Cléoma and Joseph Falcon
Marc and Ann Savoy
Dewey Balfa, Marc Savoy, and D.J. Menard
Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin (nephew of Amédé Ardoin)
King of the Zydeco
Director Les Blank
J'AI ÉTÉ AU BAL / I WENT TO THE DANCE B+
aka: French Dance Tonight (abridged version shown on PBS American Experience)
USA (84 mi) 1989 d: Les Blank co-director: Chris Strachwitz
Perhaps the definitive film on Cajun and zydeco music from Southern Louisiana, co-directed by Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records who was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 2000, Blank provides an insider perspective that both outlines and interprets the history of Cajun and Creole music. Featuring vintage photographs and recordings as well as recollections of musicians from within the culture itself, including commentary from Marc Savoy of Eunice, Louisiana, a highly regarded accordion player, and Michael Doucet, a fiddler, singer, songwriter and historian who founded the Cajun band BeauSoleil from Lafayette, Louisiana, also awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 2005, the film is a tribute to the cultural roots and a joyous celebration of the music. The film has no real beginning or end, is no frills, where nothing is the least bit showy or pretentious, but simply records musicians and singers as they sit on a milk crate in someone’s backyard and perform songs, usually with a fiddle or an accordion, while all around them barnyard animals are roaming about, like chickens, roosters, sheep, cows, ducks, horses and cats while laundry can be seen hanging on a line. The Acadians (aka Cajuns) are French descendents from Nova Scotia, where nearly 12,000 were exiled from Canada by the British in the 1750’s when they were suspected of aiding the French, due to their language similarities, traveling great distance when they migrated to Louisiana, which was a French colony at the time, bringing with them Celtic traditions that soon mixed with Indians, free people of color and the Louisiana Creole people, who were predominately influenced by the West Indies and Africa, providing the original roots of Cajun culture in southwest Louisiana.
While the fiddle seems to have been the instrument of choice in Cajun music, the accordion was introduced into early sound recordings of the 1920’s, where Joe Falcon, a white accordion player recorded the first Cajun song in 1928, Allons à Lafayette, (heard here: Lafayette) before touring across Texas and southern Louisiana with his wife Cléoma ("Joe Falcon & Cleoma Breaux from an invaluable Cajun MP3 website playing vintage 78 recordings), while Creole musician Amédé Ardoin, a sharecropper at a nearby farm, was known for his high-pitched vocals and considerable dexterity on the instrument, becoming a frequent performer at dances, playing mostly for white audiences. Ardoin met Dennis McGee, a white fiddler from Eunice, forming one of the first biracial duos, making their first recording together December 9, 1929 in New Orleans (Amédé Ardoin & Dennis McGee: Blues du Basile) while often performing at house parties, driven in a horse-drawn carriage provided by the plantation owners. After falling out of favor from the mid 30’s to 1950, accordian music was rejuvenated in the late 1940’s by returning war veterans, where traditional music was influenced by rhythm and blues, where the Creole black offshoot of Zydeco music was born, a blues and dance music featuring the accordion along with the percussive sound of metal spoons on a corrugated tin rub board, where the foremost practitioner was Clifton Chenier, known as the King of the Zydeco, with his brother Cleveland on spoons (six in each hand).
Blank was born in Tampa, Florida but studied English at Tulane University in New Orleans, going to graduate school in writing at Berkeley in California, but returned to Tulane for a masters in playwriting. But after seeing Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), Blank discovered a love for making films, making a number of educational and industrial movies after completing film school at USC. According to an interview with Mary Tutwiler from The Ind, March 23, 2010, Les Blank screening at AcA - IND Media - theIND.com:
I used to work summers on a sea-going tug boat in the Gulf, between Tampa, my home, and Texas and Mobile and New Orleans and on one trip, I got off in New Orleans and saw the sights and a friend of mine from school lived here and we saw the French Quarter and I was living in an all boy’s prep school at the time and I thought this was a pretty interesting place. I came to school here after high school. I wanted to play football. It wasn’t the best place for academics...but that’s how I got here.
When I was at Tulane, those were the days when Cajuns were under the carpet somewhere, you didn’t talk about them much, they were kind of a mythical creature who lived back in the bayous. On the radio in New Orleans, there was a radio commercial for Tichenor’s Antiseptic, the chords and the music were Cajun sounding, it was sort of dissonant sounding but to my mind a pleasing, catching kind of music. On the football team, there were a couple of Cajuns and I noticed they were quite different from everybody else and I enjoyed their outlook and their humor and their kind of crazy sensibilities. And they told me about these dance halls out in the woods and I thought this would be interesting, so my girlfriend and I drove over there, and I attended one of these functions down a dirt road in an old barn type building made out of old wood and the floor was jam-packed with people dancing around in a circle and sweating and the beer was really cold and they were doing the two-step and everybody was in perfect sync with one another and every time they hit their feet down on the floor, the whole floor would cave in and bounce back up. They didn’t speak much English at all. I was studying French, I could get by, I could get my beer ordered and I had a lot of fun. It made a deep impression on me. I wanted to come back and do something later.
I was in Houston, doing an industrial film for a Gulfport tube company that makes oil pipes. To entertain myself, I went to a Cajun dance I saw advertised in the Houston paper. Again, it was the same kind of people doing the same kind of dancing. I made friends with the leader of the musical group and he invited me and my girlfriend over to his house for chicken gumbo. He cooked a delicious chicken gumbo. I was very moved by his deep affection for his food as well as his music. I wanted to experience more of that. So later, when I saw Dewey Balfa in Chicago, I introduced myself, he invited me backstage and he shared some of his moonshine with me, and he said, “Come on down to Louisiana and I’ll help you make a film.” Down there, I met Marc Savoy and he was very helpful as well. Paul Tate and Revon Reed also were most helpful. Revon Reed let me live in his garage apartment in Mamou.
The way to identify French dancehalls in the early days was find a roadhouse off on a dirt road someplace that had all the side windows wide open during the daytime hours, as that was a sign it would be open for business later that night. Near the door would be an area sectioned off for the men, along with buckets of cold beer, while sand would be liberally applied to the dance floor. During the Depression, when farmers were doing backbreaking work in the fields, earning little more than $1.50 all day, Cajun musicians discovered that for a few hours work they could earn $2.50. Inspired by Ann Allen Savoy’s book Cajun Music: a Reflection of a People, 1984, Blank is an unseen force behind the camera, where the power of the film are the musicians playing music onscreen while also offering reflections on their early experiences. Dennis McGee remembers playing with Amédé Ardoin, who is to zydeco music what Robert Johnson is to the blues, and Buddy Bolden is to jazz, all three dying under mysterious circumstances, while Mark Savoy comes from a family in Eunice that designs chairs and furniture and holds a chemical engineering degree, but he became a legendary accordion maker while also playing the accordion in a Cajun family band that includes his singing and guitar-playing wife Ann, the author of the book. Stepping on an accordion while hanging from a tree, Savoy displays the durability of the instrument that at least partially accounts for its long-lasting influence, as they never break, while offering a lesson on how exactly (in five levels) Cajun accordion is played. According to Savoy, it was performers like fiddler Dewey Balfa playing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 that triggered the modern era Cajun revival.
The film is loaded with Cajun and zydeco performers like Queen Ida, Canray Fontenot, D.L. Menard and Nathan Abshire, along with the irrepressible zydeco music of Clifton Chenier, who used to show up at Fitzgerald’s, a roadhouse bar and dancehall in Berwyn (just outside Chicago) every 4th of July week, whose recollection of songs was unparalleled, like the Duke Ellington of zydeco, as he’d play Little Richard in English right alongside those French Louisiana two-steps. Queen Ida talks about the Cajun belt in southern Louisiana and Texas as if it is foreign territory cut off from the rest of the world, an unexplored part of America that was simply left alone and went largely undetected by outsiders for centuries, yet the rich diversity of their lives is filled with a healthy mix of French, Caribbean, Indian, and cowboy cultures, where they survived the Depression by understanding how to live off the land, where hunting is a mainstay of their survival as well as their diet, where Cajun food is all the rage today. Blank takes his camera away from the Bourbon Street tourist attractions and shows us life in the small tucked-away towns that are little more than a main street, an old filling station with old stores and bars with peeling paint on the walls. Never calling attention to itself, the film is a time capsule into another era, where what’s so heartfelt about all this music is how close to poverty the performers remain, as these are all people that never made a lot of money, that worked hard all their lives, many who survived the Depression by working in the oil refineries where nothing came easy. All their songs are about loneliness, heartbreak or hard times, women that left them or were no good, drunken revelations, misbehaving, or death, a reaction to living rough lives, yet the sheer energy is so deliriously invigorating, covering the full dramatic spectrum in every song. These are artists that love and appreciate what life has offered them, that sing with a spirit of joy, where their jubilant exhilaration offers some of the best of the human experience.