Friday, June 23, 2017

"La Valse Penitentiaire" - Moise Robin & Leo Soileau

The song is based on an old Creole story of a convicted person leaving for 99 years, headed to prison.  The verses come from "Le Penitent et L'Ivrogne" which were written by literary authors to accompany popular melodies.1  Recorded in 1929 for Victor records, the original form would be chanted for Alan Lomax by Cleveland and Isaac Sonnier and Fenelon Brasseaux five years later.   The group recorded "La Chanson des Savoy" for Lomax in Erath, Louisiana.1   The Sonnier's lines such as "je suis parti au Baton Rouge", "pour recevoir la berouette", and "c'est le fouet dessus mon dos" are key references to the penitentiary located north of Baton Rouge known as Angola.
Oh, mame, 'gardez donc, malheureuse!
J'sus après m'en aller au Baton Rouge, chère maman!

Oh, chère maman, m'en aller au Baton Rouge
Pour quatre-vingt-dix-neuf ans, chère maman!

Oh, chère maman, hier matin tout l'monde
Était après m'observer m'en aller pour toujours!

Oh, chère maman, c'est d'traîner ma berouette,
Ma berouette pour quatre-vingt-dix-neuf ans!

Oh, chère maman, j'sus après vivre trop longtemps
Pour rester, oui, là-bas à coté d'chère mame!

Oh, chère maman, r'gardez donc, malheureuse!
Temps qu'moi, j'ai parti, t'étais mis à pleurer!

Moi, j'ai dit, "Chère maman, c'est pas la peine toi tu brailles,
J'vas r'venir quand même j'sus dedans vingt ans d'suite!"
Angola prison camp, 1934.

In Robin & Soileau's tune "La Valse Penitentiaire" (#22183), the "berouette" (wheelbarrow), appears as a sign of imprisonment, as it does in many other related songs in Cajun music.  In this case, "quatre-vingt-dix-neuf ans" is a physical sentence.   In Louisiana, the "Penitentiaire" referred to here is the one north of Baton Rouge, located on an old slave plantation known as "Angola".   Angola State Penitentiary is a maximum-security prison farm named after the country from which many of the slaves came who worked on this former plantation.   These plantations Panola, Belle View, Killarney and Angola, were joined in 1880.  With good behavior, the man in the song could get out of prison in twenty years.
Angola convicts building a levee,
Atchafalaya River, 1901
'Andrew D. Lytle's Baton Rouge' Photograph Collection
Louisiana State University Libraries, Special Collections

With constant flooding across the riverbanks of Louisiana, prison labor was commonly used to help build levees to control the flow of water away from populated areas, especially after the Mississippi flood of 1927.  The wheelbarrow would have been the common mode of levee building until dredging machinery made it's way into the swampy areas near the Atchafalaya basin.

Oh, mama, look at this, oh my,

I have gone to Baton Rouge, dear mama.

Oh, dear mama, going to Baton Rouge,
For ninety-nine years, dear mama.

Oh, dear mama, yesterday morning everyone,
Watched me go away forever.

Oh, dear mama, it's the dragging of my wheelbarrow,
My wheelbarrow for ninety-nine years.

Oh, dear mama, I have lived way too long,
To rest, yeh, over there next to my dear mama.

Oh, dear mama, look at that, oh my,
Time which I had left, you were crying.

I said, "Dear mom, it's not worth you wailing,
I'll come back anyways, I'll be back in twenty years."

Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, said that Angola was "probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930." Hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola.

  1. Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings By Joshua Clegg Caffery
  2. Lyrics by 'Hormisdas'

Louisiana Cajun Music Volume 1: First Recordings - The 1920's (Old Timey, 1970)
The Early Recordings of Leo Soileau (Yazoo, 2006)

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