Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Jole Blon

Doug Kershaw
In 1929, Amadie Breaux recorded the first known version of Jole Blon, soon to become a classic standard of Cajun music from Louisiana. He called it Ma Blonde Est Partie (My Blonde Went Away and Left Me). Although the Breaux Family (brothers Ophey and Clifford and sister Cleoma) recording featured vocals, fiddle accordion and guitar in the key of A Major, it is a measurably different version from the one we know today as Jole Blon. Their old-timey sound did include a touch of impressionism however, which certainly planted the seed for the Jole Blons to come. Superimposed chords creating Major sevenths in the harmony were striking, e. g. the accordion playing a D major chord against the fiddle’s C#-E double-stop.

In 1935, the historic Hackberry Ramblers recorded Jolie Blonde in G Major that is essentially the version that is known today with an extra measure of the IV chord added in the first phrase of the vocal verse. Harry Choates – considered one of the greats in Cajun music – changed the tune back to the key of A Major and recorded Jole Blonde in 1946 producing the definitive version that nearly everyone emulates today. Unfortunately though, behind this wonderful recording lies another tale of tragedy from the music world. Choates recorded Jole Blonde at the age of 23, sold the rights for $100 and a bottle of whiskey and died in prison six years later. 

In an interesting custom of the day, if a traditional song became popular, country music artists would often record their own versions with alternate titles and lyrics. Examples from the 1940s are Roy Acuff’s Our Own Jole Blon, Red Foley’s New Jolie Blonde, Johnny Bond’s The Daughter of Jole Blon and Moon Mulican’s Jole Blon’s Sister. 

1950s rock-and-roll legend Buddy Holly produced country music legend Waylon Jennings’ first recording. They recorded Jole Blon learned from the Choates recording, replacing the Cajun fiddle with a rock-and-roll sax. This version was a complete departure from the attractive Cajun rhythm instead featuring a bopping yakety-yak saxophone as the instrumental lead throughout. The Texan later said of his first recording: “Buddy Holly tried to teach me how to sing Cajun French ... We didn’t know the lyrics, so I tried to learn them off the Harry Choates original.” 

Kershaw and O'Connor - "Heroes" recording
Cajun fiddler/singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Doug Kershaw had also ventured into some of this parodying of his own native music in order to land a record deal and have a music career in Nashville. However, he soon wanted to return to his authentic Cajun roots. Kershaw sensed something in Cajun music that people the world over might want to hear but had not yet been exposed to – and he bet his career on the hunch. He recorded Sweet Jole Blon with unbridled Cajun fiddle lines that closely mirrored his hero Harry Choates. Adding a rock-and-roll flare, wild stage antics, flashy costumes, broken bow hairs and all-round great showmanship, this native son brought Cajun music to the attention of millions for the first time. 

Doug Kershaw was born on January 24, 1936, on Tiel Ridge Island, Louisiana. His early childhood was spent living in the family houseboat down in the Cajun swamplands. His father, a fisherman, would anchor their houseboat wherever the fish were biting and move on when they weren’t. For a living, he trapped otters and muskrats and caught alligators to trade the skins in town. Alligators brought in money, but they also posed a real threat to the people living among them. Doug once told of how he and a little friend were sitting on a river bank when a gator surfaced and snatched his friend away in a split second. Doug’s famous song Louisiana Man is autobiographical and chronicles this life in the bayou. He was introduced to music at house dances called Fais Do Do where family and friends would gather on each others’ houseboats for music, dancing and eating. Kershaw’s mother and older brother would play the fiddle at these events. A fam­ily legend tells that when Doug was five, he sneaked out his family’s “good fiddle” and dropped and broke it. His papa warned him that “there was gonna be a whippin’” if he couldn’t play three fiddle songs immediately to save himself. Little Doug grabbed another fiddle, played two tunes and “made the third one up right on the spot.”

Kershaw headlined at Madison Square Garden and appeared on many national television shows including the first Johnny Cash television show in 1969. Adding to this national exposure, his Cajun music was the first music broadcast from outer space back to Earth – indeed taking the music he loved from his native swamp country in Louisiana further than anyone else could have imagined. The rendition of Jole Blon presented here is largely transcribed from my 1992 album Heroes with Doug Kershaw and I playing the two violins.

Hey, ha ha! Oh, hey hey! Jole Blon, Jole couer You’re the flower of the bayou and my darlin’ Out on the river in my pirogue or out at a fais dodo I’m always thinking about you my Jole Blon.

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