Published on November 29 2012, Oxford American Magazine
DRAGGED THROUGH THE FOREST: The Long-Gone Sound of Amédé
Music critic Amanda Petrusich is the author of several books, including IT STILL MOVES: LOST SONGS, LOST HIGHWAYS, AND THE SEARCH FOR THE NEXT AMERICAN MUSIC.
I first met Christopher King in central Virginia, in August 2011, the same afternoon Hurricane Irene came whipping through the area. I’d been referred to him for help with a project about collectors of rare 78-rpm records, and I spent most of the drive to his home dodging cracked branches and other tree-borne detritus, eventually parking my rental car in a giant puddle and booking it to his doorstep. The man I met at the door had short, dark hair that he combed back and to the side, and a pale, round face that suggested a certain kind of old-fashioned innocence, although in actuality he was sharp and acerbic, quick with an eye roll and unlikely to let you get away with saying anything stupid. He was an easy person to talk records with: precise but open-minded, which was good, because he spent much of the next year, on and off the telephone, patiently walking me through the nuances of various recorded phenomena.
King works most days as a production coordinator at Rebel Records, a bluegrass label, and County Records, an old-time label, both based in Charlottesville, but he is also the owner of Long Gone Sound Productions, a sound engineering and historical-music production company. On his office desk, alongside a big outmoded computer, there’s a green Remington typewriter. His eyeglasses are from another era. He doesn’t own a mobile phone and referred to mine as a “smart-thing.” His house in rural Faber, which he shares with his wife and daughter, is outfitted with an assortment of carefully vetted antiques and oddities. Like many collectors, King has insulated himself from the facets of modernity he finds most distasteful. During one of our conversations, he asked me if Lady Gaga was, indeed, “a lady.” He was not being coy or funny. He is forty-one years old.
In the winter of 2010, King masterminded the release of Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone, the complete recorded works of the black Cajun accordionist Amédé Ardoin, who is recognized today as a forefather of the genre. It was the first installment in King’s “Long Gone Sound Series,” for the Tompkins Square label, and is still the only comprehensive collection of Ardoin’s music ever issued.
Amédé Ardoin was born in the spring of 1898, the grandson of slaves. His family worked as sharecroppers at the Rougeau farm in L’Anse des Rougeau, near Basile, Louisiana. Ardoin tried his best to avoid field labor whenever possible, preferring to tote his Monarch accordion to house parties, where he’d team up with like-minded fiddlers and play early iterations of the frenzied dance songs that would eventually constitute the Cajun canon. The music is, above all, a physical incitement, a call to the floor: two-steps and one-steps and waltzes, songs to move to and be moved by. Between 1929 and 1934, Ardoin recorded seventeen two-sided 78-rpm records for a handful of labels, all of which King has gathered, studied, and sequenced over two compact discs. King also produced, notated, and re-mastered the set himself, and nearly all the source 78s were plucked from his private collection, itself a vast and staggering thing. Why is Ardoin so important to King? “I just naturally, intensely, obsessively gravitate toward music that is emotionally unhinged.”
In the liner notes for Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone, King writes that Ardoin “left us a legacy that, in at least two respects, shouldn’t exist.” The first of those concerns scarcity: Prewar 78s are a finite resource, and the discovery and acquisition of playable Cajun records from the 1920s and ’30s is a near-farcical pursuit. Records, collectors will tell you, have a way of hiding, and it’s not inconceivable that any number of Ardoin’s sides could have stayed buried, decomposing at the bottom of a mottled cardboard box in some clammy bayou basement. As it stands, there are only one to three extant copies of most of Ardoin’s 78s, all in varying states of decay.
In the late 1990s, after King heard his first Ardoin 78, at the collector Joe Bussard’s house, he methodically set about trying to acquire all seventeen records, a process that remains somewhat mysterious to me but seems to have involved a lot of heated late-night phone calls and swashbuckling trips into barns. Ardoin’s 78s have to be finessed into possession. They rarely appear at auction, and convincing a collector to sell or trade one involves a complex psychological and economic algorithm that boils down to figuring out what someone wants more than the record you’re trying to acquire, and getting your paws on that, often by repeating the process with yet another collector.
The other reason Ardoin’s music ought not exist, according to King, is a little more complicated, having to do with Ardoin himself, or, more specifically, with his singing voice, which in his notes King calls “seemingly not of this world.” One might be tempted, now, to cite a cornucopia of high, spectral American yelps—from Skip James to John Jacob Niles to Axl Rose—as analogues or even descendants, but Ardoin’s vocals are singular in their unearthliness. If you listen to Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone for any extended period of time, Ardoin’s voice (feral, galloping, deranged) starts to seem like a self-obliterating force. That it sustained him—that, in 1929, a person could saunter up to a fais do-do, swing open a door, and encounter it—is what King finds astonishing. I understand why: The first time you hear Ardoin wail, the sound demands a reckoning, an acknowledgement that maybe you don’t know everything you thought you knew, and, in fact, maybe you don’t know anything at all.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Musicians recognize that there is both a discovery and an abandonment of self that can occur onstage; when Ardoin sings, the self that emerges feels like a manifestation of the collective unconscious, like I am singing and you are singing and everyone we know is singing, but there’s no supreme harmony to conceal all our mess and yearning. It seems worth noting that I have no idea what Ardoin is talking about most of the time, at least not in the literal sense. I don’t speak the language (King describes it as “Cajun French speckled with Creole idioms”), and the handwritten transcriptions King offered up at my request seemed nearly incidental separated from the music, like an epic meal reduced to its ingredients list.
What King told me is that it’s possible most of Ardoin’s songs are about one person: the girl to whom he was betrothed, or about to be betrothed—the most profound romantic fascination of his young life. As far as I can tell, theirs was a shotgun-to-the-temple, unbearable, drive-it-like-it’s-stolen love, uncompromising and insane. Something went wrong. They never married. According to “Valse Des Opelousas,” she left, crying. “Oh, tite fille, si tu m’aimerais comme t’as voulu me dire / Tu te sentirais pas déçue pour ça ils sont après te dire,” Ardoin sings after her. Oh, little girl, if you loved me as much as you said, you wouldn’t feel so disappointed by what they’re telling you.
“In my understanding of that culture, in that particular time period, because it was so intensely Catholic and superstitious, you got married, and you didn’t get a new wife or husband until the other one died,” King explained. “The same stigma was attached to betrothal.” Ardoin’s romantic outlook, from then on, was grim. The way King figured it, “There was a woman for you, and if you didn’t get that one, well, you know, you were just fucked.”
Because he couldn’t have her, Ardoin sang to her, over and over again. She appears often as “Jouline,” which King suspects was a pet name, a variation of “jolie,” or “pretty young thing,” though her actual name was Maisé Broussard. I imagine her as the kind of beautiful that makes your stomach hurt: sweet-faced and long-legged and a little mischievous around the eyes, too smart for her own good. King likes to think that Ardoin sang to her with the hope that she’d eventually hear his prayers and adjurations—that he believed he could, in effect, sing her back to his side. He was clearly ready to die trying. “Oh, tite fille, moi, j’ai dit je m’aurais jamais marié / Oh, c’est rapport de voir ça t’as fait avec moi,” he sighs at the end of “Valse Des Opelousas,” his body gutted, his voice tired. Oh, little girl, I said I would never marry. Oh, it’s because of seeing what you’ve done to me.
There is something both freeing (there is only one right choice) and terrifying (there is only one right choice) about Ardoin’s insistence upon Broussard, and whether that focus was culturally mandated or a personal imperative seems irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if Maisé Broussard heard these songs, or if she knew what Ardoin wanted. She was gone. She married someone else, and in her absence Ardoin became fundamentally, existentially unmoored. I’m certain this is the most brutal kind of loneliness.
“When I started to listen to Amédé Ardoin, I noticed this repeating pattern, these mentions of house and home: ‘I have no house to go to,’ ‘I have no home to go to,’” King told me. Indeed, Ardoin constantly equates heartbreak with being disowned, with being robbed of tenderness, and with being orphaned, and thus he reaffirms the clichés about loss fueling art, or loss necessitating art. “I would have to say, the obsession with this one woman—if indeed this narrative is true, and, as with a lot of narratives, I would like to believe it’s true; it makes it more romantic, more compelling—is what makes his music vastly more intense than practically any other Cajun performer from that time period,” King said. “Because when you listen to him alongside accordionists who were recording more or less during the same time period, they all play very nice accordion, and their delivery is tinged with emotion. But Ardoin’s has that little bit of extra hellishness to it.”
What King is too diplomatic to say is that eventually almost everything else sounds bloodless next to Ardoin. Anyone who has lost something will hear part of his or her hurt echoed back when Ardoin sings, but it’s a satisfying, transformative pain, like getting a tattoo or saying a particular kind of goodbye. When I asked King what he experienced the first time he heard Ardoin’s music, he didn’t equivocate. “It was like being grabbed by the neck and then being smacked around, and then being dragged through the forest,” he remembered. “But it was all seemingly pleasurable.”
Given that Ardoin’s recordings were intended for an isolated and indigent population—the two hundred thousand or so Cajuns and Creoles living in southwest Louisiana—who likely still thought of music as a thing to be encountered live, and not as an unwieldy black disc you brought back to your parlor and watched spin, it seems remarkable that they exist at all. “When you think about southwest Louisiana broadly, you’ve got the lake areas, the marshes, but principally you’ve got the Lafayette region, which is basically one hundred miles around. That happens to have also been the place where Ardoin played,” King said. “Why the hell would you go buy something when you could see it, participate in it?”
In his notes, King writes of how an American musical canon lacking Ardoin might have created a kind of “aesthetic starvation.” I was thinking about that late one summer night, after we’d both been drinking, and I told King I got the sense that the chain of events leading to the creation and dissemination of Ardoin’s records was somehow preordained and necessary. I was talking through the bourbon, but King and I had gotten into this kind of thing once before, on an early-morning drive to a flea market in Hillsville, Virginia, where King was junking 78s and I was taking notes. Back then, he’d suggested it was possible certain changes in the way we created and consumed music had directly contributed to a plague of cultural and personal degeneracy—that we required music like Ardoin’s, with its honesty and insistence upon itself, to help maintain our humanity. I think what he actually said was: “What the fuck happened to music?”
Later, on the phone, he clarified: “When you’re deprived of stuff this raw and yet so integrally tied to what a person ought to be, to where they came from—if you cut that away, if you amputate it, if you deny it, then you have an aesthetic starvation that leads to a starvation of other parts of the person.”
I’ve since spent a lot of time pestering King to isolate precisely what it is about Ardoin (and all the music he loves and collects, from Albanian folk songs to rural American ballads) that he can’t find elsewhere. I’m not sure what I want him to say. It’s possible I’m asking him to clarify my own relationship to the material, to tell me why it matters to me so that I can better manage what it makes me feel. He will admit only that unselfconsciousness—freedom, as he says, from the “insane lust to assimilate with this bland culture”—is paramount. “It seems like in the teens and ’20s and ’30s, there was a much, much stronger resistance to cultural assimilation. The first generation of immigrants, or people that lived in isolated, idiosyncratic pockets of the United States, knew their thing and they played their thing all the time and then that thing became second nature,” he has speculated. “So maybe that’s what makes it so uniquely compelling and powerful and overwhelming at the same time. These people are really fucking comfortable in their own skins, and I don’t think that you can say that about rock stars nowadays.”
Eventually, he always gives up, summarizing the essential paradox of Ardoin’s recordings like this: “Ultimately, they really shouldn’t exist. They’re just too beautiful.”
Collectors of 78s inhabit a curious role in the history of American music. They are gatekeepers by default, often the only men (and they are almost always men) with access to certain songs. King is generous with his bounty. Score an invitation to his house and he will play you almost anything you want to hear. The sets he curates are heartfelt, coherent things, as much an expression of King’s beliefs and point of view as the artists. “When I do these collections, there are things that are both intentional and unintentional in the background, that are lurking back there,” he admitted. Those narratives are conspicuous, even on Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone. Often, for King, they have to do with irrational longing, with what he defines, in the liner notes to Aimer et Perdre, the collection of prewar love and loss songs he recently produced, as “our inexplicable mulishness in seeking out relationships that we know will ultimately both enrich us and devastate us, more often at the same time.”
As fervent and dedicated as he is to collecting, King’s proficiency as a sound engineer is nearly unparalleled (he will cite Richard Nevins of Yazoo Records as his better), and while his collecting lets him get closer to Ardoin, it’s the re-mastering that allows him to actively participate in a song, becoming a part of the sound and, consequently, its legacy. Most of the source 78s on Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone were file copies, meaning they’d never been played before, but the more battered 78s necessitated a bit of mindful tinkering. “The thing I was going for, to put it in Rich Nevins’s words, was not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ but rather to demonstrate the vitality and the dynamics that were originally apparent within the studio when the actual recording took place, when the performance was made,” he told me. “By doing so, you’re necessarily going to get more noise. That’s just part of the spectrum, part of the frequency that you capture.”
King, for his part, hears things that other people don’t hear. He is capable of conjuring and magnifying tiny secrets—a foot-stomp, a person singing along from a different room—from records that, to modern ears, already sound preposterous. For example, one evening he told me to listen very carefully to “La Valse à Austin Ardoin.” “When the accordion break occurs between the vocals, you can hear him humming—like a Glenn Gould–type sound,” he said. Later, when I slipped the CD into my stereo and curled up near the speakers, I thought I caught it, about a minute in: Amédé Ardoin giddily humming along with himself, doubling the melody, goading it forward. For a second, Ardoin felt familiar to me, like I could finally understand his breath, the origin of his voice. But when I listened again, it was gone: a phantom. The feeling of loss was palpable, similar to the several-second delay between waking up from a magnificent, life-affirming dream and realizing that you’re going to have to use a folded paper towel as a coffee filter again, and also it’s raining. I emailed King. How had I lost it? How did he know it was a hum? How did he know it wasn’t just air escaping from the bellows?
He’d thought about it. “The main reason why I can differentiate it from the bellows is that on the diatonic accordion in D, you have to switch the push/pulls in order to play a natural progression of notes; to wit, to play the three natural notes D–E–F#, you will have to push on the D (third button, first position), pull on the E (third button, first position), and push on the F# (fourth button, first position). However, if you are playing a melodic line that depends on a long pull or a long push on the bellows (which is what Ardoin is doing, particularly when he plays strings of triplets), you are not going to hear any non-musical information (air from bellows) because the direction is not switched. Also, if you could hear air blowing out from the bellows, then your accordion would need some repair (a hole in the bellows for instance or a leaky reed or stop), and Ardoin would have fixed that or had it fixed prior to recording,” he wrote back. “Also, I can hear it, can’t you?”
I understood it was a thing we both needed. But I couldn’t. I don’t.
Although Ardoin played with many fiddlers in his lifetime, including the incomparable Douglas Bellard, his most enduring creative partnership was with Dennis McGee, an orphaned white sharecropper from Eunice, Louisiana, who is credited on twenty of Ardoin’s thirty-four sides. Such interracial alliances weren’t unprecedented, but it’s likely the relationship was socially fraught. McGee probably recommended Ardoin to Columbia Records, which would make him ultimately responsible for Ardoin existing outside of his time and place. McGee himself had probably been suggested to the label by the pioneering guitar and accordion duo Joe and Cléoma Falcon. Back then, recording artists were recruited almost exclusively by word of mouth.
There is a mystical quality to McGee and Ardoin’s dynamic, a seemingly fated synchronicity. “They’re driving each other,” King said of it. “They’re pushing each other forward. McGee’s fiddle is edging Ardoin to play better, and Ardoin’s playing is edging McGee to play better. To me, it’s one of those rare instances in the whole phenomenon of musical performance where two people make each other perfect.” McGee and Ardoin met as kids, when they were working on the same farm. According to King, they may have started to play together when Ardoin was just ten or twelve years old. As adults, they shared a sense of alienation, of rootlessness. “McGee’s mother died, and McGee’s father really couldn’t take care of him, and so he sent him to live with some relations,” King explained. “The relations really disliked McGee. And McGee disliked his relations.”
In 1983, a ninety-year-old McGee, being interviewed by Alan Lomax for Lomax’sAmerican Patchwork series on PBS, spoke gently of his former partner. “He could make people cry when he sing, oh boy, he was a good singer,” McGee said, nodding, his voice soft. I can only imagine what Ardoin would have said of McGee, who is now widely considered a progenitor of prewar Cajun music, a fierce and intensely mesmerizing player, a savant. On that same trip, Lomax shot video footage of McGee sitting on the front porch of his home in Eunice, playing “Adieu Rosa” while one of those grand, sky-bruising Louisiana thunderstorms lumbered past. McGee died six years later, in 1989. The performance is still a startling thing to behold: His head is thrust back and the rest of his body moves jerkily, like a zombie’s; he blindly stomps a loafer on worn porch boards. McGee doesn’t seem entirely present when he plays, and I envy him that solace. Wherever he goes, it seems quiet, insulated. What it yields for the rest of us—waiting out here—is staggering.
The story of Amédé Ardoin’s death is apocryphal, something he shares with the Delta blues singers Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. Sometimes mythology supersedes fact for so long that it becomes its own kind of truth by virtue of our belief in it; or, as with Ardoin, the details vary but the arc stays the same, stays true. Here’s what we think we know, based on firsthand accounts collected decades later: Ardoin was playing a party, when the white daughter of the house either lent him her handkerchief to wipe his face, or went so far as to mop the sweat from his nose herself. A group of men who King believes were from out of town—Virginia, or maybe north Louisiana—were so deeply appalled by the gesture that they surrounded and attacked Ardoin when he tried to leave, or they ran him over repeatedly with a Model A Ford before kicking his limp body into a ditch, or both. Whatever happened, Ardoin didn’t die, not right then—not in the medical sense. Friends and witnesses described him as “damaged.” His vocal cords were minced, and he began, as King writes, “a slow descent into solipsism and silence, a sudden loss of comprehension, and an inability to play and sing.” Not long after, on September 26, 1942, he was institutionalized, sent off to an asylum in Pineville, Louisiana, where he died less than six weeks later and was buried in a common grave. In one story, which King cites in his notes, Ardoin was spotted briefly outside of the asylum, hoofing it back to Acadiana, still looking, I like to think, for Maisé Broussard.