By Ruth Laney
In 1977, when Barry Ancelet was a few months shy of getting his master’s degree in folklore, he drove to Washington, D.C., in his 1963 Chevrolet pickup. The Cajun band Beausoleil, led by fiddler Michael Doucet, had been invited to play at President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural gala. Ancelet went along to introduce the group—and to play triangle.
To save money, Ancelet and the others stayed with a friend, Frank Proschan, who worked at the Smithsonian. Before leaving home, Ancelet had contacted folklorist Ralph Rinzler and gotten permission to make copies of all of Rinzler’s Louisiana fieldwork.
Between 1964 and 1967, Rinzler had recorded the work of such Cajun musicians as Dewey Balfa, who in 1964 was invited to play at the Newport Folk Festival with Gladius Thibodeaux and Vinus LeJeune—the first Cajun musicians ever accorded that honor.
Rinzler also recorded Creole musicians such as Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin and Clement “King Ned” Norman. He interviewed some of the musicians and recorded Revon Reed’s radio program, which broadcast live from Fred’s Lounge in Mamou beginning in 1962.
Rinzler (1934–94) was an important twentieth-century folklorist who co-founded the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He allowed Ancelet to take sixty half-hour tapes back to the house where he was staying in Washington and copy them on two Nagra reel-to-reel recorders lent by Rinzler.
“How was I going to pull it off?” said Ancelet, sitting in his office at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL), where he teaches French, Francophone studies, and folklore and chairs the Modern Language department. “Frank and I stayed up all night for two nights in a row recording sixty tapes. They were half an hour each, so it took us thirty hours.”
Those tapes, now digitized, are an important part of the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore at the Dupré Library at ULL. Much of the material was recorded or acquired by Ancelet, who has worked tirelessly to preserve the Cajun culture—writing books and articles, emceeing the weekly Rendez-vous des Cajuns at the Liberty Theater in Eunice for twenty-four years, and in 1974 helping to stage the first Tribute to Cajun Music, which morphed into the annual Festivals Acadiens et Creoles.
Around 1980, Ancelet arranged with Alan Lomax to have copies of Lomax’s 1934 Louisiana fieldwork sent to the university.
Lomax (1915–2002), one of the great American field collectors of folk music, worked with his father John A. Lomax—and later alone and with others—to record thousands of songs and interviews on aluminum and acetate discs for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress (LOC).
“I had met Lomax at several events over the years,” said Ancelet. “I contacted him, and he said he’d be very happy to have his work here; he had always intended to make it available to Louisiana. I ordered reel-to-reel copies from the LOC.
“Michael Doucet and I sat in the archives and listened to eleven reels of tape. I turned to him at the end of a wonderful song and said, ‘Oh, my God, we’re gonna have to rethink everything we thought we knew.’
“What we thought we knew was [the music from] Chris Strachwitz’s Louisiana Cajun Music, a history of popular Cajun music.” (Released by Arhoolie subsidiary Old Timey from 1970 to 1973, the album was a set of five LPs recorded from 1928 to 1938.)
“Even though the Lomax recordings started six years later [in 1934], he was looking for older music that had not been recorded commercially,” said Ancelet. “Songs that had never been recorded, sung by people who were old in 1934—and young people, too. He kept logs of the people and where they were from.
“Lomax used a 350-pound disk engraver that recorded on aluminum disks. It wasn’t great fidelity, but the disks didn’t tarnish, so they sound exactly like the day they were recorded.
“One of the first disks Lomax made was of the Hoffpauir family from New Iberia: Julien and his three daughters, Ella, Mary, and Elita. Lomax was only about seventeen then, and he was smitten with Elita [pronounced Ay-lee-TAH], who was fifteen—a great singer and a beautiful girl. He recorded about a dozen songs from them. We were struck by the power of their repertoire.”
Reaching for the Mac laptop on his desk, Ancelet pressed a button and a voice filled his office. “This is Julien Hoffpauir,” he said. “This is a great ballad, a story song full of text. He had just a huge voice and a huge repertoire. He probably knew fifty songs that reconnected Cajun Louisiana with France. They have amazing gravitas.
“I thought we ought to take these recordings back to the families, so I started trying to track down these people. I found Tim Hoffpauir, an eye doctor in New Iberia, and he said, ‘That’s my great uncle and my aunts.’ Ella was the only sister still alive. Tim gathered the family together, and I took a cassette copy over there and we listened to it. It was the first time the family had heard those voices in decades. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room, including mine.”
In the early 1980s, Ancelet tracked down Lanese Vincent and Sidney Richard near Kaplan. “Lomax had met them in a bar on a Sunday morning in 1934,” said Ancelet. “They were supposed to be in church. He took them to a loading chute in a rice mill and recorded them singing some amazing songs. I enlisted people to find them, and [fiddle-maker] Lionel Leleux tracked them down. He was a musician and a barber, so I figured he knew a lot of people.
“They were still alive,” said Ancelet. “We visited Vincent first and then his cousin Sidney Richard. Vincent told me ‘We were seventeen or eighteen years old, recorded those songs, and then never heard another word about it.’ I played the cassettes for them and gave them copies to keep.
“The Lomax collection exposed a lot of things we wouldn’t have known about,” said Ancelet. “He captured the tradition right at the moment before people had been infected by imported music on the radio and records. Before then, music was handed down by people you knew.”
Another discovery by Lomax was juré music, the predecessor to zydeco. “They did group singing when instruments were not available or not appropriate,” said Ancelet. “They improvised songs based on existing French songs. Lomax recorded very few of those. They are the only indication we have of juré singing. Once we found out about it, we started poking around and found people who remembered juré and could sing it.”
Ancelet worked with Swallow Records in Ville Platte to put together an album of two LPs, Louisiana Cajun and Creole Music, including a twenty-five-page booklet, illustrated with photos, with an introduction by Lomax. “We included my transcriptions and translations of the songs,” said Ancelet. “I was never so happy to be a folklorist in my life.” (Originally released in 1987, the album is now available on CD.)
“A lot of musicians have started coming in and turning old things into new things,” said Ancelet, who calls it “recycling.”
Michael Doucet and Beausoleil took Vincent and Richard’s song “Madame Gallien” and recorded it as “Pierrot Grouillet et Mademoiselle Josette.” Robert Jardell did a revival of Edius Naquin’s “Ou t’était mercredi passé?” (“Where Were You Last Wednesday?”)
“It’s a really interesting phenomenon, making the old songs brand new again,” said Ancelet.
Some of the old songs have been recorded by Feufollet, whose fiddler Chris Segura works as the archivist for the Cajun and Creole collection. Crammed into a room roughly ten by twenty feet, the collection comprises music and oral histories on cassette tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, DAT tapes, and digital recordings. It also houses photographs, slides, posters, 8mm and 16mm film, and several varieties of videotape.
“Everything is being digitized and catalogued right now,” said Segura, who is twenty-nine. “This is a real exciting job for me, getting to work with all this old music.” Feufollet recorded a version of the Hoffpauirs’ song, “Les clefs de la prison” (“The Keys to the Prison”).
It’s equally exciting for Ancelet, an interesting mix of scholar and regular guy. He has a bachelor’s degree in French from USL (now ULL), a master’s in folklore from Indiana University, and a doctorate in anthropology and linguistics from the Université de Provence in Aix. In 2006, the French government awarded him the title of Chevalier, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an honor reserved for those whose scholarly pursuits contribute significantly to French culture. The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities named him Humanist of the Year in 2009.
But Carnival season finds him in a small southwest Louisiana town, where he participates in the traditional “country” courir de Mardi Gras. He grew up speaking French learned from his grandparents, who spoke no English. He and his wife Caroline raised their five children with French as a first language.
On receiving the Chevalier award, Ancelet noted,
“I was . . . intrigued by the irony of being knighted apparently for spending my whole career trying to honor the culture of ordinary folks. . . . I feel it’s an honor not only for myself, but the entire Cajun and Creole society.”
Ruth Laney can be reached at email@example.com.
Ruth Laney has been writing the Antiquarians column for Country Roads magazine since 2006, when her first subject was James Wilson, now Associate Director of UL Press and one of the preeminent collectors of Louisiana books and ephemera.
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