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CAJUN MUSIC

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HISTORY

The Cajuns are descendents of the Acadians, French-speaking residents of Canada who were expelled from their homes by the British in 1755, during the French-Indian war. Some eventually made their way to Louisiana, bringing their violins with them. Arcadian warped into Cajun. The early Cajun bands of two fiddles gave way to fiddle and accordion, then back to two fiddles, then back to a fiddle and an accordian.

Mitch Reed writes that first written records of fiddles in Louisiana used for song accompaniment and dancing are from 1780.

After WWI, the 'French' music of Louisiana came under outside influences, partially due to soldiers coming home from the War. Country-western music (white music) combined with French to become Cajun; Jazz, swing and Rhythm and Blues (black music) combined with French to yield Creole. In the 1950s, a blues-oriented Creole musician began calling his music Zydeco.

Zydeco is not Cajun; it is the music of the Creole people living in the same area as the Cajuns. The fiddle was also an important part of the early Zydeco bands, but the fiddle has been largely supplanted by the accordion.

'There is about a 20% difference between Cajun and Creole... Cajun tends to have longer bow strokes, kind of like an old time musician...There's more staccato in the Creole tradition.' — Cedric Watson.

"We are here to tell you a little bit about what a Cajun is. A Cajun is a person who his homeland was France. Went into Nova Scotia, at the time Acadia, and settled there and was there for about a hundred years, and afterwards the British took over the territory and then the French-speaking people, the French descendants, known as the Acadians, came down to the South-Western part of Louisiana, and that was back in 1755. So over all of these years, your language, and your music has been preserved from daddy to son or daddy to daughter or momma to daughter." Dewey Balfa, as quoted by Yasha Aginsky.

"[Cajun music] refers to an indigenous mixture with complex roots in Irish, African, German, Appalachian as well as Acadian traditions. While Zydeco tends to incorporate elements of rhythm and blues, blues, and more recently hip hop and rap, Cajun music has historically been influenced by Western swing, rock and roll, and country music." — Joshua Caffery.

"Everything I play is learned from Louisiana. I went back in time, not only to French music, but to lues, jazz, popular music, Irish music, whatever. As more old recordings are brought to light, you can see these influences and what a hotbed Louisiana was." — Michael Doucet.

MELODIC MODES

"First, what you have now is not what you would have found ten years ago, which is what you wouldn't have found ten years before that, and ten years before that. You find remnants of earlier styles." — Michael Doucet

Cajun fiddles often tune to match the accordion. If the accordion is in the key of D, standard tuning is used. If the accordion is in the key of C, the fiddle is often tuned to F-C-G-D (lowest to highest). This tuning facilitates double stops, and some use it all the time.

Double stops (often just an open string sounding with the melody) slides and trills are the most frequent ornaments.

"The arrival of the accordion in the 1870's was a turning point in Cajun music. Most accordions were in C, and for fiddlers the preferred key was D for the purpose of droning strings, so many tuned down one whole step to FCGD allowing the drones when actually playing in C." — Mitch Reed

"Do you keep [your fiddles] in low (F-C-G-D low to high) tuning? No, I tune to standard. You didn't used to. We sing a lot in D and it is just less of a problem to bring one fiddle on tour instead of two... All the old guys played in D and that's what we are doing, bringing it back to where it should be. Was [G-D-A-D] McGee's usual tuning? Dennis played that tuning, and he used some other tuning beside. I think in the real old days they did the A-E-A-E thing, to get that resonance and that double string sound." — Michael Doucet, as interviewed by Niles Hokkanen.

RHYTHMIC MODES

Cajun music is dance music. Bowing emphasizes the beat for dancing; long slurs are uncommon. The beat is far more important than intonation.

"At the turn of the century [20th], the Cajuns were performing a variety of European dances including the waltz, polka, reel , mazurka, and quadrille (known also as the contredanse), with music to match, but they gradually limited themselves to the ever-popular waltz and two-step.. . Until the appearance of the accordion, the fiddle had been the favored Cajun instrument, on its own or in duet with the lead fiddle taking the melody and the second carrying the rhythm. The fiddle and accordion combination was a natural evolutionary development, with the triangle (le petit fer, the little iron) providing rhythmic accompaniment... Despite occasional reverses in popularity brought about by changing musical trends, the accordion and fiddle still retain their preeminence, although there are regional variations in the instrumental composition of Cajun bands." -- John Broven

"I can still remember at the dances I used to play in the early fifties eighty- and ninety-year-old couples that would come dance two or three nights a week till closing time. I mean these people loved to dance and that's part of their life. The dance didn't finish at twelve or one, it finished when the last one couldn't stand up no more, that was it. It looked like a morgue when you walked in, everybody just laying there!" -- Joe Barry

Energetic tapping of the feet on the floor will provide the fiddle player with a built-in percussion instrument, if the acoustics are right.

One Step (Cajun Jig): (2/4)

Waltz: (3/4)

A frequent Cajun waltz rhythm is a quarter note followed by four eighth notes. With 'swing.'

Two Step: (4/4)

Let's go to Lafayette to change your name.
We will call you Mrs. Mischievous Comeaux.
Honey, you're too pretty to act like a tramp.
How do you think I am going to manage without you?
Look at what you done, pretty heart.
We are so far apart and that is pitiful.
Honey, you're too pretty to act like a tramp.
How do you think I am going to manage without you?
Look at what you done, pretty heart.
We are so far apart and that is pitiful.

Cajun Polka

As Mitch Reed explains it, this dance form has died out, but some of the old polkas are still remembered and played.

TIMELINE

1624
French citizens immigrate to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (Port Royal, Acadie) bringing their bowed string instruments with them.
1755
British forces disperse the Acadians. Many musical instruments did not survive the forced migration. Ballads and tunes are passed on as 'mouth-music.'
1775
The Acadians begin to settle in southwest Louisiana. Influences from the international seaport of New Orleans included African, Caribbean, and various European cultures.
19th century:
Twin fiddles are established as the backbone of the Acadian bands. Similar to Klezmer, the lead fiddler carried the melody and the 'seconder' supplied rhythmic chords. Repertoire included two-steps, waltzes, reels, contradances, hornpipes, mazurkas, and jigs.
1920s - 1930s
Introduction of accordion changes the standard band composition: one accordion and one fiddle become popular. The repertoire begins to shrink to what the accordion can handle.
1920s - 1950s:
Radio and phonograph recordings become common, and musicians strive to become more polished and to incorporate popular stylings from Country and Western, Tin Pan Alley, Texas Swing, and Rag-time into their music.
Late 1930s and early 1940s:
Accordion fades (temporarily) in prominence as Western swing becomes a craze.
1950s:
Accordion begins to regain its prominent place.
Late 1950s:
Doc Guidry popularizes a twin-fiddle harmonic approach.
1964
Dewey Balfa, Louis Legeune and Thibodeaux make a triumphant appearance at the Newport Folk Festival.

DANCE PERFORMANCE MUSIC

Amadie Ardoin: A black Cajun musician famous for his singing and for his determination to cross race lines to play for white audiences.

Dewey Balfa: Jai Ete Au Bal (I went to the Ball), with fiddlesticks percussion. Active 1950s - 1980s.

Will Bolfa: Valse de Balfa, composed by Will Bolfa and performed by the Balfa Brothers (of which he was one). "He had the best accompaniment [seconding] — it wa just so smooth... He emphasized the rhythm with his fingering of his left hand rather than with the bow. He'd slide into the notes." — Michael Doucet.

Joseph (Bebe) Carrier:

Harry Choates: Port Arthur Waltz. Active in the 1940s.

Varise Connor: La Betaille, composed by Connor and performed by Beausoleil.

Michael Doucet:

  • Valse Acadienne. Michael described this as what Acadian music (the earliest Cajun) sounded like; very droney, no accordion, A-E-A-E tuning.
  • Gigue d'Acadie, another Acadian fiddle tune.

Hector Duhon: Jolie Blon. Active 1930s-1980s. "Hector seconded as the sole fiddle in his band [Dixie Ramblers]. He could really squeeze into the notes and use accents and slides." — Michael Doucet.

Cleoma and Joe Falcon: Allons a Lafayette, as recorded in 1928. This was the first Cajun song ever recorded. Instrumentation is guitar and accordion. Harry Choates recorded a fiddle version in 1950.

Canray Fontenot: Active 1930s - 1980s.

  • Barres De La Prison. The accordion player in the recording, Alphonse Ardoin, was related to Amadie Ardoin. Fontenot and Alphonse Ardoin played together for many years as Duralde Ramblers. In 1986, both of them were appointed adjunct professors at the University of SW Louisiana.
  • Jolie Bassette: Canray Fontenot and BeauSoleil.

Doug Kershaw: Jolie Blonde.

Lionel Leleux: Lake Arthur Stomp.

Dennis McGee: the most influential Cajun fiddle player. "Cajun music is largely defined by two song styles —waltzes in a 3/4 time signature and two-steps in 2/4 or 4/4 time — but McGee was a bridge to the broader range of rural Louisiana French music from the nineteenth century. His earliest recordings testify to his intense proficiency in reels, contredanses, mazurkas, and polkas of the bygone era before the diatonic button accordion of German influence was adopted by Cajun musicians." — Ron Thibodeaux

Cajun and Creole Polkas: Mitch Reed plays several old polkas.

Refus Thibodeaux:Two-Step d'Ambrose, a composition by Thibodeaux as played by Doucet. Les Haricots sont pas Sales performed by Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux incorporated country/swing into his renditions.

REFERENCES

Yasha Aginsky, Les Blues de Balfa documentary.

Dewey Balfa, Wikipedia, April 2016.

Broven, John. South to Louisiana. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Co, 1987. Print.

Joshua Caffery, Cajun Music,KnowLA.org, Web.

Michael Ducolet, A short History of Cajun Fiddling, Fiddle.com, Web.

Craig Duncan, The Cajun Fiddle, Mel Bay, 1995.

Niles Jokkanen< Hot Cajun Fiddle!, an interview with Michael Doucet. Fiddle.com, Web.

Alan Lomax was famous for his many field recordings of folk music. He began his work in the 1930s, assisting his father with audio recordings for the Library of Congress. In the late 1970s and early 80s, he shot hundreds of hours of performances and interviews in several genres for a PBS series on American folk music. An archive of video of Cajun musicians from his early 1980s field work is online at YouTube, courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity, founded by Lomax in 1983.

Louisiana Digital Library, providing an archive of Cajun and Creole Folklore online.

Mitch Reed: Michael Doucet describes him as a young guy who plays in a Dennis McGee style (Irish-roots influenced). (Mr Reed's online biography includes Irish fiddle studies with world-class Irish musicians.) Mitch sells instructional CDs and DVDs, posts short lessons to his online blog, and does SKPE classes. 'Cajun & Creole Fiddle Instruction Volumne 1 has two playlists of Cajun music, each in both Cajun Tuning (FCDG) or Standard (GDAE).

Interview with Marc Savoy, Accordion Maker, who helped re-invent Cajun music with his music center and original accordion designs, discussing his life of Cajun music.

Ron Thibodeaux, Dennis McGee, KnowLa.org, Web.

Cedric Watson


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