Long-Lost Love Songs From A Cajun Music Pioneer New Orleans singer and accordionist Amede Ardoin made some of the earliest zydeco recordings. Those rare 78 RPM discs have been collected and remastered on a new compilation.

Long-Lost Love Songs From A Cajun Music Pioneer

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/135638265/135687255" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(Soundbite of music)


The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival begins this week. Thousands of people will gather for this annual celebration of music and culture, among them fans of Cajun and Zydeco music, which is unique to the region and handed down from generation to generation.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AMEDE ARDOIN (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: As you can hear, that sound is still familiar to us, and this is a 1929 recording by singer and accordionist Amede Ardoin. He's believed to be one of the first people ever to record Cajun music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARDOIN (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Archivist Christopher King spent the last three years combing through flea markets and estate sales for those surviving 78 RPM recordings. He's just mastered them to CD. It's a compilation called "Mama, I'll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER KING (Editor, "Mama, I'll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin 1929-1934"): Whenever I hear Amede Ardoin, there's this sort of startling immediacy, this profound pathos to his singing because in every instance that I have heard, he's singing directly to someone.

He's not singing to the group. He's singing to, essentially, this lost love that he had, this sense of no hope for redemption, and yet it's all bounded together with this joyous singing that he has.

WERTHEIMER: You have a translation from the words of one of the tracks, how do I say this: "Valse Des Opelousas."

Mr. KING: "Valse Des Opelousas."

WERTHEIMER: And the translation, he's saying: Oh, Joline, what will I do? You're leaving me. Oh, little one. What could I do, little girl? And here we just can hear a little bit.

(Soundbite of song, "Valse Des Opelousas")

Mr. ARDOIN: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: So that's danceable heartbreak, I guess.

Mr. KING: Yes, very much so.

WERTHEIMER: Christopher King, was there actually a person named Joline that he's singing to?

Mr. KING: Well, I theorize, as well as a couple others, that Joline is sort of a pet name for the only love of his life who was Maise Broussard.

WERTHEIMER: And why would he call her Joline? Do you know?

Mr. KING: Because Joline is very similar in pronunciation to jolie, which is pretty, young thing in 1920s Cajun territory. When you were betrothed to someone, that was basically forever, unless the person died. And so to fall in love and to have that love dejected was essentially sort of a curse upon you. And so I think...

WERTHEIMER: You mean, you - the concept of moving on, not there?

Mr. KING: Yeah. Right. It did not seem to exist. I like to think of it as she having married this person and left Ardoin, and then Ardoin would go out and perform these songs and rather than confront her directly, this music would reach her indirectly through her ear.

You know, perhaps her husband would buy the discs and play them for her one night, and she would sit, bolt upright, realizing that Ardoin was singing directly to her.

(Soundbite of song, "Taunt Aline")

Mr. ARDOIN: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Now, on the track "Taunt Aline," does that mean Aunt Aline?

Mr. KING: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: Show the interplay between Ardoin playing the accordion and then his friend Dennis McGee playing the fiddle. And I guess the combination was part of what made this music what it was.

Amede Ardoin was a black man, but Dennis McGee is a white man. Is that unusual?

Mr. KING: It was one of the first instances of that actually occurring in Cajun music. And it actually is a rare occurrence in pre-war music taken as a whole. But as you can hear from the recordings, they're so perfectly integrated and relaxed with each other.

McGee, when he was interviewed 40 year after Ardoin's death, still teared up talking about his best friend.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: So where did they play? When the two of them were doing this, where would we go to hear them?

Mr. KING: You would primarily go to a (unintelligible) or a house party, where essentially, the owner of the plantation would go out and collect the musicians in a horse and carriage and bring them to the house. And then the whole community would show up, and they would roll up the carpets and hang the chairs up on the wall.

And then Dennis McGee and Amede Ardoin would take what would be a stage, which is a little platform, and just play from, say, 7 o'clock in the evening until the next morning, essentially.

WERTHEIMER: Were they professional musicians? Did they make a living doing this?

Mr. KING: Well, the sense of professional musician has changed so much. Back then, they were essentially sharecroppers, but they were valued by the plantation owner not for their work-work but for their ability to entertain and to keep the morale up of all the other workers.

WERTHEIMER: My guest is Christopher King. He's the music archivist behind the new collection "Mama I'll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin." What about these 78s? It must have been hard to find them.

Mr. KING: They are eye-poppingly rare. You almost never see these in any large accumulation, and when you do, they're normally very worn-out because people back then didn't have money to afford new needles, and they would just play the same disk over and over again.

WERTHEIMER: I did notice on the recording that there were a couple that sounded, you know, kind of scratchy and '78-y.

Mr. KING: Yes. Well, those happen to be either the only known copies or the best of the copies, which is not saying much. I mean, on - I would say on 80 percent of these, there are two or three known copies of the record.

WERTHEIMER: Wow. So you weren't being so fastidious that you'd leave a good song off.

Mr. KING: No. I wanted to include every single cry that he hollered.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARDOIN: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Now, he died. Amede Ardoin died in 1942. And there are lots of stories about how he died and why he died. Can you talk about that?

Mr. KING: Well, the legends, which have come down to us from people that knew him best, indicate that one night he was playing at a house party, a ball, and a white lady lent him a handkerchief, which he wiped his brow.

And in Louisiana at that time, particularly in Cajun Country, there was a more sense of relaxed mores. You know, that was perfectly acceptable to people there in the area. But apparently, some men, who were out of that area, had been visiting and saw this occur, and they were profoundly disturbed by it. And so they followed Ardoin home and beat him to the point where either he suffered immediate neurological damage, or some people have said that he was actually hit by a car or a carriage.

But regardless, after that event, he started to immediately lapse into silence and solipsism with no contact to the world, and very soon thereafter, he was admitted to an insane asylum. And he died in less than two months after that.

WERTHEIMER: Good lord. So it was just a sort of an unacceptable intimacy that she should have given him her handkerchief?

Mr. KING: Precisely, yes. Right. Yeah. They were people not of that area because when you live in that area, there's a strong sense of codependence. The blacks and the whites worked together in the field. They danced together at the house parties. It was very relaxed and informal.

WERTHEIMER: You have a song on the album which is called "Two Step De Mama." He seems to be talking about his own death on this one. Could you just give us a -maybe read a little bit of that?

Mr. KING: I'm going away from you, Joline, so far away. I did say, oh yes, I'm so lonesome for you. There is so much sadness in me. How will I go on, little heart? I don't know if I'll ever find you again. So bye-bye to you. I'm a-going. Guess I'm saying I won't be here at this house for long. I'm going to see, little girl, my dear mama and papa.

WERTHEIMER: So you think that's sort of a foreshadowing?

Mr. KING: In my mind, it is. Yes. I think he had an idea that such an obsession with this one love would only lead in one direction.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARDOIN: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Christopher King is the music archivist behind the new collection "Mama, I'll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin." You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org.

Mr. King, thank you very much.

Mr. KING: You're very welcome, Linda.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.