Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Pine Grove Blues" - Nathan Abshire

Nathan Abshire had a brief recording stint with Happy Fats before he entered WWII training. However, he would make a much stronger impression on the Cajun music scene after the war, creating his signature song in the process.

In 1948, Clobule and Ernest Thibodeaux asked him to join the Pine Grove Boys, house-band of the Pine Grove Club, in Jennings, Louisiana.  One day, the club owner, Telesfar Eshte, asked Thibodeaux to find an accordion player for the group. Partly due to Iry LeJeune’s success, the accordion was again popular in Louisiana. Eshte felt the addition of an accordion would be good for business. Upon Thibodeaux’s father’s recommendation—who played fiddle with Amédé Ardoin briefly—he approached Abshire. Abshire said he’d love to start playing music again, but unfortunately he didn’t have an accordion, and he couldn’t afford to buy one. The Pine Grove Boys went into their own pockets and bought a broken single row Sterling accordion for $75. No one locally could repair it, so they drove to Houston (possibly to Mrnustik's shop), where the repairs cost them another $150.7

The group already included Dewey and Will Balfa on fiddle, and, under the influence of Will Kegley and Nathan, quickly became the New Pine Grove Boys.  The group played six out of seven days, alternating between both Quincy Davis’ clubs in Lake Charles, the Crystal Grill and the Broken Mirror in the evening, and on KPLC radio for a daily broadcast in the daytime.  

Eddie Shuler, who worked for the station, but was too busy with the promotion of Iry LeJeune, put them in touch with businessman Virgil Bozman.  Virgil, based in Westlake, Louisiana, signed them on his rising O.T. label, partially funded by George Khoury. Oklahoma Tornadoes was the name of the group formed by Virgil as the studio band for the Opera label run by James Bryant and Bennie Hess, based in Houston, Texas. Their fiddler being Floyd LeBlanc, of Mermentau with whom Nathan had played earlier on, probably put Nathan in touch with Bozman.  


Earl Demary, Wilson Granger,
Eldrige Guidry, unknown on drums,
Nathan Abshire, and Ernest Thibodeaux
The Pine Grove Boys were playing constantly at the Avalon Club. However, due to disputes between club owner, Quincy Davis, and some of the band members, the band was fired and Davis had replaced them with Earl Demary's Musical Aces.  It would be Demary's band in which Nathan would record his signature tune. In May of 1949, Virgel gathered them in KPLC studio, located inside the Majestic Hotel in Lake Charles, to cut 8 tracks; the first of which was the legendary "Pine Grove Blues" for the O.T. label (#102).  His Pine Grove Boys band included Roy Broussard and Ernest Thibodeaux on vocals, Earl Demarcy or Ernest Thibodeaux on guitar, Atlas Fruge on lap steel, Jim Baker on bass guitar, Oziet Kegley on drums, and either Will Kegley or Wilson Granger on fiddle.  Based on It would be Nathan's defining song in which he would re-record for several different labels and documentaries throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s. 

Hé, négresse!

ayoù toi t'as été hier au soir, ma négresse?

("J'ai été au bal, neg")



Hé, négresse!

ayoù toi t'as été hier au soir, ma négresse?
("J'ai été au bal, neg")

T'arriva à c'matin.
Soleil étais après s'lever, ma négresse.

Hé, négresse!
ayoù toi t'as passé hier au soir, ma négresse?
("par la barrière, neg")

Hé, négresse!
ayoù toi t'as passé hier au soir, ma négresse?
("passé la barrière")

T'arriva à c'matin.
Ta robe était toute déchiré. 
("J'ai passé la barrière")
KPLC, located inside the Majestic Hotel

The singer is taking his girlfriend to task for being out all night... inferring that it's with someone else!   The melody was inspired by Amédée Breaux's "Blues du 'Tit Chien" recorded for Vocalion Records in 1934.  (Author John Broven mistakenly states the song was inspired by Columbus Frugé’s "Tite négresse"; a song Fruge never recorded.)  Nathan's 1935 recording "One Step de Lacassine" clearly anticipates the melody. Author Shane Bernard notices lyrical similarities with a much older Creole tune called "Anons au bal Colinda".  There are some similarities with Bob Wills' "Milk Cow Blues" recorded in 1946 and even a loose similarity with "In The Pines", which some have credited as Nathan's source.  The phrases were shouted more than sung by Nathan, cheered by the interjections Ernest Thibodeaux, the same type of calls to his musicians used by Bob Wills in western swing. The accordion is hypnotic – not that it puts you to sleep, of course – and bewitching, relieved by a weft of fiddle and rhythmic guitar, the whole propelled by a powerful double bass.  According to Eddie Shuler, Bozman’ recording methods were very strange.  He recalls:


He kept the pot boiling by selling cowhorns (the famous Longhorns) and it is how he landed in Lake Charles one day. He discovered fast how I managed to get artists recorded by a third person and he decided to follow my steps. He arrived at the station studio, gave a bottle of booze to the sound engineer, asked him to cut an acetate, left with it and got it pressed somewhere else.

Virgel Bozman
Since most Cajun 78s usually reached a pressing figure of 500, it was a big hit, pressing around 3,200 copies of the single on several labels.  Nathan and his Pine Grove Boys were called everywhere to entertain at dances with their two-steps and waltzes. A happy period of his life, which is reflected in his recordings, exuberant voice, tonic accordion and lively band.

Hey, honey!
Where did you go last night, my honey? 
(I went to the dance, my honey)

Hey, honey!
Where did you go last night, my honey?
(I went to the dance, my honey)

When you came back this morning.
The sun was coming up.

Hey, honey!
Where did pass by last night, my honey?
(I passed by the fence, honey)

Hey, honey!
Where did pass by last night, my honey?
(I passed by the fence)

You came back this morning.
Your robe was all torn. 

George noticing Nathan's popularity, persuaded him to move from O.T. to his new label, Lyric, in which he recorded his songs throughout the 1950s.  In 1951, he tried to recreate his success with the recording "Pine Grove Blues #2" on Khoury's label (#611) to no avail.  Abshire never financially benefited from his song's success.  Floyd Soileau recalls: 


Khoury never registered the song but Nathan had recorded it as "Pine Grove Blues" for J.D. Miller. He registered it at BMI, but wasn’t paying Nathan royalties. I told Nathan that if he signed a publishing contract with me, I get him his writer’s royalties. I took him to a notary and he put his X on a contract. I cleared the song with BMI. J. D. contested it, but I had a contract. J.D. claimed his got burned in fire. But Dewey Balfa, who played on the Miller sessions, said nobody signed anything with J. D.”7

The song appears in 1967 for Swallow, in 1970 for a field recording in New York, in 1972 and in 1978 for LaLouisiane.  In 1979, Swallow released an album with the name "Pine Grove Blues". 






  1. South to Louisiana by John Broven
  2. Cajun Breakdown : The Emergence of an American-Made Music By Ryan Andre Brasseaux
  3. All Music Guide to Country: The Definitive Guide to Country Music edited by Vladimir Bogdanov
  4. Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues By Shane K. Bernard
  5. Encyclopedia of Music in the 20th Century edited by Lol Henderson
  6. http://www.bopping.org/nathan-abshire-pope-of-cajun-accordion/
  7. http://www.offbeat.com/2003/10/01/masters-of-louisiana-music-nathan-abshire/
  8. Lyrics by 'Ericajun'
Find:
Boppin' Hillbilly 26 (White Label/Collector Records)
Nathan Abshire & the Pine Grove Boys - French Blues (Arhoolie, 1993)
Les Cajuns Best Of 2002 Les Triomphes De La Country Volume 12 (Habana, 2002)
The Beginner's Guide to Cajun Music (Proper/Primo, 2008)

2 comments:

  1. Hi, thanks for this article. What do you make of the lyrical similarities between The Pine Grove Blues and 'In The Pines' (AKA 'Black Girl' and 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night')? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Pines)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think there's some adaptation here, but most likely, it didn't come from an English version, but most likely from the Breaux Brother's "Petite Chien" recording which borrows from the same lyrical theme.

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