Sharing the music in a Berkeley backyard, Cajun-style

Photo: Dorothy Brown

Five folks with fiddles in a Berkeley backyard. Photo: Dorothy Brown

By Dorothy Brown

It is Monday evening and five folks with fiddles are seated in a circle in the backyard. Four of them are learning a traditional Cajun tune, The Milk Cow is Dead.* There is no sheet music in sight, and nobody expects any. You learn this music by ear.

Joel Savoy is sharing his intimate knowledge of the song, and his expert techniques with the instrument and the style. He plays the tune through, and then breaks it down into phrases that he invites the group to repeat. The notes themselves are the easy part. What makes a good Cajun fiddler is nuance and flair, and Joel breaks that down too.

“You want to get those pulses in there.” “…a little bit bouncier there. Slide into that last note.” This tune has a lot of that, and Joel enjoys that part. “Just slide up to C# and stop when you get there!”

This is how Cajun music has been shared and taught for generations. After a long day’s work, people gather together to play. It is easy to imagine this scene is taking place in Southwest Louisiana, but this is a backyard in Berkeley, California. 

Photo: Dorothy Brown

Photo: Dorothy Brown

Joel Savoy and Jesse Lége are on tour. On June 29, they performed at Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center. They were in the area for an extra night and offered to teach a mini-workshop. Jesse is inside with the accordionists. Outside, as the sun sinks lower and lower in the sky, Joel and the fiddlers are starting to put the phrases of the song together.

“Don’t worry if you don’t have it yet,” he encourages them. “It’ll come.”

It’s almost dark now, approaching 9:00 p.m.. Tomorrow is a working day and it’s time to pack up the fiddles, but the song is starting to take shape. It has been a low-key, friendly lesson, and I’m sure the accordionists inside had a similar experience. Each student, regardless of where they started, heads for home a stronger player. What a special opportunity to learn from two masters.

Photo: Dorothy Brown

Photo: Dorothy Brown

And Tuesday night I get to see those masters shine. Joel and Jesse, along with Joel’s wife Kelli Jones-Savoy, play a Cajun dance at Ashkenaz. This is not a concert. Far from it. As I have come to expect, dancers are on the floor with the first notes. There is only a smattering of applause as each song ends. Those moments between tunes are spent changing partners, perhaps grabbing a quick sip of something, maybe shouting a request. This is interactive entertainment. The dancers need the band, it’s true. But it feels like the musicians need the dancers too, to make it fun.

By the end of the evening the dance floor has thinned out a bit, but there are still plenty of people happy to stay to the very end. After they play the last song at 11:00, the musicians start to unstrap their instruments and pack things up. That’s when the real applause starts — the insistent, rhythmic encore clapping that signals we’re-not-leaving-’til-you-play-another-song.

Photo: Dorothy Brown

Photo: Dorothy Brown

Joel accepts the challenge. “Oh, we’ve got more,” he says. “We could do this all night. We just stopped for y’all.” Stopping is the last thing this crowd wants. Another song begins and partners two-step with unflagging energy. “You asked for it!” laughs the fiddler. Yes they did.

I am so excited to be heading to Lafayette for the first time this October. I can’t wait to visit the small Louisiana towns that are home to Cajun and Zydeco music. If I’m lucky, I’ll stumble across some back porch jams. Fingers crossed.

The Milk Cow is Dead is included in a collection of songs played by Cajun fiddler Wade Frugé called Old Style Cajun Music, recorded by Arhoolie Records.

This article was first published on Dorothy Brown Photography’s blog, Small Stories from Real Life, where you can see more of the beautiful photographs taken at the Cajun jam session.

Keeping tradition alive: house jamming in Berkeley (12.27.13)

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  • andrew johnson

    Thanks for reposting the story, it does a good job of describing what playing in a fiddle band feels like.

  • DisGuested

    While living in Berkeley ca. 1946, the artist and filmmaker Harry Smith put together the record collection that he mined for his groundbreaking 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. He said that when he first played authentic Cajun recordings for Pete Seeger, the latter “didn’t think it was real.” That conflict – between genuine, autochthonous culture and autonomy and the predatory, centralizing superstructure of fraudulent representation by an hypocritical power elite – persists in the rhetoric and practice of Berkeley politics.

  • iamhe

    Okay.. when you get to Louisiana, go to Lafayette. then look for Convent Street, a few blocks from the police station, on the very edge of where residential meets commercial look for the residential house known as The Blue Moon. There you will find the roots of cajun, creole, zydeco, in jam form and in performance with multiple places in-doors and out to enjoy, socialize and dance. There you will run into Grammy Award winner performers in their layed back hang around and jam, music making selves.

  • guest

    Are you really calling Pete Seeger part of a “predatory centralizing superstructure of fraudulent representation by a hypocritical power elite”?
    Also, I challenge you to say that five times.

  • guest

    Pete Seeger is part of the predatory, centralizing power elite? That would have surprised the people who blacklisted him in the 1950s.

  • iamhe

    Book a room and stay the night….. just like the old days

  • guest

    In what sense is Cajun culture autochthonous? I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

    Kind of funny that you call Pete Seeger a member of the “power elite.” In 1946, Pete Seeger was a still a member of the Communist Party. He would be blacklisted from Hollywood and radio for the next two decades because of it. Seeger’s association with Henry Wallace’s campaign was one of the main reasons former vice president Wallace was abandoned by the Washington power structure and trounced in the 1948 presidential election.

    I like your posts about how liberals are the real racists better.

  • guest

    I nominate this for Most Ridiculously Over-The-Top Comment of the Month. That is, unless it is another illustration of Poe’s Law.

  • Chris