alk about different! Oh, ouais, it was different!" Octa Clark concluded his remarks about the dance halls in which he performed thirty years ago. "You never saw my daughter?" he changed the subject. Rising from his chair he preceded us into the next room and pointed proudly to his family photographs. A sepia-toned one among them depicted a mustachioed man in a straight-back chair and a plump, bespectacled woman who regarded us severely. These hard- bitten ancestors were surnamed Woodson and the man evidently spoke both French and English. Octa Clark himself could not even say, "How do you do?" when he started school, and to this day his wife speaks only French.

"Clark isn’t a French name, huh?" I asked.

"Well, I don't know about the other ones, but I am, ouais," the old man laughed. He was born sixty-nine years ago to a well-to-do family that owned nearly four hundred acres of corn and cotton. Mr. Octa (a term of affectionate respect) farmed until four years ago, and he now raises vegetables in a big, loamy patch alongside the house his father left him. He also plays music for his own entertainment and to please his neighbors, friends and family. In his home in Judice he produces some of the richest accordion music to wail out over the prairies of southwest Louisiana.

LISTEN to


La Valse des Meches

"Bosco Stomp"

was nine years old when I start learning," Mr. Octa began his musical history, "but when I get fourteen years old, I start playing public dances Ouais, yes, I play house dances. Sometime two, three times in the week they have house dance, you know, and on the Saturday and the Sunday they have public dance. At that time we play with those ‘tit fers (triangle – literally "little iron") and a fiddle. No guitar, nothing: no drum, nothing.

"Well, we start using amplifiers, I don't remember exactly when. But when the people make so much noise in the dance hall so we need something strong to make everything go. One place I play a dance and they tag 425 ticket that was sold. And I had no amplifier or nothing and they all hear the music. Because we was about that high – we'd get on the table, high so the sound can go up. And no noise. No noise. Mais, now? HO!" He broke his speech with a sharp yell and laughed uproariously, good-naturedly.

r. Octa was evidently quite popular when he

played dances regularly: "You know, some place the dance had no more business, so they hire me to go there and play – Octa Clark and the Dixie Rambler. And when the people heard that, they all come." He takes an unpretentious pleasure in his music. Joseph Falcon, the first man to record and popularize the Cajun accordion, asked Mr. Octa to play at his club in Crowley. "So I went over there, and the first dance I play they had a lot of people. The second dance, the people heard about that and they come back again and they can't sit down. Joe Falcon get up on the bandstand and he say, 'That's one of the champion."

cta returns the compliment by praising old timers who have earned his acclaim. Hector Duhon, who plays the fiddle on this recording, is an old friend and distant relation. "Hector play exactly right in the tune – that's with me is what I mean. And some don't. Some play gi-donk, gi-donk, gi-donk, and it don't sit right with the music like Hector's do."

Before the advent of the amplifier the old-time fiddle style which Hector Duhon represents was evidently more frequently performed than today. The melody is reinforced by the fiddle, which usually plays in unison with the accordion.

Hector Duhon

uhon is a repairman of butane and propane appliances, but for many years music has been one of his major interests. At the age of nine or ten he constructed his first fiddle from a cigar box and the first tune he played was T'es Petite mais T’es Mignonne ("You're little but you're cute"). Accordion music faded from public favor and was hardly heard in southwest Louisiana during the 1930's, the popular music of that day being heavily influenced by hillbilly string band music. Accordingly, Hector Duhon quit playing Cajun music and performed with the Dixie Ramblers, a family string band of twin fiddles and two guitars. They traveled to New Orleans in 1936 during the peak of their popularity and cut six sides of blues and swing on the Bluebird label.

t the Stutes-Duhon family reunion in Lake Charles in the summer of 1973 the entertainment commenced with the reunion of the three remaining original Dixie Ramblers. As the afternoon progressed and the younger musicians took over, the music gradually modulated from traditional French. blues, and swing numbers, to country and western and rock and roll. Bessyl, the oldest of Hector's five sons, played bass with his brothers and cousins.

"Bessyl picked cotton for his first guitar." his mother, Grace, told me. The guitar, which cost him over two days’ labor, he hid behind a tree for two days to keep his parents from seeing it. Hector had abandoned music when he married, and he apparently saw no good in Bessyl's desire to learn how to play. But Bessyl met clandestinely with a cousin who knew some chords and had a Hank Williams songbook. Hector's opposition didn't last too long. When Bessyl entered high school, father and son began playing regularly with Mr. Octa, with Bessyl on steel guitar. They performed Saturday evenings on the Bayou Jamboree, a now defunct Lafayette radio program.

Bessyl gave Mister Octa notice after two years and entered the world of early rock and roll around 1954 as lead guitarist in the locally popular Riff Raffs. The influence of popular song in Bessyl's music is indelible, but as this recording proves, he still plays traditional French tunes on guitar in the simple, old-timey fashion. Although he played a fiddle at his first dances, Bessyl’s circuitous musical career strayed for many years from the French music that he heard first. About two years ago he reestablished his interest in Cajun music. His profound admiration for Mister Octa's music encouraged him to learn the accordion. Sam Charters, the well-known folk music collector, recently released an album in Europe that includes an entire side of Bessyl's accordion playing. Today, Bessyl derives most of his income from installing air conditioners, but he supplements it by playing accordion, fiddle, bass, and guitar at local dances.

The dances Mr. Octa played at Bessyl's age were quite different in nature from those Bessyl plays today. And it was this lost era on which the old man expounded. "The dance hall used to be quieter, no whiskey selling, and no table. The only thing, they had a bench all around the dance hall. The old people sit around the dance hall. All night they sit down, but the young folk don't sit down at all. And they don't stand there and talk too much, no.

ou can't brought a girl to the dance like today – they won't let you go in. If you're married, that's okay. Mais, oh no, you can't go in if you bring a lady friend. The old folk bring their young folks to the dance, you know. Oh yes, it's true. Oh, they was strict. Talk about strict! "And the only thing you got to drink there is some pop. They serve pop and ice cream about the middle of the dance when they call for a waltz for the old folks. So if the old folks want to dance, they dance. And, we'd say from the bandstand, 'Everyone go spend his dime – treat your lady to the bar.' They go over there; they drink a pop or they eat a ice cream. 'Treat your lady! Oh boy, they all go. We'd say it, 'Chacun son dix sous la bar!' (Everyone spend his ten cents at the bar) "Some brought whisky with them. Mais the people don't drink much at the dance in that time. The musicians might drink a little, mais not much. We had whisky – moonshine. You know what kind of bierre they have in that time?. That homebrew. But today everybody drink bierre – lady and everybody. In that time you saw no lady drinking in the dance hall. And the lady don't smoke. Nothing. A man can't smoke in the dance hall! Oh no, cher. And they can't get in the dance with his hat. Oh yeah, but they change all that.

"It come slow, you know. Sometime you saw a lady that come from New Orleans or something like that – you saw a lady smoke. And now you can see that a lot. The young, young people smoke. And that's the way it goes." He ended on a philosophical note.

LYRICS and TRANSLATION
"La Valse des Meches"

"Bosco Stomp"

 

Mr. Octa's back porch

  Bessyl Duhon, Octa Clark, Hector Duhon 

ow is his accordion music different from the dance hall playing of today? "The young kid now play all their dances (tunes) on four note (buttons). That's all they play. And I never do that. I play all over. Sometime I play nine note." (There are ten buttons on a French accordion). They call that play single or play double. (That is, pressing one button or two buttons simultaneously). I play double all the time.

Surprisingly, Mr. Octa has never before cut a record. Since the 1920's, when the fledgling recording industry sent scouts to south Louisiana, a large percentage of Cajun musicians have managed to cut at least several sides. The old '78's, and for that matter the 45's which are locally produced in large numbers, did not bring much recognition or remuneration to the artists; for the most part the records have been a way to increase the musicians' local popularity in the dance halls. Mister Octa turned down a number of offers in the past.

hen he arrived at the Swallow studio in Ville Platte with Hector and Bessyl he was ready to play. Mr. Octa was dressed in his Sunday best – his hair neatly parted necktie in place and shoes immaculate. When the last beer had been drunk and the last playback listened to, he rose, satisfied. Before they left I heard him say with something approaching amazement at his own performance, "Some of them say they can’t play so good when they get old – their fingers get stiff or something. Mais I know I play better now than when I was young. I learn more all the time."

 LYRICS and TRANSLATION
"
La Valse des Meches"

"Bosco Stomp"

 

copyright 1974 and 1999
Ron and Fay Stanford