Dennis McGee - Himself - Valcour Records
Few people can be justifiably regarded as both an originator of a particular style of music and also as a conveyor of an older style of folk music in its own right. Fewer still are those who were aurally documented in the 1920s & 1930s and in the 1970s & 1980s who showed little loss of skill or recollection of repertoire. One such artist was the unique Cajun, Dennis McGee.
Not only did McGee record from 1929 to 1934 with such artists as Amédé Ardoin, Sady Courville, Wade Fruge, and Angelas Le Jeunne, but he also later recorded two "studio" albums in 1972 and 1977 with Sady Courville for Morning Star and Swallow, respectively. Every recording mentioned above was done either with a second fiddler and with McGee providing the vocals, or in the role of the accompanying fiddler behind an accordion player and vocalist. This new CD, Dennis McGee - Himself, presents McGee in the role of solo fiddler, playing mostly previously unheard instrumentals without the company of a second fiddler or an accordion player. It is a revelation on par with "junking" a stack of unknown & unissued test recordings by one of the most majestic and unique fiddlers ever to draw a bow.
Since McGee was one of the earliest Cajun artists to record commercially, most musicians, collectors, and scholars regard him, along with the black accordion player, Amédé Ardoin, as the source of most traditional Cajun tunes and the techniques developed to play them; the true vine, as it were. What has been lacking, up until the release of this material recorded in 1975 by Gérard Dôle, were recordings of McGee performing unaccompanied and, perhaps more importantly, performing the more archaic and obscure types of Cajun fiddle tunes that were popular in the 19th century. This is essential since mazurkas, polkas, gallopades, varsoviannas, and cotillions held a strong place in the early Cajun fiddle and dance repertoire but became less popular with the introduction of the diatonic accordion. One of the most revealing aspects of this collection, though not explicitly stated, is that traditional Cajun fiddle music is defined more by its repertoire than by its style.
When contemporary Cajun musicians and aficionados play fiddle tunes identified with McGee, they mainly play the waltzes, two-steps, one-steps, and occasionally a reel, that McGee either recorded in the early part of the 20th century with Ardoin or Courville; or, more likely, recorded in the early 1970s with Courville when they were "rediscovered." Although these popular pieces in the McGee, (and subsequently traditional Cajun) tune-body, possess an irresistible charm, it is interesting to hear and observe how the earlier dance tunes such as the mazurka or the galopades bleed into the more popular, and easier to play, waltzes and two-steps, coloring certain strains of the melody. Students and teachers nowadays try to play these early waltzes and two-steps with the melody constantly being complemented with a drone, i.e., playing simultaneously the prime note with a first or third note an octave below. However, listening to McGee on this collection, one notices how cleanly McGee plays the melodic line, with only subtle and measured use of the drone notes.
Indeed, when one listens carefully to McGee's masterful fiddle duets with Courville and Fruge, one can discern McGee carefully and forcefully playing the melodic line while the second fiddler tastefully supports the melody with chords, harmony and atmospheric drones. What this collection reveals clearly is how sophisticated and emotive McGee's playing was when he had no second fiddler or accordion player by his side. It also gives us a breathtaking glimpse at what the earliest Cajun fiddle music and social dances must have sounded like before the introduction of various outside elements such as the diatonic accordion, the electrification and amplification of instruments, and the rapid assimilation of other styles such as Western Swing and classic Country & Western music.
It is no hyperbole to assert that most of the tunes heard on this particular set have probably not been heard since McGee learned them in his youth, at the turn of the twentieth century. The fact that McGee was a "student" of a fiddle master who was a hundred years old suggests that McGee was able to tap into the earliest repertoire of Cajun social music; the fiddle music for balls and dances that were all the rage in the Antebellum South. Due to the relative geographic and cultural isolation of Southwest Louisiana at the time, what McGee was able to learn and perform could certainly be defined as one of the rarest American musical treasures of the 20th century.
The producer of this collection, Gérard Dôle, met McGee in the summer of 1975 while on a field trip to Louisiana. Fortunately, McGee was both talkative and receptive to recording. Of particular interest to the student of Cajun fiddling are the numerous comments that McGee makes on the origin and function of a particular dance piece as well as a demonstration of the various tunings that he used. In addition to the detailed and highly personal notes by Dôle, there is a complete transcription of all the Cajun French comments (translated into English) by McGee during the recording available as a download from the website of Valcour records.
Dôle also notes that the recordings were made using a Nagra III and a Beyer M 69 N Dynamic microphone. The capture is remarkably warm and splendidly detailed. McGee, even forty years earlier, was a fiddler who could be shrill and sharp in his attack on the fiddle and yet most of the recordings made in 1975 are not only smooth but are also very faithful to the original melodic line. For instance, McGee's performance from 1975, seemingly very relaxed, of Adieu Rosa, is stunningly close to his 1929 recording for Vocalion. This conceivably impossible task for an eighty-two year old man is a testament not only to McGee's passionate artistry and command of repertoire but also to Dôle's ability to coax out these nearly forgotten tunes from a true master.
A few words are in order about the producer, recorder, and notes-writer of this collection: Gérard Dôle . Mr. Dôle, in addition to recording this and several other field recordings of traditional Cajun musicians, has also issued several LPs and CDs of his own playing as well as the earliest known instructional LP on learning to play the Cajun diatonic accordion. If this were not enough, he has also authored the seminal text on Cajun and Creole music prior to the American Civil War, Histoire Musicale Des Acadiens - De la Nouvelle-France à La Louisiane 1604-1804. This CD is an invaluable addition to his overarching contribution of texts and recordings pertaining to Southwest Louisiana. I cannot overstate the importance of this release for those that wish to have a deeper knowledge of traditional American, French, and Cajun fiddle music.
Christopher C. King
ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303
“These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal. For information about ARSC, see www.ARSC-audio.org.”