Bois Sec Ardoin
The southwestern Louisiana prairie community of Duralde near Mamou is the home of Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin, his sons and brother, their families, and the family of his longtime friend and musical partner Canray Fontenot. They are perhaps the most widely known performers of Louisiana Creole music.
The family and community basis of their lives and musical performance was described in 1976 by folklorist Nick Spitzer in his comprehensive notes to the recording Zodico:Louisiana Creole Music (Rounder Records 6009):
Duralde is an unincorporated village situated between the towns of Mamou and Basile in the southwestern prairies of Louisiana. Within Duralde, which has its own Catholic church and country stores, but no center of town, are a number of small settlements or anses (coves) as they are called. The Ardoin kin are spread throughout these communities and as far away as Lake Charles and Houston, but they all point to L'Anse 'Prian Noir (Black Cyprian's Cove), where Bois Sec and his wife Marceline reside, as their home. Family history tells that the cove was settled by a great-great-grandfather named Cyprian in the 1830s.
Today  Bois Sec lives here with the two youngest of his fourteen children in a house that he built. Adjacent to the house and the yard filled with chickens, turkeys, potted plants, blessed magnolia palms, a Virgin Mary statue, car parts, wagons, a duck pond, a pig pen, and a variety of vehicles, is the home of his youngest son Russell Ardoin who plays bass for the band. Beyond Russell and his wife Shirley's home is that of Mr. Ardoin's brother Delphin and his wife Valentine. Delphin, like Bois Sec, is also an accomplished accordion player, though he plays publicly only on Mardi Gras.…
On either side of this row of houses are the soggy, open fields that may be used for rice, soybeans or grazing, depending upon the year and season. It is these fields that the Ardoins have until the last decade sharecropped. Bois Sec still does work in this fashion, but most of his sons have left farming behind. Russell drives a truck for an oil service company, as does Morris, while Lawrence "Black" Ardoin, who resides about 20 miles away in Kinder, is a welder.…
Mr. Ardoin is a family patriarch and community leader of unusual proportions. Not only has he maintained a respectable home and raised a large, prosperous family, but he has also been and continues to be a performer of great repute. He says that he got his nickname, a feature common for men throughout Cajun and Creole South Louisiana as well as the West Indies, as a child. He is supposed to have always been the first to the barn when a rainstorm interrupted work in the fields. This desire to keep dry and also the story that he would take his older brother's accordion to the barn to practice as a boy of seven are credited with inspiring the name.…
Ardoin tells Ann Savoy how he got the nickname "Bois Sec," French for "Dry Wood," in an interview she includes in her classic work Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People.
An old white man would come every weekend when I was young and I'd wash his car for a little job. Boy, I was glad when I'd see that car coming, yeah. When I was big enough he would take me to learn how to work, you know, I didn't have no daddy. I would work with him, and he didn't work me too hard.…And you know, sometimes the rain would caught you in the fields, you know, you can't get to the barn before you get wet yourself. All the rest of the men, they'd wait until the rain started good, now they would run to the barn for that. Not me, I was spoiled, you know, the other men would let the rain cool them off…Well, he would come meet us at the barn after the rain had stopped-"Why you was dry and all the rest was wet?" He had an old tree that was dead, it was dry, you know. He said, "I'm gonna call you dry wood." And I keep that name. It was Alfred Veillon who gave me that name. He almost raised me. He lived around two miles from here.
Ann Savoy notes that Bois Sec Ardoin and his wife Marceline are strong community leaders around their native Duralde where they farm and throw huge family boucheries each year. Calling Ardoin "a rare figure in his culture today, playing his music 'old-style' in spite of modern influences," she asks him about learning to play the accordion.
I started to play music after I was twelve maybe. I was young…My father wasn't a musician. He had a guitar but he didn't play dances. His guitar stayed in the kitchen attic for a long time. I surely didn't learn to play with my father. He died of pneumonia when I was four. Neither my mother or my father were musicians. I don't know what it was that showed me how to be a musician. I played music…I just liked that.
The late Amédé [Ardoin] came all the time. I was little and him was old.…He would play music and that stayed on my mind. I don't know what that did to me. It's just that it stayed on top of my mind.…He was playing a dance in Chataignier and he played loud enough…it was just him all alone playing. I asked him to play the dance "Quo' Faire." I was listening.
I played a little bit at that time. My brother had bought an accordion but I was too young and I didn't have enough work to buy myself one. So he had worked and me, I was too young to go to work and all.
So, we had a big barn…and what I'd do was I'd climb up on top of the barn.…My brother worked sun up to sun down in those years. He left at noon and he didn't finish before sun down. So what I did was, I took the accordion and I climbed up on top of the barn and I watched on the big road. We didn't have all these little trees and tall grasses…the prairie was all clean…and the music would sound far.…I thought I was smart…chank a chank a chank…Play, Bois Sec, play…He had this accordion in a case and he arrived and he heard me playing! God in heaven!
He said, "You're playing my accordion?" (Me, I was a child and I swore I was on top of the barn and I didn't know anything about that. I was feeding the cows and the pigs.) He said, "Listen. Play me the same dance you were playing a minute ago and I don't want you to fool me." It was bad for me and all but I was always sort of chicken, you know. I couldn't defend myself much.…He said, "It's no use for you to lie to me." I said, "I lied." He said, "Me, I can't learn to play. It's mine but take it, play when you want." And he still hadn't ever played anything but it still wasn't for me. So I bought an accordion from one of my old cousins, her husband was dead, old Dolzay. She sold it to me for three dollars. I got on horseback and I went to find that over in Oberlin. I had a little sack to put it in. Me, I thought I had something. I had hung that on the saddle horn.…
Then when I was big enough, I started to hit that triangle in back of the band. I'd play behind Amédé when he was playing. I wanted to play like that. Boy, when they'd say Amédé was gonna play not too far-'cause at them time we didn't have no way to go far; I was about fourteen or fifteen at the time. They used to have a club in Basile and I'd go with him and play the triangle until I learned the little bit I know.
Folklorist Nick Spitzer explains that music is a tradition in the family of Ardoin and his friend Canray Fontenot.
Bois Sec joined with violinist Canray Fontenot in 1948 to play house dances as the Duralde Ramblers. Canray, about five years Bois Sec's junior, has lived and worked as a sharecropper and seasonal cane cutter near the town of Welsh for most of his life. [He later worked for many years in a feed and hardware store in Welsh.] His family, however, is originally from the Duralde area, and his father, Adam Fontenot, was an accordionist. Adam Fontenot gave his son a start in music, but Canray learned violin from a man named Douglas Villa [Bellard]. Today his violin style is unique in mingling blues tonalities and jazz improvisation with modal Acadian scales on the violin.… Unlike most Cajun or Creole fiddlers, Canray Fontenot is quite comfortable improvising. He does this especially with the full Ardoin Brothers Band, but when playing duets with Bois Sec, he stays closer to the melodic line.…
Bois Sec's first cousin was the famous [accordionist] Amédé Ardoin, known as the first black Frenchman to make '78s in the 1930s era of ethnic recordings. Bois Sec's sense of perpetuating family tradition is as strong for his children as it has been in his and Amédé Ardoin's generation. Three of his sons have played accordion at various times for the family band. Initially, the late Gustave "Bud" Ardoin seemed destined to follow his father's role. Bud died tragically in an auto accident in 1974. He is strongly remembered for his "hot" accordion style that included extremely fast two-steps and a lot of double and triple time playing. Bud's grave in the small community cemetery near Bois Sec's house is marked by a large marble stone with a photograph attached and an accordion etched into the surface. This elaborate marker and the one 45rpm record that Bud made with the band, now displayed with portraits of family ancestors and religious icons at Mr. Ardoin's home, are sources of pride and remembrance for the entire family.
Bois Sec's oldest son, Morris, also plays accordion and was called upon to fill in after the loss of his brother. He plays the piano accordion, rare in the countryside, as well as the smaller button accordion.…[H]e runs Club Morris, the family dance hall and bar located next to Morris' home in the pine "island" of woods about a mile from Bois Sec's house. Le club, as it is called, is the focal point of social life for the entire Duralde Creole community. It is here that Bois Sec, Canray, and the Ardoin Brothers play for dances every two weeks; here that the Mardi Gras clowns commence their route; and here that special Easter and Christmas holiday dances as well as bals de noce (wedding dances) are held.…
Bois Sec usually begins a dance with the band behind him and then yields to his second oldest son, Lawrence, after an hour and a half. Lawrence, who starts out by playing drums, is in turn spelled by younger brother Ronald as he steps to the mike with his accordion.…
One of the most outgoing dancers at Club Morris is Alcius "B-5" Fontenot. B-5 lives with his wife Eva and five of their seventeen children in a rambling, silvery pine board house about two miles into the woods behind the dance hall.…By his own account and that of his wife, Mardi Gras is B-5's day.…His role as head clown of the Mardi Gras gives him the opportunity to lead the group of artful carousers in singing, dancing, and playing for an entire day.…
Canray Fontenot was born on October 16, 1922, in L'Anse Aux Vachesla, and he died of cancer on July 29, 1995, in Welsh, Louisiana. Hailed by Michael Doucet as "the greatest Black Louisiana Fiddler of our time," he was one of the last players of pre-zydeco Creole music popularized in the 19th century. With his imaginative fiddle playing and the rhythmic stomping of his bare feet, he kept alive the Creole music traditions developed in the African American communities of his native southwestern Louisiana. With accordionist Bois Sec Ardoin, he performed at innumerable folk festivals in the US and abroad and received the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986.
Canray Fontenot first learned music from his father, Adam, as Michael Doucet describes in his CD notes to Canray Fontenot: Louisiana Hot Sauce Creole Style.
Adam [Fontenot] was a renowned accordion master and a contemporary of Amédé Ardoin, with whom he shared virtuoso accordion duties for both black and white dances in the 1920s and 30s.…Canray's parents both passed away when he was barely fourteen. His father Adam chose not to record his music or leave any earthly account of his stay thus leaving his teenage son to be his only musical legacy. Canray took it upon himself to leave school to find work to support himself, put his younger sister through school and further his musical inheritance by continuing to play the French dances inspired by his father.…
Canray constructed his first violin at the age of nine. It was a cigar box with strings fashioned from a new screen door.… As Canray tells it, "Nonc Adam [Canray's father] was a hard man to please musically because you had to play everything so exact. One day I was playing my little fiddle behind the house when he turned the corner, stopped and asked me where did I get that contraption? I told him that I had made it myself. He was kind of shocked because I had always gone someplace alone when I was learning. But he assured me if I could play a tune he would get me a real fiddle. He must have liked the sounds, although I'm sure he was real surprised hearing a melody coming out of that cigar box! Anyway, he traded three dozen eggs and one sack of flour to Deo Langley, a real fine Indian fiddler, for a bright red fiddle. After about a year, I started sitting in with my father and Alphonse Lafleur, my old pop's fiddler, who really showed me how to second the accordion."
Canray remembers playing twin fiddles with Joel Victorien, his mother's father, who encouraged the young fiddler to continue their family's string-music tradition. [Fontenot calls Joel Victorien his uncle in an interview with Ann Savoy cited below.] "You know, I first started my string band in the late '30s with George Lenard and Paul Frank. We would play a lot and not just French, everything we heard like boogie-woogie, western swing, some jazz, tunes that would make everybody happy. Blues? Oh, not too much because they weren't allowed with the "respectable" people at the house dances, but we would play a couple at the saloons."
Around this period, Canray teamed up with his longtime friend, accordionist Alphonse "Bois-Sec" Ardoin who, in his own right, had also digested the music of Nonc Adam, Amédé, and other musicians of the community. Together they put their own ingredients into the old-time music and forged their own style which was heard throughout Southwest Louisiana via their live radio broadcasts from KEUM in Eunice through the late 1950s. Many times they shared dance jobs with Zydeco musicians Clifton and Cleveland Chenier at Freeman Fontenot's place in rural Basile. Later, through the field research done in the early sixties by Ralph Rinzler, Canray and Bois-Sec were invited to the Newport Festival in 1966 and consequently made their first recordings on their way home.…
In a  interview with Ann Savoy, Fontenot tells about his early musical influences.
My daddy was Adam Fontenot and my mama was Obéline Victorien. She was the first cousin of Marceline Ardoin. Both of my parents played the accordion. My mama never played in public but my daddy played everywhere. Any person over sixty years old in the black race or the white race, they heard about him. He was a great man on the accordion.
His daddy had started playing accordion, and in them times those people was so strict. Nobody had no money. And my daddy used to go steal the accordion when my grandfather wasn't there and play.…Yeah, I was born and raised with an accordion in the house, but I never did want to play the accordion. I'm gonna put it straight. I had no idea-in them days I'd hear them records, classical and all, and I'd say, "You can't do that with an accordion. I wanna play something that you can change.…"
My daddy and Amédé [Ardoin] was playing all the time for the white people 'cause the black people didn't have no money in those days. When they had a dance for the black people this is what they would do. There was a bunch of musicians who was trying to learn how to play, and they'd all play for nothing. And they'd have a big gumbo, and they would sell, sometimes, some popcorn and some pies, all that stuff. It was all at some houses. And men like Amédé and my daddy, at midnight the white people's dance was over. And they'd go there, they'd already made their two-fifty, and so was still wanting to play. When I was eleven years old I would bass the fiddle behind my daddy, and I'd get fifty cents. I was just as proud. That meant something.
My mama would play the same songs my daddy would play. I recorded almost all the songs my daddy would play…My granddaddy had one of them old record players.…[He had] all of Amédé's records, Amédé Breaux, a Doucet.…
[I was raised in the community of] L'Anse aux Vaches. When I knew Amédé [Ardoin] his brother, Austin Ardoin, was living in L'Anse aux Vaches, and Amédé would come and stay with him. My uncle, Joel Victorien, [lived in the community]. He played the fiddle. He played from when he was fourteen years old. He married when he was eighteen and he died at the age of twenty-two.
[My father made a living] farming. Cotton, corn, all that stuff. I helped on the farm when I was little. We'd work hard. You know, them old people back then didn't want us messing around with their record players. One guy told me we could listen to records and they'd never notice. We used to wind up them old things, then you'd put a piece of broom in your mouth, and you'd put your hands like this (cups hands around ears) and we'd listen like that. And nobody else can hear it but you. I don't know how that boy had figured that out. He had started playing fiddle, too. He invented those cigar box fiddles. His name was Joe Bellard. And his cousin, Douglas Bellard played the fiddle. Whenever he wasn't there we'd go play his fiddle. And we'd put it right back where it was. So Joe said, "We could make us some fiddles out of cigar boxes." So we made the boxes and we got the strings off his mama's brand new screen door… .
I never even saw somebody picking the guitar until I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. Mostly white people played the fiddle back then. I never understood why not too many black guys played the fiddle. And black men in Louisiana don't play the steel, either.…
And Bois Sec learned his music through my daddy and Amédé. Bois Sec used to beat the triangle with Amédé a lot of times, and he started playing the accordion, so I would go and play with him, you know. In them times, there, most of the old people, whether they was white or black, they didn't care too much about string music. They wanted to hear an accordion and a fiddle. So Bois Sec and I would play like that.
One of the best accordion players when my daddy and Amédé and them was going on was Sidney Babineaux. He never did record nothing. He was from Rayne.…He had a double note accordion and I believe his brother played the guitar. And he had a bass player and a rubbing board. A stand-up bass.…Sidney Babineaux would play most anything-he could play anything that would come out. Plus he had his own type of tunes.…I tell you, Sidney Babineaux was really good. And they had another black fella' from Opelousas, a fiddle player named Martel. And them fellows would mop up everywhere they'd go.
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