Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser, December 29, 1998
Cajun Music Has Gone Through Many Changes
by Jim Bradshaw
There wasn't a great deal of music in Louisiana in its earliest days. Musical instruments did not appear in Louisiana records until 1780, the year a legal succession mentions a fiddle. A 1785 Spanish government report mentions a man named Préjean who played the fiddle and clarinet.
His may have been the only clarinet in the colony, but it is likely that there were other fiddles. Almost all music in early Louisiana was probably played on a fiddle. When there were no instruments available -- or during Lent when instrumental music was banned -- the Acadians made music with their voices, sometimes singing words, sometimes mimicking instruments, and keeping time by stomping their feet and clapping their hands.
In old Acadie, most of the music was rooted in medieval France, and was of two sorts: Instrumental music meant for dancing, or ballads sung a capella to tell a story. At the time of the deportation from Canada in 1755, "... the only instruments with which (the Acadians) left were their own voices along with the rich tradition of French ballads and dance tunes," according to a study by Sharon A. Doucet, published in the Journal of Popular Culture.
Once they settled in Louisiana in the late 1700s, Acadians held bals de maison (house dances), in private homes where furniture was cleared to make room for dancing. A lot of noise competed with the music made by a fiddle or two, so fiddlers bore down hard on their bows to get as much sound as they could. When they sang, it was in a shrill, strident voice that could be heard above the din, and that voice and heavy bowstroke became a part of the distinctive sound of early Cajun music.
The Acadians continued to sing some of the old songs that they knew in Acadie, songs that reflected not only their own French and Canadian roots, but the Celtic, Irish, and Scottish influences of Nova Scotia. Helen Guillot of Lafayette, niece of legendary Cajun musician Joe Falcon, can still sing some of those songs, which she says were handed down to her from her grandmother, Odile Falcon, who learned them from her grandfather, Drozin Miguez, who learned them in Canada. According to research in the 1970s by Jeanne and Robert Gilmore, some of the dozen or so songs handed down to Mrs. Guillot are 400 or 500 years old. Mrs. Guillot says that they were usually sung a capella, and that they were seldom performed publicly when she began playing guitar with Joe Falcon's band in the 1930s.
Once they were settled in Louisiana, the Acadians also created music, much of it showing the influence of their new neighbors Spaniards, black people from Africa and from Haiti, Anglos coming across the Mississippi River from the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, Germans who settled along la Côte des Allemands, and, to a lesser degree, Native Americans (who were by then either disappearing from the Louisiana culture, or were assimilated).
The Acadians learned jigs and hoedowns and reels from their American neighbors and added them to a repertoire that already included polkas, waltzes, and other dances.
Doucet found, "Perhaps the oldest surviving form of music in the Cajun repertoire is the unaccompanied ballad, many examples of which can be traced verbatim to Quebec and France. The fiddle, being versatile yet portable, soon surfaced as the favorite instrument, especially for dance music. An intricate style of twin fiddling evolved, with one fiddle playing the melody and a second one echoing the tune in a lower octave or playing a rhythmic harmony. Some of the earliest recordings of Cajun music, made by Dennis McGee and Sadie Courville for the Vocalion label in 1929, illustrate excellent examples of this style."
In his essay, "Acculturation in Cajun Folk Music," LSU folklorist Harry Oster also notes the American influence. "When settlers from the southern mountains, inheritors of the tradition of the British Isles, made their way into the Cajun country, they often brought with them Anglo-Saxon and southern mountain songs. Some of these found so much favor with the Cajuns they translated them into the French idiom. Some followed the original texts quite closely with little or no modification to make the French words rhyme. For example, 'A Paper of Pins' became 'Un Paquet d'Epingles' and 'Billy Boy,' 'Billy Garçon.'"
Mrs. Guillot estimates that half of the 40 or 50 songs in the repertoire of Joe Falcon's band in the 1930s were songs "changed from the English." Practically all of them were sung in French, she says, though from time to time English lyrics would be used. She says that Falcon's wife, Cléoma, had begun translating English standards into French in the 1920s.
As Louisiana French musicians began to change and adapt the old music, some of the most influential musicians were black Creoles who introduced elernent of the blues into Cajun songs. It was about this time that the diatonic accordion began to gain popularity in Louisiana and it also transformed the repertoire. The accordion was loud enough to reach above the noise of a house full of dancers and durable enough to be hauled around. It drowned out the fiddles and pushed them to second place in the instrumental order.
Doucet tells us, "(The accordion) also had the advantage of being able to play both the melody and the bass accompaniment at the same time. The diatonic accordion played by the Cajuns had the disadvantage, however of being limited to one or two keys, similar to a harmonica. Thus the unlimited range of the accompanying fiddle was relegated to the keys in which the accordion could play. Some of the intricacy of the earlier twin fiddle music was lost, but a distinctive combination style soon developed, with the accordion and the fiddle taking turns playing the melody. The guitar was added for rhythmic accompaniment and the triangle (tit fer) or washboard (frottoir) for percussion."
According to Barry Jean Ancelet's book, "Cajun Music: Origins and Developments," "Musicians such as Adam Fontenot and Amédé Ardoin developed new ways of making music with the newly acquired accordion. Ardoin's innovative, syncopated style made him a favorite at both black and white dances, but it was his powerful and highly creative singing that attracted the attention of early recording scouts. He was among the first group of Louisiana French musicians to record."
Joe Falcon, who played the accordion, and his wife Cléoma, who accompanied him on guitar, were the first to record a Cajun song, Allons Lafayette, in 1928.
The second Cajun recording, La valse criminelle on one side and Hé Mom on the other, was also made in 1928 by Leo Soileau and Mayeus LaFleur. Hé Mombecame a huge hit because of its poignant lyrics in which LaFleur, an orphan, asks why his mother never comes to see him. The news coverage of LaFleur's murder on Oct. 28, 1928, in a Basile dance hall only nine days after the record was made also contributed to the song's strong reception. Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin and Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee made several recordings shortly after that.
"These early recordings ... were immensely popular and influential," Ancelet says. "Because (Amédé Ardoin) recorded alone in (the 1930s), his creative genius was unbridled and he composed songs which quickly became part of the classical Cajun repertoire. His percussive accordion style also influenced the parallel development of zydeco music."
For the first time, too, recordings began to create "standard" versions of old Cajun songs. Before records were made, there were no "standard" versions. Each musician played each song the way he'd heard it, or the way he felt like playing (or singing) it that night. That was not always the same way he played it the night before, and he might play it differently the next night, depending upon mood and whim.
Revon Reed, one of the first to advocate the preservation of Louisiana French music, explained it this way in a 1974 article in Acadiana Profile magazine: "Cajun music has been transmitted by ear from one generation to another. The words and song titles are literally revised from year to year to convey the particular current reality felt by the singer. There are a variety of different titles for the same tune. Sometimes, too, the meter or the beat is revised to suit the mood of the player or crowd. A waltz becomes a two-step, as in the song 'Allons à Lafayette.' Others, like the Cajun version of 'Home Sweet Home,' start off as a waltz and suddenly double or triple in beat and become a fast-moving two-step."
But changing lyrics is also a relatively new thing, because lyrics are also relatively new. Reed also explains, "Until some 50 years ago, Cajun musicians had few lyrics or songs to accompany themselves on the fiddle or accordion. Much of the Cajuns' singing accompaniment was simply a cry or yip every so often. These musicians would yell out their emotions rather than sing about it. Not to be confused with square dance cries, the Cajun cry simply connotes an ad lib of a feeling, sometimes sad and heart-rending; other times, gay, exuberant, and sassy."
Zydeco comes from the same roots as Cajun music, but as recordings introduced outside influences to the south Louisiana culture, black musicians began to become even more influenced by the blues and developed a distinctive sound, at first called juré or la-la which were the precursors of zydeco. Juré (from the French for "testify") is described in John Broven's book, "South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous," as "Louisiana French (field hollers) accompanied only be improvised percussion (such as footstomping or hand-clapping) and vocal counterpoints." It was also sometimes called bazar, probably for the church socials where the music was often made. According to Michael Tisserand, writer of "The Kingdom of Zydeco, La-la, sometimes called pic-nic, is an accordion-based music heard just after World War II. It evolved in the 1950s to what we now recognize as the zydeco sound .
At the same time, white musicians became more influenced by Hank Williams and other country performers and by the Texas swing style of music of Bob Wills.
These styles and lyrics that until then had often been extemporaneous or, at least, quite flexible, became "fixed" as more people heard the same version of the song on widely distributed records. Cajun music also became simpler during this era because the accordion, still less flexible than the fiddle, was becoming the instrument of choice for Cajun dance bands. Cajun music had by then moved from house parties to dance halls and, in those days before amplification, the accordion could be played loud enough to be heard above the hubbub. But what it brought in volume, it lost in finesse, and the dances themselves were simplified as a result of the simplified music.
"Until the turn of the twentieth century," Ancelet tells us, "there was a wide variety of dance styles which included Old World waltzes, contredanses, varsoviennes, polkas, mazurkas, and cotillions, as well as two-steps, one-steps, baisse-bas, la-las, and breakdowns developed to accompany the contemporary musical styles. The simplification of musical styles ... simplified 'dance styles as well, leaving the waltz and the two-step as the major steps."
In the 1930s, radios began to appear in many homes, and Cajun musicians began to imitate the music they heard. On one hand, local performers were able to make radio appearances and enhance their own popularity. On the other, they began to hear more music from elsewhere and incorporate it into their repertoire. Some performers directly translated popular country hits into French, others began to imitate the styles and rhythms of popular songs when they wrote new music.
That, and other influences contributed to changes in the lifestyle of French Louisiana, and with it, the music.
Ancelet tells us this: "By the mid-1930s, Cajuns were reluctantly, though inevitably becoming Americanized. America, caught in the 'melting pot' ideology, tried to homogenize its diverse ethnic and cultural elements. ... National leaders like Teddy Roosevelt ... insisted that there was no such thing as a 'hyphenated American' and urged members of various ethnic and national groups to conform to America or leave it.
Oster wrote in 1958, "During the past thirty years ... the strength of the French influences (in south Louisiana) has been waning because of a variety of sources. When the public schools came into general existence many of them forbade the speaking of French on the premises, to force the children to learn English. The widespread building of roads during the nineteen-thirties brought these communities into contact with the rest of the world. The rise of the phonograph, radio, motion pictures, and most recently television has had the double effect of changing the tastes of this traditional people in the direction of conformity and substituting mass-produced, homogeneous entertainment for the old folk dances and songs. In addition, the return of veterans of World War II after years elsewhere, the discovery of oil on many Cajun farms, industrialization, and the consequent influx of executives and workers from other states all have upset the traditional agricultural and fishing way of life."
The Cajun music scene in the mid 1930s reflected these social changes. Musicians abandoned the traditional style in favor of new sounds heavily influenced by hillbilly music and western swing. The once dominant accordion disappeared abruptly, partly because the instruments were no longer available from wartime Germany, partly because of changes in the music itself.
As songs from Texas and Tennessee swept the country, string bands that imitated the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and copied Bill Monroe's high lonesome sound sprouted across south Louisiana. Among the early leaders in this few trend were the Hackberry Ramblers who recorded new, lilting versions of what had begun to emerge in the classic Cajun repertoire, such as Jolie Blonde.
By the late 1940s, electric wires had networked Acadiana. The wail of the electric steel guitar could be added to the traditional instrumentation but, more importantly, instruments could be attached to amplifiers.
According to Ancelet's account, amplification also "made it unnecessary for fiddlers to bear down with the bow in order to be heard; therefore many developed a lighter, lifting touch, producing an airier ... sound which was quite different from the intense, mournful earlier style."
According to Doucet, "The old-fashioned, 'traditional' Cajun music was in danger of being forgotten until the young Iry LeJeune began recording ... in 1948. He revived many of the songs which had been composed by earlier black accordion players like Amédé Ardoin. His music surged to popularity and was soon imitated by other bands. The accordion had returned."
By 1958, Oster could write, "The changes that took place in the Cajuns' choice of music (as outside influences came to the region beginning in the 1930s) constitute a particularly interesting example of acculturation. ... As Cajun society is in a highly transitional state, one can still find music representing the three most important stages of development of the Cajun community. The music now (1958) being performed includes (1) the folk music of seventeenth-century France, still circulating in a relatively pure ,form; (2) hybrid folk songs which combine lyrics in Cajun French with elements from one or more outside sources (southern mountain folksongs, commercial popular music of the country-and-western type, an Negro folk music of the blues variety) and (3) current popular music of the time."
Today, there are many sounds in Cajun and Creole music, ranging from a combination of Cajun, blues, rock and roll, and other elements, to much more traditional melodies. Reed spoke of Cajun music in 1974, but his words are equally true about the Creole music that comes from the same Louisiana French roots: "Cajun music is certainly the soul of Acadiana. It is the archaic sound of the fiddles, the accordions, the triangles, and the spoons. Add the guitars and the drums to those traditional instruments and you've got a wild, exciting evening to look forward to. Accompany the instrumentals with a song, a little foot-stomping and clapping -- and that's a Cajun soir6e in southwest Louisiana. It is a sound that expresses human needs, wants, desires, love, joy, laughter and tears -- the living experience of a people who refuse to let their heritage be engulfed in the Melting Pot of Americana."
Copyright ©1998 by the Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser. Reprinted with permission.