Make the Songs Your Own
As he states in his authoritative body of work, Roger Mason is neither a Cajun, nor a trained ethnomusicologist, but a retired music teacher who lived in France for most of his adult life. In
1969, he became enchanted with Louisiana Francophone music and started collecting lesser-known story songs that eventually resulted in this gorgeous songbook illustrated by French artist Yves Gros. Similar to Irene Whitfield’s 1939 seminal Louisiana French Folk Songs, Mason provides lyrics and translations, explanations and staff music with guitar chords for over 50 songs to be sung by old and new audiences alike. All songs deal with the many facets of love, divided into various categories.
Several songs were learned from ballad singer Alma Barthélemy, who was neither Cajun nor Creole but an Atakapas Ishak/Chawasha Native American who Mason interviewed and field recorded on various stateside visits. Barthélemy’s treasure trove “Pyrame et Thisbé” parallels the story of Romeo and Juliet but deviates with Pyrame ending his life, erroneously thinking Thisbé had already died.
Though Mason states his intent was not to present songs from the popular Cajun dancehall vein, nonetheless, there are a few. Some songs, like Rodney Balfa’s version of “Les petits yeux
noirs,” were learned from The Balfa Brothers during their tours of France in the ’70s. Interestingly, “J’ai passé devant ta porte” is listed here with six verses, whereas more modern renditions typically have only two or three, thus placing this version in an earlier context.
One song, “Quand vous voudrez faire une amie” dates back to the 16th century but oddly enough, its third verse bears some similarity to The Balfa Brothers’ “Parlez-nous à boire.”
But just because Mason documents traditional songs doesn’t mean he’s opposed to modifications. If you need to change a chord, a key or an accom-panying instrument; do it. “Printed songs are just blueprints, not the final product. Make the songs your own,” he writes. As Mason puts it, “The tradition is strong enough to hold up on its own.”