Cover Story

A Living Tradition

by R. Reese Fuller

A new book by Barry Ancelet and Philip Gould looks back on 32 years of Cajun and Creole music at the Festival de Musique Acadienne.

On March 26, 1974, despite a torrential downpour, 12,000 people gathered at Blackham Coliseum for a concert of Cajun and Creole music. They were there to listen, not to dance. The night showcased Cajun and Creole music's heavyweights ' including the Balfa Brothers, Clifton Chenier, Dennis McGee, Canray Fontenot, Nathan Abshire, Bois Sec Ardoin, Sady Courville, Jimmy C. Newman, Rufus Thibodeaux, and Marc Savoy ' and would prove to be a watershed moment for Cajun and Creole music and culture.

What was originally billed as A Tribute to Cajun Music ' now known as Festival de Musique Acadienne, part of the Festivals Acadiens celebration held every year at Girard Park ' has become an annual reunion for musicians, music lovers and dancers. Whether the grounds are dusty or muddy, the festival wekend provides the opportunity to catch legendary performances from the music's torchbearers, as well as ground-breaking acts that reinterpret the traditional sound and give it new life.

A new book by UL folklorist and festival organizer Barry Ancelet, with photographer Philip Gould, documents the first 32 years of the festival's history. Published by UL Lafayette's Center for Louisiana Studies, One Generation at a Time: Biography of a Cajun and Creole Music Festival also includes posters by local artist and musician Benny Graeff and photos by LSUE professor David Simpson. "It's far more than a portrait of the Cajun music festival," Gould says. "It's a portrait of the evolution of Cajun music and the personnel, practitioners, devotees and lovers of it all."

In 1965, in the Opelousas Daily World, Burton Grindstaff wrote: "I contend there is no more music coming from a fiddle, accordion and triangle when three Cajuns get together than seeps through the cracks in your house when crickets feel an urge to make themselves heard. Cajuns brought some mighty fine things down from Novia [sic] Scotia with them, including their jolly selves, but their so-called music is one thing I wish they hadn't." In the editorial, titled "They Call That Music??!!" and reprinted in One Generation at a Time, Grindstaff wrote of his first encounter with Cajun music and recalled "the dissonant squeal of a Cajun musician" who tortured his accordion. "I regret they are bringing their so-called music into this Cajun culture bit. I wish there were some way to keep Cajuns as sweet and jolly as they are, while keeping their music as remote as possible."

Barry Ancelet says that Grindstaff's attitude and perception of Cajun and Creole music was part of the reason for putting together the first Tribute to Cajun Music concert. "We wanted to address and confront this attitude and point out that people like Burton Grindstaff either had remarkably poor judgment or they had only heard Cajun music poorly played," Ancelet says. "So we thought, 'Let's gather together the absolute best of the best, that represent all of the essential elements and aspects of Cajun music and zydeco.'"

But 150 French-speaking journalists who had gathered in Louisiana that weekend for a conference were also part of the equation. James Domengeaux, chairman of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, wanted to put on a show for the journalists that would demonstrate the local culture's vibrancy. Dewey Balfa, who had dazzled the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 with the Balfa Brothers, was convinced that a local concert focusing on Cajun and Creole music could succeed. In a meeting, Domengeaux indicated to Balfa that he wasn't completely sold on the idea and added that he found the music to be harsh. Balfa retrieved his fiddle from the car, played him a tune, and proved otherwise.

The night of the show, 150 seats were reserved for the visiting journalists. By 7 p.m., the coliseum was filled beyond capacity, but the show didn't start on time. "When those 150 chairs were empty, man, I'll never forget that as long as I live," says Ancelet, who was a USL student at the time and one of the show's organizers. "Everybody in the place could see those 150 empty chairs up front, so they all figured it's got to do with those empty chairs," Ancelet recalls. At ten after seven, the journalists arrived. "So sure enough, here come these French journalists, dropped off at a side door at the coliseum. They had been held up by the weather, too. They come walking in and start filling up those chairs, and everybody starts clapping because they realize the show's going to get started now. But the French journalists thought they were clapping for them, so they were waving to everybody."

That evening, Philip Gould was a stranger in an even stranger land. The 22-year-old photographer was fresh out of college and had moved from the San Francisco Bay area to work for The Daily Iberian. He had been on the job for only two weeks when he shot the concert for the paper. "I didn't know anybody," he says. "I didn't know who the Balfas were. I didn't know Nathan Abshire. It was pretty amazing, even for somebody who didn't know a thing about what they were really looking at. I might as well have been walking into a minefield or something, but it hit me over the head like a ton of bricks. I just feel really lucky that I was there."

The Opelousas Daily World later wrote of the evening, "What started out as an academic exercise in folk music for a group of journalists turned into the biggest mass rally in the history of the Cajun people and the supporters of this ethnic group exiled into Louisiana from Nova Scotia in 1755."

Since the first show in 1974, Ancelet has continued to organize the annual event. "This is not a job," he says. "This is a passion. I've never made a penny on this. I'm passionately interested in it. My dad always told me, 'If you want to be happy in life, always keep yourself in a position to be potentially surprised.' And that's what this festival does for me. I live for those side-stage moments. I live to witness how this organism continues to grow."

Both Ancelet and Gould remember standing next to each other, watching the festival stage in 1991, when Dewey Balfa's daughter Christine whispered into his ear and Gould took a photo of the moment. It's the image that adorns the cover of One Generation at a Time.

"That moment was a real benchmark between two very distinct generations of Cajun musicians," Gould says. "This stuff really is marked by different generations who have made very strong statements about the music. If you want a barometer of the direction of Cajun music, who's doing it, where it's going, and where it's been, this festival does that masterfully. I think it will continue to be the place, and one of the major times, when Cajun music checks in with itself and takes stock and its blood pressure."

Ancelet adds, "It has a lot to do with the passage of tradition onto the next year and the next generation. In the book, you can see the earliest guys like Dewey Balfa, Clifton Chenier and Bois Sec Ardoin. Then as it goes along you can see them passing it to Robert Jardell, BeauSoleil and Wayne Toups. Then you can see them passing it onto Cory McCauley, Feufollet and the Pine Leaf Boys. It's easy to get diluted into thinking that tradition is a fixed thing from a certain time. If that were true, we wouldn't have gotten Wayne Toups and Steve Riley and the Pine Leaf Boys. In fact, if you keep pushing it back, we wouldn't have had Belton Richard or Aldus Roger or Joe Falcon either because they were all the results of an ongoing, living tradition."

Festival Life

One Generation at a Time is presented in chronological order, beginning with the first Tribute to Cajun Music in 1974. Each chapter features photos from that year and the performers' bios written by Barry Ancelet. What follows are highlights from some of the past 32 years of the festival, penned by Ancelet and excerpted from the book.

The first Tribute to Cajun Music concert was held in Blackham Coliseum in part to prevent the audience from dancing. Dewey Balfa, who had considerable experience playing in festivals and folk music concerts by then, suggested that the audience would hear the music in a different way if they were not allowed to dance as they usually did. Several other venues were considered, including the theater in the University of Southwestern Louisiana Student Union (which seated around 350) and the Lafayette Municipal Auditorium (now the Heymann Performance Center, which seated near 3,000). The Blackham Coliseum, with a capacity of 8,400, was selected for several reasons. Based on word-of-mouth reactions during the weeks leading up to the event, organizers felt increasingly confident that there would be a significant response from the community. And Blackham, which also regularly hosted USL basketball games and rodeos, would be a more familiar context for the mostly rural Cajun and Creole audience members that would likely attend. That night, an overflow crowd of nearly 12,000 packed into the coliseum, filling all bleacher seats, all additional temporary floor seats, and all available standing-room only spaces, despite the best efforts of law enforcement officials and fire marshals and despite a terrible storm that raged throughout most of the afternoon and evening, causing considerable local flooding. Performers volunteered their services. No one was paid, no one received even expenses to come. This represented a remarkable investment in the concept, especially for established performers such as Clifton Chenier and Jimmy C. Newman, who could have earned considerable sums for performing elsewhere that night.

The second Tribute to Cajun Music concert was also held in Blackham Coliseum, for the same reasons as the first. This time, though, the civic authorities prevailed, limiting the crowd to capacity seating. With one year of experience under their belts and with all that extra space apparently available, seated crowd members were tempted to get up and dance. Fire marshals and festival organizers struggled to keep a lid on the evening. In the end, it was Clifton Chenier's impassioned and incongruous plea to the crowd to refrain from dancing that finally convinced them to stay seated. Again, no performers were paid for playing, although they did receive limited reimbursement for demonstrable expenses upon request.

CODOFIL did not have plans to repeat its highly successful concert a third time until organizers from the first two years insisted in May that it would be a mistake to lose the momentum that had developed. By then, it was too late to prepare a concert for the spring, so it was moved to the fall. The concert also moved outdoors for the first time, taking place at the amphitheater near the lake in Girard Park. By then, it was felt that the point had been made about listening to the music and that the crowds should be allowed to do what comes naturally when listening to Cajun and Creole music. For the first time, performers received a token stipend ($15 each) for playing the concert.

This all-day outdoor event marked the transition from concert to festival. It featured Coteau's first and only performance at the festival (the experimental Cajun-country-rock fusion group broke up soon after) as well as the first performance by BeauSoleil, just back from the Louisiana Bien-Aimée bicentennial exhibition in Paris, and the first performance of an all teenage group, Virgil and Terry Montoucet's group, Les Vagabonds. Aldus Roger and the Lafayette Playboys also took the stage for the first time. The twenty-minute set changes throughout the day were murderous on the bands and the stage crew members alike. Organizers did not know that this kind of scheduling was impossible. Somehow, though, the performances stayed roughly on schedule, the final performance ending in time to allow the children to go trick-or-treating that Halloween night.

CODOFIL's Tribute and the Lafayette Natural History Museum's Native Crafts Festival were joined this year by the Bayou Food Festival in a cooperative effort called Festivals Acadiens. The effort was coordinated by the Lafayette Conventions and Visitors Commission (LCVC), funded by tourism revenues in the parish, primarily in the form of restaurant and hotel taxes, and governed by a board of representatives from each festival.

This year's poster, announcing the festival's dedication to the young people who were playing Cajun and Creole music, featured Marc Boudreaux in bright red. This young accordion player and singer performed with Octa Clark and the Dixie Ramblers the year before. Six of the twenty-two groups performing this year were entirely composed of musicians under thirty; two of those six, the Sam Brothers Five and Tim Broussard and the Cajun Ramblers, were entirely composed of musicians under twenty. Four other groups featured young apprentices, including Robert Jardell ' performing with Nathan Abshire ' and Marc Boudreaux, who rejoined the Dixie Ramblers. This was also the first performance by Jo-El Sonnier with BeauSoleil, dancehall stalwarts Belton Richard and his Musical Aces, and Cajun country singer Vin Bruce, as the festival expanded its focus to include the more modern sounds of Cajun music.

1980 (May 23 - 25)
This year, CODOFIL elected to withdraw from the Festivals Acadiens co-op, allegedly due to concerns about the confusion of public support and private enterprise. At least as important, however, were concerns within the state agency's administration about sharing control and responsibility with local government and private business.

Once again, the festival featured a group through its cultural exchange with Québec. It also featured the first performance by Ann Savoy's all-woman group, the Magnolia Sisters, and by dancehall kings Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys and Maurice Berzas and the Mamou Playboys, and Nathan Menard and the Musical Five. This reflected a growing interest in giving serious consideration to adding representatives of the contemporary Cajun music scene alongside those who had been featured since the first concert for their historical significance. On the other hand, the plan to have Nathan Abshire and Dewey Balfa perform together for historical reasons did not materialize; despite persistent efforts by festival organizers here and elsewhere, they continued to honor their decision to preserve their friendship by avoiding the conflicts that the stage always seemed to bring. The festival's dedication to dance also represented an expansion of focus to present the entire music scene, including its social and culture features. The Ardoin Family Band's closing spot was part of that message.

1980 (Sept. 20-21)
Realizing the importance of music in drawing crowds, Festivals Acadiens board members asked the producers of CODOFIL's Tribute to organize a festival component of Cajun and Creole music for its September event. The Lafayette Jaycees offered to sponsor the effort. When CODOFIL learned of this development, it announced that it no longer felt it necessary to produce its own Tribute to Cajun Music festival. Thus, the Festival de Musique Acadienne became the music component of Festivals Acadiens, produced by the same team of volunteers that had produced CODOFIL's event. That group informally called itself Rubber Boots. The description of the bands was provided this year by James Edmunds, editor of the newly inaugurated Times of Acadiana weekly, who espoused the transformed Festivals Acadiens as one of its community service interests.

This year marked the inauguration of a workshop stage designed to feature discussions and presentations on music and dance styles. This workshop stage eventually evolved into the Heritage Stage, later developed primarily by Patrick Mould. This year also marked the return of Clifton Chenier to the festival after an absence of several years; his closing performance was memorable. The schedule featured an increased focus on black Creole music.

The main stage programming was significantly changed by going to longer sets with half-hour set changes taken into consideration. This resulted in fewer groups performing more effectively. There was no group from Québec at this second festival of the year. The Friday night concerts were discontinued for several years.

It turns out that this was a banner year for new introductions. This marked the first appearance for Ward Lormand's Filé, for Bruce Daigrepont's Bourré, and for Wayne Toups. Festival organizers were intent on showing the continuing vitality of Cajun music. All three groups electrified the crowds in different ways and were called back for encores. Ward Lormand formed his group after several years of apprenticeship in the deliberately regressive Cush-Cush. With Filé, he began to explore some of the opportunities for fusing the modern and the traditional in Cajun music. Bruce Daigrepont had discovered Cajun music at a previous festival and decided he wanted to perform the music of his heritage. With Bourré, he too began exploring the possibilities of creating within the tradition. A veteran of the young Cajun musician contests of the 1970s, Wayne Toups was just on the verge of launching his ZydeCajun experiment. He was so nervous before his set that he warmed up and tuned up without ever looking directly at the crowd. Once introduced, he started his performance still looking side-stage. When it came time to sing, he turned suddenly to face the microphone and the crowd, slipping his left hand out of the bass side of his accordion and letting the centrifugal force finish the draw on the bellows. When asked about this later, he explained that it was simply a case of nerves: "I was afraid that if I looked at that huge crowd before I had to sing, I might not be able to get my song out, so I just waited until the last second before turning to face them." The dramatic effect of the gesture thrilled the crowd, as did the rest of his performance. This year also marked the first time BeauSoleil closed.

Dewey Balfa, one of the founding fathers of this festival, died in June of this year, and for the first time since its inception, the festival did not have the Balfa Brothers. Dewey was on everyone's mind, as the festival was dedicated to his memory and powerful legacy. Jackie Caillier and the Cajun Cousins made their first festival appearance, featuring the innovative lyrics of Ivy Dugas. Richard LeBoeuf and Two Step made their first appearance in the second-to-last slot on Sunday, driven by Richard's infectious enthusiasm, charm, and fluency in French. The Sam Brothers returned to the stage after several years' absence with a curious set that included English-language zydeco versions of "Beast of Burden" and "Pop That Coochie."

This marks the first festival performance of both Kevin Naquin and Horace Trahan. Naquin's inspiration stemmed from the musical stylings of Don Montoucet and Steve Riley, whereas Trahan, a student of Felix Richard, harkens back to Iry Lejeune and Nathan Abshire in vocals and instrumental presentation. Belton Richard was inspired to come out of retirement by the festival dedication and appeared with a new version of his Musical Aces. Richard LeBoeuf closed for the first time.

Zydeco Joe was invited in an ongoing attempt to feature zydeco's French heritage. Wayne Toups made a triumphant and emotional return to the Festival Stage after a few years' absence, set list issues resolved. Marce Lacouture, David Greely, Kristi Guillory, and Horace Trahan joined forces as Veillée to sing unaccompanied ballads in hauntingly complex four-part harmonies. Balfa Toujours gave Bois-Sec Ardoin a chance to perform again. Bayou des Mystères vets Zachary Richard, Kenneth Richard, and Michael Doucet were joined by relative newcomer Horace Trahan in a reunion of the group in honor of Felix Richard. The performance was filled with old tensions, but nevertheless mesmerizing. Toward the end of the set, Zachary Richard and Michael Doucet could no longer stand to play sitting down. Kenneth Richard joined them in standing to finish the set, but Horace remained seated.

This year, the festival moved back to the month of its first outdoor appearance in the hopes of finding dryer and cooler weather conditions. BeauSoleil returned to the festival after a few years away to mark their thirtieth anniversary and commemorate their first festival performance in 1976. D'Jalma Garnier gathered Trio Kreyol, featuring Jeff Broussard and Nolton Semien, to present old-time Creole music. Three edgy new groups burst onto the festival scene: Bonsoir, Catin, an (almost) all-women group featuring Kristi Guillory, Christine Balfa, Yvette Landry, and Anya Shoenegge, along with drummer Jude Roy; the Lafayette Rhythm Devils, which also featured Kristi Guillory and Yvette Landry, along with Randy Vidrine; and the Pine Leaf Boys, featuring Wilson Savoy, Drew Simon, Blake Miller, Jon Bertrand, and Cedric Watson. It was a toss up as to who rocked the crowd the most.

One Generation at a Time: Biography of a Cajun and Creole Music Festival retails for $20 and is available locally from the Center for Louisiana Studies, Lily's for Books, and Barnes & Noble, and online at

Barry Ancelet and Philip Gould will sign copies of the book on the following dates:
Nov. 30, 5:30-7 p.m., Lily's for Books, as part of the Festival of Light
Dec. 8, 6-8 p.m., Jefferson Street Market, during ArtWalk
Dec. 11, 5-7:30 p.m., Center for Louisiana Studies' holiday sale at the UL Alumni Center
Dec. 22, 3-5 p.m., Barnes & Noble