Sunday, August 31, 2014

"Lacassine Special" - Iry Lejeune

This artist could easily be considered the most influencial Cajun musician after WWII. Iry Lejeune was a virtually blind accordionist from around Church Point, Louisiana who brought back the same bluesy, soulful playing that Amede Ardoin brought to the culture 20 years before. Many of Iry's songs have the same melodies that Amede used, including being influenced by his cousin's music, Angelus Lejeune.

He was among a handful of recording artists who returned the accordion to prominence in commercially recorded Cajun music and dance hall performances. The return of the accordion contrasted with the popular Cajun recorded output of the late 1930s and 1940s, a time during which fiddles and Western Swing sounds from Texas were influencing Cajun music. At the conclusion of World War II, LeJeune moved west to Lacassine, Louisiana (near Lake Charles) where there were many more venues in which to play music.

Nearly blind, music provided happiness for LeJeune, and as he grew older. Unable to work in the fields because of his poor eyesight, as a youth, LeJeune entertained the local sharecroppers. By the time he reached his teens, LeJeune was making a few dollars on weekends playing dances. Luckily, in 1948 LeJeune met fiddler Floyd LeBlanc. Together they traveled to Houston, Texas where they recorded "Love Bridge Waltz" and "Evangeline Special" on Leblanc's Opera label with Virgil Bozman's Oklahoma Tornadoes supporting.  Bozman's band backed up many artists who had songs to record. 

Upon returning to Lacassine, LeJeune went to radio station KPLC in Lake Charles and asked to perform on the air. The station manager wasn't keen on hearing the primitive, wailing accordion, but disc jockey Eddie Shuler liked what he heard and featured him on several broadcasts. 
Iry Lejeune

"I felt sorry for the kid," admitted Shuler. "He was nearly blind and he had no other way to make money."
 "He said 'Eddie, I want to make records and I want you to make them,'" said Shuler. "I didn't know anything about making French records. Finally I agreed though because there was nobody around here making French records. Nobody was interested in making them because there was no money in French records. But as it turned out, I had the market to myself."
LeJeune knew Shuler was making his own records on Goldband and asked whtat her record him. It costs $200 to press copies at about 9 cents a copy.  Shuler struck a deal.  They would record one record, and if it made any money, they'd continue working together. If not, they would part ways. Bribing the engineer at KAOK with a bottle of Old Crow, in 1950, Shuler had LeJeune record "Lacassine Special" and "Calcasieu Waltz" on a disc cutter at the radio station used to record commercials and jingles. He sent the metal masters to Houston where several hundred 78s were pressed on the Folk Star label.   Backed by Iry's group consisting of Milton Vanicor on fiddle, Ellis Vanicor on fiddle and Ivy Vanicor on rhythm guitar, the record made a profit of $72.
"I was in high cotton", Shuler says. "By that time, I was hung up in this record business, and I didn't want to play anymore.  I just wanted to make records.  That's how I got into the record business."
"Lacassine Special" was based on an older set of tunes.  It's about a husband threatening his wife with an end to their marriage by telling her that "tu peux voir le chemin et t'en aller" (but you can see the road and go"). In 1937, the melody appears in J.B. Fusilier along with Miller's Merrymakers song "Elton Two Step", recorded for Bluebird records, and Joe Falcon's "Step On It", recorded for Decca records.  The same melody appears even earlier in Amede Ardoin's 1929 recording "Two Step de Mama". (In Tisserand's book, he mistakely states it's based on Ardoin's "Tante Aline" however, that song would become Iry's "Viens me Chercher".) 

Hé, comment mais toi tu crois
Que moi mais moi je va's faire
Tout le temps dans les misères
Tout le temps après souffert
Juste rapport à tes paroles
À tes paroles que toi,
Catin tu m'avais dit
Hé, ta chère vilaine manière,
Que toi t’as tout le temps eu
I1 faudra t’oublies tout ça.
Si toi tu veux rester
avec ton cher vieux nèg’
Mais ’garde toi tu peux voir
Le chemin et t’en aller.
Hé, toi, chère,
il faut toi tu t’en reviens
Mon, j’suis tout le temps là
après jongler à toi
Après jongler à toi, catin,
c’est juste rapport
A tous mais ces jonglements
Que toi tu m’as mis dedans.

Keep in mind, "neg" and "negresse" are corrupted forms of the word "negre" which in Cajun french has an endearing meaning such as "hey, my man" or "hey, honey", completely void of racial tones. Author Stivale covers this topic quite well.  The same can be said for "catin", which loosely translates to "little doll".  At times, the words are not described at all, but are simply blamed for the man's misery, as when the singer says that he has suffered misery because of "tes paroles, que toi, catin, tu m'avais dit" ("Just because of your words, of your words that you, catin, you said to me"). Milton Vanicor remembers playing the song with Iry:
Iry complained that no one could see him because he was sitting too low. Iry said he'd like to be the same height as everyone else but he couldn't play standing up. They came upon the idea of stacking "Coke" flats high enough that he'd appear taller. They stacked them and put his chair in the middle of the two stacks. The legs of the chair were placed in the holes where the cokes fit.
He was now the same height as the others and he was happy. Milton told him, "Now that you're up there, play the 'Lacassine Special'. Man, he got on that thing. Everybody that was dancing stopped, you know, they came to the bandstand to hear." Milton said when Iry's hair flopped down in front of his eyes; it meant he was really getting into the music. He began rocking back and forth and before long the boxes started moving and opening up. All of a sudden on one backward sway he kept going and wound up on the floor. "Ellis always said he didn't stop, but he did. He did stop a little while. He fell on his back, and boy, he got on that 'Lacassine Special' layin' down. We had fun."
After his tragic death, his music carried on.

  1. Angola to Zydeco: Louisiana Lives By R. Reese Fuller
  3. Iry Lejeune: Wailin The Blues Cajun style by Ron Yule
  5. Disenchanting Les Bons Temps: Identity and Authenticity in Cajun Music and Dance By Charles J. Stivale
The Legendary Iry LeJeune (Goldband, 1991)
Cajun's Greatest: The Definitive Collection (Goldband, 1993)
As Good As It Gets: Cajun (Disky, 2000)
Cajun Capers: Cajun Music 1928-1954 (Proper, 2005)
The Beginner's Guide to Cajun Music (Proper/Primo, 2008)
Musique de La Louisiane (Intense, 2008)
The Best Of Cajun & Zydeco (Not Now, 2010)

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