[18 January 2011]
Skimming over a couple of articles about Creole and Cajun music for this review, I noticed that history was a theme that ran through all of them. They dealt with not only the history of the music qua music—about a sound here becoming a sound there, France meeting America meeting Africa—but the history of events that were going on around the music, like the period of time when Louisiana Creole children who had grown up speaking French arrived at their first day of school to find out that their teachers expected them to speak English, only English, and might punish them if they didn’t. The idea that Cajun culture as a whole would rise or fall with its fiddles was brought up several times by different authors.
Names appeared in one article and disappeared in others. One of the articles highlighted the participation of Creole soldiers in World War II, another almost ignored it. The conclusion was usually the same, but the route was always different. One event was mentioned in all of them, though, and that was the Newport Folk Festival of 1964. That fact is pertinent to this album, because Ralph Rinzler, one of the men who invited three Cajun musicians to play at that festival, is the same man who made these recordings.
Cajun music was not unavailable to the wider world in 1964—it had been recorded and sold before the 1960s—but Newport was the most significant exposure it had received outside its home community. “I had no idea what a festival was,” one of the invitees said afterwards, a man named Dewey Balfa. “I had played in house dances, family gatherings, maybe a dance hall where you might have seen as many as 200 people at once.” At Newport there was an audience of thousands. “And I was so moved performing for an audience of I think it was 17,000 people, and we almost got a standing ovation.” This reported “almost” becomes an actual ovation, depending on the interview, and the person doing the talking.
Newport programmed more Cajun music after that, and other festivals picked up on it. Balfa was back a few years later with his brothers in a group called the Balfa Frères. Now he transformed himself from a musician in rural seclusion into a travelling ambassador for Cajun culture. “I wanted to do something about it. I didn’t know what to do, how to go about it. But I was fortunate enough and had good enough friends to open up the way for me.” Louisiana Cajun and Creole Music opens with seven tracks from the Frères. They’re followed by fiddlers, singers, accordion players, and timekeeping ting-ting triangles: Austin Pitre and the Evangeline Playboys, Edius Naquin, Alphone ‘Bois-Sec’ Ardoin and Canray Fontenot, Isom Fontenot, Aubrey Deville, Preston Manuel, and cousins Adam and Cyprien Landreneau.
Rinzler chose his musicians for their tough strength, and for a quality you could label authenticity, or purity, or, as Balfa did: isolation. Cajun-country was a popular crossover in the ‘60s, but you wouldn’t know it from Louisiana. Everybody strikes down hard as pickaxes into the music’s elaborations, the entanglements of notes that roll out, roll back, and spit themselves out again. The Ardoin-Fontenot duo has a pounding extroverted style, Naquin is yearning and private, and the Evangeline Playboys ride into Pitre’s most famous invention, “Les Flammes d’Enfer” with the ruthless see-saw of an angry kid on a rocking horse.
I put on Louisiana after I’d been listening to a different kind of album, and it took a while for my ears to adjust. The sounds seemed so sharp that the nuances disappeared into a flooding shrillness. Good field recordings are never forgiving. In some cases, the rawness comes partnered with a looseness, a lack of structure, that contrasts so strangely with the tightness of professional mainstream productions that a listener can be disconcerted, but it isn’t so here. The main difference between Louisiana and a modern, popular-appeal Cajun release might be just the absence of softness and give, and that point in the playlist where the band decides to let you rest for a moment with a peaceful track.
The PDF booklet bundled with this album is 84-pages long. Reading those 84 pages after the other articles, I came away concluding that the people who love this music feel driven to collect as much information about it as they can—to detail, to name, to cross-reference, to footnote, to document, to record, record, record in case everything is forgotten. This urge to archive comes out of fear, perhaps, that the extinction that almost struck Cajun music in the 1950s, when English was overwhelming French, and zydeco and swamp-pop seemed to be shoving the older music out the window, might still prevail after the decades of revival and that if plenty of people don’t keep their eyes on it, then it might vanish, and the name of Dewey Balfa will be as irretrievable as the authors of the Eddas.