Perfect Sound Forever


Photo courtesy of Savoy Music

All the Singers Have Day Jobs
by Gabriella Fuller, Princeton '09
(June 2008)

The Savoy Music Center is a two room wood-paneled barn with aluminum siding, on the outskirts of Eunice, Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun country. To get there, you take the road from Opelousas, the self-proclaimed Yam Capital of the World. You're picking up your cousin and his accordion in Church Point - a detour - so you take the local roads, not I-190. Your car, probably a Ford pickup, possibly with a yellow ribbon that says "Support Our Troops" on the bumper, rattles, because the road is cement. The township didn't have enough money to pave it. Or didn't bother. There are so few voters here anyhow. Along the way, you pass John Deere trailers and raised prefabs parading plastic manger scenes and white wire reindeer on their unkempt lawns. You pass light-green fields of short sugarcane. There are placards for local politicians and a gas station selling Freedom Fuel. There is a billboard that reads "Jesus is the reason for the season. Pay bills here." (Kmart realism meets haiku. Raymond Carver and Bashó play pattycake in the afterlife.) Leviathan refineries that would make Charles Sheeler salivate rise in the distance, their candy cane stacks spewing white in the bright blue sky.

But the towns you drive through - Opelousas, Grand Coteau, Lawtell - are empty. Which is normal, because it's 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning in late December. Except that Opelousas's storefronts are covered in brown paper and "Thank You for Your Patronage" signs; the courthouse's second floor windows are broken. On its marquee, the concert hall, adjacent to the jail, advertises the date of its last show: August 5, 2006. Half the gas stations are closed, you can get your taxes done in a trailer, and "Pay day - Loan" signs hang like strange fruit in front of bright new mini-banks while decayed shacks rot nearby. One guy owns most of the billboards within five miles of Lawtell, and on them he advertises his own billboards - "Gotcha looking!" - because no one else has anything to sell.

Only Grand Coteau seems in fine enough form - an abortive main street lined with five rambling houses, all still in business. From a car, even one going only 30 mph, their signs read AntiquesAntiquitiesOldFashionedThings. And, like that, they're gone. If you do stop, which you will only if you're a tourist or the wealthy parent of a child interned at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, you'll find rotting benches for $250 and costume jewelry for $45. Or, for $11.50, a Handbook of Civilian Defense, slightly soiled, detailing "What every loyal American can do to help the United States win the War," and owned sometime in the 1940s by Clarence Troyan of Garfield Hts., Ohio. Strictly for the birds. Owing to the '80s oil crisis and the country's enduring agricultural predicament, almost a third of the population here lives below the poverty line, nearly three times the national average. The oil men left twenty years ago, farmers sold out, and the economic attraction of city life has pulled in the young and middle class: A law student and her med intern husband described themselves as being from Ville Platte - "Oh, but we live in New Orleans now," she rectified. "And we're moving to New York." And then there's the local "there goes the neighborhood" theory: Towns that used to be equally split between blacks and whites are now majority black. "White folks just don't feel comfortable being in the minority. So they leave. And no new whites are gonna move into a black town," said Maggie, owner of 'T Frères Bed and Breakfast. But B&Bs abound, and you can buy a broken bench for $250. There are enough tourists in the area to sustain Grand Coteau.

Marc Savoy is standing behind the counter of his music center. On weekdays, the Music Center is a Music Store, but Saturday is jam day--all acoustic, all Cajun, all the time. Marc is Andre the Giant older and sleepier, with a walrus mustache echoed by thick eyebrows and a receding hairline that went into mourning the day Dylan went electric. Heavy lids and drooping bags hide eyes that are sharp and sprightly, as if they'd seen much, decided against most of it, and gloried in having made the right choice. He's drinking a beer and "Ah! mais comment ty vas?"-ing everyone who walks in. Most of them pack an instrument and a bag of cracklins or Christmas cookies - "make me the most popular guy in the place, for bout three minutes," says a man holding the hand of a blind boy with a guitar.

Five rows of plastic chairs face a ten-piece ragtag jam band: five guitars, an accordion, two fiddles, a bass cello, and a triangle player sitting to the side, a geriatric in red baby cheeks, watery eyes, a pug nose, and a green felt cowboy hat. Thirty-five people sit around, tune instruments, and chat in a mix of Louisiana English and nasal, simplified French, a backwoods Canadian patois that hasn't much evolved in the four centuries since the Cajuns' ancestors left Poitou for Nova Scotia. On the wall, a handwritten sign exults: "Soyez fièrs de parler la langue Cadienne! Soyez fièrs de rester Cadiens!" ("Be proud of speaking the Cajun language! Be proud of staying Cajun!") People are. The parishes of Southwest Louisiana are named to stand as reminders of a cultural heritage their inhabitants aren't about to forget: Acadia, after the Nova Scotia territories out of which the British kicked the region's first French settlers during the French and Indian War, in 1755; Evangeline, for Longfellow's endless tribute to Acadian lovers separated during the Great Upheaval; St. Landry, after a seventh-century Parisian bishop. They're big on that here: we're of French ancestry, we've got History, and we've survived It. Depending on the parish, 16 to 26 percent of the population speaks Cajun French at home, the predominant religion is Roman Catholicism, and a large sign on the highway leading into Lafayette trumpets, "Welcome to Lafayette: Gateway to Acadiana." It's followed, in short order, by billboards for "Acadiana Log Homes," "Acadia Pools," and "Acadia Waffle House: Steaks, Seafood, and Crawfish Etouffé."

Marc and Ann Savoy, of the Savoy-Doucet and Savoy Family bands, are at the forefront of the Cajun Pride rebirth that started in the grassroots-luvin', Newport Folk Festival-going, let's find something real '60s. The movement gathered further momentum in the '80s, riding on the coattails of the Cajun Culinary Revolution. (All spin: there are only so many things you can do to a fried crawfish, and none of them are good.) But, as Marc will explain to you - and then emphasize by directing you, for the third time, to his website - unlike many, the Savoys reject musical modernization, evolution, or cross-breeding. Worshippers of Amédée Ardoin, Dennis McGee, and most any other Cajun musician born before running water, they refuse what they consider the dilution and dissolution of true, traditional tunes into what Marc terms "cheap, sleazy interpretations of country music," all brushed up and spit-shined with "straps, gadgets, enhancers, smoke machines, harmonizers, homogenizers, pickups, and assorted electric paraphernalia." (Full disclosure: Marc makes his living selling accordions--and amplifiers.) At the Savoy Music Center, there are no steel guitars, electric basses, drums, saxophones, or washboards. There is no country-western whining, jazz-inflected bombast, swamp pop, swing, blues, or rock, because Marc doesn't see why you'd cross a lamb with a chicken. "If I want a chicken," he states, "I eat chicken. And if I want sheep, I'll eat sheep."

Course, Cajun sound is the bastard love child of a whole orgy of cross-breeding beasts. The Nova Scotia Acadians brought 17th-century French a cappella ballads to the New World, and they didn't get frenzied into instrumental two-steps and waltzes on the 19th century's front porch by wearing a chastity belt. Breton folk ballads; Scotch-Irish jigs; Native American wailing and terraced singing; African dance rhythms and West Indian syncopation; black Creole blues, percussion, and improve; Anglo-American fiddle tunes, reels, and square dances; Spanish guitar; and German accordions formed the soundtrack to Savoy's soul. What is currently regarded as the typical Cajun ensemble - accordion as prime instrument, double-stringed fiddle buzzing back-up, triangle clanging the rhythm - only took shape in the 1920s, when the louder, more durable accordion pulled a fast one on the fiddle and took center stage in the all-night dancehalls and fais dodos. With it came a new style of Cajun music, one that pared down the 19th century's ornate fiddle tunes because the one-key squeezebox couldn't do idiosyncratic harmonies or complex half-tones.

An accordion maker and player by profession, Marc is really a crusader for the past, a Doc Brown for the nostalgia set who fell in love with the tenant-farming old guys in removable teeth who fiddled in his daddy's kitchen and didn't see what the big deal was with rock 'n roll: "I listen to these big, ten-piece bands playing all these fancy breaks in the rhythm, fancy modulations, complex chord progressions, facial contortions, and stage antics," I read from his website. "And I ask myself, how in the world did Aldus Roger, in the '50s, take a one chord melody and make that simple little tune come alive like he did in the Mardi Gras Jig? . . . But the raison d'être has shifted from a love of culture to a love of big bucks." "Big bucks," he emphasizes, paraphrasing himself, "which you'll make by becoming a crowd pleaser, feeding gimmickry to an audience that, to begin with, doesn't have a clue as to what it wants to listen to." Condescend much? But in live performance it doesn't come across that way. Marc's voice, with its lisping Cajun accent, is by turn soft and lilting, as if its owner were continually awed both by man's folly and by his achievements. It's hard to feel browbeaten by a grown man who just wants to "play music like [he] heard it when [he] was a kid," when it was a democratic endeavor, there wasn't no such thing as a rock star, and anyone could play.

So at the Savoys, everyone does. (When you call to say you're coming, Marc says, "Bring your instrument." If you don't have one, he says, "Oh. Well, bring some beer.") Louisiana has always been one of the country's poorest states. The work is hard, and so is the music - hard and unyielding, even when it's happy. It's born of exile and rejection and raised on sharecropping and shrimp-fishing, fashioned by a people expelled by Britain and spurned by America, yet able to express great joy. The vocals are shrill and searing, backed by an accordion that belches, fiddles that shriek, and a triangle that trolley-bells when upbeat and pays direct, dirgelike homage to its origin the rest of the time: hammer, pounding anvil. Clanga. Clanga. Clanga. Clang. Ting-tng-tng-ting. Dinga-ling! Dinga-ling! It's the noon whistle, the factory bell, the Angola chain gang, the ice cream man. It's the raised divider line on the highway when you fall asleep at the wheel. Tinny and reed-thin or like a two hundred pound transvestite pounding the pavement at the New Orleans bus depot, but reassuringly there, making sure your foot hits the floor in time with the beat even when your mind is floating somewhere above the Atchafalaya basin. Because Cajun music does that to the virgin ear, and probably to the not-so-virgin ear too: it's repetitive, and its repetition is mind-numbing. Not, mind you, in a bad, I'm so bored I could watch C-Span way. It's more of a Zen, out-of-body thing: you're thinking about filing your taxes, and suddenly you notice you're doing the jig. The repetition is cyclical, the expression of an agricultural people who lived within the strictures that nature provided and ad-libbed their tunes in patterned response to her narrow tolerance. But unlike nature, their waltzes and two-steps are straightforward, though not predictable: the first notes lay out what's coming. If it starts uptempo and hoedown, it'll stay that way. And if it starts slow and plaintive, it'll end slow and plaintive - there is no caveat emptor reversal, no stairway-to-heaven midway triumphalism, no surprise in the second act. There is no second act. The harmonies are simple and the melodic range is one octave. All of the singers have day jobs.

The Savoy jam starts with an instrumental, the "Crowley Two Step," and Madame Tussauds is in the house. The players are wax figurines in check shirts and spit-shined boots, assembled china dolls at Amédée Ardoin's funeral march for the dearly departed - and we aren't talking a Nawlins jazz funeral, either. A two-step is jump-around music, and the accordion's whine bounces up and down, joyous as hell, a head-shaking, toe-tapping Celtic carousel on fast-forward and rewind, with the fiddles careening like stampeding horses. But the players refuse to move, and their faces are closed. All their theatricality is in their hands. In the pianist's hands especially. A thick woman with severely cropped hair and a lumberjack shirt, she's a poster girl for Ani DiFranco and the Michigan Womyn's Festival. But her fingers are long and tapered, and at the end of a bar she played sad though it didn't have to be, her hand rises and, when it's above her head, she executes a handsome rhetorical flourish - a small, graceful undulation that carries to the tips of her fingers as if to say, Well, that's just the way things go, isn't it?

Then Wilson, the Savoys' son, scoots in on "'Tite Robe Courte," a pretty little ditty all about, loosely, convincing your girl to put on her short lil' dress so you can go dancing on a Saturday, because life's too short and anyhow, who doesn't want a little sumptin' sumptin'. His lisp and his whine make him sound like that awkward, gently retarded cousin at a family gathering who no one wants to deal with, so he's given an accordion and told to go play in the yard. Only nasality isn't particular to Wilson - it's proper to the patois, and its high pitch evolved out of necessity, not nature, to match the diatonic accordion's pre-amplification screech, so both could be heard by the guy and the girl dancing a little to closely at the back of the hall. The girl in the short little dress.

Eventually Marc and Ann join up, and she grins her broad, red, sensual clown's grin for "Je Me Sens Comme Une Pauvre Orpheline." The accordion puffs up, crows loud, and then stutters and chokes, killed by the fiddles. Double-stopping, they make like bees thwacked from the hive, droning low, ominous, incessant. The bows stroke frenzied but even, never varying their angle. The whine neither advances nor recedes, just hums, always the same, until there's an itch in your ear, just out of reach, and you're hearing all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, jerking your lobe, trying to dislodge something that isn't there. Meanwhile the accordion's gotten back on the bandwagon, wavering in counter time, but all you're waiting for, all you've been waiting for in delicious, fevered expectation for the last half minute, is for something to burst. But the drone is announcing a cataclysm that doesn't come. And then it does. Anne's voice, a gurgle and then a moan, clipped but throatier than most Cajuns' because she's from Virginia. "Aaaaoooauuu . . . j'ai plus personne, même pas ma mère." Sure, it's the wail of an abandoned woman. But what it's filled with is release.

This is what country wishes it were, what folk Dylan, with his mouth coming out of his nose, aspired to be. By noon, sixteen people are jamming, a blind man in black glasses is yodeling, some old guys are doing the jig, and a real smooth operator is doing the two-step with a woman in sandals who hasn't taken off her fur coat. Forget post-modern irony and hipster nostalgia - the fiddler wears a Spam T-shirt because he eats Spam, and he plays the stuff not because he heard it on his grandfather's knee when he was a wee tot with a snot-filled nose, but because he knows it's good. Despite his reactionary words, Marc isn't Big Eddie Bouvier of the Prairie, living in the past or resuscitating a sound that should have stayed there. His earnestness flies because his music exists in the present, and people are dancing to it in the here and now. Stewart, a rock guitarist come accordionist with the face of a pickled Paul Simon, frowns down at me. "Cajun isn't there to be sat still and listened to." He grins: "You gotta dance."

NOTE: This essay was awarded the Edwin F. Ferris Class of 1899 Prize by the Princeton University Humanities Council

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