Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011
Dr. Tommy Comeaux’s legend plays on. By Anna Purdy
|Photo by Robin May|
If the measure of a man is how well he treats his friends, a new ruler needs to be made for the late Tommy Comeaux. Fifteen years after his death, both friends and strangers revere and remember Comeaux. He was Dr. Comeaux at Our Lady of Lourdes as a pathologist. He was Tommy to friends on stage with his bands BeauSoleil, The Basin Brothers, The Clickin’ Chickens and Coteau, and to his friends who shared his passion for horticulture and bicycling.
It was this last passion that tragically led to his death. In 1997, Comeaux was biking when a driver of a vehicle suffered a seizure, lost control and struck him. A few weeks later Comeaux’s friends, coworkers and family put together the very first Medicine Show to raise money for the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Memorial Endowed Fund for Traditional Music at UL.
By 2010 the committee behind the endowed fund had raised more than $600,000 and, coupled with state matching funds to reach $1 million, hired ethnomusicologist Dr. Mark DeWitt to build the indigenous music program at UL. Students are now taking classes in Cajun music at the university in the heart of Cajun country.
Wilson Savoy of the Pine Leaf Boys is teaching one of its first classes. In a turnaround that would no doubt bemuse Comeaux, Savoy is teaching the very thing that caused some discord at UL several years ago.
“We used to play music on the campus at UL and put out a guitar case for whoever wanted to throw in a few dollars,” recalls Savoy, brother of fiddler/multi-instrumentalist Joel Savoy; both are sons of Eunice accordion maker/player Marc Savoy and chanteuse Ann Savoy.
“One day, while a few of us were playing music on the street on campus, a cop told us to tear down and stop playing. All the while, cars were zooming by blasting crap music on their radios and we were playing acoustic Cajun music on campus. Needless to say, we were upset and the media jumped in and began writing stories.
Before long, the Pine Leaf Boys was formed.
“It’s the very definition of irony as well as a sign of maturity,” Savoy adds. “I never admitted that we were doing anything wrong because I know we were not, but when the university asked me to come back [to teach] I was interested in doing it through an academic setting with kids who were interested in learning Cajun tunes. That was our mission from day one, six years ago — to spark interest in college kids’ ears and get them involved with our music.”
An Ohio native, DeWitt first tasted Louisiana music while studying in Berkeley, Calif. “Everyone who knew Tommy thought they alone had a special relationship — only to find out that there was a thousand other people who had just as special of a relationship. There was something about the way that he related to people that was very generous and made them feel like there is this special connection,” DeWitt says.
Although DeWitt never knew Comeaux, you get the impression he did — that is how pervasive Comeaux’s memory remains. This year the Medicine Show is held at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 26, at Vermilionville featuring Sonny Landreth, Al Berard, Steve Conn, Pine Leaf Boys, special guest Cedric Watson and plenty more. All funds raised benefit the endowment.
Traditional music programs, says DeWitt, aren’t too common around the U.S. His hope is that this program can preserve and perpetuate Cajun and zydeco music and also teach students about world music in general and how many crossover styles and instruments exist.
Medicine shows were traveling wagon shows with people peddling elixirs to fix everything from earaches to balding. These “snake oil salesmen” offering cures that were not much more than moonshine diluted with water and herbs often traveled with a circus or musical acts to draw a crowd. In the case of this Medicine Show, it’s a loving wink at Comeaux’s career and offers music as an audible cure for hearts that can’t forget the man who never knew a stranger.