When Ann Allen Savoy was roaming the prairies and bayous of Southwestern Louisiana doing interviews and archive dives for her essential, comprehensive Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People book project in the 1980s, she often dragged her young kids along with her.
“Sarah was a baby when I started,” she says, with her two sons, Joel and Wilson, and then the second daughter, Gabrielle, joining in turn.
“You hear all my children on the interview tapes, talking to the mama. ‘Honey, here’s some candy.’ There’s all this crying and racket in the background.”
It was a passion project for Richmond, VA-raised Savoy, who had moved to the region in the late 1970s when she married master Cajun accordion player and builder Marc Savoy and became immersed in the culture. Marc was already a fierce crusader for and ambassador of Cajun music and life, and Ann embraced the role too.
The kids were there when she gathered the eyewitness tales of some of legends now gone — Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin and Cajun fiddler Harry Choates, whose musical invention, fiery short lives and tragic ends have led some to call them the Robert Johnson and Hank Williams, respectively, of their world. They were along, too, to hear from those still active, neighbors and friends, some who regularly showed up to anchor the weekly Saturday jam sessions held at their parents’ Savoy Music Center store, home of Marc’s accordion workshop, the old-timers passing along the musical legacy to eager youngsters, the tunes interspersed with bites of hot boudin and swigs of cold beer. Some of them have died since — Zydeco giant Boozoo Chavis, Cajun fiddlers Dennis McGee and Dewey Balfa and accordionists Octa Clark, Moise Robin and Aldus Roger, and many others of lesser renown. But the stories they shared were vital to preserve.
Through all this, the Savoy youngsters had a front-row seat to history, both lost and living. Whether they were paying attention or not.
Vol. I of the project, all 444 pages of it, was published in 1984, before Gabrielle was even born, and played a key role in that crusade. But Vol. II remained unfinished. Savoy never got around to it, what with touring the world and making records with various groups (the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Trio, the Magnolia Sisters and a magnificent duet album with long-time friend Linda Ronstadt among many projects) and raising those aforementioned kids and all. It became something of a family joke, the second “book” scattered around the family’s house in the small town of Eunice, the photos, tapes, clippings, transcriptions of interviews and song in both French (as many were conducted) and English, all in various boxes, files and piles.
Until now. Finally, that second one is coming out this month, full of vibrant accounts of the music and life from hundreds of interviews and several key essay contributions (including by Marc detailing the history of Cajun accordion and his and others’ determination to revitalize it). And again the kids were dragged along. Or more accurately, they and some of their friends dragged their mother along.
“The kids came and said, ‘Listen, we’ll help you finish this if you will finish it,” she says.
See. They were paying attention.
But that was already quite clear. Savoy: The Next Generation, along with many of their friends, had been stepping full-stride into their culture, not just as observers but leaders and innovators themselves.
Sarah has been playing Cajun-Zydeco-rockabilly hybrids in Europe for much of her adult life and just now has moved back from France with her own family. Joel became a force as a producer and promoter with his Valcour Records label and a noted musician himself, while Wilson leads the Pine Leaf Boys, both of them holding dear the traditions while also moving them forward, and also playing with their folks in the Savoy Family Cajun Band. And youngest Gabrielle is a photographer and artist whose work often celebrates the people behind the music and lifestyle.
And with their equally passionate friends and peers, they’ve brought new energy not just to the music but to the crawfish boils, boucheries, music clubs and festivals and Cajun Mardi Gras — a boisterous, less-bawdy/more-rustic cousin to the infamous New Orleans version — that are at the heart of the world in which they were raised, connected back to their French-originated ancestors, who settled there after being booted, brutally, from Acadia, now known as Nova Scotia, more than a quarter of a millennium ago.
With the book just out, Ann Savoy — now the matriarch of this First Family of Cajun culture — talked with FolkWorks about the legacy the project has explored, preserved and amplified.
In addition to the new book, all of the more than 200 interviews she has conducted with these and other musicians from the region over the last 45 years have now been made available for free streaming through the Arhoolie Foundation’s digital archives.
FolkWorks: You were still something of an outsider back when you started doing these interviews and the research, but you came to be accepted pretty quickly.
Ann Savoy: It had to do with that I actually married one of their own, being married to Marc Savoy. People were suspicious of me until they found that out about me. They were like, “What’s this American girl doing? Why does she care about us?” Because in general the American culture in Louisiana does not love Cajun music. It’s been a stigma. So they would think I must be here to make fun of them. And when they found out I was there to pay homage, it was quite a surprise. And it was very enriching, I think, on both sides, as they would see that I loved and respected them so much. I was there because I loved the French [language] and I wanted to hear the French the way they spoke it. I wanted to learn everything about the culture and wanted to learn the music.
FW: There must have been some surprises, some things you came across for this book.
AS: One of the most amazing things that happened was Bois Sec Ardoin and his wife Marceline took me to a little house near Basile where Mazie Broussard, Amédé’s only love, lived. And she had the only other existing photograph of Amédé Ardoin. It was a huge coup to have the only other picture of him, and he would have been the age in it that he recorded at. She had that rare photo as well as the photo of 16-year-old Freeman Fontenot playing accordion that’s on the back of the book. Another thing was Moise Robin gave me a three-cassette ‘Story of My Life,’ all in French. It’s the most exquisitely beautiful French story I’ve ever heard, the way he speaks and the descriptions of the houses, how they would hunt birds and of their recording sessions.
FW: Many of these are people you got to know as neighbors. These are people who come to your crawfish boils and, of course, have been part of the Saturday jam sessions at the Savoy Music Center for years — though you have had to curtail that certainly.
AS: Yeah, the weather is really cold here right now. But we try to make a fire and sit out there, really small, like we’ll have five people. But it’s still fun. We sit far apart and wear masks.
FW: The jam sessions have been kind of a living realization of what you have in the book.
AS: In fact, I met a lot of he artists that are in the book at the jam sessions. I got to know them and I’d say, “Hey, can I come over and interview you, Octa Clark?” And on and on.
FW: In putting the book together now, going over all the material, was there something that really stuck out, something you hadn’t known or realized before?
AS: I learned a lot more about the Black culture and the richness of it, the way they cared for each other, the intimacy. The racial problems Boozoo talked about was disturbing. It was very rough. And I got interested in the race-horse aspect of the Black culture here. Boozoo was one of them.
And I learned what a hard life it was. It was a rough world. There were people fighting and cutting each other and drinking themselves to death. It’s not a pretty story. I went into it with my eyes open because I was from such a different world. I guess I’m fascinated by it. That’s a lot of my original attraction to Cajun music in some ways.
FW: One thing the Black and White cultures definitely have in common is being displaced people who found a place where they could survive, even if struggling — the Cajuns kicked out of Nova Scotia, the Creoles and Black people brought over from Africa and going through the slave trade, many settling in Louisiana after escaping Haiti.
AS: Yes! Survival is something they have in common. Marc always says there’s nothing artsy-fartsy here. It’s either there’s lightning that hits the tree and blows it to smithereens, or wind that blows the houses out of here. And the heat is so unbearable in the summer, you walk around wet and it’s not raining. The mosquitoes, the snakes, the alligators. It’s rough. But that’s what makes the music what it is. All the hard times, the brutality of the elements. And yes, it does draw people together.
FW: Many of them had very hard lives.
AS: Very, very hard lives in poverty. Extreme poverty. And that’s where a lot of the music comes from. All the sorrow and the power comes from the poverty and the wanting and the repression. There’s a lot of longing in that music and a lot of wildness being let out. It’s like, “Let me go out on the weekend and scream.”
And I had all these older Cajuns say, “Look, I play dances because I might make a dollar a week doing that. But you make a dollar a month picking cotton.” It’s not a very hard choice. White, Black, both of them picked cotton.
FW: How well do the early recordings represent the reality of the life and music at the time?
AS: I think that the African-American presence was way under-represented. I heard about four other very important African-American accordion players in our area. It would have been really cool if we had recordings of them, too. Amédé was the one. He was very lovable and charming. And I’m sure because he played with [fiddler] Dennis McGee, a white guy, that worked out for him in the recording studio. But otherwise it was under-represented. And certainly the women artists are under-represented. Not many women played in public. They played in their homes. But there weren’t many recordings of that at all.
The Lomax tapes show some of the things that disappeared, because they went into people’s houses and nursing homes and stuff. So you could get a feel for what was going on, really, on a day to day basis. All the variety. It’s a lot more variety [than the early music recordings show]. All the dance-hall tunes. I’ll thank God for those Library of Congress tapes, because we can hear all the ballads. That’s the stuff I love. So beautiful and interesting. The lyrics, the old songs.
FW: We see some of the musicians building careers, having ambition for success.
AS: I don’t know whether they did, honestly. Some of them did. Surely Harry Choates did. And Jimmy C. Newman. People like that. But most of these people just played. They’d get a little extra cash on the weekends and have a good time.
FW: The chapter about the old dancehalls was fascinating.
AS: Yeah, that was wild. If a woman walked out of the hall without an escort, she could never come back to any dance. She was basically tarred and feathered. “Do not return, you prostitute!” Pretty intense.
FW: For many people, Cajun and Zydeco are thought of first as dance music. But as in folk music from all over, there’s a lot of sorrow and remorse in the the songs. The translations you’ve done shows that so much.
AS: Oh yeah. “You’re a miserable person, you’ve broken my heart and now I’ve got to go back to an empty house,” Or “What have I done? Please forgive me before I die.” That is the theme of almost every Cajun song. I guess that’s why I like the ballads, they talk about these things.
FW: You also have some songs in that are pretty funny too. Like the one Happy Fats did for the “health” tonic, Hadacol.
AS: Isn’t that hilarious? They would go and play and he’d sell this stuff, sing the song on the stage, All it really was, probably, was whiskey and water!
FW: You really get the contrast, from the one that says “bury me in the corner of the yard,” and then the one also by Happy Fats about crepes.
AS: Oh yeah! That’s probably a double entendre on some of those. They’re probably actually obscene songs. We’ll leave that to the imagination. I think people could figure it out.
FW: And just some of these lives you recount. Moise Robin, reading through his story and then there’s that picture of a news clipping.
AS: Did that blow your mind? [My friend] Suzy Thompson was editing it and when she got to that part, she had to call me. She said, “It was the most beautiful touching story of his life. And then that article about him murdering his wife hits you in the face.” It’s like this man who wrote this lovely story murdered his wife. It was so heartbreaking.
FW: And then there’s Harry Choates.
AS: We always sort of parallel Harry Choates and Hank Williams. These slim little geniuses that drank themselves to death or pilled themselves to death, very charismatic and died at 29. Both of them died at 29.
FW: He didn’t even know how to take care of himself.
AS: Right. No mother, no one to show him how to do anything.
FW: What was the most challenging stuff to track down, something you just had to find?
AS: There were so many artists that were so obscure that I had to find these people. That was very, very hard, like great detective work. You find this person who might know that person and that person might know that person. Like for Blind Uncle Gaspard I had to go to six houses to get the information, different people, visit them each for many hours, talk, and then later write letters to get the pictures. And that’s a tiny chapter in the book. And a lot of the early Black culture is very mysterious. And it’s kind of a closed culture. But I had some wonderful interviews with people about all that, just getting people to open up. That was a very challenging part.
FW: Will there be a Vol. III?
AS: I might do Vol. III. My women’s one. It’s going to be from the cradle to the dance hall. I’ve already interviewed everybody. It’s just waiting to be assembled.
FW: Not to put pressure on you, but there’s a great responsibility to the culture when putting together what stand as definitive accounts.
AS: True. I’m not saying this in an egotistical way, but some of the artists in the books were kind of unknown. And because of the books they became very popular. [Pedal steel player] Shirley Bergeron for example. Nobody had ever heard of him outside of Louisiana. But many people from out of state and around the world bought the first book and became interested. “Cool! Let me get his record!” Marc had a big influence on me. He would suggest people, say, “Have you ever heard of Adam Hebert?” And then I would find them. Marc having played in the dance halls and been in this culture at a deep level, he was wonderful in that.
FW: And now your kids and their friends have stepped in as forces in the music and culture with their own ways of both preserving and moving it forward in astonishing ways.
AS: I know! Now it’s “Oh, you’re Sarah and Joel and Wilson and Gabby’s mother?” It’s not, “You’re Ann Savoy.” I’m the mother of all these amazing kids!