Caesar Vincent, the honoree of this year’s Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, will likely have Cajun music pundits scratching their heads. Caesar who? And for good reason—the enigmatic Vincent (1882–1970) was not a musician in any professional sense, never recorded commercially and never owned a car. Instead, he was a subsistence farmer who raised five children with his wife Olive.
But what makes him astounding is his encyclopedic repertoire of ancient French songs, many stemming from the Middle Ages, all crammed inside his head. The eccentric balladeer sang practically everywhere, walking to the store, parties, funerals, often out of the blue unannounced. In 1953 he was recorded by educator Catherine Blanchet and four years later by LSU professor Dr. Harry Oster.
One of the songs Oster recorded was “Travailler c’est trop dur,” which, melodically, is similar to “Rye Whiskey.” Somehow the song caught the attention of France’s Grand-Mère Funibus Folk (GFF) who recorded it in 1974. The recording engineer, not knowing the actual melody, inadvertently switched the lead and the harmony vocals in the mix, thus altering the melody line. That same year, Zachary Richard and Michael Doucet encountered GFF’s version in France, and they have recorded it multiple times throughout their respective careers.
“Travailler c’est trop dur” became iconic in the Francophone world, largely due to French superstar Julien Clerc’s number one hit that was inspired by Richard’s rendition. It’s been recorded many times, including a reggae version by Africa’s Alpha Blondy.
Familiar with the song and its notoriety, a year and a half ago ULL Professor Emeritus Barry Ancelet wondered if Vincent had sung anything else. “What are the chances he sang just one song?” Ancelet asked himself. So Ancelet went digging through ULL’s Archives and bam, found 37 songs Oster had recorded of Vincent. Add the 23 songs Blanchet recorded; eliminate the overlap and Vincent’s recorded output totaled 44.
“I’m listening to these songs and they’re absolutely fascinating melodically, lyrically complex beautiful songs,” says Ancelet. “He didn’t have a trained voice but he held pitch.” Of this treasure trove, Ancelet had only previously heard “La fille aux oranges” and “Tobie Lapierre,” never realizing they, too, stemmed from Vincent.
Intrigued, Ancelet gathered his usual suspects like Steve Riley, Roddie Romero, Bonsoir, Catin and others to reinterpret Vincent’s songs on an upcoming CD, Travailler, c’est trop dur: The Lyrical Legacy of Caesar Vincent, to be released at Festivals.
“Now all these years later, he is finally going to get his due,” Ancelet states proudly.
“Every year we find a new twist on this culture that has been around for hundreds of years,” says festival co-organizer Pat Mould. “And every time we think we’ve run out of stuff a Caesar Vincent shows up and you find there’s another layer to it. It’s like a cultural archeological dig, you know?”
Festivals Acadiens et Créoles: October 12–14, 2018, Girard Park, Lafayette