By Nick Spitzer
I barely understood the Creole-accented French, but the message of his genteel smile and hospitality was clear. It was the spring of 1973, and I was a backstage stranger to him in a cold climate. He was performing at the venerable Mariposa Folk Festival on an island near Toronto. In the years since, Bois Sec has been a teacher of mine, and many others, for old-time music and his culture -- the enduring ways of rural Creole French Louisiana.
Too often today when we talk about promoting Louisiana culture to the world, we forget that artists like Bois Sec have been and will always be our greatest ambassadors. He wasn't at that folk festival for the money, he was there to share his music out of pride and happiness that others would appreciate it. Embedded in that long ago moment are my first impressions of Louisiana from a native artist. Ardoin's tradition then was not just surviving, it was thriving -- the waltzes, two-steps, mazurkas, French songs and Caribbean rhythms of old-time county Creole music were a font for the rapid emergence of the more urban zydeco, with its big beat blues and soul, wailing piano accordion and syncopated scraped frottoir. On stage that day with Bois Sec and his guitarist and eldest son, Morris, was Cajun fiddler Doc Guidry. The instant message was that this was a tradition shared by family and friends -- and that those friends might easily cross the very color lines that were so well-drawn and critiqued in progressive Northern latitudes.
Sociology aside, it was Ardoin's stance as a performer that held the audience rapt. He was at once dignified and down-home, proper with a touch of mischief. Bois Sec was compact in stature, but appeared unbelievably strong -- a working man who made his living with his hands as une petite habitant, a small-scale farmer. He also used his hands to squeeze the accordion on Saturday night at the club, or for a Sunday afternoon bal de maison.
Topping off Ardoin's style was a small brim dress hat, tipped back on his head as he walked jauntily about the festival grounds. On stage, Bois Sec took the hat off to reveal neat salt-and-pepper hair. A small square mustache extended narrowly over his upper lip, carefully trimmed in a colonial French style that I would later learn remained distinctive among Creoles. His countenance and confidence were amazing -- not the stereotype of downtrodden country folk all too prevalent in the media of the times. The photograph of Bois Sec on this page is from that day.
One year and 2,500 miles later, I would encounter Bois Sec again. This time, I was lost on a country road in Evangeline Parish, near where I was staying with my host, the Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa. Suddenly, a hand-made sign appeared on a telephone pole. It read: "Ardoin Family Tonite, 4 Corners Club." The evening proved to be my road map into the family-based culture of rural black Creoles or Monde Créole, as the people often said to distinguish themselves from the Cajun majority.
The band that night also included the Creole fiddle master Canray Fontenot. Bois Sec's longtime musical partner and foil had a brilliant smile and fluid bow arm that countered Ardoin's quiet humor and insistent accordion. After a night of dancing intensity, I was again invited home -- now much less a stranger -- to a Sunday après-midi dance at Morris' place. The converted sharecropper's house as dancehall seemed to me like the cabin in "Johnny B. Goode." But this was not a fictional song -- it was home to la vie Créole.
The day unfolded with an after-dance blackbird gumbo prepared by Ardoin's wife, Marceline, the community matriarch and mother of their 14 children. I would hear the tale about the late cousin Amédé Ardoin, the early Creole recording artist and a musical influence on Cajuns and Creoles alike. The story recounted the almost unbearable tragedy of Amédé's brutal near-death beating at the hands of a white dance patron who felt threatened when his daughter wiped the musician's brow. More up to date, Bois Sec could point to clubs at the edge of nearby Mamou where vigilantes still enforced the color line with curses and violence. At the same time Ardoin, himself born in 1916, expressed family pride in his maternal great-great grandfather, Cyprien Ceaser, a free man of color who had provided the land for an original cemetery and for whom the Ardoins' small prairie community among the pines was named L'Anse 'Prien Noir (Black Cyprien's Cove). Ardoin held no ill will for anyone; this was family land. Bois Sec was and is steeped in Catholic charity for his fellowman.
Bois Sec's nickname translates to "Dry Wood," and came from a childhood jest about his scampering from the fields to the barn at the first drop of rain. Early on, Bois Sec managed to also use some of his time hiding in the barn to surpass older brother Delphin as the family's designated accordionist -- by practicing on a "borrowed" instrument. From 1948 until Canray Fontenot's death in 1995, Bois Sec and the fiddler would play together variously as the Duralde Ramblers and the Ardoin Family. The music would take them from small un-air-conditioned Creole clubs to the Newport Folk Festival in 1966 and a seminal documentary recording on Biograph Records during that trip. Ardoin was featured later in Les Blank's film Dry Wood, my own 1986 documentary Zydeco: Creole Music and Culture in Rural Louisiana and many anthologies by documentarians from France and Quebec, as well as in American recordings on Arhoolie and Rounder Records. Ardoin and Fontenot toured Europe and Canada, played the Smithsonian and Carnegie Hall. Both men received National Heritage Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1986. When NEA concert host Studs Terkel described them as "black Cajuns," the men gently and memorably reminded him to huge audience response that they were "black people, Creoles from Louisiana!"
Back home, Bois Sec hunted, fished and worked as a sharecropper to put food on the table in the house he built with his own hands. He carried forward the family tradition of songs like "Quo' Faire," "Les Blues de Voyage" and "Amédé Two-Step." The worldly travels were enjoyable, but he took far greater satisfaction in seeing his sons Lawrence, Morris, Gustave, Russell and Ronald play in the family band. Indeed, he was prepared to pass the accordion on to the next chosen son, Gustave -- considered the Bois Sec of his generation in style and temperament -- when tragedy struck. Gus died in a rail-crossing accident one foggy night after a dance. Deeply saddened but determined, Bois Sec rededicated himself to playing on. He has lived to see grandsons Chris, Sean, Alphonse Paul and other young kin take up the instrument with bands of their own. He smiles cautiously through the hip-hop-inflected sets of some of the kids, but absolutely beams at the old songs in the voices of musical friends like Christine Balfa and Dirk Powell, and especially with the recent successes of young Dexter Ardoin, Morris' son. Dexter and his band, the Creole Ramblers, play something close to the old Creole sound and have even enticed some young dudes to take up the fiddle -- unthinkable 30 years ago. Such is the powerful cultural continuity flowing into the 21st century from the senior patriarch of old-time Creole music: Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin.