One of the sonic jewels to be had at this year’s Festivals Acadiens et Creoles was Best of Festivals Acadiens 2002, released by Valcour Records. Its 14 tracks include such titans as Belton Richard, Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and Wayne Toups, and another 10 tracks are available for download from Valcour’s website. All the material was culled from the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) with the final selections handpicked by the archive’s Chris Segura, festival organizer Pat Mould, and Barry Ancelet, Debaillon and Granger Endowed Professor of Francophone Studies at ULL.
This wasn’t the first time that the archive has been involved in the release of a CD, having released field recordings of fiddler Varise Conner and Women’s Home Music in 2004 and 2007, respectively. This release represents the birth of a new era with a newly formed partnership between the archive, Valcour Records and Festivals Acadiens’ organizing committee, Rubber Boots. “The partnership is mutually beneficial,” says Jennifer Ritter Guidry, Assistant Director of the Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism, the administrative arm of the archive.
The archive holds an estimated 8,000 hours of listening and viewing material on 27 terabytes of disk storage. With this new venture, the possibilities seem endless. Segura estimates that they’ll put out two to three projects a year on Valcour’s Rubber Bootleg Series. “I think what we are going to focus on now is either individual sets or retrospectives of an artist’s career at the festival,” Segura says. “We’ll be able to dig back into the ‘80s and pick stuff and then go into the ‘90s, if they were active that long, and get a career-standing view of what they did at that festival.”
Credit for this new collaboration starts with Ancelet. In January 1977, he returned to ULL (then USL) from the University of Indiana as a newly hired folklorist. Along with him came his own collection, which included the ‘75 Conner sessions.
Ancelet knew that other collections existed through the fieldwork of such folklorists as Alan Lomax, Ralph Rinzler, Dr. Harry Oster and Elizabeth Brandon. In 1977, he accompanied BeauSoleil to Jimmy Carter’s presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., where he visited the Library of Congress and acquired copies of Rinzler’s collection and brought it back to Louisiana.
“We started being able to compile the fieldwork that had been done in the past in one spot, so we could listen to it together, and in sequence, and get a perspective on the history of Cajun and Creole music,” says Ancelet.
In 1979, he acquired copies of the Lomax recordings, which turned out to be an eye-opening experience. “Michael Doucet [of BeauSoleil] and I were sitting in the Archives together listening to them. And after we heard the first reel, we looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my God, we are going to have to rethink everything we thought we knew about the history of this music.’
“All that we heard historically was the commercial recordings going back to 1928, but the commercial record companies were recording stuff that they felt was popular at the time. They weren’t recording stuff that was old. Lomax was recording stuff that was old on purpose to reach farther back. The record companies were interested in selling records. [Lomax] was interested in capturing a tradition that was about to fade.”
Over time, the archive has grown with the acquisition of collections from Oster, Brandon and others. Ancelet made a point of providing copies to the families of the person who was recorded during a field session. Ancelet refers to this as “bringing [the recordings] back to their home.” “In some cases, those families were hearing voices that they had not heard in decades,” he says.
“One of the things that I was always concerned about was not to have the Archives be a mausoleum,” says Ancelet, and his vision has come true over time. BeauSoleil; Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys; Wayne Toups; Feufollet and Bonsoir, Catin have used material from the archive, rearranged it and made it modern again. ”When Feufollet did ‘Tout En Beau Soir En Me Promenant,’ Anna Laura [Edmiston] sang this absolutely gorgeous version with a brilliant arrangement behind it. When you compare that to the original recording of Elita Hoffpauir, it’s really a remarkable thing. The melody and words were already there, but they applied various aesthetics and turned it into something new again.”
Portions of the archive have been used in classes, film documentaries and radio shows, thus realizing Ancelet’s vision of a recycling project where its resources are shared among the community. He admits that it’s been a wild ride, but thanks to the collaborative partnership with Valcour and Rubber Boots, taking a ride through the archive will be that much easier.