A review of “Let Me Play This For You: Rare Cajun Recordings, 1929-1930,” written for the Oxford American online.
In the spring of 1928, Joe Falcon and his wife, Cleoma Breaux Falcon, from Rayne, Louisiana, entered a mobile recording studio in New Orleans and cut two sides. When it was released a few months later, the Falcons’ record, “Allons A Lafayette” b/w “The Waltz that Carried Me to My Grave,” was the Big Bang of recorded Cajun music—like Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (1920) was for blues and Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland’s “Turkey In the Straw” (1922) was for what would soon be called “hillbilly music.” The Falcons established for the record companies an identifiable “ethnic” market to which records could be sold, along with, of course, the more lucrative Victrolas on which they could be played. Thus Columbia Records, the Falcons’ paymasters, were one of several concerns that, over the next several years, would do the exceedingly valuable (though unintentional) work of preserving a golden era of early Cajun music on 78-rpm discs.
Falcon, dubbed “The Accordion King,” helped push the instrument to the peak of its prewar popularity. Although button accordions were available in Louisiana as early as the 1880s (introduced by German immigrants), the instrument wasn’t popular until 1925, when the Monarch and Sterling boxes arrived on the scene. Set in C and D, they could be played alongside the open-tuned Cajun fiddle and, with their prodigious volume, they quickly came to dominate the dance music of the fais do do. The accordion-fiddle combination reigned at dances and on phonograph records until about 1934, when the slicker sounds of the hillbilly string bands and, soon, Western swing came rushing into the French-speaking parishes.
Cajun records of this vintage are among the rarest and most sought after among collectors. And while (like their hillbilly and “race” counterparts) they’ve been dutifully reissued over the past forty years, on both LP and CD, there are plenty of crucial artifacts from the period being excavated yet—music that has been essentially inaccessible since it was cut to wax in the late ’20s and early ’30s. Let Me Play This For You: Rare Cajun Music, 1929–1930, assembled by Ron Brown and Christopher King (two of the world’s foremost collectors of Cajun 78s) for the Tompkins Square label, is essential for anyone who appreciates French-speaking Louisiana’s old-time songs and tunes.
Let Me Play is largely devoted to performers who have been given short shrift on previous reissues. Perhaps the most familiar name here is LeJeune. Angelas LeJeune’s relative—some say his great-nephew, others his young cousin—Iry LeJeune was one of the brightest lights in the firmament of Cajun music in the late ’40s and ’50s, a star of record, radio, and stage in Texas and Louisiana and an ineffable influence on the genre. (He single-handedly brought the accordion back into favor after its exile.) Angelas had his own influence on Iry, who squeezed his first accordion at his older relative’s house, and reformulated a number of tunes from Angelas’s repertoire for postwar use in the honky-tonks and dance halls of Houston and Lake Charles. All thirteen sides† of Angelas’s included on Let Me Play, however, are decidedly prewar affairs. Assisted by fiddlers Dennis McGee (the unrivaled “dean” of Cajun fiddlers) and secondeur Ernest Frugé, LeJeune’s performances wail with all the devastation and longing that characterizes the best of early Cajun music. LeJeune and Frugé’s “La Valse De La Veuve” begins the disc and it’s without question one of the most sublime performances of the era, nearly equal in effect to Amédé Ardoin’s “Amédé Two-Step” or the Breaux Freres’ “Ma Blonde Est Partie” (its close cognate). Another selection, the trio’s “Bayou Pom Pom One Step,” was the first recording of a tune that’s since become a pillar of the Cajun and Zydeco repertoire. LeJeune’s original is unmistakably the best.
(Though it’s their “La Valse de Church Point” that’s their most affecting:)
Bixy Guidry and Percy Babineaux, an accordion-fiddle duo, cut eight sides in one 1929 session for the Victor company. Inauspiciously issued in the second year of the Depression, their first releases sold poorly. Surviving copies—to say nothing of surviving playable copies—are laughably scarce. So it’s no small feat that all of their eight recordings were collected and included in Let Me Play. They show Guidry and Babineaux to be an intoxicatingly loose and ragged pair—Bixy’s vocals all plaintive yelp and drawl, his accordion sighing mournfully behind Percy’s keening fiddle: I can’t go on, I’ll go on. All of their performances list perilously close to some abyss, sometimes with the instrumentation leaning far back from the mic or stopping altogether to make room for Guidry’s howl. There’s a sense of suspended animation, like Wile E. Coyote hanging mid-air before a fall that somehow the duo evades. It’s impossibly affecting stuff.
A particularly notable revelation on the disc is Guidry and Babineaux’s “I Am Happy Now,” a variation on one of this listener’s favorite records from the prewar Cajun era (or, for that matter, any era): the “Happy One-Step” (1929) by Dennis McGee and secondeur Sady Courville. But where McGee’s original is all lightness and grace, Bixy and Percy’s brings to mind a clumsy elephant and some long-legged tropical bird marching together through the Evangeline prairie, all stomps and squawks, the bird hanging onto the tune only by God’s grace. Suddenly, after a minute or so of this (while you’re still snickering at it) it turns almost unbearably beautiful. And when Babineaux’s bow shoots desperately up the strings and the record ends, the song has, by some rough magic, approached perfection.
Not that this magic helped remotely with sales at the time of its original release. As Ron Brown writes in the album’s notes, Victor sat on the “Happy Now” master for some twelve years, finally releasing it on the budget Bluebird imprint around 1941—“possibly with the rationale,” he suggests, “that in the string-band dominated era, Babineaux’s fiddle-led sides would motivate sales.” While that seems a plausible rationale, it’s hard to imagine that a record as majestically feral as this one could find any favor cheek-by-jowl with the up-to-date Cajun sounds of Leo Soileau and His Four Aces or the Hackberry Ramblers.
Let Me Play This For You would still be an essential release were it devoted only to LeJeune, Babineaux, and Guidry, but it’s sweetened considerably by the inclusion of two recently discovered sides by the Avoyelles Parish duo of fiddler Delma Lachney and guitarist Alcide “Blind Uncle” Gaspard. The pair made sixteen recordings for the Vocalion label in 1929; they’re the earliest recorded examples of that Parish’s music (unique in the prewar era) and, with the exception of several dance tunes, they’re captivating examples of the narrative songs that were commonly sung in more domestic, less public settings than, say, the fais do do. Lachney is an able fiddler and singer‡, but it’s Blind Uncle Gaspard who does the heaviest hitting. His arrangement of the folk pastourelle “Sur Le Bord De L’Eau (“On the Water’s Edge”), cut in 1928, is perhaps one of the most abjectly melancholy performances in recorded history; his delivery so relentlessly lonesome that it doesn’t matter a whit if you can’t understand (as I can’t) a word he sings. The two sides included on this CD don’t approach those depths of desolation, but one of them—“Marksville Blues”—is a fascinating example of a bona fide Cajun country blues. “The blues I have,” Gaspard moans over his guitar, conceivably channeling some Blind Willie McTell or Lemon Jefferson record he’s heard, “can’t be satisfied.”
For the exceptionally rare records that comprise Let Me Play This For You to have survived for nearly a century is a minor miracle; for them to sound this good is even more miraculous. But also par for the course. Like all releases that Christopher King has a hand in, it’s a safe bet that the source discs and the transfers thereof are the best possible quality. Co-producer Ron Brown brings to bear many years of research into the artists’ often squirrelly biographies and his considerations of their aural legacies. Valuable personal and musical portraits are fleshed out (if in frequently plodding prose) with as much detail as, presumably, he has managed to exhume.
This collection is nothing if not a labor of love—there’s no gold in CD reissues of records from the Cajun golden era. And that’s a shame, as Brown and King’s work is vital work and the progenitorial Cajun music this set makes widely available for the first time remains deeply vital music. So grab somebody close and sit them down with it: let me play this for you.