Dewey Balfa

Dewey Balfa (FRC207) and Balfa Brothers & Nathan Abshire (FRC111)

Dewey Balfa was born in Mamou, Louisiana on March 20, 1927. Balfa was one of nine children in a family of sharecroppers such; when not picking cotton, he learned to play the fiddle from his father, and taking early inspiration from the music of Leo Soileau, Harry Choates and Bob Wills. Playing fiddle and singing with the Balfa Brothers (which included Dewey, Rodney, Burkman, Harry, and Will, the latter of whom spelled his surname Bolfa), he became a seminal figure in the revival of traditional Cajun music. Dewey Balfa was among his native culture’s most impassioned ambassadors, helping introduce the Cajun sound to countless new fans across the globe and inspiring an entire generation of performers to explore their roots. He recorded memorable songs like “Drunkard’s Sorrow Waltz” and “Parlez-nous à boire,” and appeared on the Swallow label. By day a school bus driver and discount furniture salesman, Balfa’s cultural pursuits garnered him numerous grants and citations, including the National Heritage Award in 1982, and a Grammy nomination in 1986.

Dewey Balfa

Photo by Dan Peck

During World War II, he worked in a Texas shipyard, later enlisting in the merchant marine; in his off hours, he continued playing music, sitting in with a variety of western swing bands. By the late 1940s, Balfa returned home to Louisiana, where he teamed with his siblings Rodney, Will and Harry to play local parties and dances as the Musical Brothers; by 1951, they even amassed enough of a local following to cut a 78 rpm single, “La Valse de Bon Baurche.” Acclaimed for his fluid, precise style, Balfa emerged as so much a fiddle virtuoso that he was much sought after by other Cajun performers, most notably accompanying Nathan Abshire on a variety of recording sessions and live dates. During the 1950s, conventional wisdom held that Cajun music was old-fashioned and commercially irrelevant, but Balfa forged on; he and his brothers continued performing live, and even hosted their own radio show. A mid-1950s Newport Folk Foundation field recording brought them limited exposure outside of the southwest Louisiana area, and in 1964 Balfa led a group of Cajun musicians during a landmark appearance at the Newport Folk Festival which ended in a standing ovation from the 17,000-plus in attendance, offering the first concrete proof that the music could find a wide audience. With Rodney and Will, daughter Nelda and accordionist Hadley Fontenot, Dewey officially formed the Balfa Brothers band in 1965, and with them returned to Newport in 1967 to a similarly rapturous response.

Balfa’s experiences at Newport galvanized him to become an advocate for traditional Cajun culture, and he worked closely with the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana to increase studies of the French language in the state’s schools; he also pushed for a Cajun music festival. At the same time, the Balfa Brothers continued recording and performing live on a regular basis, growing in popularity throughout the years to come. However, tragedy struck in 1979, when Will and Rodney were both killed in an auto accident; within the next several years, Balfa’s wife and son died as well, but he soldiered on, reforming the Balfa Brothers with daughter Christine and nephew Tony. In 1982, he also won the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest award given to folk artists by the National Endowment of the Arts. After a long battle with cancer, Balfa died on June 17, 1992; his daughters soon formed Balfa Toujours, “Balfa Everyday, Forever” to continue promoting the Cajun tradition into the next century.