South Louisiana's long history of drinking songs inspires an ambitious new musical project.
Popular legend in Cajun music holds that fiddle great Harry Choates sold the rights to his chart-topping 1946 version of "Jole Blon" for a bottle of whiskey and, at the most, $100. Likewise, late zydeco legend Boozoo Chavis never fully debunked the story that he was so drunk while recording his 1954 hit "Paper in My Shoe" that he had to remain seated in a chair, which he supposedly fell out of at the end of the song.
It seems unfathomable that Choates poured away the rights to one of the highest-charting Cajun singles and that "Paper in My Shoe" fades out at the end to cover the crashing sound of Chavis falling out of his chair. But the tales are propped up by the odes to liquor and the lovable drunks that populate south Louisiana music. The stories' foundations grow stronger every Saturday night, as Acadiana dance halls and bars fill to the sounds of "The Drunkard's Waltz," "The Lemonade Song," "La Porte d'en Arrière" and other songs referencing alcohol.
The subject of Louisiana music's taste for spirits came up between local musicians Joel Savoy and Joshua Caffery when they were tossing around ideas for creative musical projects. They had narrowed their choice down to two concept albums. "The other one was going to be tentatively called Widows and Orphans and focus on songs in Cajun and Creole music that deal with widows and orphans," says Caffery. "There's a lot of them. But we decided drinking songs might be more fun, and we might have an easier time convincing people to take part in the project."
That started the journey to Allons Boire un Coup, a CD of memorable Cajun and Creole drinking songs slated for local release Dec. 1. Savoy and Caffery found there was no shortage of material to work with; Allons Boire un Coup plunges deep into the vats, uncorking a few long-forgotten old songs and aligning them with some of the finest young and veteran Creole and Cajun musicians. The performers on the album include traditional upstarts The Racines (Steve Riley and Kevin Wimmer's side project), the Lost Bayou Ramblers, The Red Stick Ramblers, Cedric Watson, Chris Stafford, Feufollet, The Pine Leaf Boys, Courtney Granger and more. Savoy's mother, noted author and musician Ann Savoy, makes two appearances, including a song with her Magnolia Sister bandmate Jane Vidrine. Allons Boire un Coup is rounded out by more modern favorites and dancehall standards, such as songs popularized by Ivy Dugas, Nathan Abshire and The Balfa Brothers.
"You know, all over the world and all over the country, people get drunk. It's really not anything that special," says Caffery, an original member of The Red Stick Ramblers who now divides his time between performing with Feufollet, his folklore doctorate studies at UL Lafayette and work at The Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore. "The stereotype is that people around here do like to drink, but the interesting thing is that not only do people around here like to drink, but they created a body of really meaningful and soulful expressions based on drinking."
Caffery reinforces that point in the liner notes to the CD, noting that people elsewhere often get drunk and simply have a hangover. But when south Louisiana musicians get drunk, they have a hangover, drink a glass of lemonade and write a song about it.
"Drinking songs are common to a lot of traditional cultures," says Wimmer, a scholar of traditional music and performer with the Red Stick Ramblers, Balfa Toujours and The Racines. "With Cajuns and Creoles being Catholic, alcohol is not forbidden. With [the] culture, you gotta go to church on Sunday, but you can have a good time on Saturday night."
Careful not to try and bottle what exactly defines a drinking song, Caffery explains his take on the genre with a definition borrowed from Barry Ancelet: there are drinking songs, and then there are drinking songs. The dual meaning: some songs are about drinking or odes to the bottle, while others are songs meant to provide a cue or soundtrack for imbibing. On the album, Cedric Watson's "Table Ronde" represents the latter. Though the song's origins are lost to time, Caffery learned its purpose through an archival recording of legendary Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot, where Fontenot explains the song was sung around New Year's as a backdrop for drinking.
Allons Boire un Coup pays homage to the bottle in songs such as "Drunkard's Waltz," "The Pine Grove Blues," "Rye Whiskey" and "Whiskey C' est Mon Ami." It reveals its dark side in "Drunkard's Dream" and "La Bouteille a Ruiné Ma Vie," an original composition from Gallette's Ethel Mae Bourque performed by Lost Bayou Ramblers.
As tracks such as "Table Ronde" suggest, the drinking song has fermented much longer in Cajun and Creole music than the commercial hits of the 20th century.
In the 500-plus pages of Accordions, Fiddles, Two-Step and Swing, articles collected by Ryan Brasseaux and Kevin Fontenot cover everything from race relations to the worldwide travels of Louisiana music. However, there's hardly anything about drinking songs in south Louisiana. Research on Creole drinking songs is even scarcer, though cultural exchanges between Creoles and Cajuns likely produced some alcohol-related songs that crossed color lines.
Brasseaux, now a doctoral student in American studies at Yale University, categorizes drinking songs in the Cajun genre as having one of two sources, the first being folk songs possibly descending from European traditions (these would include songs sung by the Tee Mamou and Grand Marias Mardi Gras krewes about drinking).
In 1928, Joe and Cleoma Falcon made history twice when they recorded "Allons a Lafayette," the first commercial Cajun song, and "Le Vieux Soulard et Sa Femme," the first documentation of Cajuns singing drinking songs. Though recorded in New York, the song was a favorite in Louisiana where it had been adapted to Cajun French from "My Good Old Man," a Southern mountain song with strong folk origins. (Variations on the song also include "Eyoùss Que T'es Parti" and "Mon Bon Vieux Mari," performed on Allons Boire un Coup by Anna Laura Edmiston and Blake Miller.)
The story depicts a wife badgering her husband. In the original, she asks where he is going, and he replies hunting. In the Cajun version, she asks her husband ' who she calls "le meilleur buveur du pays" (the best drinker in the country) ' where he is heading and he replies "Parti m' souler!" (going to get drunk!).
Though Brasseaux says there is no concrete evidence of songs coming straight to Louisiana from France by way of Nova Scotia, in the decade following the Falcons' recordings, song hunters began finding a cappella drinking songs believed to have French roots.
Marce Lacouture learned these kinds of songs from her mentors Inez Catalon, Lula Landry and Catherine Blanchet. On her album La Joie Cadienne and when giving presentations on early Acadian ballads, she sings "L'Oranger," a traditional song of unknown origin that combines storytelling with a rousing chorus devoted to drinking. For Lacouture, it's indicative of the Cajun drinking song, adding that the verses and choruses of many drinking songs are often unrelated.
The verses of "L'Oranger" tell the story of a man who picks oranges by his father's house and sells the prettiest ones to the son of a lawyer. The attorney's son takes dozens of them but doesn't pay and sends the narrator to his father's house to collect the money, but he isn't home. He then sends him to the bank, which is closed. At the end, the singer says the French equivalent of "to the devil with the bank and the lawyer's son too."
The chorus merrily encourages drinking, singing something along the lines of "we are gonna go, we are gonna drink, we are gonna drain our glasses dry, and we are gonna fill 'em up again."
Part of the allure of such songs is their mysterious origins. Lacouture learned "L'Oranger" from Blanchet, who picked it up from her neighbor in Meaux in the 1930s. In her travels to Nova Scotia, however, Lacouture visited a library, where she discovered a similar song involving an apple tree. Further evidence of the song's reach: it's the title track of a 1993 release by Irish flutist Grey Larsen and Quebec folksinger Andre Marchand. This time told through a woman's point of view, it offers a chorus that includes general merriment but no drinking.
"Chances are, it evolved over time, and it might have originated all the way back to France, but we don't know that for sure," says Lacouture.
According to Lacouture, drinking songs grew out of veillées. In rural, pre-World War I communities ' before television and radio drew their attention, roads took them to the city for work and pressures forced them to assimilate into America ' south Louisiana people got together to entertain each other by conversing and creating songs. Calling it homemade entertainment, Lacouture says drinking songs were the most popular veillées.
"Drinking songs were especially fun, because usually they were tongue twisters," she notes. "They were harder to roll off your tongue [especially] if everybody's raising a glass like in 'L'Oranger.' At one point in the song, the lyrics say 'en voila,' and everybody might have raised a glass at that time together. [Drinking songs] pull people in the room together in a little different way. It's like everybody can get involved in a drinking song, more than, say, just a long story song that's telling a ballad."
The social dynamics of alcohol-related music, coupled with the presence of homemade wine and beer (another lineage reaching back to France), helped spark the abundance of Louisiana-born drinking songs. By the 1920s, Cajun and country-and-western music traded influences and styles, adding new layers. Cajun performers covered and adapted popular country songs, such as Leo Soileau's French adaptation of Jimmie Davis' "Nobody's Darlin' But Mine." The influences of Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys can be heard starting in the 1930s to the mid-to-late 1940s as Cajun music entered its swing era. With the Louisiana Hayride radio program broadcasting all the way into south Louisiana from Shreveport starting in 1948, and Grand Ole Opry stars making stops at local venues, local musicians followed their lead, often incorporating the weeping sound of pedal-steel guitars. As D.L. Menard recalls, a Cajun band in the late '40s and early '50s that couldn't play country wasn't considered much of a band.
Cajun bands often looked to country music instead of folk songs for inspiration, either reworking outside songs in their own style or creating new ones that borrowed heavily from the genre. For Brasseaux, these make up the bulk of what's considered the Cajun drinking song. He cites Harry Choates' rendition of "Rye Whiskey," covered on Allons Boire un Coup by the Lost Bayou Ramblers, as an example of a recording produced by the movement.
"Cajun honky-tonk, generally referred to as the so'called dance hall sound, was not only born in an era of dance halls, honky tonks and dives where liberal alcohol consumption thrived, but also paralleled, and at times intersected with, honky-tonk music popularized by Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and George Jones," points out Brasseaux. "Indeed, the term honky-tonk itself implied consumption. In that vein, tunes like Nathan Abshire's 'La Danse de Limonade,' an arrangement in which the song's protagonist gets 'as drunk as a fat pig,' are immediately obvious.
"Ultimately, these songs speak to the region's liberal Mediterranean attitude toward alcohol and alcohol's essential role as a 'social lubricant' within the community," continues Brasseaux. "That's where the underlying meaning resonates in Cajun musical expressions."
When Joel Savoy's mother Ann learned about Allons Boire un Coup, she warned him of possible repercussions from the community. But her son isn't too worried.
"We don't want people thinking we are trying to portray Cajuns as drunks," he says. "Of course we are not trying to do that! We are all Cajuns, so why would we? We're not trying to hype up alcoholism or anything. We just want to put out these songs that are fun songs."
Named for one of his great grandfathers, Savoy launched Valcour Records in January 2006 with two partners. Lucius Fontenot, a photographer, and Phillip LaFargue II, who holds a master's degree in marketing, team with Savoy to cover all the bases in the partnership.
With only one release so far, Valcour has already yielded impressive results. The label released its debut ' Corey Ledet and Cedric Watson's Going' Down to Louisiana ' in time for Festival International and quickly garnered warm reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle called it hope for the future and gave it an excellent ranking, the paper's highest honor.
"We [the trio] all love music, you know everybody does, but we've always been tied into music somehow," says Savoy. "Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to have a record label and make CDs. That was my dream. I didn't want to be a doctor; I always wanted to make records."
Savoy is eager in both his business and ideas. He has more projects in the works, including one on Cajun fiddle traditions with Michael Doucet. While he's obviously proud of his heritage and his tenure in Cajun and traditional bands, Savoy's also well versed in the many rock, funk and country music bands locally, and hopes to work with those bands and genres as well.
During the taping of the sessions for Allons Boire un Coup, Savoy passed a jug of moonshine around for inspiration and to loosen up the bands. Though the record is very mindful of its source material, it takes interesting approaches with a new delivery.
As word spread about the project through the loose network of Cajun bands, more musicians wandered by, offering suggestions and to sit in on sessions. Informal combinations took place, yielding new collaborations. Savoy joins his former band mate Linzay Young (Red Stick Ramblers) and Richard Burgess (T'Salé) for the title cut. Chris Stafford is joined by Tiffany Lamson (Fine Lines, Arbor Vitae) on drums and saxophonist Dickie Landry on "Parlez-Nous á Boire." Stafford and Savoy back Cedric Watson as he sings about drunk horsemanship on "La Jog a Plombeau."
"The album sort of enacted what it was about, which is about drinking and socializing and playing music together and creating art together," says Caffery. "I think that's what happened on the album ' people drank and played music together and created some music."
For the record's title track, Caffery choose a song by Leo Soileau he found in the archive. Though Soileau was a star of Cajun swing and his band the Three Aces was the first Cajun band to use drums, Caffery says Soileau's version of "Allons Boire un Coup" may be the only one ever recorded. To couple its Cajun roots with a mountain feel, where many drinking songs originate, the trio of Savoy, Young and Burgess employed twin fiddles and a banjo. For today's Cajun and Creole music, a banjo might seem out of place, but Caffery opines it wouldn't be that strange during the early days of commercial Cajun recordings. "They have a naturally complementary sound," says Caffery.
Of all the tracks, Stafford's version of "Parlez-Nous a Boire" stands out in many ways. Not only did the young musician record almost every instrument on the cut, but it's likely the first Cajun indie pop song ever recorded. With a slight 1980s post-punk feel crossed with catchy pop sensibilities, it owes more to the upbeat version Lil' Band O' Gold recorded for its debut album than the one normally associated with The Balfa Brothers. The infectious tune will likely have traditionalists scratching their heads.
"Chris Stafford is an amazing musician, and it's a pretty brilliant arrangement ' he's something else," says Caffery.
Another unusual take comes in the Pine Leaf Boys' version of "Pine Grove Blues." Wilson Savoy, Joel's brother, opens and closes the song mirroring the accordion licks of the original on a 1970s organ with prefabricated beats. Between the solos is a rollicking Pine Leaf Boys song.
"Whether or not it works depends on how you define works," says Caffery. "I think it's interesting, and it catches the attention. I think Wilson should make a whole album of organ versions of Cajun songs."
Though the record stretches the expectations of south Louisiana music on cuts like these, there is no shortage of more faithful renditions of "Whiskey C'est Mon Ami," "Drunkard's Dream," "Blues du Saoulard" and an adaptation of "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer." For deep tradition's sake, there's an unadorned fiddle-and-triangle rendition of "Drunkard's Waltz" by Joel Savoy and Edmiston.
"I wanted a wide variety of sounds, and I wanted the album to represent a pretty wide musical spectrum," says Caffery. "I wanted the album to reflect the breadth of tradition ' from really sparse solo fiddle and triangle to full band recordings ' because I think that's one of the great things about the music around here. It really does have a lot of breadth and contrast in it even though you don't always see that."
The Allons Boire un Coup sessions yielded more songs than could fit on a single album. From a list longer than 30 songs, Savoy and Caffery recorded more than 23 ' 16 performances made it on the album. For the leftovers, a number of them will be available for purchase as downloads from valcourrecords.com, and a follow-up collection of Cajun and Creole drinking songs is a possibility.
"There's so many songs that have to do with drinking because the music is all about the people â?¦ It's working men's music," says Savoy. "So, after work they want to cut up and have fun."
Allons Boire Un Coup
CD-release party featuring Red Stick Ramblers and the Pine Leaf Boys
Friday, Dec. 1 at Blue Moon Saloon
The album is available for purchase at valcourrecords.com.