Throughout Cajun and zydeco music history there are gigantic events shaping the genres. Then, there are small things going unnoticed and often forgotten. Like the theory that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa a hurricane will strike the Eastern seaboard, these events ripple over time until they create pivotal impacts on local music — be it a man’s controlling wife, a British folk-rock song, the lack of a shoulder on Highway 90 or the simple act of standing, these events left a lasting legacy on South Louisiana music.
The Delta has Good Dirt
If the land along the Mississippi River didn’t have rich soil, Cajun music might sound very different.
After Le Grand Dérangement, Acadians ping-ponged about the globe. However, Cajun culture only came into being in Louisiana. And not just Louisiana but southwest Louisiana. Only here existed the circumstances that galvanized the Acadian-to-Cajun transition.
In waves, they made it to Louisiana, a Spanish colony at the time. The second wave came in 1766 and settled along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge — an area dubbed the Acadian Coast. To lure them into settling here, the Acadians received long strips of land with a narrow frontage on a river or bayou.
But the successes of the Spanish-guaranteed generous land offerings could not last. Creoles — at the time a label for anyone, white or black, born in the colony — demanded this alluvial soil belong to planter class farmers.
In an overlooked second migration, Acadians were pushed out or purchased away by more affluent Creoles. Some assimilated into Creole culture, a step up in class, but the bulk ventured west.
Had they stayed on the Acadian Coast, Cajun music and culture would not be the same, if anything at all. Ryan Brasseaux, author of books on Cajun music and dean of Yale’s Davenport College, notes that Acadians modeled their lifestyle after those already in the area. For example, to emulate the higher class Creoles they purchased slaves.
“The move westward is pivotal in the sense that Acadian refugees encountered new terrain and ethnic groups which ultimately factored into what we know today as Cajun,” says Brasseaux.
Those who did stay on the river are different musically. A prime example is Vin Bruce. Though a French singer, Bruce’s music is distinctly not Cajun.
“Their music is remarkably different, less historically influenced by the accordion, more string oriented, more country sounding,” says Barry Ancelet, author and UL Lafayette folklorist.
The First to Stand
The modern accordion player’s name comes before the ampersand in bands like the Mamou Playboys and French Rockin’ Boogie. They solo on the accordion, often showboating to the crowd. Yet traditionally, accordionists sat. One performer deciding to stand altered the music forever.
Though the first to stand outright is lost to time, it is well accepted Austin Pitre was the first to play sans shoulder strap, providing more mobility. It may not seem like much, but the difference between a seated and a standing accordionist is vast. Speaking in generalizations, a seated accordionist plays traditional Cajun music so people can dance. A standing accordion player entertains a crowd, with dancing perhaps secondary.
“I sit … because I’m anti-showman,” says Marc Savoy, accordion builder, player and owner of Eunice’s Savoy Music Center. “I don’t believe in showmanship. You might apply showmanship to commercial music, but I don’t think folk music is the place to commercialize it. People do and that’s perfectly alright. No music police is going to go arrest them.”
|Photos courtesy of Johnnie Allan and the Center for Louisiana Studies at UL Lafayette|
It was a perfectly timed development. Around the time standing accordionists took favor, so did television. A standing accordion player is more camera ready than a seated one. No doubt this helped drive the music when it had an opportunity to flourish. Savoy recalls Aldus Roger, playing on TV, as the first player he saw stand. In his opinion this did wonders for the music’s acceptance.
“Before that, it was too segregated in small places, it was too isolated,” says Savoy. “It didn’t really take off like it did until Roger got on television and presented it to the masses. That legitimized it for so many people — the fact that they saw it on television, ‘It’s ok to be Cajun, because look, it’s on television.’”
A Kingly Idea
One accordion player changed music by standing up, another by drawing in the dirt.
The same rings true in zydeco music with the frottoir as with the standing accordion player. Though few washboard — or frottoir — players lead bands, they are often the most energetic presence on the stage.
Washboards have deep roots — or vines. West African music, according to Kingdom of Zydeco by Michael Tisserand, employed notched gourds. Tisserand notes zydeco performers used actual washboards, others took drip trays out of early refrigerators. Clifton Chenier, while driving refinery trucks and pumping gas in Port Arthur, Texas, set the instrument in steel in 1946. Meeting with Willie Landry, a welder for the Texaco Refinery, Chenier drew a rough model of what he wanted for his brother. There in the dirt, Chenier scratched out the first frottoir. No longer bound by a chain around the neck — instead snuggly clutching the shoulders — the frottoir Landry forged changed the visual aspect of Louisiana music.
Tisserand, heralding the frottoir-born showman, described Iron Jaw of Rockin’ Dopsie’s band picking up chairs with his teeth while performing.
“It also gives an almost moth-to-the-flame attraction on stage,” says Sean Ardoin of Double Clutchin’ and Zydekool fame. “People are just drawn to it, making it almost as important in visually identifying zydeco as the accordion.”
Ardoin acknowledges its material presents a better sound: “A handheld household washboard usually gives a dead and muffled sound, I believe, because of the wood frame it sits in … [The frottoir] gives a bright and super loud sound that cuts through our amplified music to give us that icing on the rhythmic cake.”
Amédé Ardoin Dies Too Soon
In the 1920s and ’30s, Amédé Ardoin was the zipper of Cajun and Creole music. While he was performing, the two genres — though distinct — came together in a groove that shared his repertoire and style. After his death, they wandered apart, further and further as the two went along. Ardoin’s influence on both genres is so formidable that he appears on both Cajun and zydeco compilations and is sometimes incorrectly listed as a Cajun. Breaking Jim Crow era barriers, he routinely played with Cajun musicians.
Not only did his life greatly influence Cajun and zydeco music, so did his death. The details surrounding Ardoin’s death are the stuff of legend in every sense of the word. Accounts differ. It’s almost too much to believe. Some versions only agree that he is dead.
The popular legend is angry white men captured Ardoin after a performance because he accepted the handkerchief of a white woman to wipe his brow. Torturing him, they capped off the punishment by running him over with either a wagon or a Model T or A Ford. The assailants dumped Ardoin’s body in a ditch, one of his nephews telling Tisserand it is now the location of a John Deere shop near Eunice. Some accounts recall his throat was specifically run over. Different versions put it a decade apart. Another version claims he was poisoned by a jealous musician. Or he may have contracted a degenerative disease. Whichever incident is accurate caused his death shortly — or years — after. Modern research suggests he expired in the Central Louisiana State Hospital in Pineville and is buried in an unmarked grave.
Most fans understand the influence Ardoin had, but it is rivaled by the influence he didn’t have — the genre’s formative years were robbed by his death.
“His playing is the template we all use in one way or another,” says Sean Ardoin, the grandson of Bois Sec Ardoin, Amédé’s cousin. With Ardoin gone too soon, these templates were limited. Having him around for longer would have meant a bigger repertoire from which to pull. Instead, Cajun and Creole music forged separate paths.
There is another theory about Ardoin’s death: dying so young created his legacy, thereby cementing his repertoire into the hymnal of South Louisiana music.
“I imagine Amédé’s career following the same trajectory as, say, Mississippi John Hurt. I imagine that he would have faded into obscurity as musical tastes changed,” says Brasseaux. He compares his death to Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix but speculates Ardoin would have made a comeback during the 1960s’ folk revival.
Still, Sean Ardoin is satisfied with what his kin left behind.
“When you’re building a skyscraper, you have to go as far down as you wanna go up, right? Well, the foundation he laid allows us to keep rising, and I don’t believe we’ve approached the height limit that his depth has set.”
Woodrow Wilson’s War on Germans
Jazz, zydeco and Cajun music are the premier sounds of Louisiana. There is no arguing it. However, would they be as loud with an oom-pah oom-pah beat drowning them out? At one point, French was not the prevailing non-American culture in our state. German was. It took government propaganda to silence the polka party.
According to Ellen C. Merrill’s Germans of Louisiana, Germans formed the largest foreign-language speaking group in Louisiana, bigger than all others combined. Her book notes 20 percent of Louisiana’s 1870 population was German-speaking. In the late 1900s, Louisiana published more than 50 German periodicals and had 250 German-American societies. Though not all would stay, a third of a million Germans passed through New Orleans in the 1800s. Research by UL folklorist Carl Brasseaux puts 53,000 Germans entering through New Orleans in 1853 alone.
Once a strong contributor to Louisiana culture, Germans introduced accordions and sausage and were likely first to privately brew beer — their traditions began to fade around the turn of the 20th century. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson accelerated the demise by creating the Committee on Public Information, which targeted foreign languages in America.
The Miller Center at the University of Virginia lists the repercussions across the country: burning German books, banning Bach and Beethoven, renaming sauerkraut liberty cabbage, lynching people with German names. In 1918, Louisiana passed Act 114, criminalizing all expressions of German culture. Speaking, teaching and printing the language, flying German flags, selling German-made products all became illegal, punishable by fines and a maximum of 60 years in prison.
Some Germans took shelter in French culture. The German-Acadian Coast Historical and Genealogical Society notes 85 percent of Louisiana residents spoke French by the early 1900s, even if they had a German surname. Those surnames were also changing: Troxler became Trosclair, Schexnayder was accepted into French culture. Allemand, now considered Cajun, is French for German.
Did the German disappearance give headroom to Cajuns, perhaps opening up a cultural vacuum?
“I would speculate that French culture in Louisiana overtook all other ethnic influences,” says Merrill. “Part of this was no doubt snobbery, or, at least anti-Hun feelings.”
With one less cultural competitor, French became a heavyweight in Louisiana. That oom-pah oom-pah sound faded out and was replaced with a fiddle.
Highway 90 is widened
In 1948, riding on a current stirred by songs like Harry Choates’ “Jole Blon,” string music flooded the dancehalls and airwaves of South Louisiana. Then, with one song, Iry Lejeune threw a life preserver to the accordion. After his “Love Bridge Waltz,” the fiddle fell out of Cajun music favor and the accordion crested. According to an article penned for Britain’s Old Time Music by Mike Leadbitter, the song broke a 10-year dry spell for accordion music on South Louisiana jukeboxes.
A gifted singer and a master of the accordion, and able to craft deeply personal songs, Lejeune had it all and potential for even more.
Then, he had a flat tire in the wrong place.
Lejeune developed a crying singing voice, both melodic and pleasant yet shrill enough to cut through the clangor of a noisy dancehall, an asset before amplification. Plus, his band could play complicated songs. In 2010, Lejeune was named to the National Recording Registry, the institute noting “LeJeune is regarded as one of the best Cajun accordionists and singers of all time.”
In roughly a decade, he conquered Cajun music. Though some of his recordings were versions of older songs, according to Ancelet’s article “Cajun Music,” his renditions are the standards that Cajun bands play, Ancelet stating they are “ ...performed by every Cajun band in South Louisiana and southeastern Texas.” Lejeune gave Cajuns returning from World War II what they wanted to hear: their music — accordion-driven Cajun music.
His legacy was cut short on the side of Highway 90, outside of Eunice, on Oct. 8, 1955. Lejeune and fiddler J.B. Fuselier were headed home when they stopped to change a tire just after midnight. Unfortunately, widening the highway for extra lanes meant the pair had no shoulder on which to pull the car. As they worked in the dark, a driver going an estimated 90 miles an hour struck both men.
Fuselier survived, but Lejeune’s stellar career and life were over just three weeks before his 27th birthday.
Cajun music lost an incredible talent. The Newport Folk Festival and the Cajun Renaissance lie ahead. He could not be there to be a star. Peers riding on his resurrection of accordion music — such as Lawrence Walker, Aldus Roger and Nathan Abshire — would soon overshadow Lejeune even though they could not outdraw or outsell him in his time.
“I believe he would have adapted to the changing musical winds like others did,” says Ron Yule, author of Iry Lejeune: Wailin’ the Blues Cajun Style. “I think Iry’s impact was enhanced by his early death, but his unique accordion style and bluesy earthy voice as presented in his recordings would have continued to be recognized. This great talent would have lived on, and he would have impacted other musicians just as it continues to do today.”
Texas Becomes ‘Texas’
In South Louisiana music, there are plenty of songs about losing women to Texas men. Seventy-eight years ago, Texas gave back in a big way.
In 1936, Texas celebrated its centennial by becoming … Texas. Celebrating their birthday, Texans threw parties across the state, capped off by a $25 million celebration from June to November in Dallas.
It was more than just a birthday party. It changed the way people regarded the Lone Star State. To distance itself from its Old South past — slaveholding and agrarian — it crafted a new identity: 10 gallon hats, cowboys, oil, six-shooters. Sarah Gertrude Knott’s National Folk Festival (held June 14-21 at the Dallas exposition) served a key role, Ryan Brasseaux notes in his book Cajun Breakdown: The Emergence of an American-Made Music. By showcasing the folk cultures of the United States, Texas repainted its image as an inclusive, folksy state. Doing so launched Cajun music — appearing dressed down in bare feet and dressed up in wooden shoes, silk milkmaid outfits, with a 12- year-old as Evangeline — into the folk music universe.
Though the festival touted the 36-member delegation from across multiple parishes (including Lawrence Walker) as representing a culture unchanged in many years, it was far from authentic. However, this event put Cajun music on the folk festival and national stage for the first time. The two troupes (one a six-member band, the other 19 Evangeline-themed dancers) played a rotation of performances, some broadcast on the radio. Brasseaux explains this seed grew into bigger events and the inclusion of South Louisiana music in future festivals.
“People began to think about placing Cajun music on the folk festival stage,” says Brasseaux. “[Knott] placed Cajun music squarely within the folk idiom.” Knott returned to present the first folk festival in French Louisiana, at the Acadian Bicentennial Celebration of 1955, an event Brasseaux names a precursor to the Festivals Acadiens.
|Dewey and Rodney Balfa|
Wallace LaFleur Gets Married
Had Wallace Lefleur been a single man, the Cajun Renaissance might not have happened. Festivals Acadiens, the Louisiana Digital Folklore Archive, a renewed sense of pride in the Cajun identity, all saved by a controlling wife.
In 1964, a band representing Cajun music traveled to the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Lefleur was scheduled to be among the torchbearers bringing Cajun music to a crowd of 17,000 folk music fans. It was not a great time for Cajuns: There was a sense of shame associated with the culture and even local media dogged their venture. The Opelousas Daily World ran an editorial equating Cajun music to crickets chirping under a house. Fearing the worst for the trip, Burton Grindstaff opined, “I wish there were some way to keep Cajuns as sweet and jolly as they are, while keeping their music as remote as possible.”
At the last minute, Lafleur dropped out of the trip. Savoy recalls Lafleur’s wife as either sickly or controlling, if not both. She nixed his plans, and the band scrambled to replace him. Luckily, Dewey Balfa — fiddler for the Balfa Bothers — filled his spot. It was not only fortunate for them but for Cajuns as a whole.
The crowd’s glowing reception — a standing ovation from the throngs there to see Bob Dylan and Joan Baez — reinforced his sense of pride in his culture and sparked a desire to bring the same to locals and the world. Balfa, later a National Endowment for the Arts’ fellowship winner, did just that. His ingenuity helped launch the Cajun Renaissance and taught locals to treasure their culture. Because of his experience at Newport, he campaigned for Cajun music and culture anywhere that would give him a stage. His efforts helped start Festivals Acadiens and the Archive. All of it spurred by Wallace Lefleur’s sickly, controlling wife.
“Cajun music and Cajun heritage was more or less wanting to be swept under the rug and when I seen all these people [in Newport] so moved with what we were doing, I said, ‘Hey this can’t be this bad. Something has to be done,’” said Balfa in a 1981 interview with Texas journalist Tim Knight. “I had to do something and the good Lord just blessed me. … I’m just proud. I’m not proud to say that my culture, my music, is better than anybody else. Then yet, it’s my own. It’s mine. Whatever you have is the best.”
On April 3, 1923 violence erupted in Mamou as Willie Guillory roamed the streets randomly opening fire. The next morning deputies battled Guillory at his house, ending his life. Brasseaux details the events leading up to the shooting in Cajun Breakdown. Months earlier, a stray bullet from a dancehall fight killed Guillory’s teenage son. It was not uncommon: Violence — fueled by alcohol, competing suitors and rival communities — was so prevalent at dances that there was a joke that if you didn’t have a weapon when you came through the door, one was issued to you.
In other words, Cajun and zydeco music flourished and survived in places that were not family friendly. This was not just physically dangerous: How could the music live if young people could not be exposed to it? The violence tapered off through the decades, but Louisiana music still needed a place to meet the next generation. Age-restricted bars would not do.
It gained one when Kerry Boutté visited the beer gardens in Frankfurt, Germany, while enlisted in the Army in the late 1960s. The Cajun from Arnaudville witnessed German culture, food and music being passed down generation to generation. Boutté decided that he would bring home this marriage of food and music.
Years passed before Boutté could open Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge in 1980. The first day, he had three workers and two customers. A few months later, he booked his first musical performance. In a former pool hall and crab house with about 30 seats, Zachary Richard and Pat Breaux played dual accordions while backed by Sonny Landreth and She lton Sonnier. No one showed.
Mulate’s take would improve: During the next 30-plus years it would help launch and foster careers of many Cajun musicians, including Michael Doucet, and provide a safe haven to bridge the gap between the music’s generations.
Boutté’s decision to piggyback Cajun music unto Cajun food came during a time of interest in Louisiana’s cuisine and culture. Cajun was en vogue: Popeyes hit 500 restaurants; New Yorkers lined up for four blocks to eat at Paul Prudhomme’s pop-up restaurant that the city battled to shut down in the Gumbo War; Ron Guidry threw heat from the Yankee mound, after being rescued by Cajun superhero Crawfish-Man.
Today, Mulate’s is almost lost in a sea of Cajun restaurants. Even the original Breaux Bridge location closed and reopened under another name. The impact of Boutté’s bookings is seen every night a restaurant presents live local music as it was the first Cajun restaurant to do so.
Though the ’80s weren’t the best time for the purity of Louisiana music and culture –— think The Big Easy, Justin Wilson, “My Toot Toot” — it was a shot in the arm that held the accordion. Bringing the kids to a safe place to see the music ensured local music would live to see the next generation.
As Doucet puts it: “Mulate’s was ground zero.”
Growing up, when Michael Doucet heard about the English it was far from positive. One English man, or a “Cajun Woman,” changed that and the musical signature of Doucet, fiddler for BeauSoleil.
In the late 1960s, Doucet picked up Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking at Leisure Landings, a downtown record store. On it he heard “Cajun Woman,” penned by the band’s guitarist Richard Thompson. In what he calls an a-ha moment, Doucet was struck by the use of Cajun.
“[It] stopped me in my tracks right then and there …” says Doucet. “This music I loved was then so misunderstood and devalued by the majority of people not only in Louisiana but in the U.S. [It] was put down and lost with the demise of unrecorded singers/carriers of our tradition. [It] was finally acknowledged as having worth, not monetary but international intrinsic wealth and, at long last, viable recognition.”
Doucet would collaborate with Thompson before forming BeauSoleil, easily the most famous band in Cajun music. The first Cajun band to win a Grammy, BeauSoleil features the most unique sound in Cajun music: rooted but expansive; traditional but experimental.
Before hearing “Cajun Woman,” Doucet sought purity in Cajun music, thinking outside influences distorted traditions. With Thompson’s influence, he struck the imprint for BeauSoleil’s sound.
“I loved the idea of folk-rock roots; the paradigm of going into one’s own culture, discovering the gems [both songs and composers], and giving them a fresh approach and arrangement that both paid homage to the past yet made them more contemporary,” says Doucet, noting the song gave him an inherent stamp of approval to develop Cajun music in a new way. “This approach really appealed to me and helped me look at the music and our culture in a whole new way. Basically, I found a way to pump new life into our culture’s songs.”