In the 1850s, French aristocrat Amédée Carayon-Latour crafted “L’Armour et Fanatisme,” a song from the point of view of an Islamic knight in love with a blue-eyed Christian girl. It ends terribly: Their love is forbidden by Allah, so he heads to battle where he will likely die in the first wave of fighting. But the knight’s story lives on in an unlikely place—deep in the troves of folksongs recorded by Louisiana’s John and Alan Lomax. The song, recorded in 1934 in Loreauville—stands out among what is more commonly thought of as the core of their pivotal folk recordings. It, and songs like it, could now change how the Lomax archive is viewed.
For decades, music scholars and fans alike have characterized the Lomax material as ballads directly from Acadie, serving as proto-Cajun and pre-zydeco Creole music. While there is plenty of formative material for today’s music in the collection, there is much more to the Lomax collection. At this year’s Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, held October 12 in Lafayette, a symposium featuring noted folklorists will mark the 80th anniversary of the efforts. A concert will also be held on October 9, showcasing songs from the collection.
The recordings were the work of the father-and-son Lomax team. Early explorers of folk music, they traveled across the South recording music for the Library of Congress, discovering—or at least unveiling—musicians and singers well hidden from modern American listeners. Recording them into aluminum discs via a 300-pound device hauled around in the trunk of their car, the Lomaxes introduced Louisiana’s unique folk music to the world—and the world to Louisiana’s folk music. The Lomax collection is now more publicly accessible than ever, thanks to a three-prong project by Joshua Caffery, a Louisiana musician and former Library of Congress fellow.
“This is the sort of thing that made the work fascinating for me, these outliers that force us to broaden our understanding of the repertoire,” Caffery, who will speak at the symposium and possibly perform at the concert, says in regard to the Islamic love story of “L’Amour et Fanatisme.” Caffery’s work with the Lomax recordings over the years—digging for material as a member of Feufollet, working in the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette—led to his book Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana, which dives deeper into the Lomax material than likely any previous effort. Between the book’s covers are transcriptions, in English and French, of all the 1934 recordings made in southwestern Louisiana, plus photographs from the expedition and biographical details of the performers. For many of the songs, it is the first time their histories and translations have been shared.
Working in the Library of Congress as the Alan Lomax Fellow in Folklife Studies, Caffery followed the book with a recently launched website (lomax1934.com) that streams the music. At year’s end, he will release another Lomax-related gem: a yet-unnamed album featuring modern south Louisiana musicians rendering their own versions of the archival material.
One of Caffery’s goals is to adjust how people see the collection. The scope of the Louisiana recordings is often overlooked, as they are seen as material that would later lead to Cajun and zydeco sounds. Instead, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana details old slave spirituals, rural blues, Irish and English folk songs, and traditional French folk songs. Within these genres there are delightful varieties and crucial building blocks that formed the music of Louisiana.
“It is, in many ways, a fountainhead for the study of the musical traditions of this area, an area in which traditional music continues to be a significant cultural force in contemporary life,” Caffery says. “Although they didn’t record much Cajun or zydeco music, the music we tend to think of today as our folk music, they documented an array of older traditions, and thus provided important contexts for understanding the evolution of these signature styles. Just as importantly, I believe that archival recordings, just like archival seed banks, enable access to earlier strains that can be recombined and retrofit to meet the shifting challenges of the future.”
Caffery embarked on these three projects as he spent time combing archives as both a songwriter and academic. Noting that he tries to write songs and poems that, though new, are rooted in traditional sounds, digging into the Lomax recordings was beneficial to both pursuits.
“I’m interested in knowing what can be known about the song traditions of the area for my own artistic purposes,” says Caffery. “The Lomax recordings, I think, are a key document for understanding those traditions, and I was drawn to them because there was so much I didn’t understand about them.”
Beginning the book’s research in 2008 while working on his dissertation—he holds a doctorate in English from ULL, it would take Caffery the better part of five years to complete the work. With the quality of the recordings severely limited by the technology of the time, the simple act of transcribing them was a monumental task that alone took a year to finish. Another year was spent researching and writing about the songs, which number nearly 200.
His research could change the perceptions—or misconceptions—about the Lomax recordings. According to Caffery, musicians and fans both tend to mislabel the recordings as ballads. The narratives are also alleged to have been handed down generationally from ancestors stretching all the way back to Acadie (now Nova Scotia). However, songs like Carayon-Latour’s—neither a ballad nor Acadian—dash both of these theories. Many of them, instead, have a 19th-century French or Louisiana origin.
“There’s a tendency to refer to all of these old French songs as Acadian ballads,” Caffery explains. “It’s actually much more complex and interesting than that. The ballad isn’t even a French song type, per se, though there are some songs that are French translations of English ballads.”
Though some of the material is commercially available, the bulk of the recordings has never been heard by the general public. Originally, Caffery sought to include CDs of the music with the book to remedy this. However, with the high number of songs discussed in the book, it would take nothing short of a massive boxed set to accomplish. Feeling a book without audio would be an incomplete work, he used his fellowship at the Library of Congress to build a site to host all the tunes discussed in his book.
“These recordings were made for a public institution for the public good, and they should be made available to the public in the most user-friendly and affordable way possible,” says Caffery. “There’s always the possibility that new recordings will emerge. The cataloging and the original transfers were done so long ago that things have inevitably fallen through the cracks over the years. I’ve tried in my own work to shine a light into these cracks and dig up everything that might have been overlooked, but you never know what might turn up.”
The last portion of the project is to update the material with help from a bevy of well-known south Louisiana artists. The project is similar to Caffery’s Allons Boire un Coup compilation, which won OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Cajun Album of the Year in 2007. With the help of Joel Savoy of Valcour Records, Caffery gathered bands to reimagine drinking songs from the genre. The results ranged from traditional material that picked up where past generations left off to indie pop meets the Balfa Brothers in “Parlez Nous a Boire,” by Feufollet’s Chris Stafford. On tap for this album—again a Valcour release—are notables such as Marc Broussard, Michael Doucet, Ann Savoy, Zachary Richard, Steve Riley, Wayne Toups, Roddie Romero, Cedric Watson, Kristi Guillory and more. As with Allons Boire un Coup, Caffery gave the artists freedom on how to approach the material. Some stuck to tradition while others bent it. Asked if there would be any surprises, such as Stafford’s “Parlez Nous a Boire,” Caffery laughs.
“If you mean, ‘Are there any moments of pure sonic ecstasy that will rock my fragile soul to its elemental core?’” Caffery asks. “Then yes, we have that base covered!”