Born: March 20, 1927, Grand Louis, LA
Death: June 17, 1992, Basile, LA
It’s hard to imagine what Cajun music would be like today if Dewey Balfa hadn’t been championing its cause beginning in the ’60s. With the current proliferation of Cajun bands and the swelling numbers of youth embracing their cultural music in Acadiana, thankfully we’ll never know. But it stands to reason that a Balfa-less Cajun music would have resulted in a profoundly different genre all together.
A “brilliant man” as University of Louisiana at Lafayette folklorist Dr. Barry Ancelet describes him, Balfa was Cajun music’s finest ambassador, a cultural statesman who was not only responsible for authoring a critical chapter in the music’s history but really a complete volume. At a time when many feared Cajun music would surely meet its demise by the approaching millennium, the affable Balfa played a pivotal role in its cultural renaissance. Though he didn’t accomplish these gargantuan feats alone, his expansive vision, shrewd negotiating skills and peerless musicianship were the necessary ingredients if the rootsy Louisiana French music would continue to draw its next breath.
Yet, the tale of this gentle, passionate advocate is a spiritual rags to riches story.
The second son and the fourth child in a family of nine, Dewey was born to Charles and Amay Balfa in 1927 in Grand Louis, a farming community west of Mamou. Typical for the times of the era, the Balfas were among those caught in the iniquitous system of sharecropping. For half of the year’s crop, the landowner furnished a house, usually in ramshackle condition and the ground to farm on. The industrious clan survived the harsh life by growing sweet potatoes, sugarcane and cotton, their money crop. Since surviving was the only thing that mattered, the Balfa kids often missed school to keep up with the demands of the farm. Dewey didn’t start school until age nine and unofficially finished by age 16. Of the Balfa siblings, only the youngest, Wedney, graduated from high school.
While the days were long, sweat-filled and backbreaking, the Balfas made up for it in the evenings through the release of their music. Playing fiddle was a family tradition. Not only did Charles play but Dewey’s grandfather, grandmother and great-grandfather were also of fiddle stock. Early on, Charles and eldest son Will were the family’s primary fiddlers but after learning the instrument’s rhythm through triangle, spoons and fiddle sticks, Dewey began to master the instrument.
During World War II, a 16-year-old Dewey left home to work in a Texas shipyard followed by a stint in the Merchant Marines. He maintained his chops with Texas swing, which is why his music contained a heavy swing influence, and maybe it was here, being away from home where he felt the missing connection with his cultural music. In ’48, he returned to Louisiana and formed the Musical Brothers, a popular string dance band, with brothers Harry, Will and Rodney. By then Dewey had blossomed into a virtuoso with his accurate, flowing style and was often requested to gig with other musicians.
In the ’50s, Dewey’s notoriety was reaching new heights. In 1951, he waxed his first recording with the Louisiana Rhythmaires led by Elise Deshotel and Maurice Barzas for George Khoury’s Lake Charles-based label. The group cut several primitive sides including “La Valse de Bon Baurche,” an original that would be the linchpin of the Balfa Brothers’ eventual recording career.
Around the same time, he began his lifetime association with Nathan Abshire, the jovial, soulful accordionist who rightfully has his own place in the annals of Cajun music. But just as music was growing up in the Charles and Amay Balfa household, it was only meant to be a celebratory pastime, not taken seriously as a profession. In order to support a growing family, at various times Dewey worked as a farmer, an insurance salesman, a school bus driver, a disc jockey and a furniture store owner.
While the postwar nation may have been unfamiliar with the music played by the descendants of the exiled French Acadians, folklorist Ralph Rinzler was. In the mid-’50s, the Newport Folk Foundation sent Rinzler to Southwest Louisiana to cut field recordings of Balfa and other Cajun musicians.
Interestingly, it wouldn’t be until almost a decade later that Cajun music would gain its initial exposure to a national audience. Serving as a last minute replacement, Dewey on guitar accompanied accordionist Gladius Thibodeaux and fiddler Louis LeJeune at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. An editorial in the Opelousas Daily World predicted embarrassing consequences but actually the opposite held true. Seventeen-thousand screaming, bewitched fans let the trio know in no uncertain terms how much their performance was appreciated. From this epiphany, Dewey returned home with a renewed vision that their cultural music should be as cherished as any other.
Many things would begin to percolate, among them one of Cajun music’s finest recordings in The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music. For some time Dewey had been urging Ville Platte record monarch Floyd Soileau to record their brand of traditional music. Years later, Soileau admits that his hesitation was one of his biggest regrets but at the time he was focusing on the “now sound” of Cajun music. Additionally, the Brothers often played without an accordionist, something that added to Soileau’s reluctance.
Yet, that would all change with “La Valse de Bon Baurche.” By tending his store’s front counter, Soileau knew which records his customers were clamoring for and ‘La Valse de Bon Baurche” was one of them. Soileau had been beating the bushes for someone to record it but no to avail. One day, through the course of conversation, it came up that Dewey had as a result of his sides with George Khoury and it was only then that the wheels were set in motion. A single of the song, spelled “La Valse de Bambocheur,” was recorded with the flip side “Indians on a Stomp.” The public’s reaction encouraged Soileau to release the full-length LP The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music in 1965 with accordionist Hadley Fontenot and its successor The Balfa Brothers Play More Traditional Cajun Music in ’74 with accordionist Marc Savoy.
The Balfa Brothers with Dewey’s eldest daughter Nelda returned to Newport in 1967 for another rapturous reception. That performance yielded a revitalizing effect as the Brothers began to tour nationally and internationally as well as give workshops on Cajun music and culture.
Looking back, Nelda remembers life after Newport as a happy one. “It was great to be in the house at that time. My dad, Uncle Rodney and Uncle Will spent a lot of time in the living room going over old songs, trying to remember all the old lyrics. Then they started remembering all these old tunes, all these old reels. It was really incredible.”
Through the course of playing the folk festival circuit, Dewey realized that if their music was to be showcased around the country, it should also be showcased in its own cradle. The pivotal juncture came when Dewey convinced James Domengeaux, the founder of the Council for Development of the French Language in Louisiana (CODOFIL), that a Cajun music festival would galvanize the survival of the French language in Louisiana. Consequently, when the single evening, sit-down only, no paid musicians festival, then known as the Tribute to Cajun Music, resulted in a packed Blackham Coliseum, it became apparent that Cajun music and the Cajun French language are truly inseparable. (Today, this festival is known as Festivals Acadiens.)
But it was also evident that of all the musicians playing the festival, the majority were in their fifties or older. If Cajun music was to be embraced in the generations to come, it had to be done by its youth. The relentless evangelist, with funding assistance from the Southern Folk Revival Project, the Acadiana Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, began presenting Cajun music workshops in the schools. While it’s often been noted that Dewey invited peers such as Will, Nathan Abshire or Michael Doucet to illustrate the music’s innate beauty, he also would include someone from the community that lived or worked nearby. “He would say, ‘Y’all know him, he works at the filling station,’” recalls Ancelet emphatically quoting Balfa. “He plays this incredible music. And he lives right there.”
Though the original grant was intended solely for Cajun music, Dewey quickly realized that all aspects of Louisiana French Music needed to be represented, more specifically its cousin genres of old-time Creole and modern day zydeco music. On subsequent trips, Dewey’s Creole emissaries were folks like Rockin’ Dopsie, Bee Fontenot, “Bois-Sec” Ardoin and Canray Fontenot.
In February 1979, the Balfa Brothers’ reign sadly ended when Rodney and Will were killed in auto accident. A year later tragedy struck again when Dewey’s wife Helen died of trichinosis.
In the ’80s, Dewey’s bands evolved more into a musical brotherhood as younger musicians like Robert Jardell, Steve Riley, Jason Frey, Jamie Berzas and others got opportunities to bask in the limelight. “He did it on purpose,” says Ancelet. “He wanted them to have that rush of playing in front of a big crowd and receive an ovation. He was investing in the future.”
Amazingly, all this was accomplished by a sharecropper’s son who maneuvered and weaved his way through countless negotiations and the expected obstinate personalities. Dewey may have had little formal education but he certainly had a master’s degree in life.
“He literally had the most amazing ability to see the heart of an issue, the important piece of the puzzle,” says Ancelet. “It was just astonishing to watch him work.”
At one point, he was in a bit of a debate with his friend Ralph Rinzler and the folks from the Smithsonian regarding the line-up Dewey proposed to perform at their folk festival. Not to slight the Brothers Band, he loved them too, but this time he felt his regular Saturday night guys deserved the honor since they, too, were warriors and their music was indeed representative of Cajun music. Because the line-up included a steel guitar, somehow the Smithsonian felt this was less authentic. “Finally, Dewey just exploded and said ‘God damn it, are y’all trying to represent Cajun music the way as you wish it still was or as it really is!’,” recalls Ancelet. “It was such a jarring thing to say and suddenly it exposed this illusion of authenticity that they had.”
“There was this notion that somehow folk music had to remain in some sort of purest state and that they couldn’t evolve. They couldn’t be their own selves and hence, his probably most famous quote, ‘Tradition is like a tree. You got to water the roots but you got to let the branches grow too.’”
Since his contributions were staggering, his musical genius is oftentimes overlooked. Even if he had been less of a musician, he probably would have been equally influential with his cache of superior interpersonal skills. But he wasn’t less of one than the other.
“The guy was just a stylist like you rarely see. He had a beautiful touch and the one thing that was really important about Dewey is that music is not something you memorize and play from a set,” says Ancelet. “The ones who learn that music is a language, a story, are the ones that are the truest Cajun musicians. And Dewey was this way. Every single time he played a song, he re-invented it, he would do something new, not on purpose, because he was playing it right then, as though he was playing it for the first time. He was willing to take that chance every time because for him, in a sense, it wasn’t a chance.”
“I mean how many times we were sitting on the side of the stage and he was playing something as common as ‘Jolie Blonde.’ And he would glance over at us and do something. And he would just knock us out. Like WOW, did you hear that? And he would do that all the time.”
That he did, doing something remarkable every chance he had. As part of the package, Dewey also possessed the most flawless ability to discern the slightest off-key note or out-of-tune pluck. “Talk to anybody that ever played with him, he had the most incredible ear. He could hear somebody that was out of tune on one string and he was such a dogged perfectionist. Let’s say he was playing an hour-and-a-half long set at Festivals Acadiens and he had ten minutes left in the set and he noticed that somebody had gone out of tune, he would stop! He would walk over, he wouldn’t embarrass them but say quietly to them, ‘Your fourth string is out of tune.’”
Ancelet goes onto say it was never just “okay” for Dewey, it had to be absolutely perfect. Early on, he realized that some of the people he was enlisting support from didn’t necessarily dig Cajun music just because they were fans of his. As the inaugural Tribute to Cajun Music proved, audiences learned to enjoy it if it was well performed, not being sloppily played out-of-tune. “He learned, in his mind, that there was no margin for error.”
Without Dewey Balfa, would the Cajun music world know the timeless Balfa family staples like “’Tit Galop Pour Mamou,” “Parles Nous a Boire,” “Pointe Aux Pains” and countless others or would they have faded into obscurity? What would the future hold if bands like Balfa Toujours, led by daughter Christine and protégés Dirk Powell and Kevin Wimmer, as well as Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, weren’t there to remind us of the Balfa family legacy?
By now the questions seem endless. The life, music and thoughts of Dewey Balfa become more mind-boggling all the time.
Until his death in June 1992, Dewey Balfa invested both musically and socially in the future of Cajun music. Needless to say, that investment portfolio is still reaping huge returns.
SELECTED ALBUM RECORDINGS
The Balfa Brothers: The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music Volume I and II (Swallow Records), reissued 1990
The Balfa Brothers: J’ai Vu Le Loop, Le Renard et La Belette (Rounder), reissued 1989
Dewey Balfa & Friends: Cajun Legend (Swallow Records), 1991
Dewey Balfa, Marc Savoy & D.L. Menard: En Bas Du Chene Vert (Under A Green Oak Tree) (Arhoolie Records), reissued 1989
Various Artists: Cajun Honky Tonk – The Khoury Recordings – The Early 1950s (Four tracks featuring Elise Deshotel with Dewey Balfa, also features the original recordings of Lawrence Walker) (Arhoolie Records), 1995
Nathan Abshire & The Balfa Brothers: Cajun Fais Do-Do (Arhoolie Records), reissued 1996
The Balfa Brotherhood—The Makers of Cajun Music: by Barry Jean Ancelet, photographs by Elmore Morgan, Jr.
South to Louisiana by John Broven
Let the Good Times Roll! A Guide to Cajun & Zydeco Music by Pat Nyhan, Brian Rollins and David Babb
Cajun Music—A Reflection of a People by Ann Allen Savoy
J’ai été Au Bal, 1989
The Big Easy, 1987
Les Blues de Balfa, 1983
Cajun Visits, 1983
The Balfa Brothers – Spend It All, 1971
Don’t Drop the Potato: Cajun Country, 1990