Unknowingly, I think it all started for me in the late '40's in Houston where I had a short wave radio that I used for listening to the world late at night. One night I picked up a fascinating "foreign tongue", and judging from the strength of the radio reception, surmised it must be near by (it wasn't the familiar Spanish easily received from Texas border stations). No, this was something else altogether different! Mysteriously, I was hearing "English phrases" occasionally mixed in with this foreign tongue... all very mysterious to a young teen-aged kid. My Dad, who at the time was involved in oil exploration in the Louisiana swamps, informed me that I was probably hearing Louisiana shrimp boat captains talking on short wave radio, and that they were some kind of "French descendants" who talked French with a funny mixture of English... he said they were called "Cajuns".
To add to the mystery, occasionally I tuned-in music which seemed associated with this strange talk. Unlike the shortwave marine radio conversations, the music usually drifted in and out as radio reception wavered. The music was like nothing I had ever heard ("my" music being Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra of the 40's). But this strange music was exotic and fascinating to me. I know now that I was hearing small Cajun radio stations in southwest Louisiana... with announcers talking just like the boat captains.
This episode was soon forgotten. Thirty five years glided by, absorbed in work, having a family, etc., but, always indulging my love for music in some form. First, the ukelele in high school... next, guitar and country music in college (Jimmy Rogers, Hank Snow)... then, post-collegiate classical piano (Chopin, I was a self taught hacker), followed by classical guitar (the same way)... then the great "folk scare" of the 60's (Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, Kingston Trio, Burl Ives)... hmmm, getting more traditional now... discovered blue grass, old timey, Irish... getting even closer, but not there yet.
By 1975, we felt compelled to re-locate. I had always I wanted to live in Seattle after I saw it featured in National Geographic as a kid, so we moved there and were soon involved with the Seattle Folklore Society.
We got a call one day in 1978 from Sandy Bradley, saying there were some Cajun musicians coming to Seattle who needed a place to stay, and knowing we were from the south, she thought we would probably make them feel at home... so we put them up for the night.
Well, these Cajuns happened to be Dewey and Rodney Balfa and Marc Savoy, which meant absolutely nothing to us at the time. Little did we know what lay in store!
That next morning, we all set around the breakfast table chatting about Cajun music. I was showing a lot of curiosity about it, and we cajoled them into playing a few tunes for us. Well, the first thing Marc had to do was stand on this accordion to show how strong he built them (he is a big guy, I was impressed).
So there we were, Jane and I, with Dewey, Rodney and Marc in our small dining area when the music started. The room just exploded in a swirl of energy, joy, melancholy, and vibrancy. Jane and I got "soaked to the bone" in that little Cajun music sauna... we had been "had"!
For me, maybe it was the seed that had been planted 35 years before, because hearing that music once again seemed like a coming-home type experience. Maybe for Jane and I both, just being from the south was a factor.
When they were through playing, I was excited. I turned to Jane and said "whatever it is he is playing, I've got to have one". A month later on my birthday she presented me with an accordion from Frank Ferrel's music store.
And thus it was, at 45 years of age, my musical "train" got irrevocably "side-tracked"... and I never looked back. I haven't regretted a minute of it.
We owe these Cajuns a huge debt of gratitude for giving of their music and culture so unselfishly to us all. To me, it is the traditional style of Cajun music that has claimed the preserving and sustaining role for the soul and essence of the cultural expression. I would say that the distinguishing factor for all music that is termed "Cajun" or "Zydeco" today, springs from this unique core musical style.
Regardless of the thrust of their musical direction, I would hope that all modern practitioners of Cajun and Zydeco music would respect and pay homage to the "roots from whence they have sprung" by cultivating the ability to actually replicate the roots music in public, at least occasionally...
Listen to some good music
Check out this video of How's Bayou
Dave Lang is the founder and fearless leader of How's Bayou, which celebrated it's 20th anniversary in 1998, and is also a member of Chank-a-Chank. He has been instrumental in teaching and mentoring many musicians in the Seattle area over the years, which led to the creation of several Cajun/Zydeco Bands, and is a warm and wonderful individual besides. You can contact Dave at SeattleDL@comcast.net.