ways the primary instrument. Little brother accordion was newer on the scene and more limited in ability. Only seven different notes were available to the Cajun accordion, a single diatonic key. But what it lacked in subtlety, the accordion made up for in volume and sheer indestructibility. Four banks of reeds provided a huge sound that could be heard in a noisy house party, and its sturdy, boxy construction proved much less fragile than the fiddle's delicate, exposed fingerboard, strings and bridge. During much of Cajun music's recorded history, the two brothers have worked together beautifully and without complaint, but sometimes, as a result of broader social and historical patterns, one or the other has taken center stage. For example, the accordion was almost the sine qua non of recorded Cajun music for a few years in the 20s and early 30s, since it made as much sound as the big bands that most record companies were used to recording, and since the accordion was still riding a wave of popularity based on its novelty. But, during the 1930s, Louisiana underwent social upheaval that brought the fiddle to the fore. The advent of amplification made the accordion's natural loudness less of an advantage, and the German factories where accordions were made shifted their energies to produce Hitler's war machine, so accordions became scarce. At the same time, the discovery of oil brought industrial jobs and newcomers to the state, and new roads and bridges made South Louisiana more accessible to outsiders and the outside more accessible to South Louisiana. The result was an Americanization process in which string bands, western swing and country and western were emulated by Cajuns. The fiddle simply got along better with the English-speaking neighbors. Along with new arrivals like the pedal steel, it began to dominate the music scene as Cajun string bands were born.
This process is clearly audible on a broadly researched and nicely varied compilation from France, Cajun: Louisiane 1928-1939 [Frémaux & Associés FA 019 (1994)]. This 2-CD set contains an excellent cross-section of the first 10 years of Cajun recording. From 1928-1935, it features nine sides recorded by the prodigiously talented Breaux family: brothers Clifford, Ophy and Amédé Breaux, all singers who played guitar, fiddle and accordion, respectively, with their sister Cleoma Breaux Falcon on vocals and guitar and their brother-in-law Joseph Falcon on vocals and accordion. The set begins with Joseph Falcon and Cleoma Breaux's 1928 recording of "Allons à Lafayette," generally considered the first genuine Cajun song ever recorded. The second ever Cajun recording, "Mama, Where You At?" by Leo Soileau and Mayuse LaFleur, is also included. This song became a huge hit because of its poignant lyrics (LaFleur, who was an orphan, is asking why he never met his mother, and asking her to come see him) and partly because of news coverage of LaFleur's murder only nine days after the recording was made. Perhaps Mama had called him home. This set also covers influential stars like the black Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin and his partner, the white Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee, whose recordings defined the repertoire of many later Cajun bands. It includes early cuts by Lawrence Walker and Nathan Abshire, two influential accordionists who would make a comeback after World War Two, and a few by lesser-known artists like the Segura brothers, who sing a song called "A Mosquito Ate Up My Sweetheart" with accordion and triangle accompaniment. These early recordings also include some old-world tunes like polkas and mazurkas, that were in the original Acadian repertoire, but that have since become rare in Cajun music.
The Hackberry Ramblers
From the string band era, the second CD in this set covers big stars like The Hackberry Ramblers, whose recordings of "Un Piastre Ici, Un Piastre La-Bas" and "La Valse de la Prison" are examples of how blues, country and Cajun music, all working-class genres that are concerned with hard times as well as happy times, combined with ease during the oil boom years. Most identifiably Cajun musical features, such as the use of drones and double-stops to back up the melody on fiddle, are absent. Only the lyrics in Cajun French remain to identify these as Cajun songs, and some don't even retain that feature; the disc presents the Riverside Ramblers and Joe Werner and the Ramblers, two Hackberry spin-offs who performed English-language country music with only a vague (if any) Cajun flavor. Other string bands featured are Happy Fats and his Rayne-Bo Ramblers and the Alley Boys of Abbeville. For a good overview of early recordings of Cajun music including the string-band era, this set, with extensive sleeve notes in French and English, is hard to beat.
Happy Fats and the Rayne-Bo Ramblers
The 1940s and early 1950s were a time of renewal for Cajun music, and a time when the accordion began to dominate once again. Young Cajuns went away to fight in the war, and when they returned they were longing for the distinctive sights, sounds and flavors of home. The string bands suddenly seemed blandly American, and dance halls filled with former GIs who wanted to hear little brother accordion once again. While they'd been gone, many of the younger musicians were away as well, so some of the brilliant old-time Cajun musicians like Lawrence Walker and Nathan Abshire had been busy keeping accordion music alive. Suddenly, as the 40s turned to the 50s, they found themselves playing to packed dancehalls. George Khoury, an entrepreneur who had a record shop in Lake Charles, financed a few recordings of Cajun music, and hit it big (in local terms, at least, selling 3,200 copies!) with Abshire's classic "Crying Pinegrove Blues." After that initial success, he began his own record company, Khoury's Recordings, and committed to vinyl some crucial cuts by seminal musicians. Cajun Honky Tonk [Arhoolie CD 427] contains 26 of Khoury's sides from 1949 through the early 50s. Nine tracks by Walker form the core of this CD. Other important contributions are made by Elise Deshotel's Louisiana Rhythmaires, a band that featured a young Dewey Balfa on fiddle and vocals.
Cajun Honky Tonk also contains two tracks by Harry Choates, a fiddler and singer who, rather than return to an accordion-driven band, re-Cajunized the Western swin style by returning to more traditional two-string fiddle playing. Two tracks by accordion giant Nathan Abshire, whose music drew heavily on the blues as well as on French styles, are also included. Choates and Abshire proved that Cajun music could absorb, rather than be absorbed by, other popular styles, and remain clearly Cajun. For fans who want to delve deeper into some of these individual artists, excellent compilations of Harry Choates (The Fiddle King of Cajun Swing, Arhoolie CD 380) and Nathan Abshire (French Blues, Arhoolie CD 373) are also available.
Another towering figure in the early 1950s was Iry LeJeune. Still considered the greatest of the greats of Cajun music, LeJeune was almost blind from birth, which kept him from doing well in school or on the farm. His ear for music and his love of the accordion pointed the way to a career, and he began to play for local dances around the Lacassine area with an uncompromisingly scruffy band and no concession at all to the slick string-band style that still dominated when he started out in the 1940s. Although the 1950s brought more opportunities for accordion players, LeJeune remained iconoclastic compared to more respectable bandleaders like Lawrence Walker. Influenced by old masters like Amédé Ardoin and Amédé Breaux, he forged his own style and repertoire. When recording opportunities arose, he took them, and when they did not arise, he made them by contacting Eddie Shuler, a local radio host and entrepreneur. By the time he died in a tragic 1955 car accident, he had recorded singles for various labels, which have been collected on Ace Records' compilation Cajun's Greatest [Ace CDCHD 428]. Beware of this disc; LeJeune's wailing, crying-style vocals and his accordion playing, at once technically adept and deeply moving, have converted many to Cajun music, and even brought Ann Allen Savoy, who wrote the excellent liner notes, to live on the bayous. Like the first two sets I discussed, this one is composed of material remastered from acetates and from 78 and 45 r.p.m. discs. The sound is therefore monaural and uneven, some tracks being afflicted by crackly noise. For true lovers of Cajun music and history, though, these should provide fascinating and fun listening.
The later 1950s was another bust time for older styles of Cajun music, as producers moved on to record swamp-pop music, rock and roll performed in many cases by the sons of Cajun musicians. Once again, being Cajun and possessing the French sound, felt by many to be nothing but chanky-chank, was a source of shame rather than pride, and Americanization was the order of the day. Still, many of the greats like Nathan Abshire continued to ply their trade until the American folk revival provided a new outlet for Cajun musicians. Newport's 1964 festival marked the first time a Cajun band played for a national audience. At best, they thought they'd be a novelty act rather than a serious attraction. At worst, they feared getting laughed off the stage. But they received a thunderous standing ovation for their performance, and band member Dewey Balfa (who had played with Abshire's Pine Grove Boys, among other acts) returned to South Louisiana a changed man, a cultural missionary whose goal was to spread the gospel of traditional Cajun music and culture. Along with his brothers, Balfa became an unstoppable force in the world of Cajun music.
Many of the Balfas' recordings are available on CD, but historically-minded fans will want their first two albums, now available on a single CD, The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music Vol I and II [Swallow CD 6011]. Both albums show both a love of old French and Acadian folksongs and the skills to make exciting new Cajun music. The concern for history and tradition was a conscious and deeply-felt ideal for the Balfas. One of the most satisfying results is that, unlike most of the musicians mentioned so far, the Balfas recorded songs old enough to have roots in France. Songs like "La Valse du Bambocheur" and "Je Me Suis Marillé" are clearly derived from French antecedents. On the other hand, Dewey himself wrote some of the songs; he had nothing against innovation, and indeed saw it as essential for the tradition to survive. Two fiddles, one tuned low, two guitars, and a triangle were the Balfas' instruments, and their friends Hadley Fontenot (Vol. 1) and Marc Savoy (Vol. 2) were on hand to add accordion to the band. All 24 tracks are excellent. The vocals are strong and the instrumental blend is beautiful; the second fiddle, mostly played by Will Balfa, adds a particularly rich resonance to their playing on many tracks. This disc's cleanly traditional live-in-the-studio sound, as well as its clear recording quality, ensure that it will remain classic and undated for years to come. The booklet contains all lyrics (very helpful for anyone who learned their French outside of Louisiana) as well as translations into English. The notes are generally good, but one major error states that the Balfa brothers were the first Cajun band to play at Newport. This is inaccurate; only Dewey was a member of the pioneering Newport group.
Cajun music in the 1970s and 1980s experienced a huge resurgence that is continuing today. Old masters took on new apprentices and a new generation of Cajun musicians was born. Cajun music and folklife festivals abounded, where youngsters could actually see and hear Cajun musicians (law had kept them out of the bars and dancehalls where the music had previously been played). Most importantly, it became cool to be Cajun. One of the leaders of this generation of Cajun musicians is fiddler, accordionist and accordion maker Marc Savoy. Now in his 50s, Savoy was the youngest musician to play at the first tribute to Cajun Music in 1974. His wife Ann Savoy, a naturalized Cajun who sings and plays guitar, fiddle and accordion, is also a serious chronicler and collector of Cajun songs and music; together they are like a latter-day Joseph and Cleoma Falcon. Michael Doucet, fiddler and singer with the popular group Beausoleil, is another very influential Cajun musician who has made numerous recordings of traditional and contemporary music since the mid 1970s. In 1988, these three recorded Two-Step D'Amédé [Arhoolie CD 316] as the Savoy-Doucet Cajun band. Demonstrating (like the Balfas) both continuity with the past and a desire to create new and exciting music in the traditional vein, this CD contains old and new songs. The new songs are largely new words added by Doucet and Ann Savoy to old tunes, once again stressing the connection of aujourd'hui to autrefois. The old songs and the tunes were learned from the greats of Cajun music, and often from the now-canonized versions they recorded. Some of these greats, like Nathan Abshire, Amédé Ardoin, and the Hackberry Ramblers, I have been able to mention in this column. Others, like Wallace "Cheese" Read, Aldus Roger, and Austin Pitre, would require a much longer article. Suffice it to say they are all seminal figures in Louisiana French musical culture, and their combined influence and guidance has made these three musicians into the powerhouses they are today. Doucet's vocals have the soulful twang shared by Cajun music and old-style country and western. Ann Savoy's voice is clearer and more controlled, strong and pure. The playing by all three musicians is robust and tight. Nobody working on the more traditional end of the contemporary Cajun scene touches the skill, depth and warmth of this group.
One set that places Cajun music in the larger context of the Louisiana music scene is the double disc Louisiana Spice: 25 Years of Louisiana Music on Rounder Records [Rounder CD AN 18/19]. Only about a quarter of this disc, strictly speaking, is Cajun, most of it in a modern vein, with country and pop influences clearly showing in the use of electric guitar and bass, drum kit, pedal steel, banjo, and other instruments. This highlights the fact that today's Cajun music is varied and adaptable to new technologies and new circumstances. Twice already, in the 30s and the 50s, it seemed that mainstream popular music might engulf Cajun music. Both times Cajun musicians decided instead to use what they could of the mainstream culture within what they felt to be the idiom of Cajun music, and to discard the rest. The artists on Louisiana Spice include many of the important Cajun musicians of this integrative era; Beausoleil, Bruce Daigrepont, Zachary Richard, Jo-El Sonnier, and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys all contribute excellent examples of music that has pop appeal without compromising its Cajun soul. Jimmy C. Newman provides a glimpse into Nashville-inflected French music. For fans of the more traditional sound, three excellent tracks featuring D.L. Menard, Ken Smith and Eddie LeJeune and one by the Balfa brothers are terrific representatives of acoustic Cajun music.
Of course, Louisiana Spice features a lot of other music, as well. The "country disc," which features all the Cajun cuts I've mentioned, also includes a healthy shot of Zydeco, the bluesy French-language music played by the Acadians' black Creole neighbors. Like Cajun music, Zydeco is a blend of French, Spanish, American and African musics, but leans more heavily toward the African side, basing itself in the blues and in jurer, a religious singing style of African-American Louisianans. Even more than the contemporary Cajun sounds of this disc, the Zydeco tracks are hard-rocking, infectious tunes that may just have you two- stepping around the living room in your underwear. Zydeco masters like Boozoo Chavis, Buckwheat Zydeco, Nathan Williams, Beau Jocque, and "Li'l Brian" Terry provide accordion-fronted, rub-board-backed, and drum-driven dance music that often blends hot electric guitar solos, brass accents from trumpet and saxophones, and driving basslines into the sweaty aural texture. Tradition and innovation are represented by two generations of Zydeco bands: Father John Delafose provides older-style Zydeco on accordion, frottoir (rub-board) and drums, while son Geno Delafose fronts one of the big, hot-stompin' bands. Together, the Cajun and Zydeco tracks provide a reasonable overview of the last 25 years of South Louisiana French music, while the "City Disc" introduces some of the best jazz, brass band, blues and rock from New Orleans. Unfortunately, no dates for the original recordings are provided. At its special celebratory price, however, this CD set is well worth it.
While many bands, like those featured on Louisiana Spice, prefer to add pop elements to their sound, others favor a more traditional approach, looking for old material and playing it on acoustic instruments. A fascinating new CD in the latter vein foregrounds the perspective of women. Although women like Cleoma Falcon are as important, as talented, and as influential as any of the men in Cajun music, there have not been that many influential women performers. One reason for this is that in the old days a woman on the bandstand ran the risk of being considered loose, unless the band included a husband, father or uncle. Now Ann Savoy and Jane Vidrine, neither of them Louisianans by birth, are continuing the tradition of women playing fine Cajun music, and allowing modern sensibilities to free them from performing only with their husbands. The result is the group Magnolia Sisters and the CD Prends Courage [Arhoolie CD-439]. One of the best things about this disc is the marvelous vocal blend achieved by Savoy and Vidrine. Gentler and slower than the quick-paced dancehall music that makes up the bulk of the Cajun repertoire, these songs let you listen more to the voices and the words. Several old ballads of French origin are included. Particularly effective is their rendition of the old ballad from Brittany, "Sur Le Bord de L'eau," versions of which have been recorded by the Breton group Cabestan, the French folk-rock group Malicorne, and the Québec-Vermont trio Jeter le Pont. Far from being just another take on an old classic, however, their sensitive, slow singing with beautiful harmonies and eerie vocal drones add just the right menacing touch to this tale of a young girl seduced and carried off against her will by a singing sailor. There are three more old French ballads, plus pieces by Amédé Breaux, D.L. Menard, Iry LeJeune, and other musicians and songwriters in the Cajun French tradition. Some of the songs are altered to fit a woman's point of view, others were women's songs to begin with, but all of them give the listener a taste of a woman's life on the bayous. Instrumental backing on (what else?) accordion, fiddle, guitar and triangle, give this the unmistakable, classic sound that could only be Cajun music.