Review: 'Mama, I'll Be Long Gone' finally delivers a Cajun innovator his honor

By Bill Friskics-Warren
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Plenty of myth-enshrouded Mississippi bluesmen who recorded during the Great Depression were eventually recognized as pioneers of the genre. Some, such as Charley Patton, Skip James and Robert Johnson, ultimately, if to varying degrees, found an enduring place in the popular consciousness. Not so with their Louisiana counterpart Amede Ardoin, the black Creole singer and accordionist whose astonishing recordings were as crucial to the evolution of Cajun and zydeco music as those of Patton and Johnson were to the development of Delta and Chicago blues.

"Mama, I'll Be Long Gone," Tompkins Square's new collection of the complete recordings that Ardoin was known to have made in his brief lifetime, could go a long way toward rectifying this oversight. Nearly two-thirds of the double-CD set's 34 tracks were made with Dennis McGee, the white Cajun fiddle player with whom Ardoin traveled throughout Louisiana and East Texas, playing to black, white and - in certain rural enclaves - racially integrated audiences at house parties and dances.

As evidenced by the blues, waltzes and one- and two-steps that form this set, the two men made music that was as lyrical as it was intense. At its core was a powerful mix of melancholy and jubilation, emotions born of the resiliency and persecution experienced both by the Acadian people who migrated from Canada to Louisiana and by the mixed-race descendants of the original Spanish and French settlers along the Gulf Coast.

Ardoin and McGee played with singular intimacy, the white man's fierce bow strokes and keening melody lines meshing instinctively with his Creole counterpart's hot, percussive chording. But maybe even more remarkable than this instrumental interplay were the high, ravaged vocals of Ardoin, his coarse, dirty timbres possessed of an otherworldly quality akin to leather-throated bluesmen such as Patton and Blind Willie Johnson. On the more up-tempo numbers here, his ardent bawling qualifies as a harbinger of the unhinged but melodic shouting of Little Richard and other early rock-and-rollers who recorded in New Orleans during the 1950s and '60s.

On the mostly medium-paced solo recordings here, Ardoin's small diatonic accordion carries the rhythms and the melodies, his vocals on the lilting "Aimez Moi Ce Soir" and the heart-rending "Les Blues de la Prison," for example, evincing great subtlety and range. Even on first listen, his influence on such Cajun and zydeco inheritors as Nathan Abshire and Clifton Chenier, as well as on the accordion-rich music of rock-era acts such as the Band, is undeniable.

It would have been fascinating to have heard how Ardoin's music might have evolved with the advent of the jump blues and rock-and-roll eras had he lived to see them. His death, under mysterious, violent and almost certainly racially motivated circumstances, however, deprived the world of this opportunity. The event was doubly cruel given Ardoin's inspired collaborations with McGee, a partnership that testified not only to a musical harmony but to a deeper racial accord that transcended the shame of segregation.

Friskics-Warren is a freelance writer.

Recommended tracks: "One Step Des Chameaux," "Two Step D'Elton," "Aimez Moi Ce Soir"

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