Cajun music fans have been treated to a reissue of classic recordings, thanks to Rounder Records’ recent release of Louisiana Cajun + Creole Music: The Newport Field Recordings, 1964-1967.
The recordings, which were taped in the mid-1960s by the late director of the Smithsonian Institution’s folklife programs Ralph Rinzler, feature legendary Cajun artists including the Balfa Brothers, Bois-Sec Ardoin & Canray Fontenot, Austin Pitre, and Adam & Cyprien Landreneau. Both Balfa Brother Dewey Balfa and Ardoin would later be recognized with National Heritage Fellowships awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
“These recordings are among the most important in the history of Cajun and Creole music,” writes Barry Jean Ancelet, a Cajun historian and professor of Francophone Studies and Folklore at the U. of Louisiana at Lafayette, in the liner notes to the CD, which Rounder originally released as two albums in the mid-‘70s. The disc includes 27 tracks and is comprised of recordings Rinzler made between 1964-67 under the auspices of the Newport Folk Foundation–using proceeds from the Newport Folk Festival.
“They really were pioneering recordings in the sense that while there was still a thriving Cajun subculture, the South Louisiana Cajun region was becoming more and more a part of the U.S.—but still had its separate identity,” says Rounder co-founder Bill Nowlin. “People there still felt out of touch and weren’t fully assimilating into the regular culture, but some were also turning their backs on their own culture.”
Cajun music was also being perceived as a “lesser music,” notes Nowlin.
“Ralph helped bring about a resurgence of Cajun pride,” he continues, “and it was so exciting to me to hear the music he recorded. We had just started Rounder in 1970, and here were these great recordings that hadn’t come out before. They were just a few years old–and made a big impact.”
Ancelet goes so far as to credit Rinzler’s work as the foundation for today’s exciting and rich contemporary Cajun music scene. He points out that Rinzler also invited the likes of the Balfa Brothers and the Landreneaux to perform outside Louisiana at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife.
“These performances brought Cajun and Creole music to the attention of the national folk music community,” Ancelet writes. He quotes Dewey Balfa in noting that they inspired the performers to return to Louisiana “to share the echo of the standing ovations they received.”
Rinzler, in his original liner notes, observed that the performances captured in his recordings represented “at least 300 years of tradition.”
“I learned French in school and thought it would be interesting to spend a couple days with Ralph making track selections,” recalls Nowlin, “but there was nothing in French anywhere! Then I realized it was a spoken and not written language, and could see that people were getting away from it and that the culture was really in danger. Who knows what would have happened if Ralph hadn’t made these recordings?”
Nowlin references the greatly expanded liner notes available on the CD and online.
“Looking back 45 years after Ralph made the recordings, the Balfas became the best known worldwide,” he says. “I wish we could hear more from Adam and Cyprien Landreneau because they had a real deep country background and incredibly soulful music that comes from a whole different world—but one of them had already died by the time I got there.”
Cajun artist/historian Ann Savoy, who produced the Edius Naquin compilation Ballad Master and is thanked in the new notes to Louisiana Cajun + Creole Music, also vouches for the significance of the Rounder reissue.
“Those recordings were of such excellent quality and caught the artists in their prime,” she says. “Oddly enough, they were some of the best recordings they ever made because they chose interesting songs and seemed so relaxed and strong. I’ve worn out my [vinyl] albums, and the cardboard is all falling apart on the sleeves—so I’m glad to have something that hasn’t crumbled!”
Savoy adds that the Rinzler recordings “epitomize Cajun home music and early ‘60s dance hall music–unslick but excellent.”
Of the approximately 3,000 albums released by Rounder since its launch, Louisiana Cajun + Creole Music contains “some of the most important work we ever did,” concludes Nowlin.
“We played a small part in making a subculture of people proud instead of ashamed of its old culture,” he says, likening it to people from Appalachia who were embarrassed by their indigenous “hillbilly music” until people outside the region discovered and embraced bluegrass.
“Now they don’t look at you like it’s some weird, out-of-touch music—and that’s pretty neat.”
[The Examiner has written liner notes for numerous Rounder and Cajun music albums.]
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