Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Lafayette (Allons à Luafette)" - Joe Falcon

Starting off a new blog, it's critical to get the first article right.   So, what better way to start it than with the first Cajun song ever commercially recorded?: Allons a Lafayette (Let's Go To Lafayette).

In 1928, Columbia had just acquired Okeh records two years before. They were very interested in "hillbilly" (country) music which was played in the southern areas.   The sales of this music began to increase.  

Frank Buckley Walker was the Artist and Repertoire (A & R) talent scout for Columbia Records’ Country Music Division during the 1920s and 1930s. Along with Ralph Peer of Victor Records, Walker mastered the technique of field recordings. Specializing in southern roots music, Walker set up remote recording studios in cities such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Dallas, Little Rock and Johnson City searching for amateur musical talent. 

On June 19, 1962, he would speak about his discovery of Joe Falcon and Cleoma during an interview with Mike Seeger.

So I went up to Lafayette for a weekend. I happened to know something of the story of the Cajuns and was astounded at the interest that there was in their little Saturday night dances. A single singer would have a little concertina-type instrument and a one-string fiddle and a triangle, those were the instruments, but they would always have a singer and of course they sang in Cajun. And to me it had a funny sound. So I brought down a little group. I think his name was Joe Falcon. I brought him down to New Orleans, and we recorded just to have something different. We put it on the market, and it had tremendous sales.  
[There were] definitely local sales extending all over the state of Louisiana and some of Texas, because there is a great many of the Cajuns living over in Texas. It was amazing that you could sell fifty or sixty thousand records in a locality of that size. And yet, that was just a little extra that turned out okay...we made a regular business out of that. 
Joe recalls the experience.  During the spring of 1928, a native of New Orleans and friend of Frank's executives, George Burrow lived and worked in Joe's hometown of Rayne.  He knew the locals, Joe's music, and that people would buy these records if he had some.  George contacted one of the executives of Columbia and found out they would be recording in New Orleans.  Burr arranged an audition with Columbia, in New Orleans, by guaranteeing that, should the group be accepted, he would buy 250 records to sell in dancehalls in and around Crowley, in Acadia Parish.  

Taken soon after the recording in New Orleans, 1928.
Barnett Studio, Crowley, LA
Burr drove the Falcons and a singer, Leon Meche, to the Columbia audition in New Orleans. They headed to New Orleans, arriving at the Godchaux Building, not far from the Columbia Phonograph Company on Canal Street. But when they got there, Columbia didn't think the duo would be enough to make a record.  As Falcon recalled years later “When [Burr] went to talk to them, they asked where the band was. Burr pointed to me and Cleoma and Meche.” Columbia’s A&R man (artists and repertoire) told Burr that the company was only interested in large orchestras that played foxtrots and similar dance tunes.  George immediately explained Joe's music was popular back home and wrote a check for double his original order to 500 records.  Still doubting their abilities, they asked to hear a tune.   As they prepared themselves, Joe's friend and vocalist, Leon Meche, was getting ready however, he got stage fright and backed out.   

He looked at me and said 'You better sing it yourself, I might make a mistake'. So I took over.
Godchaux Building on Canal Street

So, Joe and Cleoma played "Allons a Lafayette" on his German diatonic accordion (probably a "Monarch") which his dad bought for him in Lafayette and Cleoma played a guitar.  The sound took the executives by surprise.  

They came over to where we recorded and they said 'Lord but that's more music out of two instruments than we ever heard in our lives.  We don't understand nothing, but it's a sweet sound.  Pardner, get ready, we're going for good now.  We are going to make it!'

Allons à Lafayette, c'est pour changer ton nom.

On va t’appeler Madame, Madame Canaille Comeaux.

Petite, t’es trop mignonne pour faire ta criminelle.

Comment tu crois que moi, je peux faire comme ça tout seul.

Mais toi, mon joli Coeur, regarde donc ce que t’as fait.

Je suis si loin de toi, mais ça, ça m' fait pitié

Petite, t’es trop mignonne pour faire ta criminelle.

Observe moi bien mignonne, tu vas voir par toi même.

Que moi je n'mérite pas c'que t'es en train d' faire.

Pourquoi tu fais tout ça, c'est bien pour m'faire fâcher!
Advertisement in Port Arthur News,
August 24, 1928
The record sold well in the region and kicked off an entire genre of music which is still going strong.  People would often buy several copies of the record since the playing needles would wear the records out.  Afterwards, more recording companies chose to begin recording Cajun music. 

Under mysterious circumstances that aren't quite understood, although recorded in April (Joe claims it was in July), some state the record (#15275-D) wouldn't be released until October.  According to Joe, it was released eight days before the second Cajun song to be released by Leo Soileau and Mayuese Lafleur.  Interviews with Leo claim his record came out a week after Lafayette was released sometime after October. However, we do know it was available for purchase by August that summer in Port Arthur, TX and even in West Virginia. The Columbia issues themselves sold 19,249 copies, fairly respectable for that time.

Like many of the Columbia tunes after 1926, it would be re-issued on Okeh (#90018) and like many Cajuns songs, "Allons a Lafayette" is based on an older tune.  In this case, the tune is called "Jeunes Gens Campagnard"; a song Joe had heard as a little boy. 

Let's go to Lafayette to change your name.
We will call you Mrs. Mischievous Comeaux.
Honey, you're too pretty to act like a tramp.
How do you think I am going to manage without you?
Look at what you done, pretty heart.
We are so far apart and that is pitiful.
Honey, you're too pretty to act like a tramp.
How do you think I am going to manage without you?
Look at what you done, pretty heart.
We are so far apart and that is pitiful.
There has been some confusion with the line "Madame Canaille Comeaux".  Gerard Dole suggests the line could be "Madame canaille comme moi", or "naughty, like me".  While most people will be confused reading the translations, it's because it doesn't capture the idiomatic nature of the Cajun French language, missing out on the color, nuances, and the point of the lyrics.

From that moment on, fans of Joe and Cleoma would purchase multiple copies of Lafayette, due to ruining them from playing them so much.   Their song would kick off an entire genre of music for generations of people to follow.  In late 1946, Harry Choates resurrected the tune and officially entitled it "Allons A Lafayette" on his Gold Star recording.

In 2010, the song "Allons a Lafayette" came in at #3 in Robert Dimery's book "1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die: And 10,001 You Must Download".4

In 2013, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

  1. LSU Libraries Special Collections. POST (LAUREN CHESTER) PAPERS. Stack: 7:11-19. Box: 8. Sound Recordings: Audio Tapes. Side 1: Post interview with Joe Falcon / Side 2: Lecture on Imperial Valley. Joe Falcon, Acadian musician (1963)
  2. Broven, John.  "South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous", p15-17.
  3. Seeger, Mike (1962). "Frank Buckley Walker. Columbia Records Old-Time Music Talent Scout"
  4. 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die: And 10,001 You Must Download Hardcover – November 2, 2010 by Robert Dimery
The Cajuns: Songs, Waltzes, & Two-Steps (Folkways, 1971)
Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century (1999)
Cajun Origins (Catfish, 2001)
Les Cajuns Best Of 2002 Les Triomphes De La Country Volume 12 (Habana, 2002)
Cajun Louisiane 1928-1939 (Fremeaux, 2003)
Cajun Early Recordings (JSP, 2004)
Cajun Capers: Cajun Music 1928-1954 (Proper, 2005)
The Beginner's Guide to Cajun Music (Primo, 2008)
The Best Of Cajun & Zydeco (Not Now, 2010)

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