The Country Dance Music of Fiddler Joel Savoy: Linzay Young & Joel Savoy, together; and The Right Combination by Jesse Lege, Joel Savoy, and the Cajun Country Revival

By Daniel Garrett

Linzay Young & Joel Savoy
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Joel Savoy
Valcour Records, 2009

Jesse Lege, Joel Savoy,
and the Cajun Country Revival, The Right Combination
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Joel Savoy
Valcour Records, 2011

“I like all music, really.  It all has a sole purpose, to evoke feeling from the listener.”
—American fiddler Joel Savoy to Victory Music

The history of painting and sculpture is a fabled one, with names such as Bernini, Bosch, Correggio, Donatello, Gerome, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the like brightening eyes, filling minds, and freeing tongues; and yet frequently artists have been misunderstood—and still are.  The early fifteenth-century sculptor Donatello and his partner Brunelleschi had faith in artistic knowledge and wanted to build their work on the accomplishments of the past, and went about finding ancient work, which they sometimes had to dig up, but the purpose of their excavations was misunderstood—and the two artists were considered treasure hunters: the vulgar, rather than the virtuous, is most easily recognized.  Today, no one is surprised if an artist has fame and fortune as goals; but if an artist is committed to traditional forms, some people, even the most liberal among us, may assume that he is ignorant or naïve.  That would be a mistake, as genuine culture involves craft, ideas, skills, and values that are durable enough to survive taste and time.  The folk artist Joel Savoy plays traditional music, which he learned from his parents and the survivors of a beloved regional tradition in Louisiana; and he knows other forms of music.  The son of Marc and Ann Savoy and the brother of Wilson Savoy, Joel Savoy, a Cajun fiddler, has said, “When I was in high school, every single morning I’d come downstairs and my dad would be playing accordion, and he and I and Wilson would sit around the piano and play a few tunes—a musical breakfast” (Interviewer Devon Leger, Victory Music.org; accessed October 2011).  Marc, an accordionist, and Ann, a singer and guitarist, have worked together for decades, traveling the world to large and small venues, popular and prestigious; and their sons Wilson and Joel have begun to join them.  They are keepers of a tradition that includes Dewey Balfa, Michael Doucet, Feufollet, Wade Fruge, Doc Guidry, D.L. Menard, Dennis McGee, Steve Riley, and Horace Trahan.  Yet Joel Savoy went on to explain that he listened to popular music: “My mom has very diverse taste in music, and we heard all kinds of stuff growing up.  She used to make me mix tapes of all kinds of things like Django and Billie Holiday and lots of Cajun stuff—old-timey Cajun fiddlers, even some rock ‘n’ roll.”  Savoy learned to play some of what was on those tapes; and, subsequently, he has performed with T-Bone Burnett, Allison Krauss, Steve Miller, and Linda Ronstadt.

Sometimes I have thought of Cajun music as beautiful, and sometimes I have thought of it as quaint; and when I began to listen to Joel Savoy’s work, his thirteen songs with fellow fiddler Linzay Young, I did wonder, for a moment, how many sad country waltzes I could listen to, but there was usually something in the music that caught my attention and surprised me.  There is a sawing rhythm in the song “Madame Young” that gives it a quirky quality; and hornlike string work in “Tous Les Soirs” and singing that comes in phrases, like conversation or jazz improvisation; and “Reel Cajun” has a spinning rhythm with the thickly harmonious sound creating a great duet.  Of course, pain and pleasure are so close together in folk music that it can be difficult to discern the difference; and the fiddle is an instrument that can be high or low in association and tone, happily reeling or mournfully sad, or, somehow, both at the same time.  It can be hard to draw distinctions among some of the tunes, but “Mercredi Soir” has an expressive vocal—loud, old-timey, with its own grandeur—and there is charm in the twists and turns of “Wagoner,” presumably a tribute to country star Porter Wagoner.  There were instances when “Reel de Coquin” reminded me of European classical music.  The voice in “La Valse A Pop” is rough, even rude, the kind that might reassure the folk and startle city dwellers (or embarrass the folk and please the city dwellers in search of roots), further proof that one is compelled to embrace more sounds as attention is paid to different chapters in the human story.  The dense, fast, short rhythms of the country music of “Empty Bottle Stomp” rise to something that might be transcendent.

The 1929 black-and-white film Evangeline by Edwin Carewe is a telling of the story of the Cajun people: in Nova Scotia, French exiles refused to participate in an international war and were exiled again, many of them moving to Louisiana (I was surprised by how good and touching the film is: a dramatic epic of a people, and a love story, an account of love and loss).  The Cajun culture—known best for its colloquial French language, rich and spicy food, and music—is singular, but its music bears some relationship to other forms, including Creole music, country music, and possibly the blues, as well as Canadian and European folk music.  Fiddler Joel Savoy learned from his elders, from Cajun masters, but does not feel constrained.  “I feel that I have every right to do whatever the heck I want with a traditional song,” Savoy told Devon Leger of Victory Music.  The lean, darkly handsome Savoy lives on a farm, makes accordions and guitars, and travels the world, to both city and country, with his music.  The country music connection is at the center of the eleven songs that form The Right Combination, Joel Savoy’s work with accordionist-singer Jesse Lege, a member of the Cajun Music Hall of Fame, and other musicians: Caleb Klauder (guitar, triangle, voice), Sammy Lind (guitar, fiddle, voice), Nadine Landry (bass, voice), Paul Brainard (electric and steel guitars), Ned Folkerth (drums).  “I feel that the best music is made by friends—people making music together because they want to be together and they want to share the experience of creating something unique and spontaneous,” wrote Savoy in the album notes for The Right Combination, which opens with Adam Hebert’s “Ouvre La Porte (Open the Door),” a tune with a lot of energy, with fiddles and twanging guitar; it sounds like Cajun rockabilly.  Speculating about someone else’s feelings, the Jay Werner ballad “Wondering” has a strong, percussive rhythm and plain singing.  It is easy to imagine dancing to Dennis McGee’s “Courville’s Fetish.”  The song “Courville’s Fetish” is, presumably, an old tune, but, here, its texture has the kind of detail and movement that make it sound contemporary, fit for dancing or riding in a car going fast.  “Tippy Toeing” is charming, fun; it sounds like a classic.  A female voice singing about baby care, parents, and improbable sleep in “Tippy Toeing,” written by Bobby Harden, is accompanied by guitar sounds (really fat notes) that call to mind Hawaiian music; whereas, a heavy drumbeat gives the French lyric “La Valse D’Evangeline” by Lawrence Walker a martial sound—and the singer’s voice is so slow it’s nearly a blues.  It is possible to hear a song once and think it’s joyous, and to hear it a second time and think it’s despairing.  A romantic male-female duet “The Right Combination” is a Porter Wagner song of devotion, and the album closes with “Corina,” a traditional song about a desired but wayward woman, featuring Eric Frey on bass.  This is not music I am likely to listen to when I crave a sharp shot of modernism, but a handful of exhausted, trailing adjectives cannot describe it—you have to hear the music for yourself.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and his writing has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. 

Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com

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