Thursday, May 30, 2024

"La Danse Carre" - Dennis McGee & Ernest Fruge

Music associated with French and American dance forms influenced much of early Cajun social life in the 1920s.  From their Anglo-American neighbors, Cajun musicians learned jigs, hoedowns, and Virginia reels to enrich their growing repertoire which already included polkas, contredanses, varsoviennes and valses-à-deux-temps.5  Similar to the contredanse (counter-dance), the Cajun French square dance embraced a loosely structured call-out routine throughout the dance number.  These Cajun dances appeared in Acadie in the 17th century and flourished throughout.  According to musician and Acadian music researcher, Devon Léger, 

"Reel de la Rivière à la Truite" from New Brunswick.  It actually corresponds to a Cajun tune.  The first and third parts of "La Danse Carre" correspond pretty closely to two different old Acadian tunes from Eastern Canada! It's clear that French songs travelled from W. France to Canada to Louisiana with Acadians, but it's been super hard to demonstrate anything with the tunes.  Another Acadian tune, called "Rabastan à Avila Leblanc", from the Magdalen Islands. These islands from the coast of Quebec were one of the last strongholds of old style Acadian fiddling, so they have a lot of the old beautiful tunes.  The second part of "Rabastan" is exactly like the third part of "La Danse Carre", which is a really interesting correlation between old Acadian fiddling from Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Cajun fiddling.6  

When George Washington Cable toured through Louisiana in 1888, he commented on the Cajun dance: When a girl was old enough to "move into society"—that is, for marriage—she was "meant to join in the contra-dance.4  Cable continues: 
The fiddler's seat is mounted on a table in the corner.  The fiddler is in it.  Each beau has led a maiden into the floor.  The sets are made for the contra-dance.  The young men stand expectant, their partners wait with downcast eyes and mute lips as Acadian damsels should. The music strikes up, and away they go!4  

Dennis McGee

Although fiddler Dennis McGee spoke little but Cajun French, he was known nationally form appearances on such shows as "Prairie Home Companion" and from stops at colleges and festivals around the country.   McGee's career spanned most of the 20th century.  When Cajun music was first being recorded in the late 1920s, he played with such artists as Amede Ardoin, Joe Falcon and Amede Breaux.2  As a fiddler, McGee was keenly aware of the popularity of square dance styles.  He recalled:
I would love to be twenty years old again.  They danced contredanses throughout my courting days.  The contredanse wasn't difficult. You just had to turn around, making little steps while you turned.5  

During a recording session in 1929, he and Ernest Fruge recorded "La Dance Carre" (#512). Directly translated to "The Square Dance", you can hear Walter Coquille, a Cajun humorist who was present at the session, calling out dance instructions. McGee recalled playing this style at house dances every Saturday and Sunday from seven o'clock until midnight, where he'd received one dollar a night. 
We played all kinds of dances.  In a dance-hall in Ville Platte, we'd play first a "danse carrée", then a waltz, then a "two-step".  The "danse carrée" was very popular back then.  They danced by six or eight pairs.  Somebody would call out "Famille en ronde" and the girl would hold the arm of her partner.  Then they'd all make a big circle and return to place.  Then two pairs would cross together.  Then they'd form two lines, boys in one line and girls in the other.  They'd go in and meet and turn, then the pair would go down the line together.3    
Leleux Dancehall, 1938
Courtesy of LOC, Russell Lee Collection

Sometimes referred to as une contredanse francaise, it seemed to fade out of popularity towards the late 1930s, in particularly the regions of St. Landry parish and Evangeline parish.  Although McGee continued to play square dances afterwards, however, Fruge never recorded commercially for a major recording label ever again.  According to music producer Christopher King, he states: 
Their recording session features this hypnotic, driving, in-your-head twin fiddle breakdown. Two violins: one playing the lead, the other playing rhythm. "La Dance Carre" not only reminds me of the Carter Brothers but also the driving, hypnotic music we would also hear all over the world.1

  1.   Chris travels at 78 RPM: “I’m No Lyre” – Episode 4.   Radio show.
  2. "Cajun Fiddler Dead".  CPS. 1989.
  3. Dennis McGee ‎– The Complete Early Recordings.  Liner notes. 
  4. Bonaventure: A Prose of Acadian Louisiana By George Washington Cable
  5. Cajun and Creole Music Makers By Barry Jean Ancelet
  6. Discussions with Devon Léger, March 4, 2023.

Release Info:
NO-6713 La Rille Cajen | Brunswick 512
NO-6714 La Danse Carre | Brunswick 512 


The Early Recordings Of Dennis McGee: Featuring Sady Courville & Ernest Fruge (Morning Star, 1977)
Dennis McGee ‎– The Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo, 2006)

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