A decade ago, a trio of like-minded 20-somethings pooled their distinct yet complimentary talents to form a record label. Even in the midst of the declining record industry, the Valcour brain trust, consisting of musician/producer Joel Savoy, photographer Lucius Fontenot and web designer Phillip LaFargue, realized that there would always be precious music to behold and cherish, especially given South Louisiana’s bountiful talent. Christened after Savoy’s great-great-great grandfather Pierre Valcour Savoie, Valcour Records opted to present the vast richness of the Cajun and Creole culture through one-of-a-kind, often unusual and eclectic projects rather than chase commercial trends. Tucked away in the prairie of St. Landry Parish, an outdoor kitchen belonging to Joel’s grandfather and the site of many a cookout, jam session and soiree became the recording studio and the birthplace of many magical recordings to come.
Surprisingly, for being only 10 years in existence, Valcour Records has released 27 records, ranging from the ultra-traditional like French folklorist Gérard Dôle’s Dennis McGee field sessions to Christine Balfa’s solo triangle record and Cedric Watson’s groundbreaking albums. Along the way, the rural Eunice-based imprint has netted nine Grammy nominations and one Grammy conquest in 2012 with the Band Courtbouillon featuring Cajun titans Wyane Toups, Steve Riley and Savoy’s younger brother Wilson.
While 2015 marks Valcour Records’ tenth anniversary, it also celebrates the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Alan Lomax, the esteemed folklorist who arrived in South Louisiana in 1934 as a young man with his folklorist father John. Equipped with a bulky 300-plus pound recording apparatus, the two traipsed the countryside, recording and documenting music and traditions for the Library of Congress that otherwise might have become extinct. They visited many South Louisiana parishes and recorded a diverse array of material that wasn’t all Cajun and Creole. Without the contribution of the Lomaxes, the two sister genres would look very different today, perhaps even sparse to some. “They collected this huge and enormously important body of material that we are still wrestling with today,” explains Joshua Clegg Caffery, currently Visiting Professor in Folklore at Indiana University in Bloomington and a former bandmate of Savoy’s in the charter incarnation of the Red Stick Ramblers.
In modern times, BeauSoleil, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Wayne Toups, Feufollet, the Magnolia Sisters, Bonsoir, Catin, T-Salé and Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble are among those that have culled material from the Lomax Archives and recorded it with full band arrangements, hence fortifying and reinvigorating the genre through discovery, recycling and reinvention.
Seventy-nine years (2013) after the Lomaxes’ Southwest Louisiana sonic-mining expedition, Caffery was releasing his groundbreaking tome Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana, a heady 344-page resource that comprehensively examined the Lomax corpus with French lyric translations that essentially grew out of his dissertation. Along with the book’s release, Caffery launched a website (www.lomax1934.com) that contains digitized versions of the 1934 field recordings.
Around the time of the book’s pending release, Caffery gathered a few musicians such as Savoy, Bonsoir, Catin’s Kristi Guillory, T’Monde’s Megan Brown and The Revelers’ Chas Justus to play a few gigs of Lomax selections as a way of illustrating the songs he found particularly interesting. “So we did the  Louisiana Book Festival and Black Pot Festival. And after those gigs, which were fun, Joel said ‘Why don’t we make an album of this stuff?’ I said ‘Sure, why not?,’” not realizing that they were embarking on Valcour Records’ most ambitious project yet and first box set ever.
“At first, we were going to record it in one weekend with that small group of people, and were trying to find time to do it. I was in DC (working as an Alan Lomax Fellow in Folklife Studies at the John W. Kluge Center in the Library of Congress).” With Caffery’s relocation and Savoy and Justus’ constant touring schedule, it was becoming increasingly difficult to make it happen. “So we ended up deciding hey, let’s just do it working with different artists.”
From there the project rapidly expanded as Savoy and Caffery ran into various musicians, such as Givers’ Tiffany Lamson, and solicited their interest in the project. “We sent her to the website and she ended up finding a song that really caught her ear. Michael Doucet had tunes that he already played from the Lomax collection after doing similar things for a long time.”
“So it was very much a combination of things, a mix of me having ideas, Joel having ideas and then the artists coming up with their own ideas from reading the book, using the website and being inspired by different things,” Caffery says. “It was pretty loose as far as the artistic direction of it. ‘Hey, we have access to all this stuff now. Let’s have fun with it.’”
All in all, the project blossomed to include approximately 37 participants, touring professionals and otherwise. Folklorist/retired ULL professor Barry Ancelet even sang one song. “It was almost like what the Lomaxes were doing themselves. In some degree, it is a very professional, highly-produced album and to some degree, it’s like a field recording where we were working with people who were interested in the music regardless if they were established, professional musicians.”
While it would be easy to release a box set of perhaps a staggering 80-100 renditions of songs culled from the Lomax Archives, it would be a lot to digest at once and certainly not feasible economically. Instead, co-producer Savoy took the “less is more approach,” and opted to release it in bite-sized chunks in a series of four separate six-song EPs. “I would hate for people to feel overwhelmed by the amount of music and not get to spend time listening to each track,” Savoy explained in an email. “Releasing the project in four parts allows us to customize the listening experience. We picked six songs for each EP that flow well together and make a nice rounded representation of the project as a whole which, I hope, will keep the listener wanting more.”
The resultant box set I Wanna Sing Right: Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country features a cover shot of sugar cane blowing in the wind, a common sight when the Lomaxes visited South Louisiana. It also could be interpreted as how cultures can grow and flourish when seeded by new discoveries, or, in this case, field recordings. The first EP, Part One: Bad Boys and Good Men, was released on May 1, with three more quarterly installments to follow.
Savoy came up with the idea of having themes for each EP. Caffery, having sifted through this massive body of material, picked the particular themes for each release. “To some degree, it is an arbitrary thing. It could have been organized in any sort of way, but with the songs that we ended up with, those seemed to make the most sense.”
The second track of Bad Boys and Good Men, “Batson,” is a tale about a historic 1902 mass murder. It was particularly of interest to Caffery since the song’s deputy Isaac Fontenot was an ancestor of his wife Claire. “My wife sang the song, and her brother [John Oliver] provided harmony, so we thought that would be interesting to have the actual descendents of the deputy performing the song, you know?”
“That’s what I was really interested in, songs that had this rich back story of people I didn’t know too much about,” Caffery says. “I was interested in songs that were from traditions that weren’t necessarily Cajun and Creole accordion and fiddle music. That was a blues ballad and there was definitely some interesting country blues going on, so I wanted to shine a light on some of the parts of the collection that contained music that wasn’t as well known.”
Another interesting connection was with Dirk Powell on “The Waco Girl” that’s analogous to the gory “The Knoxville Girl” popularized by the Louvin Brothers. “‘The Waco Girl” is an old murder ballad whose origins go back to 17th-century England, and it show ups in variations and different parts of America,” says Caffery. “We got Dirk to do it, who, to some degree, is a Scots-Irish person from Appalachia living in Louisiana, and I thought that was appropriate because that is what that song really is historically. It probably reflects the influence of Scots-Irish and Anglo-American folksongs in the area.”
BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet performed one of his favorite longtime Lomax selections “La Chanson de Théogène Dubois” live at radio station KRVS with Savoy on guitar and Bonsoir, Catin’s Danny Devillier’s on bongos. Though it has always had a Caribbean orchestral flavor when performed by BeauSoleil, here it leans more towards a strand of island folk music, with Doucet alternating between fiddle and mandolin.
Overall, the arrangements are consistently inventive, providing a fresh, new way to savor material that was originally a cappella-centric. Savoy and wife Kelli Jones-Savoy rock out on the advisory “Inch Above Your Knee.” Jones-Savoy plays a thick riff on rhythm guitar while lead guitarist Savoy compliments with cool licks and stinging notes for an early Rolling Stones influence. “Le Garçon Sans Soucis” starts with a marching snare beat as if it were a trip to the gallows, with whistling and other effects that could have come straight out of a ’60s spaghetti western. “Le Jolie Fille el le Garçon Colonial,” sung a cappella by Megan Brown, closes out Part One: Bad Boys and Good Men and circles back to the type of field recordings that the Lomaxes obtained.
If Bad Boys and Good Men is any indication, future installments Part Two: Dancing and Seduction, Part Three: Love and Death and Part Four: Good Women and Bad Girls should be highly anticipated. Think of it as a sonic Flash Gordon serial, just without the popcorn.