by Chuck Taggart
"The spirit of Cajun music ..."
The search for this spirit in a culture that for many years was in decline, even in danger, inspired many young Cajun musicians during the 1970s, a time that could be described as a "Cajun renaissance". The Americanization of Acadiana began in the 1930s and continued to the point where some people in Louisiana had "forgotten" their heritage, or were even ashamed of it, of the language, of the music. But some, including a young man named Michael Doucet, looked further than their contemporary American upbringing into the local culture with which they were surrounded, to see what it all meant, to find what it was all about, and ultimately to fall in love with the music.
The search for the "spirit" of Cajun music began with Michael's uncle T-Will Knight, who gave him his first fiddle, and eventually led Michael to apprentice himself to some of the finest traditional Cajun musicians: Dennis McGee, Dewey and Will Balfa, Varise Connor, Canray Fontenot, Hector Duhon. The search even led him and his friends to France, where they were astonished to hear continental French folk bands playing Cajun songs. The search led to a band that played the music not only to help ensure its preservation, but especially for the sheer joy of it. And indeed, the first Beausoleil album that was released in this country in 1977 is entitled "The Spirit of Cajun Music".
Beausoleil's development over the last fifteen years has been nothing short of extraordinary. From a simple gathering of friends, they have progressed to one of the tightest and most dynamic musical ensembles of any genre, appealing to fans from traditional to country to rock and roll, and they never fail to get the entire crowd on their feet, dancing their hearts and souls out. The band's membership has remained fairly solid over the years, and it's not hard to tell -- they play with the solidity, assurance and even telepathy that comes from playing together for a long time. Fiddler and singer Michael Doucet grew up listening to rock and jazz, as well as the traditional music that was played at family gatherings and on back porches. Indeed, he fronted a band in the mid-70s called Coteau that brought the traditional and the contemporary together, with elements of Cajun, rock and country, and was referred to as "the Cajun Grateful Dead"!
As the band has evolved into the now unique Beausoleil sound, they've explored other genres of Louisiana music as well, such as New Orleans jazz, blues, and even Caribbean rhythms. The dynamism and energy of rock and some of the wild improvisatory flights of jazz pervade Michael's playing, but the strongest element is the Cajun tradition, and his hours spent with people like Dennis McGee, Will Balfa and Canray Fontenot. As much as this band has explored other local genres, their feet are firmly planted in the tradition, and over the years they've recorded some of the finest albums of traditional Cajun music ever, from crowd favorites to songs rescued from obscurity.
Another element of the band's unmistakable musical signature is the extraordinary guitar playing of Michael's brother David Doucet. Besides keeping a solid rhythm on his acoustic guitar, he's an astonishingly good flatpicker; in his hands it's no longer just a part of the rhythm section, but becomes a lead instrument. We can hear elements of American bluegrass, and even a few tastes of the steel-guitar style that became popular in Cajun music in the 1950s. "There's no other guitar player for me!", says Michael.
Beausoleil has also played with several talented accordion players over the years. In the early days it was Bessyl Duhon (son of the great fiddler Hector Duhon), who had played with Michael in Coteau; he went on to play with Jimmy C. Newman's band in Nashville and on the Grand Ole Opry. Errol Verret's elegant playing was featured through the next several albums. Now retired from life on the road, Errol lives near St. Martinville, Louisiana, and is a maker of Evangeline brand accordions. Pat Breaux (son of accordion legend Amédée Breaux) joined briefly, and added a new dimension to the band's sound with his tenor saxophone and three-row zydeco style accordion. And for the last few years it's been Pat's brother Jimmy Breaux as Beausoleil's accordionist. Impossibly young when he joined the band, Jimmy is an amazing musician; he's as steady as a rock and he takes his accordion on wild flights during his solos, even though it seems you can hardly see his fingers move! "Oh man, Jimmy's a monster!", says Michael. "He fits in with us perfectly."
And throughout the years the rhythm section has remained the same: bassist Tommy Comeaux, who's also added some sweet mandolin playing to many of their songs; drummer Tommy Alesi, who is a solid rhythmic backbone and is equally comfortable with Cajun, zydeco and second-line rhythms; and percussionist Billy Ware, whose colorful playing has added congas and the metal frottoir (rubboard) of zydeco bands to the traditional Cajun ti-fer (triangle) and spoons. And the most recent addition to the band is producer and soundman Al Tharp, who's added fiddle, bass and even banjo to the lineup.
We get started with a newly recorded version of "Le Jig Français", which first appeared on the Parlez-Nous à Boire album (one of the finest albums of traditional Cajun music recorded in the last several years). It's an older tune written by fiddler Wallace "Cheese" Reed (although it's not technically a "jig", but more like a two-step) with new lyrics by Michael. I've always had a special fondness for this song, as it was the opening number the first time I ever heard Beausoleil play, and to this day it's a mainstay of their live performances. As good as the original recording is, I think you'll find Michael's description of this new version to be right on the money: "It rocks!"
Tasso/McGee's Reel appeared on their most recent release Cajun Conja, which brought the band to even wider national acclaim and placed high on Billboard's World Music charts. The song and reel which follows are from the playing of Dennis McGee, the "granddaddy" of all Cajun fiddlers and one of Michael's musical mentors. Dennis passed away in 1990 at the age of 94 and left an amazing legacy of music behind; in fact, one of Michael's on-going projects is to try to learn all 168 of the tunes and songs Dennis knew. "I've got about 95 of them down," says Michael. "It's been a long-term project!"
Since we've had two fast two-steps, it's time to give the dancers a bit of a breather with a sweet waltz, "Madame Sosthène". It's another personal favorite, a beautiful tune with lyrics that tell of a man who seeks permission from Mme. Sosthène to marry her daughter, and that he'd just steal her if she won't give her away! The lead vocals are by Michael with Annick Colbert, a Belgian singer who also played recorder on the track. Her singing and playing are reminiscent of the sound on the first two Beausoleil albums, which were influenced by Michael's interest in contemporary European French folk music. A different recording of this song was featured in the film "Belizaire the Cajun", for which Michael and Beausoleil composed and performed the music, and which was the first feature film directed by a Cajun, Glen Pitre.
"Zydeco Gris-Gris" first appeared on the album of the same title, which first appeared in Canada as Les Amis Cadjins. This bilingual song is from the old Coteau repertoire, and is both a great Cajun song and a great rock and roller. The rock groove gets wilder with the keyboard playing of Steve Conn and some searing guitar work from Sonny Landreth. This song was also used as the opening music of the film "The Big Easy". We slow it down a little next, with a wonderful blues number from the playing of Creole fiddler "Bébé" Carrière of Lawtell, Louisiana. The melody of "Blues à Bébé" comes from the playing of Bébé and his brother, accordionist Eraste Carrière, to which Michael has added lyrics in tribute to this "grand musicien".
"Je M'Endors" ("I'm Sleepy"), a gorgeous lullaby-waltz, is a particular favorite of Michael's. "It's one of the most beautiful and haunting melodies I've ever heard that came from within our culture. I first heard this song played by Mme. Irene Whitfield Holmes, who first transcribed it in her 1939 thesis from L.S.U. Ballads are both rare yet extremely important in the perpetuation of our tradition. Ballads were really 'out of style' back when we released our own version, because you couldn't dance to them. And most of them were sung and carried on by Acadian women."
We now bring the mood to a lazy Sunday afternoon, and dreams of snuggling with your sweetie. "Dimanche Après-Midi" originally appeared on the very first Beausoleil album La Nuit, recorded and released in 1976 only in France and now long out of print; this version from Bayou Boogie features some achingly gorgeous fiddle playing from Michael. And now that you've had enough rest slow dancing to the last two songs, we open the two-step floodgates with a wild version of the traditional two-step "Vieux Crowley" ("Old Crowley"). Everyone shines here, but Jimmy Breaux particularly stands out in this accordion-driven tune. As they say, if this one doesn't get you dancing, you're either drunk or dead!
Now, it's time to put on your capuchon (pointed hat) and your mask of window screen, get up on your horse and get ready for all the beer you can drink and all the boudin you can eat ... because you're going on the Courir de Mardi Gras (the Mardi Gras Ride). The Mardi Gras tradition among the Cajuns is very different from the parading and bead-throwing of New Orleans; the tradition in Acadiana dates back almost to medieval times. The riders go farm to farm, house to house, and beg ingredients for that evening's big gumbo, and they're expected to put on a show and even to chase and catch some of the proffered ingredients. Following the riders is a wagon loaded with musicians, and it all ends up at a big fais-do-do that evening, with more beer and all the gumbo you can eat. "La Chanson de Mardi Gras" ("Mardi Gras Song") is perhaps the oldest song in the Cajun repertoire, and Beausoleil gives it a particularly rollicking rendition here, recorded live in San Francisco.
Next is a beautiful waltz, "Travailler C'est Trop Dûr" ("To work is too hard, but to steal is not good ..." goes the title line of the song). This song was learned from the playing of folk musicians in France who had themselves learned it from an old recording by Caesar Vincent made in Louisiana. Michael and his cousin Zachary Richard were astonished to hear this when they first travelled to France in 1974. This song has travelled far and wide, and is even covered by African reggae artist Alpha Blondy.
"J'ai Été au Zydeco" ("I Went to the Zydeco" [Dance]) is a terrific fusion of traditional Cajun style and Creole "proto-zydeco". The original tune is a traditional Cajun song, "J'ai Été au Bal" ("I Went to the Dance"), with a new chorus inspired by an old jur called "Je Fait au Tour de Pays" from the Lomax recordings in the 1930s ... ("Oh ye yaie, donnez-moi lez'haricots, eh ma ma ma z'haricots sont pas salé" ... "Oh ye yaie, give me the snap-beans, eh ma ma the snap-beans ain't salty!") "I wanted a feeling of the old-time zydeco in this song, not modern zydeco," says Michael. The tune "'Z'haricots (Zydeco) Sont Pas Salé", in various forms, is what eventually lent its name to an entire genre of music, as old-time and then modern zydeco music developed from traditional Creole music, blues and rock and roll, all of which in turn have inspired Beausoleil's music.
"Chez Seychelles" is a sweet waltz which came from a traditional tune from the Seychelles Islands. The tune was originally a mazurka, which Michael adapted into a waltz. "A lot of our tunes came from sources like this," says Michael. Old-time musicians like Dennis McGee took the old European dance-tune styles which were dying out in Louisiana and adapted them to contemporary forms, which is just what Michael did for this gorgeous tune. Then we have another blues tune, one by Big Joe Williams called "Baby Please Don't Go". This song is from the repertoire of the Lawtell Playboys, a rootsy Creole-zydeco band fronted by accordionist Delton Broussard. "I played in the Lawtell Playboys for a while," says Michael. "Their fiddler Calvin Carrière [Eraste's son] was ill, and they asked me to sit in with them, since I had learned to play Creole tunes from Calvin's father and uncle. We played a lot of gigs at places like Slim's Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas, and some places that weren't even on the map! It was pretty wild; we even recorded a few tunes live for Jim Olivier's TV program 'Passe Partout.' Delton is still one of my favorite accordion players."
"Les Bons Temps Rouler Waltz" ("The Good Times Roll Waltz" ... but y'all should know that phrase by now!) comes from accordionist and songwriter Lawrence Walker, who gave many now-classic songs to the Cajun tradition. The fine vocals on this track are by David Doucet, and Pat Breaux adds a touch of honky-tonk saxophone.
The "'Awesome' Ossun Two-Step" is an old traditional tune which has been recorded by many of the great Cajun artists, from Joe Falcon to Lawrence Walker, and true to its nickname is given a great arrangement by the band and features sizzling solos from Michael, David and Errol. From the same 1981 sessions comes "Donnez-Moi Pauline" ("Give Me Pauline"), a slow, funereal waltz that also comes from the playing of Dennis McGee. Michael's vocals and lyrics on this song are nothing short of amazing, as he brilliantly and agonizingly conveys the sorrow of a man grieving after the death of his love, who's been "in the ground only three days." Several years ago, I had this album playing in my house when a friend came over. This song started, and he just stood there in the middle of the room listening intently. After the song ended, he shook his head and, even though he had no French and couldn't understand the lyrics, said "That's the saddest song I've ever heard." When you hear it, you'll probably think so too.
"Les Flammes d'Enfer" ("The Flames of Hell") also comes from the Creole tradition; it's become a standard, and has found its way into the repertoire of many Cajun as well as zydeco musicians. Not as bluesy as some of the earlier recordings of this song, this version is a fast dance number with Michael and David sharing vocal duties, and with Al Tharp hitting the high harmonies.
Finally, we finish with one of Beausoleil's newest numbers from Cajun Conja, "Sur le Pont de Lyon" ("On the Lyon Bridge"), a traditional song which comes from France, and which features a guest spot by guitarist Richard Thompson, who has jammed with Beausoleil on several occasions. "In 1968 I picked up a Fairport Convention album that had a song on it called 'Cajun Woman', by a guy named Richard Thompson. Not only did I wonder how anyone outside of Louisiana knew about us Cajuns, but how could someone like that possibly write such a fine song? I listened to Fairport Convention and Richard's music for many years before finally meeting him. This song just sounded like something we should do together. The song, though ancient, carries the same spirit of adventure in the young and restless heart of a young girl that's as contemporary as anything today."
We have here an ancient music, which has its origins in medieval France, which made its way with the Acadians to Louisiana in 1755, which survived changes and outside influences and imminent death, and which now is stronger than ever and faces a move into the next century. The tradition continues, spurred on and supported with the love and talent of bands like Beausoleil. "It's through people like Dennis McGee and Sady Courville, Amde Ardoin and Iry LeJeune, the pioneers who've gone, that we've had a glimpse of what the music was like in the 1800s," says Michael. "I hope that the same spark of creativity will remain with the music, and that's what will take it into the next century. We can't bring those old pioneers back, but we can continue to play their music, even though we play it our way. As Dennis McGee once told me, 'Play like you! Play like you'self!' But the tradition should never be held back. The music has changed, in some way, in every decade of this century. And what makes the music really special is the soul of the artist -- that's the spirit of Cajun music. The music don't lie."
KCRW-FM, Santa Monica, CA
(Special thanks to Mike Doucet for his comments.)
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)