Acadiens et Creole: Michael Doucet and Mitch Reed at the Louisiana
Folk Roots Atelier
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Either one of these two men can mesmerize an audience with their stories before even unpacking their fiddles. The audience in the Folk Roots Tent eats it up.
"Mitch, why don't you tell us a story?" Michael says. Mitch Reed, born in Mamou and raised in Lafayette, looks at Michael Doucet as if he's just offered him a beer.
"Every so often I go back to my hometown in Mamou and sometimes want to visit the graves of my distant relatives. There is this old guy who rides around town on his bike with a beer in his hand and is the self-proclaimed caretaker of the cemetery - he runs you out of there if you can't tell him the name of the person whose grave you're trying to visit. One time I got in the gate and he started run me off. I got nervous and forgot my relative's names but before he got to me I looked at a few names on the headstones and told him that's who i was going to visit. He turned around and pedaled off."
Michael Doucet counters with a Boudreaux and Thibodeaux (central characters in much South Louisiana humor) story so delightfully convoluted that I can't even begin to retell it. The hundred people seated under the tent are howling with laughter. These guys could tell stories until it's time to milk the cows.
I'm trying to take a picture from the side of the stage and woman says, "Go right up front and take a picture." I'm trying to be polite and not get in people's way and Sarah gently nudges me toward the stage.
Sarah, like every other local I've met here, is a font of information. She takes fiddle lessons from Mitch on Mondays and Wednesday nights at a place called the Front Room, in Scott. His next lessons began October 27, Sarah will be there.
"Where does he come up with these stories," I ask.
"When he was a little kid, older people took him to listen to music. He met Dennis McGee, Dewey Balfa, and Canray Fontenot (who I Iater find out was considered the greatest black Louisiana French fiddle player of our time). "I go to hear Mitch's stories about as much as I go for the lessons."
"We sing a lot of songs about dying. We're like that," Michael Doucet says dryly. "We're all going to get there, and that sticks in our minds around here." He sings "Les Fleur." "It's about a man about to be hanged, who says collect your tears to water the Cherokee Rose tree. I have no idea what this means, except it is a story about dying." Like so many cajun ballads, the song is haunting, and melancholy but vaguely cathartic.
The woman watching me scribble notes introduces herself. Jen Reed, wife of Mitch,friendly and engaging, tells me she was born in Lunenburg, MA, moved to nearby Fitchburg, graduated from Simmons College, and ended up down here.
Mitch and Michael play a lovely waltz titled "La Robe La Parasol."
Mitch tells of being taken to Mulate’s when he was a 13-year-old. "I want to play like that," I told my dad. "I wanted to preserve dance hall music and be a part of carrying on this tradition."
I do a double take. There is Gina Forsyth hollering appreciation when either one of the two fiddlers cranks out some over the top riff. Gina's been playing fiddle with Bruce Daigrepont at Tipitina's in New Orleans for the past 17 years, probably the longest running Fais Do Do dance in the country.
Gina is transfixed, knows the lyrics and probably the fingering on the fiddle for every song they play. She's driven from New Orleans to hear Michael and Mitch. "I'll head back to New Orleans to play with Bruce as soon as the set is over," she says.
Cajuns had to struggle to keep their French language and heritage alive in schools and society. Michael Doucet tells about a time he and fellow musicians got an NEA grant to teach Cajun music in the public schools around Lafayette. "The schools didn't want the music, they had no interest in acknowledging Cajun culture, thought it was backward and ignorant." Sometime in the 1970s it began to re emerge and has been going strong ever since.
That corresponds to what I've heard from men and women in their 50s 60s 70s who recall that if they spoke French in school they would be paddled.
If you wanted to have a crash course in where Cajun music came from, and the stories behind each song, this was the place to be. Michael Doucet is in his 60s, Mitch Read in his 40s. Between them they are a treasure chest of Cajun music history.
They agree on one last song. Mitch hollers out what he says was a traditional refrain he heard musicians shout when he was a kid, "Folks this is genuine Cajun breakdown music as heard in Evangeline. Let's go, boys!" and they fiddle up a storm.
Fiddle player Gina Forsyth loves what she's hearing. Mitch's wife Jen, a Massachusetts native, now firmly transplanted in Lafayette.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.