Rediscovering Lomax: Joshua Clegg Caffery and “I Wanna Sing Right”

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The covers of the first two volumes of I Wanna Sing Right from Valcour Records.

During the centennial year of the great folklorist Alan Lomax (1915-2002), we at AFC have been celebrating his legacy in all kinds of ways: digitizing collections, sponsoring performances, encouraging publications, creating web content, designing exhibits…even writing blog posts! One of the things we most loved about Alan was his concern that the field recordings he documented during his 70-year career made it back to artists of all kinds. In Alan’s files from his years at the Library (1934-1942), we found a typed document entitled “Duties of Alan Lomax in Connection with his Work in the Archive of American Folk Song.” Numbers 10 and 11 in this list are as follows:

10) To interest composers, educators, writers, theatre people, etc., in the Archive of American Folk Song and in folk song in general.

11) To interest commercial recording companies and commercial broadcasting companies in American folk music.

Taken together, these items on Lomax’s “to do” list demonstrate his belief (and that of the Library of Congress) that archival collections should serve not only as treasures to admire, but as inspiration to current creativity.

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Joshua Caffery, presenting his Alan Lomax Fellow Lecture for the Library’s John W. Kluge Center on April 23, 2014. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

This attitude is certainly shared by Joshua Clegg Caffery, a recent Alan Lomax fellow in the Library’s John W. Kluge Center. Caffery has already produced a scholarly book on the 1934 recordings made in coastal Louisiana by Alan and his father John Lomax. As part of his Kluge project, he designed Lomax1934.com, a website that presents the Lomaxes’ Louisiana recordings, along with photos, catalog cards, maps, and other information from Library of Congress collections. Now Caffery, a musician whose interest in the Lomax recordings began in Louisiana but was encouraged by a visit he made to the American Folklife Center as a member of the band Feufollet in September 2006, has embarked on another project, which entails getting some of Louisiana’s finest musicians into the recording studio to record a selection of the songs the Lomaxes collected.

The project, entitled I Wanna Sing Right: Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country, is being released as a boxed set of four EPs of six songs each by the Louisiana record label Valcour Records. The CDs, which are produced by Caffery and Valcour’s Joel Savoy, present various artists and bands, mostly from Louisiana, performing their versions of songs collected by the Lomaxes. As an initiative to return archival recordings to circulation as popular songs, it fits in well with Alan’s own aims for the collection all those years ago.

Caffery agrees. “My ultimate aim is getting the music back into circulation,” he explained. “The Lomax recordings are such a vital resource, and it’s important to understand the lineage and the cultural context of the songs, but the real end game for me is always a creative one – how do you facilitate the emergence of this incredible music into contemporary culture? What’s the best way to get people to sing these songs and think about the past?”

To this, end, Caffery has spread the word about Lomax to younger musicians in particular. “I always thought the greatest review the book could receive would be to see young musicians singing from it and creating something new,” he said. In fact, however, his project includes both younger musicians and more established ones, both up-and-coming performers and Grammy-winning veterans. One of the most impressive things about the set is the presence of such masters as Michael Doucet (of the Grammy-winning Beausoleil), Ann Savoy (of Magnolia Sisters and the Savoy-Doucet Band), Zachary Richard (who was named to the Order of Canada in 2009), and the Grammy-winning all-star band Courtbouillon (Steve Riley, Wayne Toups, Wilson Savoy, and Eric Frey). Even the dean of Cajun music scholars, folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet (who was paradoxically knighted by the French government for his commitment to vernacular culture), appears as a vocalist.

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Grammy-winning musician Michael Doucet performs during the Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week at Chicot State Park April 22, 2008. Photo by Cajunzydecophotos, cropped by Stephen Winick. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

In part, Caffery explained, he was able to draw on several generations of talent because of the tight-knit and supportive nature of Cajun and Creole culture. The established figures are always happy to help along younger and less experienced musicians. Caffery likened them to Batman: “You raise the beacon, and they walk into the room and do absurdly awesome stuff,” he said. “So we’re in awe of them, but we felt comfortable calling on them.” There are also personal connections that helped; for example, Doucet, Ancelet, and Richard, three of the biggest names in Cajun music and culture, were all in the same class in elementary school! Meanwhile, Ann Savoy, an accomplished performer and scholar of Cajun music, is the mother of Joel Savoy, Caffery’s co-producer on the project, and a longtime bandmate of Michael Doucet’s as well. Such connections made the project very much like a reunion of friends and family.

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One of the Lomaxes’ photos of Wilson Jones, whose nickname was “Stavin’ Chain,” singing “Batson.”

There were two other reasons for Caffery’s success in attracting top names in the field. One was the importance of Lomax’s work, and the impact it has already had in southern Louisiana: “The deep musical artists in the area know that Lomax signifies deep culture,” he said. “Also, all of these guys knew certain recordings intimately already, even had them in their repertoire, so it was a natural avenue for them to share those songs.” The other reason, although Caffery is too modest to say so, is the respect he and Joel Savoy enjoy among musicians and scholars alike. The quality of Caffery’s previous work is a big part of this, but his association with the Library of Congress as a Kluge Center Lomax Fellow certainly helps too. As for Savoy, he’s one of the most requested fiddlers in southwest Louisiana, builds accordions with his father Marc Savoy, and is also an accomplished producer and recording engineer. As a member of the well-known Savoy family, he is often referred to as “Cajun music royalty.”

Caffery knows the Lomax Lousiana recordings better than perhaps anybody, so he was the principal researcher on the project, and he found some fascinating material for new interpretations. One of these hit particularly close to home, a long ballad that Lomax collected from Wilson Jones, whose nickname was “Stavin’ Chain.” The ballad, known as “Batson,” tells the story of a celebrated mass murder, in which a family was killed by an itinerant worker named Albert Edwin Batson, who was then tracked down and executed. You can hear the field recording here.

The ballad is fascinating for many reasons; Caffery’s excellent summary and analysis can be found here. From the perspective of us here at the Library of Congress, it’s a particularly interesting because there are only two known traditional versions of it, and both are found in the AFC archive; one is Lomax’s recording, the other a manuscript in the Robert W. Gordon Collection. Also, the Lomaxes shot photos of Stavin’ Chain and his group as they sang “Batson,” and noted that on the back of the photos, making it one of the few instances in which we know for certain which recording was being made in archival photos of that era.

But the song is interesting to Caffery for other reasons. While researching it for his book, he came across lurid newspaper stories about the case with such headlines as “FIENDISH DEEDS OF A TRAMP.” One of these stories featured photos of Batson as well as the sheriff and deputy who pursued him to Missouri and brought him back to Louisiana, all of whom are characters in the song.

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Batson, on the left, was found guilty of murder and executed. Sheriff Perkins and deputy Fontenot are on the right. All of them are characters in the ballad “Batson.” Joshua Caffery is married to Deputy Fontenot’s great-great-granddaughter. (These photos were published in 1902 and are in the public domain.)

Caffery remembered:

When I came across that photo of the sheriff and the deputy in an online historical newspaper database, I called my wife over, and said,

“Check it out, I found a picture of these guys who were involved in the case.”

Her mouth sort of dropped and she paused and then said, “I know that man.”

That gave me what we call the frissons – goosebumps.

“How could you know that man?” I asked. “This was 1902.”

She left the room without saying anything and returned with a family photo album from the Broussard/Fontenot side of her family and thumbed through to a picture of her great-great-grandfather, Isaac Fontenot. He was older, but obviously he was the same person identified as Deputy Fontenot in the photo.

So we started asking around, and it was family lore that had not made it past her grandmother’s generation. But her grandmother knew all about it, as did some of the great-uncles. One family member supposedly even had developed a stutter because Batson was purportedly chained to his bed when he was a young boy and Deputy Fontenot had to stop at his home on the way back from Missouri!

Fontenot went on to become a pretty famous lawman and the sheriff of Jennings. Recently, I found out another layer to the story. Apparently, Fontenot also later purchased some of the land where the murders had been committed. This land remains in the family, and my wife and her siblings grew up playing there. On that land stands an ancient farmhouse owned by one branch of the family. Though neither my wife’s generation nor her mother’s generation knew the Batson story previously, they all knew that the old farmhouse was always believed to be haunted.

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Claire Caffery is the great-great-granddaughter of a character in the ballad “Batson,” and performs the song on I Wanna Sing Right. Photo courtesy of Joshua Caffery.

That’s not quite the end of the story, though. Caffery’s wife, Claire, is a well-known performer in her own right, a member of the band The Figs. So it was only natural for I Wanna Sing Right to feature Claire as the lead singer on “Batson,” with her brother on harmony vocals. Although Stavin’ Chain referred to “the sheriff’s deputy,” Claire proudly restored her family to the tale, by singing “Deputy Fontenot” instead.

As another example of a song with an unusual story, you wouldn’t think that Islamic fundamentalism would have much to do with Cajun music in the 1930s, yet the collection contains a song on this theme, which Caffery also arranged for I Wanna Sing Right. The song is called “Amour et fanatisme,” or “Love and Fanaticism,” and it tells the tale of an Islamic soldier in love with a blue-eyed Christian belle. “He wants to devote his life to her, but he has already devoted his life to another–Allah, who has other plans for him,” Caffery explained. Lomax collected it from a man named Alfred Granger from rural Loreauville, and the field recording sounds like an ancient French ballad (hear it at this link). But the reality was different. “It was really a very popular parlor romance written by a 19th-century French aristocrat named Amédée Carayon LaTour of Bordeaux,” Caffery continued. “It shows up in lots of old French collections of light opera and polite song.” Caffery believes it was even well-known in England, citing its appearance in “The Donkeyshire Militia,” a popular short story by Mary Louis de Ramé, better known as Ouida. (As for the surprising fact that an admittedly fanatical Muslim could be a sympathetic figure in the West, times were different; as Caffery points out in his book, Arabic culture was often aligned with the Ottoman Empire against Russian interests, and therefore was in vogue in the West. As another example, “Amour et Fanatisme” was written not long before the humorous Percy French ditty “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” which humorously portrays another sympathetic Islamic warrior.)

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19th century sheet music for “Amour et Fanatisme.” Public domain.

Since the song wasn’t an ancient Acadian ballad but polite parlor music that had made its way into oral tradition, Caffery wanted to evoke those origins. “I set it to piano, with the help of Wilson Savoy, and we found singers with operatic-sounding voices,” he said. “I also slightly tinkered with the words in order to highlight the dramatic dialogue at the heart of the story.”

As the above should make clear, although the recording does feature very Cajun-sounding versions of some songs, Caffery and Savoy didn’t feel it was necessary to confine themselves to one musical style. “We primarily wanted to come up with interesting arrangements that we thought were appropriate to the music,” he explained. “We are all very interested in traditional Cajun music, but we also all play all sorts of music, and I think people back then did too. I really think that that era – late 20s, early 30s – was just an incredibly dynamic, experimental time in American music, and I wanted the CD to be in that spirit – reverential but experimental.”

As an example, Caffery arranged a song sung for Lomax by Julien Hoffpauir as an unaccompanied ballad. Hear Hoffpauir’s version here. In the notes, Caffery describes the song as a Louisiana variant of an ancient French song cycle: the soldier or sailor who returns to find that his wife or sweetheart has moved on. Despite its rootedness in French culture, he arranged it for banjo, an instrument not typically associated with either French or Cajun music. “The melody is really interesting and odd,” he explained. “It goes back and forth between a minor and a major scale in the same key. In that respect, it reminded me of a lot of modal banjo music I’ve heard, you know, melodies that sort of work in an odd space between minor and major tonalities. So, I grabbed the old Enoch banjo, and it sounded right.”

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One of the Lomaxes’ photos of Wilson Jones, whose nickname was “Stavin’ Chain,” singing “Batson.” In the foreground, Octave Amos plays fiddle.

On the other hand, he felt some pieces would benefit from a more classical approach. “All of this material presents to the ear as very ‘folky’ when recorded by rural singers on these old aluminum disks,” he said, “but the original genres weren’t always vernacular.” “Amour et Fanatisme” is one example, but there were others too, such as the song “Fête Printanière,” which Caffery thinks was written for the musical theater by someone with formal musical training. (Hear the Lomax version, sung by Davoust Bérard, at this link.) “I came up with an arrangement that tried to more clearly highlight the roots of the tune, using multiple string parts, cornet (also an instrument mentioned in the song), and my own admittedly folk version of counterpoint,” Caffery said. Instead of a Cajun fiddler, the recording features Daniel Gale, a classically-trained violinist.

Finally, in some cases, the unconventional arrangements were contributed by individual bands on the recordings, and sometimes their innovations struck Caffery as oddly fitting. “Kelli Jones-Savoy and Megan Brown took the romance ‘C’est l’amour qui m’a séduit le coeur’ and did it in tight, twangy harmony with two guitars,” he said. “In a way, it was surprising, but it’s also exactly what happened in the 20s and 30s with early country music, when sentimental songs from the nineteenth century were rendered in this twangy, rural style–songs like ‘Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.’ This sort of thing happened a few times, where we created things of the sort that would have been created in the late 20s and 30s, because we were working directly with this older 18th and 19th century material.” (Hear the version collected by the Lomaxes here.)

Asked if there was anything else he wanted to say about the CDs or the Lomax collection, Caffery demurred. “After a book, a website, and now a boxed set,” he quipped, “I may have said too much!” On the other hand, if you want deeper insight into the 1934 Lomax recordings, and into Caffery’s research, you can watch the video of the Botkin lecture he presented at the Library in the player below.

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