An impassioned ambassador for Cajun music and culture, fiddler and singer Dewey Balfa was a driving force in the revival of traditional Cajun music. Together with his brothers Will, Rodney, Harry, and Burkeman, and later his nephew Tony and daughter Christine, Balfa introduced the vibrant sound of Cajun music to countless people around the world and used his role as a musical ambassador to reawaken a deep and abiding sense of pride in Cajun music amongst his fellow Cajuns. Dewey's strong sense of tradition was based on a deep musical heritage going back generations in his family. Dewey states:
"My father, grandfather, great-grandfather, they all played the fiddle," he told an interviewer, "and you see, through my music, I feel they are still alive."4
Dewey Balfa made his recording debut in 1951 with "Le Two Step de Ville Platte", which was captured on a home recorder and released as a 78 RPM single. He and Elise Deshotel cut several primitive sides including "La Valse de Bon Baurche," (#618) an original that would be the linchpin of the Balfa Brothers’ eventual recording career. Backed by Elise band, consisting of many of Nathan Abshire's musicians and Maurice Barzas, he sang this song about a sorrowful drunkard. The song warns the libertine (the literal meaning of "bambocheur") of the evils of drink and high living.3
It was an old melody, first recorded by Dennis McGee as "La Valse Du La Penitentiaire" and again Leo Soileau in the 1930s known as "Quand Je Suis Bleu". The melody also influenced Joe Manuel to record a string band version called "Since The Age Of 14". It is a hard-driving waltz, with a quick beat and soulful vocals, influenced not only by tradition, but also by the fact that the Balfa Brothers were discovering how to provide the energy level required by large festival crowds who were listening more than dancing.2
Hey, yaille, depuis l'âge de quatorze ans,J'après rouler manche à manche,Pour essayer d'en trouver,D'en trouver une autre comme toi,T'es la seule mon couer désire.Hey, yaille,Aujourd'hui n'importe ayoù,N'importe ayoù moi j'peux passer,Blanc et noir, ça me pointe au doigt, chère,En disant, "Gardez-là! Gardez-là grand bonrien,Le rouleur et bambocheur".Hey, yaille, aujourd'hui chaque fois je pars,Chaque fois je pars de la maison,Pop et mom se mettent à pleurer,Ça me suit jusqu'à la porte du cour,En disant, " Toi t'es un bonrien",Fait pas ça, viens, donc nous rejoindre.Oh, ye yaille, mais moi j'ai toujours dit,Toujours dit à mon vieux pop et à ma chère vieille bonne maman, yaille,Moi, je connais j'suis un bonrien,J'suis un bonrien pour moi-même,J'ai jamais fait rien pour personne.Oh, ye yaille, aujourd'hui j'suis condamné,Condamné à rouler,Ma bourouette sur ma planche de six pouces,Quatre-vingt dix neuf ans,Quatre-vingt dix neuf ans, c'est la limite d'un bon a rien,Ça c'est le restant de ma vie,Aussi loin de cette la moi j'aime.
|Dewey and Will Balfa in the studio|
Photo courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Archive
I was always working in the front counter because I could get a feel of what kind of records my people wanted to buy. And I wanted to record "La Valse De Bon Baurche', but nobody knew it. And Dewey Balfa came to see me many a time trying to convince me that I should record him and his brothers. I said, 'No, I want something with an accordion, if I don't haven an accordion I don't want it.' He happens to mention that he had recorded 'La Valse De Bon Baurche' many years ago. I said, 'Why didn't you tell me this in the first place! I have been trying to get somebody to do this song for the longest." So we went in and we did 'La Valse de Bambocheurs'. From then on we went on doing the Balfa Brothers.1
Photo courtesy of the
Ralph Rinzler Archive,
Center for Folklife and
The release sold well, but more importantly, it brought the old-style, traditional sound back into consideration on the local level. The old Creole adage "condemned for 99 years" is less of a physical sentence, but more of an emotional one, in which the heartbroken feels this is the longest someone could survive without their lover. It's a way to say "dying of a broken heart".
Hey, ye yaille, since the age of fourteen,
I've rambled from road to road,
Rambling with my bottle in hand,
Trying to find another like you,You're the only one my heart desires.Hey, ye yaille, today, no matter where I go,The whites and the blacks point their fingers at me,Saying, "Look there, look there at the good for nothing,The drunkard and rambler".Hey, ye yaille, each time I leave,Each time I leave my house,Pop and mom start crying,They follow me to the gate of the yard,Saying "You're good for nothing,"Don't do that. Come back and join us."Hey, ye yaille, I always said,Always said to my old pop and to my dear old mom,"I know I'm a good for nothing,I'm good for nothing for myself,I never did anything for anybody".Hey, ye yaille, today I'm condemned,Condemned to ramble,My wheelbarrow on my six-inch plank,For ninety --nine years,Ninety-nine years, that's the limit for a good for nothing,That's the rest of my life,So far from the one I love.
|The Balfa Brothers,|
Festival of American Folklife
Washington, DC. July 4, 1969
Courtesy of Smithsonian Center for
Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
"I had played in house dances, family gatherings, maybe a dance hall where you might have seen as many as 200 people at once. In fact, I doubt I had ever seen 200 people at once. And in Newport, there were 17,000. Seventeen thousand people who wouldn't let us get off stage."4
With renewed pride in Cajun culture, as well as a sense of its commercial potential outside Louisiana, Dewey returned to Louisiana and in 1965, with his brothers Will, Rodney, and Harry on fiddles, guitars, and triangle and Hadley Fontenot on accordion, established the Balfa Brothers Band.
By 1965, Floyd launched the Balfa's first single, giving it the English title "Drunkard’s Sorrow Waltz". Austin Pitre and Milton Molitor would re-title the song "Ninety Nine Year Waltz", even though it has no similarity with Iry's "Convict Waltz".
- All Music Guide to Country: The Experts' Guide to the Best Country Recordings edited by Michael Erlewine
- Old-Country Music in a New Land: Folk Music of Immigrants from Europe and the Near East New World NW 264. Liner notes.
- Cajun Music: It's Origins and Development by Barry Jean Ancelet