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Overview of Common Cajun Instruments - Part I -- The Cajun Accordion
The Loudmouth of Cajun Music
In the beginning, Cajun music originated in the late 1800s, in South Louisiana. I'm not going to rehash the whole story of how our Acadian ancestors came to Louisiana, here in this hub.
Let's just say our ancestors transported many pleasing ballads of old Acadian stories. Some of those songs came from Old World France. They are the foundation of Cajun music.
Our neighbors, other settlers to Louisiana, were primarily German settlers. They were the ones that gave us the Cajun accordion. It wasn't always a part of our music, just a delightful addition to it. In the days before amplifiers, no doubt it's popular addition to Cajun bands had a lot to do with it's ability to be played loud over the noise of a typical dance hall.
Another History Mystery
It's an unsolved historical mystery as to when, where, and who played the first Cajun accordion. There is a lot of controversy as to who introduced the Cajun accordion.
A lot of evidence suggests the Cajun community became aware of the instrument's use to their style of music via the German settlers among them. Others will say the accordion came from Texas, and still others will point to the fact that the accordion was popular among black Creoles.
The Diatonic Accordion
Most people are more familiar with the piano style accordion, but the Cajun preference is a diatonic accordion. Grandpere Emile called mine, the "squeeze box."
However, it's also known as a diatonic accordion; German style accordion; button accordion; or a Cajun accordion. It wasn't always a part of traditional Cajun music, it only emerged around 1925, when the German manufacturers started making them in keys of C and D.
The difference between it and a common piano style accordion, is that on the diatonic accordion:
- The melody side of the keyboard is restricted to the notes of diatonic scales, with a lesser number of keys (some diatonic accordions only have one).
- The base side of the diatonic accordion has the accordion's main chords.
- Structurally it's small in size.
- Usually, it's a C accordion, although sometimes you find it in D and A keys.
- Cajun accordions are a specialized single row diatonic accordion.
- They only use intonation in musical tuning.
No discussion of the Cajun accordion would be complete without at least a beginning introduction to the Cajun accordion players who made the instrument an important part of traditional Cajun music.
Famous Cajun Accordion Players
There are nine key famous Cajun accordion players, that every fan of Cajun music should know about. They are:
- Amedee Ardoin
- Nathan Abshire
- Alphonese "Bois Sec" Adron
- Gerard Dole
- Joe Falcon
- Cyprien Landreneau
- Iry LeJeune
- Aldus Roger
- Marc Savoy
- Wayne Toups
- Lawrence Walker
Listed below are brief biographies of each accordion player, and links and videos to allow you to get a feel for each of their unique sounds.
Here Are Some Of My Favorite Cajun Accordionists!
Amedee Ardoin - The Father of the Cajun Accordion Player Songwriters
B: 3/11/1898 D: 11/4/1941 Sixty-seven years after his death, Amedee Ardoin's songs and words are still being played whenever and wherever you hear Cajun music. He was a black Louisiana Creole, blessed with a high singing voice and a master of the Cajun accordion. He was one of the earliest Cajun accordionists to be recorded. There are thirty-four known recordings of his work.
This small Cadien French speaking accordion player had a completely different syncopated style of playing that transcended the racial prejudices of his time. It was very unusual for a black Creole to be invited to perform at white dances. He recorded extensively with Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee in the 1930s. He died at the age of 43 under tragic circumstances after being beaten up in a racial incident.
The Death of Amedee Ardoin
Amedee Ardoin "I'm Never Coming Back"
Nathan Abshire - Champion of Reviving Cajun Music
B: 6/23/1913 D: 5/13/1981 -- He was contemporary of Iry LeJeune and helped bring back Cajun music in the 1940s. He was a student of Amedee Ardoin. He is credited with bringing both the blues and honky-tonk to Cajun music. This important Cajun accordionist never really made a decent living as a musician and for most of his working life, he was employed at a sanitation dump.
Additionally, he is recognized as an asset in supporting bringing back Cajun music from near obsolescence. His most popular recording was, "Pine Grove Blues" which was recorded after World War II. In his declining years he battled alcoholism which in the end claimed his life.
Nathan Abshire "Jolie Blond"
Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin - One of the Most Influential Cajun Accordionists
B: 11/16/1915 D: 5/16/2007 - Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin was a hugely popular accordionist. He didn't just play Cajun accordion, he was also influential in Zydeco and Creole music. His childhood nickname "Bois Sec" translated to "dry wood" because he was always the first to run in from working in the fields during a rainstorm.
He was a cousin of Amedee Ardoin. He originally started out playing the triangle or ti-feras it is called in Cadien. He was self taught for the most part, as his mother was very much opposed to his musical career.
Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin
Joe Falcon - First Cajun Accordionist to Make a Commercial Record
B: 9/28/1900 D: 11/19/1965 - Joseph Falcon was the first Cajun accordionist to record a Cajun song, called "Allons à Lafayette" in 1928. This song was so well-liked, thousands of copies were sold, making Joe Falcon the first Cajun-recording star.
Despite his early triumph, he declined to make any more recordings after 1937, believing he had been cheated financially by the record companies. His early recordings made with his first wife, Cleoma, are still sought after by collectors of Cajun accordion music.
Iry LeJeune - Legend of His Time
B: 10/28/1928 D: 10/8/1955 - Iry LeJeune left a legacy of being one of the unsurpassed and most adored Cajun accordionists and vocalists of all time. In his brief career, he assisted in returning the accordion to importance in the recording industry and in performances. There are only less than thirty songs left of his work.
Iry LeJeunne's songs were filled with words that eluded to deceptions or trouble in personal relationships. He particularly was known for songs that told of a lover's broken promises, bad advice, and hurtful words that can't be taken back. It was a great loss to not have more of his songs recorded than the few that still exist today.
Aldus Roger - Brought Cajun Music to Television
B: 2/10/1915 D: 4/4/1999 --Aldus Roger was best known for his television music program during the late 1950s and 1960s.
He also recorded a Cajun French version of Hank Williams' hit "Jambalaya" (originally this was a Cajun song titled "Grand Texas").
You can find several albums that he recorded later in life. He started out playing the accordion at the age of ten. By the 1940s he had formed a popular band, The Lafayette Playboys, which was still popular as late as the 1970s.
Marc Savoy - Modern Day Cajun Accordionist Extraordinaire
B: 10/1/1940 -- Marc Savoy is not only a famous Cajun accordionist and vocalist, but also a respected Cajun instrument builder and manufacturer. A very talented musician, he also holds a degree in chemical engineering. He is the patriarch leader of the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band.
Additionally, he is an outspoken cultural preservationist, who fights to keep Cajun music pure and unadulterated -- a true American hero. Fascinated by Cajun music and musical instruments at a young age, he repaired an old accordion in order to have one to use.
Later, impressed by his son's efforts his father ordered him a new Horner accordion from the Sears catalog. Aside from becoming a well-known Cajun accordionist, he also became a well-known accordion repairman, then accordion builder, then accordion manufacturer of nothing but the best Cajun accordions, using the finest quality of materials. His contribution to the Cajun accordion is tremendous, as is his contributions for the preservation of Cajun music and the Cajun accordion.
If You'd Like to Know More!
- Marc Savoy's Hints for Learning to Play the Cajun Accordion
An excellent reference point for those who want to learn to play the Cajun accordion.
Two Other Cajun Accordionists You Should Be Familiar With
Wayne Toups - Living Cajun Legend
B: 10/2/1958 -- Wayne Toups is one of the most successful Cajun vocalists, songwriters, and accordionists recorded. He has also performs on a regular basis with many of today's country music stars, such as: Mark Chesnutt, Alan Jackson, Sammy Kershaw, George Jones, Mark Wills, Garth Brooks and Ty England. He was the first Cajun accordionist and singer to be in the Top Pop Albums in 1989.
Known for his Hawaiian shirt, headband, and ponytail persona, Wayne Toups performs a style of Cajun music that he calls "Zydecajun." It's a combination of traditional Cajun accordion music and more of a blues type Zydeco, infused with rock and roll. With Wayne, you'll hear English lyrics in almost a party style, along with French and traditional tunes.
Lawrence Walker - 1950s King of Accordion Players
B: 9/1/1907 D: 1968 -- Lawrence Walker is known as the King of Cajun accordion players during the 1950s. He was also a rice farmer until after World War II. He started out performing with his brother Elton Walker (a Cajun fiddler) playing a combination of Cajun and hillbilly music.
His most famous recordings were the Reno Waltz and Evangeline Waltz. He was very much a perfectionist, and was the owner of the Wandering Aces band. He wrote and preformed only original songs After he died an album was made of his many recordings.
Other Important Cajun Accordionists
There are many other important Cajun accordionists, some of them are:
- Boozoo Chavis-- Wilson "Boozoo" Chavis was not only a Creole French speaking accordionist and vocalist who wrote many Zydeco tunes, he was one of the many artists whose Zydeco accordion music was just as acceptable played Cajun style.
- Geno Delafose-- With a famous accordionist for a father (John Delafose), it's no surprise Geno Delafose is an important accordionist today. He started out in his father's band, the Eunice Playboys, and quickly master several of the percussion instruments, before moving onto the accordion. He plays both the Zydeco piano accordion, and the Cajun diatonic accordion and as a vocalist sings both in French and English. His own band, the French Rockin Boogie features both Zydeco and Cajun tune.
- Preston Frank - A Cajun accordionist with a distinguishing Creole technique who plays traditional music and his own imaginative compositions.
- Jesse Legé - Both Cajun accordionist and singer, this bandleader of the Lake Charles Ramblers is hugely popular both in Louisiana and Texas. His is both a distinctive voice that transcends the microphone and accordion melodies extraordinaire.
- Belton Richard - He is a noted Cajun accordionist, song writer, and singer. He established the Cajun band, the Musical Aces and is recognized as one of the first, if not the first to incorporated the early use of the electric bass.
- Zachary Richard - No mention of Cajun accordion music can be made without Zachary Richard, since he is a Cajun social activist. He writes lyrics that promote Cajun pride and sometimes net him criticism from those more conservative traditionalists, as his style is more Cajun rock.
- Steve Riley - Cousin of accordion builder and artist Marc Savoy, he is an accomplished singer, accordionist, and fiddler.
- Goldman Thibodeau-- While Goldman Thibodeau had formerly been a gifted vocalist, he later became an equally talented accordionist with an idiosyncratic traditional Creole style of playing. He was a member of the Lawtell Playboys band.
- Harry "Ruebin" Trahan -- A Cajun accordionist who since his early teens spent his early musical career in the Texan nightclubs. He was a self taught student of other early accordionists such as Lawrence Walker and Aldus Roger, who greatly influenced his playing style.