More than five years ago, Ann Savoy began work on a book that would collect folk songs of the Cajun people of south Louisiana. As she went about her work, talking with Cajun and Creole musicians, she found that the songs and music could not be neatly pried from the lives of the people who create them, hand them down generation to generation and bring them to life with fiddles and accordions. So rather than a mere folio of songs, Savoy's book wonderfully expanded into "Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People," perhaps the most comprehensive and stunning portrait of this music ever written.
Savoy's achievement partly reflects her unique status as both insider and outsider to Cajun culture. She is a skilled guitarist, as well as a French scholar and musicologist. She is also the wife of Mark Savoy, a renowned Cajun accordionist and accordion builder. Savoy's book is not only intended to bring Cajun music to the outside world, it is very much a gift to her adopted culture. "Cajun Music" is at once a historic resource for the Cajun people, an affirmation of their unique traditions and a caution that their heritage should not be taken for granted.
The songs, 108 of them, are a significant part of the book. However, they are now tied to the lives of 22 of the most important Cajun and Creole musicians of the 20th century. Their biographies are transmitted through a wealth of historic photographs and newspaper clippings. Each of these oral biographies also includes a discography and a set of songs, each song musically transcribed with French lyrics, a phonetic guide, an English translation and guitar chords.
Savoy's highly empathetic approach avoids the folklorist's stumbling block; that is, the tendency of scholarly outsiders to embalm folk cultures in intellectual and romantic vapors. Besides, her artists won't sit still for that kind of treatment. Every time Savoy asks a musical question, their down-to-earth replies inevitably render the music as just another everyday fact of Cajun life. These musicians are cowboys, chair makers, carpenters, farmers, even sellers of insurance, and they mostly play so their friends and neighbors can dance.
When Savoy talks with Cajun fiddler Wade Fruge', his account of why he quit playing for a while during his youth is characteristic in its disarming honesty and good humor: "We'd be playing, sometimes I'd have my eye on a girlfriend and the other boys were squeezing my girlfriend . . . I was all hot and wet with playing, so I said, 'Hell, that's a lot of baloney. Any squeezing to do, I'm gonna do it myself.' So I quit." Fruge' then matter-of-factly reports that when he put his 267-year-old fiddle away, a mouse ate a hole in it and raised a family inside.
Savoy's book also refuses to impart the folklorist's favorite vision, that of an insular folk culture impervious to outside influence and progress. Since the Acadian people came to south Louisiana (after being driven from Nova Scotia in the late 18th century), they have interacted with Afro-American, Caribbean, Anglo, German, Celtic and Latin cultures -- and their music reflects it. As Savoy's biographies move from pioneers like Dennis McGee and Joe Falcon to contemporaries like the Balfa Family and Clifton Chenier, the portrait of Cajun culture and music is dynamic.
The musicians' stories move from the era of horses and buggies to Chevies and Cadillacs, from house parties and picnics to dance halls and festival stages, from fiddles and accordions to electric guitars and drums. Along the way, Cajun music absorbs the impact of country, rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues, and it now enjoys greater international popularity than ever. More than anything, Cajun music is part of the tremendous sense of living tradition and integrity that keeps the music unique and, in Savoy's own words, "a reflection of a people."
What attracts the rest of us to Cajun music is the incredibly direct emotional quality of their songs and musical play. Savoy's book carries that quality too, but it is one of her subjects, fiddler Lee Miller, who expresses it best: "I'll tell you, though, when the real singing was. After the dance when you would leave with the little girl you loved, riding home on horseback through the woods and looking up at the starry sky, that's when you would sing your heart out."