Sur un Air de Violon: Francophone Musicians in Louisiana

Fifty years ago, the far-flung countryside of southwest Louisiana was filled with Cajun French and Creole songs. From open-air dances to family homes, these country, blues, and rhythm-and-blues melodies were the soundtrack to several generations. This musical culture has been showcased in a black-and-white album by photographer Ron Stanford, who lived with these Francophone musicians from 1972 through 1974.
Young Shelton Broussard, photographed with Dewey Balfa (left) and Eraste Carrière (center), went on to form his own band, Zydeco Force. © All photos by Ron Stanford. All rights reserved.

In Lake Arthur, a small town west of Lafayette, the ‘Tit George’s club wasn’t much to look at. Cables hung along the clapboard walls and floral-print curtains covered the windows. But no one really came for the decoration. On Sunday afternoons, patrons would dance the waltz and the two-step to the sounds of the Hicks Wagon Wheel Ramblers, with Blackie Frugé on the violin and his sister Eula Mae on the steel guitar. “They played the early shift from 2 pm to 6:30 pm for a packed house of adolescents, pensioners, drunks, and fist fighters,” remembers Ron Stanford.

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A few dance steps or the beginning of a bar fight? At ‘Tit George’s, a Lake Arthur dance hall. © Ron Stanford. All rights reserved.

The photographer moved to Basile in the heart of French-speaking Louisiana in 1972. He was just 23 years old. A few years earlier during his studies in Iowa, he had met violinist Dewey Balfa. This icon of the Cajun renaissance and a guest at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival along with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez suggested he document his region’s musical culture. With that, Stanford and his wife, Fay, moved into a house for 25 dollars a month, and turned the old smokehouse into a darkroom.

Their objective was to photograph, interview, and record the Francophone musicians of Louisiana. “Dewey Balfa and his family introduced us to the community,” says Stanford. “They took us to their family reunion near Lake Charles and recommended we visit the Kenwood Club in Port Barré. They also introduced us to Madame Agnès Bourque, who didn’t speak a word of English, but gave us a rendition of an old French ballad, ‘La Veuve de septs ans.’”

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Dewey Balfa (center) at his family reunion near Lake Charles. The fiddler on the right is Wilson Granger, but the guitarist remains unidentified. © Ron Stanford. All rights reserved.

With a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a 5,513-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the couple toured the bars, wedding parties, and local events such as the Mamou Cajun Music Festival, the Basile Swine Festival, and the volunteer firefighters’ barbecue in Maurice. “Music was everywhere,” says Stanford. The fais-do-do parties, where mothers would put their children to sleep in a separate room before going dancing, were also unmissable get-togethers. “J’ai été-z-au bal hier au soir,” sang Dewey Balfa in Cajun French. “Je va’s retourner encore à soir, Si l’occasion se présente, Je va’s retourner demain au soir.

At these dances, Stanford and his wife were often the only “foreigners” – the only ones who didn’t speak French at home. During the 1970s, Cajun and Creole music reached a larger audience. The Tribute to Cajun Music Festival organized in 1974 grew to become the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, which now draws more than 150,000 fans to Lafayette every year. Last October on the Mon Héritage stage, the crowds cheered on Cajun rock stars the Lost Bayou Ramblers, winners of the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Regional Roots Music Album. The young Louisianians have made their grandparents’ music cool again!

Big French Dance: Cajun & Zydeco Music 1972-1974 by Ron and Fay Stanford, 2019. 96 pages, 45 dollars.

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A Basile dance hall where Nathan Abshire, “the pope of Cajun accordion,” was a regular. © Ron Stanford. All rights reserved.
Fiddler Aubrey Deville. © Ron Stanford. All rights reserved.
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Les ‘Tits Bougs (The Little Guys) at the volunteer firefighters’ barbecue in Maurice. © Ron Stanford. All rights reserved.
Another high point of Cajun life: Mardi Gras. People traditionally ride their horse from farm to farm, but a beat-up truck is also fine. © Ron Stanford. All rights reserved.
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Two-step at Rex Champagne’s Store. © Ron Stanford. All rights reserved.
Accordionist Pat Savant and his group, the Sundown Playboys, became overnight celebrities when Apple Records – the Beatles’ own label! – released their album Saturday Night Special in 1972. © Ron Stanford. All rights reserved.
Article published in the March 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.