SP: How did the accordion find its way to southwest Louisiana?
MD: That's still a question. There are pictures of people playing it in Virginia in the 1880's. So they were being sold around, as sort of a large harmonica. The style of instrument that you see now, with ten buttons, was imported from France but made Germany.
In the late 1920's the RCA and Columbia record companies hit on a scheme to expand sales of their record players by recording indigenous ethnic groups like Cajuns. At that time southwest was still predominantly French speaking. They used to hold contests for musicians and the winners would go to New Orleans to record. You could have the record for a dollar, but you had to buy the record player to hear it.
It was fortunate that they did. Our traditional base was preserved by these recordings. You could hear the old twin fiddle style of Dennis McGee and Ernest Fruge' [sp - this is an accent grave not an apostrophe], a black accordion player named Ame'de' [sp - accent grave not apostrophe] Ardoin creating songs that were a mix of African and French influences - blues sung in French. [There are also many recordings from that time of blacks and whites playing together.]
When radios became affordable WSM [the Nashville station that still features the Grand Ole' Opry] and stations from Texas brought in a country influence. As a result, lap steel was introduced to Cajun music. English lyrics became popular, accordion was dropped and country-inspired fiddling was included. This is what you heard until the mid-`30's when a split occurred and Cajun and zydeco musics took separate paths. The former has more of a country-western influence. Zydeco, the music of black French-speaking people took more of a blues tinge though they share about 80% of the same songs, there are different inflections.
SP: Those accordions were tuned to a specific key. Didn't that lead fiddlers to retune?
MD: The accordions were in C and G. Even before the accordion, fiddles were often cross-tuned, like AEAE (instead of the standard GDAE). To play with the accordion, fiddles would tune down a whole step. [This allows the violin to play in the typical fiddle fingerings of D and A.]
Generally when you push the accordion you get the key of C. If you pull out you get G. Two-step tunes are usually played in G, with the bellows pulled out.
SP: Like playing blues harmonica.
MD: Exactly. To end the tune you usually push the bellows in giving you a C chord which is the origin of one of the typical endings of Cajun, finishing on a 'four' chord instead of the tonic.
SP: Talk a bit about the musical vision you have of Beausoleil and your own stuff.
MD: Growing up in this culture, we didn't think that anyone outside our small community was interested. The music was part of our family structure. In Louisiana in the `50's and `60's we were put down for speaking French and being Cajun. The Americanization process, which had started in the 1920's, was still ongoing. We could be Cajun locally, but in the outer world you were supposed to be 'American'. Nevertheless, the music I knew was predominantly fiddle music and ballads; not just off records, but part of family life. When television first arrived in the '50's. There used to be live Cajun music locally on Saturday with guys like Aldon Roger, the king of accordion and Doc Guidry on fiddle.
I took a course in folk music at Louisiana State University. We were studying the folk songs of North America - Child ballads, Native American, blues, and mountain music. I asked the professor, "What about Cajun music?" He said that they were just translated English songs. What?! That did not ring true. I did some research and I found a wealth of material, like Irene Whitfield's 1939 thesis about French Louisiana folk songs. She had led John and Alan Lomax around Louisiana to record these people for the Library of Congress, not commercial stuff.
This led to a friendship with Irene, and the work of Harry Oster who had left a wealth of field recordings at L.S.U. I began to see a broader scope than just the folk songs and two steps that I had grown up with. I became interested in the origins of the music and studied the differences in French folk music in different parishes.
Luckily I went to France in the early `70's and was a part of their folk revival. I heard the origins of French folk music and learned what it took to preserve it. When I returned my mission was to document fiddle styles. I formed a network of local fiddle players with the help of National Endowment grants. I wanted to bring the music back to Louisiana because at that time there were very few young people playing it. They called it "old people's music". I wanted them to know about the full spectrum, not just two steps and waltzes, but ballads, reels, blues, music influenced by New Orleans etc.
I worked with the late Dewey Balfa [whose band was the first to bring Cajun music to the folk scene outside Louisiana] in schools in the `70's. What I'm now doing is just a continuation of that early work.
[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.
He has two new cd's, one with The AfroSemitic Experience and one with vocalist/guitarist Paul Howard.
Visit his web site at http://www.stacyphillips.com/]