Saturday, July 9, 2016

"La Valse La Prison" - Douglas Bellard & Kirby Riley

Douglas Bellard is said to be the first black Cajun/Creole to record, just before Amede Ardoin, thus making him arguably the spiritual father of Zydeco music. His records are rarely heard, but for all their roughness, they are deep American roots music of the highest order.  They became the first rural Afro-Creoles from southwest Louisiana to record the earthy, raw music of the black Creoles. This stark masterpiece of fiddle, accordion and vocal emphasizes the rhythm and beat while understating the melodic line.7  Vocalion released four Bellard-Riley sides, including the classic la-la lament "La Valse La Prison" (#15847).  This would become only one of four songs recorded by Bellard (misspelled Bellar). Most listings correct the phrase writing "La Valse De La Prison".  Around 1974, during an interview with producer Jean-Pierre Bruneau, Bee Fontenot explains the song was based on Douglas' time in prison due to killing a man in his coop he caught stealing his chickens.8

Oh toi cher 'tite fille quoi ça t'es après faire.

T'auras jamais de bonheur dans ta vie.

Oh te'm'fait t'aimer, jamais toujours, chere, 
Te tourne ton doux d'moi.

Oh te fais mal, la pauv' vieille maman, à la porte de prison, 
Ses deux mains sur sa tête en pleurant pour moi.

Bonsoir chère maman, 
Bonsoir pour tous tes jours, c'est tous mes tiens.

J'ai fini de te voir, maman,
J'ai fini de te voir sur la terre du bon dieu.

Oh toi, chère maman, pleure pas pour moi. 
'Mande à tes amis pour t'aider.

Pars prier pour moi, 
Pars des prières pour sauver moi nom des flammes de l'enfer.

Oh, quand jai dit ça à ma maman, 

Elle a fait "mmmmmmm, hmmmmmmm"

Douglas Bellard played with Creole accordionist Amede Ardoin and taught this tune to a younger Canray Fontenot who popularized the song as "Barres De La Prison".7 Author Barry Ancelet states:

"Les Barres De La Prison", Canray Fontenot's classic blues waltz based on Bellard's original recording of "La Valse de la Prison", for example, is a traditional gallows blues lament or prisoner's farewell which recalls the old French "Chanson de Mandrin".

It was recorded in New Orleans in 1929 and afterwards, Douglas would spend alot of time traveling to play music.   At some point Douglas separated from his wife and moved near the Fontenot family.  Canray and Adam Fontenot recall Bellard leaving to record and play:

I used to go fool with [his] fiddle.  I had learned how to tune it and everything from him.  He started getting kind of popular and most of the time that doggone Douglas was gone.  I didn't have nothing to practice.  I was just getting in the groove to learn something, no he keeps taking the fiddle.1
Douglas Bellard
By Robert Crumb

Not much is known about the Afro-Creole accordionist Kirby Riley.  It's believed he was born in St. Landry parish in 1904 to Thomas and Cora Riley.  When not playing music, he worked on cars in a garage, greasing and cleaning engines. By the time he entered WWII in 1942, he was still single. 

On tunes like "La Valse De La Prison", we’re able to easily discern the dark, rolling rumble of Riley’s accordion behind Bellard’s lively fiddling.  Bellard would go on to influence other musicians around the area including Canray Fontenot and Wade Fruge.   Canray recalls Douglas playing with Amede Ardoin:

They played together; they played good music together.  They both wanted to start the tune and if one would start the other one couldn't catch up.  And they both liked to sing; they were always in a big brawl about that.5
Wade Fruge recalls:
 He was really good.  His bow looked like a rainbow.  I've seen him play with some number eight sewing thread.5  
Oh you, dear little girl, what have you done?
You are never happy in life.

Oh you made me love you, forever always, dear,
You turned sweet to me,

Oh, it hurts you, poor old mother, at the prison door,
Her hands at her face, weeping for me.

Good night, dear mom, 
Good night forever, that's my wish.

I'll finally see you, momma,
I'll finally see you in heaven.

Oh you, dear mother, weep not for me,
Ask your friends for help.

Go pray for me, go pray to save me my name from the fires of hell,

Oh, when I said that to my mom, she was like "mmmmmmm, hmmmmmmm".

Outside of Geeshie Wiley’s "Last Kind Word Blues", it is hard to imagine a more dark, moody, and backwoods-y performance from this time period.7 

  1. The Kingdom of Zydeco By Michael Tisserand
  2. Louisiana Fiddlers By Ron Yule
  3. Cajun Breakdown : The Emergence of an American-Made Music: By Ryan Andre Brasseaux
  4. Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country By Carl A Brasseaux
  5. Cajun Music: Reflection of a People by Ann Savoy
  6. Photo by RS
  8. Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés.  Cinq Planètes ‎– CP01 934.
  9. Lyrics by Stephane F
Aimer Et Perdre: To Love & To Lose Songs, 1917-1934 (Tompkins Square, 2012)

1 comment:

  1. This is about my grandfather. I'd love to know where did you get this info from. Not too many people knew about this.


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