I Went to the Dance (J’ai été au bal)1989

A revived documentary about Cajun Zydeco music.

Written by:
Toba Singer
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All that I knew about Zydeco music came from the Mountain Stage radio programs I attended religiously, every Sunday afternoon, when I lived in Charleston, West Virginia. My son’s dulcimer teacher, Bob Webb, was one of the regulars. One of the Twister Sisters, Julia, when I bumped into her at a sale where we were eyeing the same certain tea kettle, insisted that I take it. The Zydeco groups Mountain Stage brought in were from Nova Scotia. Before each performance there was an all-too-brief rundown on how Cajun music originated with the Acadians and then travelled with this oppressed French-speaking nationality that eventually settled in Louisiana and then sent scouts and emissaries west to Texas. “. . . And that’s how Zydeco ended up as a music influenced by Free Black Creole, French, and Native American agricultural workers, sharecroppers and farmers, with their accordions, pianos, and rub boards (wash boards) taking the lead and the fiddle standing in for all orchestra parts gone missing along the way,” or so the story goes.

In the Blank-produced Gosling film, the finer points of Cajun music, including the unique ethnic interface of its leading musicians, rattles on via the oral tradition, having been passed along since before 1928, when the first Cajun record dropped. With expanded orchestration of traditional tunes, they became more danceable, and drew sizeable crowds to impromptu dance halls and juke joints that sprung up in Jefferson and Lake Charles counties.

One musician takes a one-footed stand on his accordion to demonstrate its stamina. Another tells us that the accordion has seven notes and what makes it “taste Cajun” are the added “lace dress” grace notes. Aspiring musicians who have to decide which instrument they will master debate the pros and cons of each one. “The violin can play half notes; the accordion can’t,” a hardcore accordionist generously laments. One young musician has fashioned a rub board armored vest that looks like found chaine maille from the Star Wars wardrobe department. He can wear it on his chest, and leave both hands free to play it.

The survival of the French cadence in Cajun speech patterns was looked upon as a liability when Louisiana musicians began touring the U.S. during a Zydeco renaissance in the late 1970s. Once back home among fraternal communities where folk traditions have outlasted Talmudic disputes over authentic styles, renditions, and dance forms, those accents don’t stand in the way of expressing aesthetic preferences. The musicians and dancers come from the fields. As one fiddler observes, “Down here, we work hard the day long, all week long” pulling crops out of these fields. “Come the weekend, we play hard out on the dance floor.”

Go see “I Went to the Dance.” Besides extending a cat’s paw onto the levee of regional musicology, there’s lots to learn in both French and English about life in Texas and Louisiana farm country. Tapping toes make the 84 minutes fly by.

Toba Singer

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