Thursday, September 25, 2014

"La Chanson du Mardi Gras" - Clément Brothers

The Cajun Mardi Gras Song, known in Cajun French as "La Danse de Mardi Gras" or "La [Vieille] Chanson de Mardi Gras," is a mainstay in Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations, and an important piece in the repertoire of any traditional Cajun Music band. It is perhaps the oldest song in the Cajun repertoire and the key song for the rural "courir de Mardi Gras", an event covered by plenty of other websites.

As is the case with most traditional folk songs , not many specifics are known about the history of the song. It is generally posited, though, that the melody is much older than the lyrics, as its modal sound and melodic form are indicative of old Breton (French Celtic) melodies, which could've easily been brought along by the Acadians through their journey from France to Canada to Southwest Louisiana. The lyrics are clearly more recent, though also likely well over 100 years old, and are not fully standardized -- different groups will sing them with slight variations.  The tune is played in a minor mode not generally found in other Cajun music.

Author and historian Dr. Barry Ancelet explains that in the early 1950s, a group of cultural activists in the Mamou area, under the leadership of Paul Tate and Revon Reed, undertook to revive the traditional Mardi Gras run.  They sought guidance from older members of the community who remembered running Mardi Gras and even remembered the words of that community's version of the traditional Mardi Gras song.
Oster in New Orleans, 1958

The first of these versions to be recorded seems to be by different people, including Bee Deshotels, Terry Clement and Austin Pitre, during field recording sessions.  These sessions, recorded by folklorist Dr. Harry Oster, were done between 1956 and 1959 around Mamou and Eunice, Louisiana. Clement's version would be released in 1957 as field recordings on Oster's own Louisiana Folklore Society label.  Bee Deshotels would be accompanied by Angelus Manuel and Savy Augustine during Mardi Gras, February, 1958.  When Oster recorded the song, dance tunes had become largely the province of the older members of the community; many of their children and grandchildren were drawn, as were their peers elsewhere, to commercial, popular American culture.  According to Rocky Sexton:
[the Clement version] is a combination of the Tee Mamou/Lejeune Cove song that then shifts into the tune of the Big Mamou Mardi Gras song at certain points. The lyrics are a combination of Tee Mamou/Lejeune Cove with a little of Big Mamou lyrics thrown in. The song also has some improvisation in the lyrics. I'm pretty sure that is the case with the part about the whiskey and the Mardi Gras being hungover.12

The Clément Brothers, composed of Terry on accordion, Purvis on violin, and Grant on guitar, created some of the first swamp pop music after WWII. Early on, their father, Laurent would play violin.  The band members fell in love with the music of the late Cajun French musician, Nathan Abshire, and patterned their music after his. They found his music exciting, smooth and very different from any others.  They organized their first band, Terry Clement & His Rhythmic Five, in 1949 and recorded 2 songs for J.D. Miller: "Diggy Liggy Lo" and "Le Valse De Te Maurice".   Later, the Clement brothers, brother-in-law, Ronald Goodreau, and pianist, Everett Daigle formed a band playing country and rhythm and blues music.  They would also be recorded by Jack Bond.

However, the most iconic version of the Mardi Gras song would be recorded during a field session between 1964 and 1966 by the Balfa Brothers and released on Miller's Kajun label (#502), "The Mardi Gras Song".   The recording, with Nathan Abshire and Dewey Balfa, involves using a pair of coconuts to simulate the sound of galloping horses.  The Balfas would enter the Swallow studio and record the song again in the 1970s, "La Danse de Mardi Gras", and since then, the song has flourished.  Their version is probably the most popular and commonly sung during the Mardi Gras season. Here's that version:
Les Mardi Gras s'en vient de tout partout
Tout le tour autour du moyeu
Ça passe eine fois par an 
Demander la charité
Quand même si c'est une patate
Une patate et des grattons

Les Mardi Gras sont d'sus un grand voyage
Tout le tour autour du moyeu
Ça passe une fois par an 
Demander la charité
Quand même si c'est une poule maigre
Et trois ou quatre coton de maïs

Capitaine, Capitaine voyage ton flag
Allons chez l'aut' voisin
D'mander la charité 
Pour les'autres v'nez nous joindre
Pour les'autres vous v'nez nous joindre
Ouais au gumbo ce soir
"Mardi Gras" (pronounced here as 'grahz') in this sense is a plural nickname referring to the actual participants in the courir event. 
The "Mardi Gras" are coming from all over 
Together, we'll gather around
It happens each year
Ask for donations 
Even if it's a potato
A potato and pork rinds 

The "Mardi Gras" have made a long trip
Together, we'll gather around
It happens each year
Ask for donations 
Even if it's a skinny chicken 
And three or four corncobs

Captain, Captain raise your flag 
Let's go to the neighbor's and
Ask for donations 
For everyone else, come join us
For everyone else, come join us
Yeah, at the gumbo tonight

  1. Cajun Women and Mardi Gras: Reading the Rules Backward By Carolyn Ware
  4. Disenchanting Les Bons Temps: Identity and Authenticity in Cajun Music and Dance By Charles J. Stivale
  5. Ancelet, Barry Jean. 1989. "Capitaine Voyage Ton Flag": The Traditional Cajun Country Mardi Gras.
  7. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous By John Broven
  8. Roger D. Abrahams; Nick Spitzer; John Szwed; Robert Farris Thompson (2006-02-09). Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America's Creole soul
  9. Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues By Shane K. Bernard
  12. Discussions with Rocky S

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