Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People, Volume 1, Compiled and edited by Ann Allen Savoy
The first thing is the photographs. A book like this, you flip through and stare at a lot of faces.
Of men, and of women, handling fiddles and accordions and sitting on verandahs where there is a lot of light so the photos will be properly exposed. Their feet are blurry and they are not smiling. They wear suits and good clothes, serious faces in Mardi Gras costumes, but all around them is a poverty of materials. Big hats and wide lapels; brothers in identical poses ready to launch into fiddle playing. There are photos of one-storey clapboard lounges with no windows, and inside (you are led to believe) is a dance hall. People would pay to dance, not to hear music.
There are interviews.
You learn that a lot of musicians died while changing flat tires or by getting thrown through the front windshield. The fiddle came with the Acadians in the 1700s. You had to sound two strings to make it louder. They used accordions because there was volume in its chest and the sound would carry over a dance hall. For the same reason, the singers were successful if they had high and loud voices. They had to belt it out. It was a long time before fiddles and accordions were used together—the fiddle could not be tuned to the accordion. The introduction of C and D accordions, in the 1920s, changed this. The accordion took over and a lot of fiddle tunes were lost.
The discovery of oil in the 1930s brought hillbilly music to Louisiana. So, oil changed the music.
Then Luderin Darbone flipped through a catalogue in 1932 and stared at a speaker and microphone and thought that they might work. Luderin and Lennis Sonnier used the power off their own car engine and hooked up an amp and microphone, even though it was hard on the automobile. Some blind people, like Iry LeJeune, could not grow cotton so they took up the accordion. Women did not often play the violin. It seems who became a musician was accidental. It was not encouraged. Kids had to sneak around to play, and they learned to play on their own.
No one composed songs. They sang the songs that existed—the songs that had been overheard from grandparents. The idea of “making” a song did not occur to anyone, not until the recording era and the idea of royalties and copyright crept in. A song existed like a seam of coal. The songs, in French, often about six lines long and repeated, are of suffering and loneliness: “If you have an outfit to take, take the one the colour of ash,” and “When I get the wheelbarrow, that’s the weight on my back.” There’s little story.
There were musicians who were well regarded, but, actually they were known just over a six-mile radius—a day’s journey by horse and wagon. It wasn’t until radio and the automobile that these musicians broke out and found a wider audience.
This book makes you realize how arbitrary an art’s development is. How local music is changed by technology and economic conditions, and music is like a brook following the easiest course as it descends through time. It is malleable and indifferent to any sort of preservation. There is very little that is precious about Cajun music or, really, any traditional music. The Newfoundland folksinger Anita Best told me once that people came to hear the song, not the singer. There’s a lot to that in this book.
Boys built fiddles out of cigar boxes. They made strings from window screens. They held a broomstick in their mouths and cupped their ears to hear better.
Most often you couldn’t hear the music in the days before amplification. You just knew they were playing because everyone was dancing. Lyrics weren’t that important. They beat out the tune with their feet.
You got invited to a dance, and they were private events.
You think of something traditional as being fixed, but the Cajun song tells you different. Cajun music leaps upon any modern method that enhances the song or makes the playing of it easier.
Sometimes a musician got married or a son was killed tragically and that was it, the end of the music, but after forty years of growing cotton or working in a sugar refinery they returned to a fiddle that was sitting atop a bureau or an accordion that was dragged out from under a bed.
Wade Fruge speaks of “rocking the bow” and calls it yokery yokery. There’s talk of Tasso, the town. Its name comes from killing a cow, cutting the meat into strips, and hanging it on a wire to dry. They’d smoke that and call it Tasso. Fruge trained horses; he went through fences with horses.
Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin got his nickname because, as a youngster, he was afraid of the rain. He’d get in from the cornfields to shelter before any of the other workers. The white owner asked, “Why you dry when all the rest is wet?” So they called him Bois Sec.
Dennis McGee and Joe Falcon made the first recordings of Cajun music in 1928.
Douglas Bellard had too much to drink so he drank down a glass of ketchup. He had no money so he used number-eight sewing thread on his bow. Lots of stories like that.
But central to Savoy’s book is Amédée Ardoin, a black musician who walked from town to town carrying his accordion in a flour sack. A lot of the early songs came from Ardoin. He learned how to project by playing the accordion over his head. He was run down and beaten for wiping his brow with a white woman’s handkerchief. “They moved his brain some kinda way,” his brother said. Ardoin later died from his injuries.
All of this is only half the book. The book goes on to interview swing bands and zydeco players and there are a whole lot of other good, wild stories. As Ann Savoy puts it in her introduction, describing Cajun music
would be like summarizing one hundred years of the evolution of a people. Surely the music is different things to different people. It is a lone ballad singer singing song stories as remembered from French and Acadian ancestors; it’s the acoustic wail of an accordion heard echoing for miles from the porch of an isolated house on the prairie; it’s the music played by friends crowded together in the kitchen corner playing music and drinking beer while spicy odors of a sauce piquante fill the room. Cajun music is also the slick, electric band with accordion, steel guitar, and twin fiddles in the dim, smoke filled club, filled with gliding dancers; it’s the rubboard and the triple row accordion driving to the beat of an electric bass in a black club in a creole community; it’s a lonely song with a fiddle seconding the beat, while the lead fiddle plays its heart out.
Michael Winter writes fiction, but he often wakes up thinking he’s an ethnographer. He grew up in Newfoundland and now lives in Roncesvalles, a small town west of Toronto.