part one

conducted by Stacy Phillips

{This interview was performed several years ago as part of a program for a music festival that was never issued. It is presented here for the first time.}

In the late '60's, towards the end of the folk music fad, the Balfa Brothers band appeared at the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival. It was probably the first time that Cajun music had been presented in a prestigious setting on an equal footing with blues, bluegrass, ballad singing, and other prominent folk styles.

By their first Cajun cry of "Aa-yee" the audience was electrified by this mix of Afro-European (particularly French) influences - driving, shuffling fiddles, honking, syncopated accordion, and high pitched, blues-tinged French vocals, all nested atop a driving rhythm section dominated by the relentless jangle of a triangle.

Dewey Balfa, a fiddler, folklorist, and leader of that band mentioned this event as a turning point; one that inspired interest (most importantly, local interest) in the traditional culture of western Louisiana. As fiddler/band leader Michael Doucet describes below, the 'old ways' were becoming moribund at the time, and use of the local French dialect was discouraged. There was a bit of Cajun culture in the Creole-Caribbean mix of New Orleans and the occasional borrowed melody, like Hank Williams' Jambalaya, but the Cajuns were unknown outside their immediate area. Doucet became interested in the traditions of his people early in the revival and, with the help of his music group Beausoleil, has been one of the main moving forces in the recent recognition of Cajun music in 'world' and 'roots' music. In his lifetime he has helped move it from a dying local art form, to a thriving part of the heritage music scene, and on to an international dance craze.

You'll soon discover that Cajun means a lot more than pepper-blackened fish. Now, read on.

SP: How does Cajun music fit in with the rest of the music of Louisiana?

MD: First of all it's music of the Cajun or Acadian people. They landed in Louisiana in the 1770's. For the most part they settled west of the Mississippi in the southwest portion of the state, isolated from large towns.

Let's talk about New Orleans first. They flew under a lot of flags - French, Spanish, English. There also were many Italians. Americans would come down the river on flatboats.

SP: And many people coming up from the Caribbean, especially after the Haitian revolution.

MD: The black influence for sure. The original music of the new world happened in New Orleans.

There was a strong opera scene, with daily performances. Operas were written in the Creole language [like Cajun-French, a mix of French and other local language influences]. In pre-Civil War it would not be surprising to hear a slave whistling La Traviata. There was a class structure then - freemen of color, freed slaves and slaves. You had Creoles who owned slaves. After the Civil War the Creole aristocracy disappeared. You had all this music, equal but separate, like the first black orchestra in United States in 1812. New Orleans has always been a festive town and there was lots of music at the celebrations. So there was an opportunity for local classical music. The Oregon Festival of American Music is going to do some Louis Gottschalk. [An art music composer of the Nineteenth Century, who used American folk and Caribbean themes in his music. - editor]

You could get to my part of Louisiana by steamboat so there were operas even there in a town called Saint Martinsville on the Bayou Teche. The town was called Le Petit Paris. There was a gentleman named Cornbread who was a singing street vendor. But he was so talented in opera that he performed on stage, with his horse! It's been said that his act was the beginning of vaudeville.

Congo Square was a place where slaves were allowed to congregate on Sunday and play music. It probably was the only place like it in America. [In most of North America drumming by slaves was prohibited. It was felt that the playing could deliver secret messages and incite revolution. - editor ] The majority of the slaves were from the Dahomey tribe in West Africa, which was a very musical tribe.

Reportedly back then black fiddlers were playing reels in a bluesy, "lazier" style on the docks of New Orleans. You could hear French quadrilles, cotillions and other country dances and field hollers from Haiti brought by refugees from the Haitian revolution in the 1780's. Eventually this evolved into jazz.

Southwest Louisiana was relatively isolated but French travelers upon hearing music there said that it would feel at home in Paris. But in the isolation local tunes were created. The Acadians originally came from southwestern France, and lived in Nova Scotia, then called Acadie, beginning in 1604. They were forced to leave in 1755. [Their journey was chronicled in the epic poem Evangeline by Henry Longfellow, who never was in Louisiana. - editor]

When Scots arrived in the early 1700's, the Acadians were influenced by that music, though any lyrics were still in French. When the Acadians were deported it is doubtful that any violins made the trip. But the music survived through musique a' bouche, which means 'mouth music'. They would sing the melody of the reels. There were also ballads and songs that they brought with them. A lot of these people were fishermen. Fishermen and sailors were known for their musical repertoire, which was used to break the monotony at sea.

The fiddle style that evolved and flourished until the turn of the 20th century was somewhat similar to what you might hear in the Shetland Islands [between Scotland and Norway] in that you'd have two fiddles. One would play the melody and the other would play a chording accompaniment on the lower strings.

About that time the German diatonic accordion [which can only play in a couple of keys - editor] was introduced. It was well suited to our climate. The fiddle is made of wood and glue and our climate features rain and humidity, which don't go together. The accordion was very loud and you could accompany yourself. It became the most popular Acadian instrument.

The use of the triangle for rhythm goes back before Acadie. It was a medieval instrument. The old French version had rings on it a little like a tambourine.

Stacy Phillips

[Stacy Phillips is the author of more than twenty books on various aspects of fiddle and Dobro (acoustic slide) guitar. He is a featured performer on the Grammy award-winning album The Great Dobro Sessions. His new CD with vocalist/guitarist Paul Howard will be available in January, 2006.]

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