Today, December 9th, marks the 90th anniversary of Amédé Ardoin’s very first Cajun recording session. The obscure accordionist, whose life and death has been shrouded in mystery, made the fateful decision to travel to New Orleans in the winter of 1929 to record six sides for Columbia records. It would kick-start his entire career, one that spanned almost five years, and it all started with an accordion contest.
By mid-1928, Cajun musicians Joe Falcon and Cleoma Breaux broke new ground by introducing big recording companies to the regional music around southwest Louisiana. By late 1929, many recording companies heeded the call for more “roots music” in the South and Cajun music was in full force. Record scouts traveled into the countryside looking for new Cajun talent. Taking notice of their arrival, several cities were determined to use the music industry to market their locales and bring national attention to their budding economies.
One of the more common methods was for small towns and large municipalities to host music contests for the public. Sometimes these contests were sponsored by the recording companies themselves, but often times, they were sponsored by city leaders, socialites in the community or recording store owners in charge of finding new Cajun music talent. The town of Eunice was especially interested in these contests, featuring them at their annual Tri-Parish festival. Opelousas followed suit by hosting their own contest in September that year.
When Church Point native Angelas Lejeune, backed by fiddlers Dennis McGee and Sady Courville, won the Opelousas contest, recording scouts from Okeh, Columbia, Brunswick and Vocalion were all on hand to witness the crowds excited reaction to these popular players. Allegedly, fifteen winners were chosen in all. According to Dennis McGee, Ardoin was believed to have been one of the winners. The record scouts quickly chose several contest participants to pack their instruments and board a train to New Orleans. One of those young players was Evangeline Parish native and Ardoin’s black Creole fiddling partner, Douglas Bellard. Bellard traveled with black accordion player Kirby Riley and together, they became the very first black Creole musicians to commercially record French Creole music. They arrived in New Orleans in October of 1929 and their tunes would later become Cajun standards for decades to come.
By December, Columbia records already had a fine lineup of Cajun musicians in their catalog including Joe Falcon, Cleoma Breaux and her brothers Amédé and Ophé, Adam Trahan, Dewey and Eddie Segura, and the Fawvor Brothers. As the financial crisis of the Great Depression was taking hold, Columbia’s executive Frank Buckley Walker and Dan Hornsby attempted to capitalize on the popular Cajun market one more time. They sent an inquiry to Eunice record store owner A.J. Wilfert, who chose to sponsor both Dennis McGee and Amédé Ardoin for the session. All three gentlemen boarded a train headed to a make-shift recording studio in downtown New Orleans to meet recording producer Polk C. Brockman.
While there is no documentation describing details about which songs Ardoin sang in order, Columbia’s matrix listing gives us a clue. The first listing is a tune entitled “Taunt Aline”, most likely an ode to his aunt Oline Ardoin Poullard. It was followed by a song called “Two Step de Mama”, also likely an ode to his mother Aurelia Ardoin. Both songs would later be covered in the 1950s by Iry Lejeune. “Taunt Aline” became more well known as “Come And Get Me” and “Mama” inspired Lejeune’s “Lacassine Special”.
“Madam Atchen” ( possibly a misspelling of the family surname “Achten” ) was written about a local housekeeper. According to the Savoy family, “She would wear a striped dress and was very tall, so at the dance a song was written about her, Grande Barree (Tall Woman in Stripes).” The song would later become "Ta Robe Barre" by Bois Sec Ardoin and the Carriere Brothers.
His next song, “Two Step De La Prarie Soileau”, was titled to reflect the area of Evangeline country that was so dear to him. Ardoin performed many of his songs in rural venues among the many prairies in the state. The title “La Valse Ah Abe” echoed a similar theme, highlighting one of the most popular places Ardoin liked to play—Abe’s Place in Eunice. Owned and operated by Abe Boudreau, it was the first Cajun dance hall in town. It had a store on the first floor and a dance floor upstairs where Ardoin and Sady Courville would play every Saturday night during the 1930s.
Lastly, he finished the session with his most popular recording to date—“Two Step de Eunice”. It has become a staple of Cajun music and represents the locale that this vagabond Cajun musician truly called home. Each song that day was recorded at least twice for record engineers, allowing them to evaluate the best take. The two-inch wax discs were shipped up to Columbia’s headquarters and copies were made, each pressed with the words “Arcadian-French” on each side. As attested to many Columbia artists, he would have received $25 per song. Coming back with $150 would have been an enormous sum for a rural farmer’s son.
Shortly after the group arrived back home, Wilfert had placed a small announcement of their exploits in the Eunice newspaper. However, the Great Depression dashed any hopes of Columbia ever returning to record Cajun music again. Major labels abandoned most rural southern recording operations and Cajun music was no exception. Yet, these six songs became the essence of what Ardoin achieved throughout his life. He would go on to record three more times with Brunswick, RCA, and Decca before his style became too old-fashioned. Today, we’re grateful for Ardoin’s opportunity, his talent, the chance that Brockman and Wilfert took in order to capture some of the earliest Cajun music from one of the most talented Cajun accordion players ever.
Even though I have been to cajun country many times and have read somethings about Cajun music, I'm not acquainted with the history you describe here. Thank you so much for posting this!
What's funny is, being from Cajun country, and having heard this story many times, it never gets old. Indeed, thanks for posting!
That's a great history Wade and thank you so much for posting this :blush:
Wade once again thank you for sharing your knowledge. You are a local treasure.