The Cajuns, Balfa and Abshire

Balfa Brothers and Nathan Abshire (FRC111)

By Dan Foster

A Brief Cajun History

Singing in French. A fiddle adds plaintive drones and harmony. A boisterous accordion, all staccato attack and ornate rolls, provides lift and bounce. Beneath this trinity of voice, fiddle and accordion, a rhythm guitar and a great iron triangle jangle out a rude chanky-chank. The result is the quintessential sound of the South Louisiana prairies and bayous, Cajun music. The early history of the Cajuns is a tale of endurance against outside forces bent on their destruction. In the seventeenth century, the first European settlers left western France and sailed for the new world. Their destination was Cadie, or Acadia, a region of New France that is now called Nova Scotia. There, they and their descendants lived until 1755, when they were forced to leave by the British authorities. Many Acadians were deported to English colonies in what is now the southern U.S. More wandered to the West Indies and elsewhere. Most of them eventually ended up as subsistence farmers in South Louisiana, where there was already a French population, and where the Spanish government welcomed Catholic immigrants.

In Louisiana, they reconstructed their culture and made modifications to suit their new environment. They had contact with new groups, principally Native Americans and free people of color. This environment allowed Acadians, who in their rough and ready French called themselves “Cadiens” or “Cajuns”, to combine elements of French, Celtic, Spanish, Native American and African music into a new and unique musical genre: Cajun music. This genre had almost two centuries to develop, mature and mellow before the first entrepreneurs and collectors arrived on the scene to make records.

The later 1950s was another bust time for older styles of Cajun music, as producers moved on to record swamp-pop music, rock and roll performed in many cases by the sons of Cajun musicians. Once again, being Cajun and possessing the French sound, felt by many to be nothing but chanky-chank, was a source of shame rather than pride, and Americanization was the order of the day. Still, many of the greats like Nathan Abshire continued to ply their trade until the American folk revival provided a new outlet for Cajun musicians. Newport’s 1964 festival marked the first time a Cajun band played for a national audience. At best, they thought they’d be a novelty act rather than a serious attraction. At worst, they feared getting laughed off the stage. But they received a thunderous standing ovation for their performance, and band member Dewey Balfa (who had played with Abshire’s Pine Grove Boys, among other acts) returned to South Louisiana a changed man, a cultural missionary whose goal was to spread the gospel of traditional Cajun music and culture. Along with his brothers, Balfa became an unstoppable force in the world of Cajun music.

Nathan Abshire (born June 27, 1913 near Gueydan, Louisiana; died May 13, 1981, Basile, Louisiana) was a Cajun accordion player who, along with Iry LeJeune, was responsible for the renaissance of the accordion in Cajun music in the 1940s. His father, mother and uncle all played accordion; as an adult Abshire recalled that his father played reels on the instrument. Abshire began playing accordion at the age of six and was proficient enough to play at local bals de maison by the time he was eight. Within a few years he was well known throughout southwest Louisiana and in great demand on the dance hall circuit. Abshire’s music was greatly influenced by the legendary Creole accordion player and singer Amede Ardoin; as a young man Abshire sometimes shared bandstands with Ardoin. This influence is reflected in the great infusion of blues Abshire brought to Cajun music; many of his songs bear titles such as Service Blues, French Blues and Pine Grove Blues. Abshire first performed on the accordion in public at age eight. He continued playing at dance halls and parties through his teenage years. In the 1930s, he performed with and learned from fiddler Lionel Leleux and accordionist Ame´de´ Ardoin. In 1935, he recorded six songs with the Rayne-Bo Ramblers, a group led by guitarist and singer Leroy “Happy Fats” Leblanc. Abshire was active throughout the 1930s, recording for the RCA Bluebird Company in 1935; his career was interrupted by a brief stint in the army during World War II. Abshire served in the U.S. military during World War II. After the war, he settled in Basile, Louisiana, where he played regularly at the Avalon Club. He released his best-known record, “Pine Grove Blues”, in 1949 for the O.T. label, it was a regional hit and an important recording in the postwar revival of the accordion, as well asseveral recordings on Swallow Records and Arhoolie Records in the 1960s.

After the war, Abshire was a central figure in the revitalization of traditional Cajun music. His Pine Grove Blues, recorded in 1949 In the 1960s, he became one of the first musicians to take Cajun music beyond the borders of Louisiana, Although a highly respected and influential musician, Abshire was never able to support his family completely with his music. He was, for many years, employed with the town of Basile, Louisiana, where admirers from all over the world would come to see him. Traveling with the Balfa Brothers to concerts and folk festivals throughout the United States and Canada. Abshire also hit his stride as a recording artist in the late 1960s, turning out a string of remarkable records for the Swallow label that included Tramp Sur La Rue, Lemonade Song and Valse De Bayou Teche. Abshire was featured in Les Blank’s 1971 documentary Spend It All and the 1975 PBS documentary “The Good Times Are Killing Me”.

The Balfa Brothers (Les Freres Balfas) helped keep traditional Cajun music alive in the 1960s, when it was in danger of disappearing. The sons, three of a family of six of a Louisiana sharecropper, from whom they learned about traditional Cajun lore and culture. Fiddler Dewey Balfa was heavily influenced by players such as J.B. Fusilier, Leo Soileau, Harry Choates and Bob Wills. He and his brothers — Rodney, who sang and played guitar and harmonica, Will, the second fiddler, Harry, the accordion player, and Burkeman, who played triangle and spoons — began playing informally at family parties and local gatherings during the ‘40s. They achieved enough local popularity to play up to eight dances a week at local dance halls. The Balfas were later joined by neighbor Hadley Fontenot on accordion. They made their recording debut in 1951 with “La Valse de Bon Baurche” and “Le Two Step de Ville Platte,” which were captured on a home recorder and released as a 78-rpm single. Dewey Balfa went on to a solo career playing with numerous Cajun artists and recording on such labels as Khoury, Kajun, and Swallow.

In 1967, Dewey, Rodney, Will and his daughter Nelda, along with Fontenot formed the Balfa Brothers and began spreading the Cajun sound throughout Europe and at folk festivals across the U.S. In 1968, they played for the Olympics Festival in Mexico City. They made their first professional recording, “Le Valse de Bambocheurs/Indian on a Stomp,” in 1967 for Swallow. This led to an album, Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music, also on Swallow. After releasing another LP, the Balfas appeared in the 1972 Les Blank documentary Spend It All, which introduced a new generation to the lively Cajun sound. That year they also recorded The Cajuns on Sonet and another for Swallow, The Good Times Are Killing Me, which included the soundtrack for the documentary of the same name. Although most of their musical focus was on tradition, the Balfas were not averse to trying more modernized Cajun songs with a nightclub orchestra comprised of Dewey, Rodney, accordion player Nathan Menard, fiddler Dick Richard, J.W. Pelsia on steel guitar, Austin Broussard on drums and Rodney’s son Tony on bass guitar.

Things went well for the band until February 1979, when Rodney and Will were killed in a car wreck. The next year, Dewey’s wife died of trichinosis. Despite the tragedy, the Balfa Brothers continued (with a few personnel changes) even after Dewey’s death in 1992. Through them, his rich and valuable legacy of Cajun music carries on.

- Sandra Brennan, All Music Guide

Many of the Balfas’ recordings are available on CD, but historically-minded fans will want their first two albums, now available on a single CD, The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music Vol I and II [Swallow CD 6011]. Both albums show both a love of old French and Acadian folksongs and the skills to make exciting new Cajun music. The concern for history and tradition was a conscious and deeply-felt ideal for the Balfas. One of the most satisfying results is that, unlike most of the musicians mentioned so far, the Balfas recorded songs old enough to have roots in France. Songs like “La Valse du Bambocheur” and “Je Me Suis Marille´” are clearly derived from French antecedents. On the other hand, Dewey himself wrote some of the songs; he had nothing against innovation, and indeed saw it as essential for the tradition to survive. Two fiddles, one tuned low, two guitars, and a triangle were the Balfas’ instruments, and their friends Hadley Fontenot (Vol. 1) and Marc Savoy (Vol. 2) were on hand to add accordion to the band. All 24 tracks are excellent. The vocals are strong and the instrumental blend is beautiful; the second fiddle, mostly played by Will Balfa, adds a particularly rich resonance to their playing on many tracks. This disc’s cleanly traditional live-in-the-studio sound, as well as its clear recording quality, ensure that it will remain classic and undated for years to come. The booklet contains all lyrics (very helpful for anyone who learned their French outside of Louisiana) as well as translations into English. The notes are generally good, but one major error states that the Balfa brothers were the first Cajun band to play at Newport. This is inaccurate; only Dewey was a member of the pioneering Newport group.

Dewey Balfa was born in 1927 in Grand Louis, a small community near Mamou, Louisiana, to Charles Balfa and Amay Ardoin. There was music in the Balfa household from the beginning, with papa Charles playing the fiddle and singing ballads. Dewey’s older brother Will played with his father, and at the age of ten Dewey began to join in as well. In the mid-1940’s he formed the Musical Brothers and began playing at Hick’s Wagonwheel Club. Along with his brothers Will, Harry, Rodney and Burkeman, Dewey began playing a schedule that would break many musicians today, often playing eight dances a week while holding down a full time job. With the beginnings of rock and roll, however, Cajun music entered a period of decline and the band performed less and less. In 1964, Dewey was called in as a last minute replacement on guitar to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. This was to be the first time Cajun music was heard in such a context, and many were embarrassed at the thought of what they considered old “chanky-chank” representing Louisiana at such a prestigious event. Here are a few words of Dewey’s to describe what happened: “I had played in house dances, family gatherings, maybe a dance hall where you might have seen as many as two hundred people at once. In fact, I doubt I had ever seen two hundred people at once. And in Newport, there were seventeen thousand. Seventeen thousand people who wouldn’t let us get off stage.”

This incredible response was a major turning point for Dewey, who went home with a new sense of pride in his culture and his music. He got his brothers playing again and began bringing their passionate music to festivals across the globe. While this travelling was important to him, it was the resonance back in Louisiana that mattered most. He got a chance to amplify this resonance in 1974, when the first Tribute to Cajun Music, now known as Festivals Acadiens, was held in Lafayette, Louisiana. With this event, he showed the people of Louisiana just how powerful and important their music was; at the same time he sent a message to the world that the culture was standing tall and reviving itself. The Balfa Brothers emerged from the festival as ambassadors of the culture, and they continued that mission for many years.

Tragically, Dewey lost his brothers Will and Rodney in an automobile accident in 1979. To add to that already horrific loss, his wife Hilda passed away in 1980. These combined tragedies were almost enough to bring him down, but he realized that his only choice was to carry on with the goal he had set for himself and his only relief from the suffering was the music itself. He gradually began playing and travelling again, earning a National Heritage Fellowship in 1982. Throughout the 1980’s he shared his music with countless audiences and taught many workshops as musicians from around the country became attracted to Cajun music. He continued playing until his death in June of 1992, when he finally succumbed to the cancer that had been hounding him for some time.