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)

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

"La Fille A Oncle Elair" - Joe Falcon & Cleoma Breaux

The early surge of musical creativity carried over into a new period as Cajun performers throughout the 1930s, adapted tunes they heard on the radio. Joe and Cleoma were both known to have taken popular tunes of the day and recorded them in Cajun French.  

After the Great Depression, Joe and Cleoma were approached by RCA to travel to their makeshift studio in San Antonio for a recording session.  Together, the duo recorded four sings in 1934, one of them known as "La Fille A Oncle Elair" (#2191).  The song's popular was easily eclipsed by the record's popular flipside recording of "Ils Volet Mon Trancas", better known as "Hippy Ti Yo".  

Ah yéyaie les filles à n'onc Hilaire, 
C'est toutes des chères belles filles, 
Y'a une 'tite brune, y'a une 'tite blonde, 
Un qui est trop noire pour moi z'aimer, 
Mais, ça me fait du mal à moi.

Ah yéyaie les filles à n'onc Hilaire, 
C'est toutes des chères belles filles, 
Y'a une 'tite brune, une 'tite blonde, 
Un qui est pas de mon goût du tout, 
Mais, ça me fait du mal.

Ai yé yaille, les filles à Nonc’ Hilaire,
C'est toutes des chères ‘tites filles,
Tout ce qui me dégoute de porter des petits souliers numéro 9,
C’est trop de l’argent pour moi dépenser,
Fait pas ça avec moi.

Je me rappelle quand moi je passais,
Devant la porte de ta maman, 
N'en n’a pas un qui voulait me voir,
J'ai eu de la chance, mais-aujourd’hui,
De m' faire de l’argent,
Mais, ils m'ont tous dit d’aller me voir,
Elle voulait me voir avant de mourir.

Nonc Helaire Trahan
and Anita Babineaux Trahan

The song is a story of Nonc Helaire's daughters, each of whom had different colored hair.  The dark haired one was tough to love as a little girl since she seemed to desire expensive things such as "little size 9 shoes".   The author is clearly broke and only when he acquires enough money to make them happy, then he can visit their dying mother at her home.   In real life, "Nonc Helaire" was Helaire Trahan Sr, who came from such a large family that everyone knew him as "nonc".  A native of nearby Osson, Louisiana, he had three daughters, Nell, Verna and Joycelyn—the three filles referenced in Joe's song.1  

Aye ye yaille, the girls of uncle Helaire, 
They are all dear beautiful girls,
There's a brunnette, there's a blonde,
One who is too dark haired for me to love,
But, that hurts me so much.

Aye ye yaille, the girls of uncle Helaire, 
They are all dear beautiful girls,
There's a brunnette, there's a blonde,
One who is not my taste at all, 
But, that hurts me so much.

Aye ye yaille, the girls of uncle Helaire,  
They are all dear beautiful girls,
Everything disgusts me about them wearing little size nine shoes,
It's too much money for me to spend,
Don't do that to me.

I remember when I passed,
In front of your mother's door,
Not one of them wanted to see me,
I was lucky, today, to have money,
Well, they all told me to come see,
She wanted to see me before she died. 

Since then, the song has been recorded by many, including Beausoleil and the Basin Brothers, even taken on a caricature with Revon Reed as the famed "Nonc Helaire".  In 1996, Helaire's grandson, Horace Trahan, reworked the song in the studio and released it on his Swallow Records CD "Osson Blues".  

  1. Discussions with Anita H
  2. Lyrics by Marc C and Stephane F
Release Info:
BS-83852-1 La Fille A Oncle Elair (Uncle Elair's Daughter) | Bluebird 2191
BS-83853-1 Ils La Volet Mon Trancas | Bluebird 2191

Cajun Early Recordings (Important Swamp Hits Remastered) (JSP, 2004)

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

"Blues de Basille" - Amede Ardoin & Dennis McGee

With songs like "Two Step de Eunice" and "Blues De Basille," (#531) accordionist Amede Ardoin, helped by his fiddle player and traveling companion Dennis McGee, became one of the first musicians to record Louisiana's Cajun music. Ardoin was an accordion virtuoso who, by all accounts, had an uncanny knack for improvising French lyrics with his strange high voice.1  Named after the town of Basile, Ardoin was no stranger to the "blues" that this town offered him,
One time they had a dance hall in Basile, and what saved him was some white guy who was learning how to play the guitar.  Somebody threw a big ol' rock--whoever done it wanted to hurt him bad--and the rock went through the guitar.4  

Oh comment je vas faire, catin,
Mais, ouais, ’tite fille je m’en vas à la maison tout seul,
Comment tu veux, dis, ouais, je peux faire, ’tite fille,
Si tes parents veulent pas, je te demanderais pas,
Dis, ouais, c’est toi, éou c’est tu veux je peux aller,
Mais, ouais, mon nèg, chaque fois que je vas pas c’ez toi.

Oh, mais, oui, catin; comment,
Si vous-autres peuvent faire m’en aller de toi, ’tite fille,
Moi, je te vois pas, c’est beaucoup rarement,
Je serais contente te rejoindre, te rejoindre, ’tite fille.

Oh, comment je vas faire, catin,
Dis ouais, je vas tout seul éoù c’est je vas aller,
Que tes parents veulent pas, comment je vas faire, tite fille.
Daily Advertiser
May 1, 1931

It's unlikely we'll ever know for certain what became of Ardoin. By some accounts, he wound up in a mental institution in Pineville, Louisiana. The only concrete evidence of this, however, is a death certificate issued May 30, 1941 from Pineville for a person named "Amelie Ardoin." And the certificate lists Ardoin as being 20 years older than he actually was at the time. Others say Ardoin eventually left Pineville and headed home.1  Music writer Tom Schnabel compares the song to his life and death,
Listening to it, I was reminded of a much more famous singer, the blues great Robert Johnson, who himself died of mysterious circumstances at age 27.  There is a great deal of myth surrounding Johnson’s life, as it’s been rumored that he was poisoned by a jealous girlfriend. Others say that he sold his soul to the devil in a faustian deal to become the greatest blues singer of all time. The latter story involved Johnson taking his guitar to Dockery Plantation at midnight to seal the deal, which turned out to be a meeting at the crossroads. The music of Ardoin and Johnson has a certain edge that captures the energy of their youth. Songs like Ardoin’s “Blues de Basile,” parallel the same piercing, exhortatory urgency of Johnson’s “Preaching Blues.”2  

Oh, how will I do this, pretty doll,

Well, yeah, little girl, I'm going to go home all alone,
What do you want, tell me, yeah, I can do this, little girl,
If your parents don't want, I won't demand,
Tell me, yeah, it's you, wherever you want, I can go,
Well, yeah, my friend, every time that I'm not going to you.

Oh, well, yes, pretty doll, how?
If you all can make me leave you, little girl,
I don't see you, it's very rarely,
I'll be happy to join you, to join you, little girl.

Oh, how will I do this, pretty doll,
Say yeah, I will go all by myself, where ever can I go,
That your parents do not want me, how will I do this, little girl.

Amede Ardoin

The common, accepted story is: While playing his accordion at a local farmhouse in Eunice, Louisiana, in the late 1930s, Creole musician Amede Ardoin wiped his brow with a handkerchief given to him by a white woman. Two white men angered by the exchange between Ardoin and the woman followed him outside, where they beat him, backed over him with a Ford Model A truck and threw him in a ditch. He woke up crippled, with permanent brain damage.1  Fellow musician Canray Fontenot remembers how that night changed his friend:

After that, "he didn't know whether he was hungry or not.... He was plumb crazy."1
In 2014, "Blues de Basille" crossed over, making it's appearance into the mainstream when it was recorded by jazz violinist Regina Carter on her album "Southern Comfort".3   

  4. The Kingdom of Zydeco By Michael Tisserand
Release Info:
NO-6719 Blues De Basille | Brunswick 531
NO-6720 La Valse A Thomas Ardoin | Brunswick 531

Pioneers of the Cajun Accordion (Arhoolie, 1989)
I'm Never Comin' Back: The Roots of Zydeco (Arhoolie, 1995)
Cajun Country, Vol. 2, More Hits from the Swamp (JSP, 2005)
Mama, I'll Be Long Gone : The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin, 1929-1934 (Tompkins Square, 2011)