Adventures in Good Music
Few bands are as synonymous with the genres they work in as Cajun music legends BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet. With 25 albums to their name in their four decades in existence, BeauSoleil have basically become ambassadors for Cajun music, taking their sound to stages and festivals worldwide. Band leader Michael Doucet has been a magnet for attracting top artists from other genres to his album projects, and appearing in their recordings and live performances as well. The band BeauSoleil’s body of work reflects traditions of “authentic” Cajun music, and often the “spirit” of Cajun music making — reworking traditional tunes with other influences from the Louisiana melting pot with well-studied musical expertise. All of the influences
of two centuries of Cajun and Creole musical history is present in their work, and then some.
“I’ve got a story to tell. We play North American music that originates only from one area, French Southwest Louisiana. But our music and its themes are universal in the realm of the human condition, which means it touches everyone in a heartfelt way that can’t be denied. There’s no better way to assuage pain than to hear a story song about overcoming and living with pain, nor is there a [more] hearty way to laugh than to laugh together within a crowd of people. We are a dance band with a story, an old story about tears, love and laughter. All we are doing is being ourselves.”
Acadian History in the U.S. Began with "Beausoleil"
The name BeauSoleil comes from Acadian history. In 1755, the French settlers of Acadia (Nova Scotia) were evicted from their New World home by the British, and after a few skirmishes with invaders, the Acadians made their migratory trek that led them ultimately to Southwest Louisiana where the Cajun culture was born. Joseph Broussard (1702–1765), also known as Beausoleil, was a leader of an armed revolt against the British invasion and occupation of Acadia during which he was captured and imprisoned for two years. After his release from prison, he led the first
group of Acadians to southern Louisiana.
The transplanted Acadians, later to be regarded as “Cajuns”, grew roots in southwest Louisiana in the area of Lafayette, where they spoke “Cajun” Louisiana French, developed their own cuisine and fiddle-based folk music 100 years before the Civil War. But in the 20th century, the strong influence of English-only education began in Louisiana following the Civil War when laws that had protected the rights of French speakers were abolished. Beginning in 1915, public schools began suppressing the teaching in French, forcing Acadians to learn English. Eventually, this led to children being punished for speaking French on school grounds, and children who didn’t speak English were regarded as ignorant
and inferior. The gradual decline of French speaking in subsequent generations of made it common that grandparents spoke only French, parents spoke both French and English, children spoke English and understood French, and grandchildren spoke and understood only English. The Americanization of Acadiana continued to the point that some Cajuns in Louisiana had “forgotten” their heritage or were ashamed of it. In post-WWII years, the Cajun culture was hardly known, understood or recognized outside of Louisiana as many Cajuns disclaimed their heritage, and the Cajun music — sung primarily in French — was performed less and less.
Born in 1951 in Scott, Louisiana, Michael Doucet was raised at a time when Cajun music and culture were not the source
of pride that they are today. Assimilation into America’s mainstream was the norm during the Eisenhower era. Expressions of regional and ethnic culture were dismissed as passé and confined to audiences of community insiders.
By the late 60s, however, a fresh perspective emerged. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), founded and championed by Cajun fiddle virtuoso Dewey Balfa, validated the state’s half million speakers of Cajun and Creole dialects by replacing the school ban on local French with classroom courses in these embattled tongues. Dewey’s band, The Balfa Brothers, rocked the house at Newport Folk Festival in 1964. Inroads to recognizing Cajun music as an indigenous American music genre were beginning,
thanks in large part to Dewey Balfa. In 1974 in Lafayette a concert titled “A Triibute to Cajun Music” brought similar, unprecedented support for local sounds. The success of this event soon spawned a popular annual celebration known as Festival Acadien.
Up to this point, most Cajun musicians made their livings farming or fishing. That all changed in the mid-1980s when a group of culturally savvy Cajun musicians with a deep pride and sense for Cajun music and how it fit with the international music environment transformed Cajun music into a major cultural resource. Michael Doucet and Beausoleil, beginning with their Rounder releases in the 1980s, were the first to take their relatively small and endangered culture to mainstream America. And, they set
another milestone in Cajun music history: they made a living being full time Cajun musicians.
Many Influences in the Cajun Gumbo
Although Michael Doucet did not originally intend to pursue performing Cajun music, a turning point came when Doucet was awarded a Folk Arts Apprenticeship by the National Endowment for the Arts. "I had planned to go to graduate school in New Mexico to study the Romantic poets," he recalls on the Vanguard Records web site. "Instead I traded William Blake for Dewey Balfa." Doucet sought out every surviving Cajun musician, including Balfa, Dennis McGee, Sady Courville, Luderin Darbone, Varise Connor, Canray Fontenot, Freeman Fontenot and others. He studied their techniques and
songs and encouraged some to resume public performances.
On a trip to Europe in 1974 with his cousin, Zachary Richard, Doucet was amazed to meet European folk musicians who knew and respected Cajun music. He recognized some of the same French melodies dating back to Medieval times. Upon his return to Louisiana, Doucet sought out the old masters and studied with them.
Another key influence was Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot, who provided a living link between black and white styles of French Louisiana music. Live, Canray was a pyrotechnic performer, spinning off primitively structured but lively runs and often stomping his bare feet
in time. He formed the Duralde Ramblers with Bois Sec Ardoin in 1948, and recorded a massively influential album (La Musique Creole). Canary won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and was appointed an adjunct professor at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Fontenot was in his seventies when he toured with the popular Cajun group Filé. And he left us with one solo record,
Louisiana Hot Sauce, Creole Style, which featured backing by BeauSoleil.
“I played in The Lawtell Playboys for a while,” says Doucet. “Their fiddler, Calvin Carrier, was ill, and they asked me to sit in with them since I had learned to play Creole tunes from Calvin’s father and uncle. We played a lot of gigs at places like Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas, and some places that weren’t even on the map!… Elton is still one of my favorite accordion players.”
“I’m happy to be alive, respectful of where I’ve been, what I’ve seen and learned, how lucky I am to be absorbed
and supported by the creative process that I love. I’m thankful of all those great master artists that came before me who shared their time, stories, and music with me, thankful of all the people who have been moved by our music. And trying to figure out what has not yet been said and how to say it.”
For a time, Doucet fronted two bands, the more traditional BeauSoleil and the experimental Coteau, also known as the “Cajun Grateful Dead”. Since 1977, he decided that BeauSoleil could effectively accommodate all of his varied interests.
Frequent appearances on A Prairie Home Companion
helped establish the band nationally, as well as being featured in the hit country song, “Down at the Twist & Shout” in 1990 by Mary Chapin-Carpenter. Beausoleil helped her perform the song at the Super Bowl half time.
Four Decades of Music Making
Founded in 1975, BeauSoleil (often billed as "BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet") released its first album in 1977 and became one of the most well-known bands performing traditional and original music rooted in the folk tunes of Louisiana. BeauSoleil tours extensively in the U.S. and internationally. While its repertoire includes hundreds of traditional Cajun, Creole and zydeco songs, BeauSoleil has also pushed past constraints of purely traditional instrumentation, rhythm, and lyrics of Louisiana folk music, incorporating elements of rock and roll, jazz, blues, calypso, and other genres in
original compositions and reworkings of traditional tunes. Lyrics on BeauSoleil recordings are sung in English or Louisiana Colonial French (and sometimes both in one song).
Early intentions were straightforward. “The first thing we thought about was just playing our grandparents’ music,” recalls Doucet. “Old, traditional acoustic music. Acoustic at that time was a bad word. Even The Balfa Brothers plugged in when playing locally. We wanted to play the music as we heard it — sitting around the kitchen table.” After visiting Hector Duhon, father of then-member Bessyl Duhon and a fiddler of great talent and renown, “We vowed then and there to pursue and preserve this music as a group. Not in a stiff, academic manner, but in
the way that we had learned it. Straight from the heart, and played like one’s life depended on it.”
In 1976 the band recorded its first album in France,
La Nuit, toured Canada and the United States, and performed at President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration festivities. Back home, the band developed it chops playing dances and weddings, and visiting local schools, introducing as many people to Louisiana’s indigenous music as they could. Within a few years, “this culture thing was beginning to break,” as Doucet puts it. The Cajun cooking fad was landing in skillets across the country just as the movie, The Big Easy, was playing in theaters featuring music by BeauSoleil, Professor Longhair, Buckwheat Zydeco, Zachary Richard, Dewey Balfa and others.
“Up to then, we were playing for fun and had our regular jobs,” Doucet recalls. “We said, ‘Okay, let’s give
it six months and see how it goes.’ Before that time there was never a Cajun group that tried to do this full-time while living in Louisiana as a base. Doug Kershaw, Jo-El Sonnier, Jimmy C. Newman, they had all left. It was never our idea to leave Louisiana because that was our influence. When we first started doing this, it was on our terms…. To be going out to English-speaking audiences and not playing English songs, that was something else. I remember one concert. There were some people yelling, ‘Play something in English.’ I just said, ‘Why should we do that?’ I wasn’t about to sing ‘Jambalaya.’ That’s not what we’re about.”
The band produced nine albums in the 1980s on Swallow, Arhoolie
and Rounder Records which established them as a serious band from the Cajun country committed to Cajun music traditions. In 1981, Arhoolie Records producer Chris Strachwitz made one of his many trips to Louisiana, signed Beausoleil, and recorded what is considered a landmark in modern Cajun recording, Parlez-Nous A Boire.
1990s with Rhino Records
In 1991 Beausoleil signed with Rhino Records and were granted total freedom to produce the finest albums they could. According to Doucet, “When I asked Gary [Stewart, head of the music company] if he had a direction or producer in mind, he replied, ‘Y’all know how to make a record. Just go and do it.’ Every CD Beausoleil made on Rhino received a Grammy® nomination, and even a win in 1997 for Best Traditional Album,
L’Amour ou la Folie. I am very proud to have been associated with such a unique company made up first and foremost of mad music lovers.”
And in L’Echo produced in 1994 the band recorded only traditional tunes which Doucet asserts are not found on any other recordings. “It was my intention to spotlight some of our forgotten musical leaders and their rare performances rather than record well-work crowd pleasers. This collection rekindles past musical inspirations from a simpler time.”
Band Members and Numerous Guest Artists
At the heart of Beausoleil’s success is its stature as a tight, soulful band with irresistible dancehall groove. Drummer Tommy Alexi anchors the group with his deceptively simple approach, locking effortlessly with bassist Al Tharp and percussionist Billy Ware. With this impeccable safety net, Doucet can freely range from old-time orthodoxy to avant-garde abandon, and all points in between. His adventurous, masterful phrasing — as both a fiddler and the group’s lead singer — flirts deliberately with rhythmic disaster, yet never stumbles. David Doucet, Michael’s
brother, has developed a unique synthesis of Cajun music and acoustic flat-picking, as heard on two excellent solo albums along with his work with the band.
Besides BeauSoleil’s core members, a number of longtime band buddies make cameo appearance on their albums. British guitarist Richard Thompson
(listed about 19 in Rolling Stone’s all time 100 greatest guitarists) adds his inimitable intensity to songs like “Sur Le Pont de Lyon” and “L’Amour ou la Folie”. Doucet remembers, “In 1968 I picked up a Fairport Convention album that had a song on it called ‘Cajun Woman’ by a guy named Richard Thompson. Not only did I wonder how anyone outside of Louisiana knew about us Cajuns, but how could someone like that possibly write such a fine song? I listened to Fairport Convention and Richard’s music for many years before finally meeting him. This song (’Sur Le Pont de Lyon”) just sounded like something we should do together. Though ancient, the song carries a spirit of adventure from a young girl’s restless heart that’s as contemporary as anything today.”
Doucet frequently returns the favors with guest appearances of his own on recordings by Dr. John, Keith Richards, Mark Knopfler, Nathan Williams, Cajun elders The Hackberry Ramblers, Cajun rocker Wayne Toups and others. He also finds time to play in other inspired groups, The Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band
Asked about what changes the departure of longtime band member and accordionist Jimmy Breaux would have on the band, Doucet said, “I don’t really think it changes our sound much at all, but I do feel that now there is more clarity, space, and harmony within the group. BeauSoleil is always moving along the never before sounds of traditional Louisiana French music. Yes, the great accordionists Errol, Verret, Robert Jardel, Jesse Lege, Cory Ledet, JoEl Sonnier, etc., have all been part of BeauSoleil at one time or another. This gives us much more range and fun, like playing in a summer drizzle instead of getting stuck in the mud. We’re also more freely exploring the Créole attributes of our
music, something we’ve always done but now can be much more precise in our interpretation.”
From Bamako to Carencro
In the liner notes of BeauSoleil’s most recent album,
From Bamako to Carencro, Michael explains the thought that went into the project: “The material had to move you…be well researched yet fresh…understood by all members…fun to play, and true to our traditional masters. We recorded all of the tracks in four days. The album was different in the fact that we were on Compass Records, in Nashville, a new label for us. Since our last studio recording, we have also had three years to road test some of the new tunes and enjoy the feedback.” According to Michael Tisserand, author of the liner notes, “The passage of time has seen changes in the band’s personnel, in the sizes of their crowds, and perhaps most significantly, in how the world understands Cajuns. BeauSoleil has played no small role in exacting this last change, for through the band’s music, countless new fans have been introduced
to the music of Louisiana pioneers such as McGee, Amede Ardoin, and The Balfa Brothers, furthering Doucet’s mission to call attention to the genius of his culture.”
On the spirit of traditional music, Michael Doucet explains, “We can’t bring those old pioneers back, but we can continue to play their music, even though we play it our way. As Dennis McGee once told me, ‘Play like you! Play like yourself!’ But the tradition should never be held back. The music has changed, in some way, in every decade. And what makes the music really special is the soul of the artist. That’s the spirit of Cajun music. The music don’t lie.”
As music scholar Ben Sandmel concluded in the liner notes of Encore! Encore! The Best of Beausoleil, “These talented musicians can take great pride in their accomplishments — individually, collectively, and as successful cultural activists. Cajun music has left the endangered species list, and joyous dancers around the world will make sure that it continues to prosper.”
Awards and Honors
BeauSoleil is one of a few groups performing traditional Louisiana music to win a Grammy Award. L'Amour Ou La Folie (Love Or Folly), recorded in 1996 and released on Rhino Records, earned the 1997 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. In a review on Amazon.com, Richard Gehr wrote, "By now the sextet transcends the dancehall, possessing the ability to transform nearly any traditional Cajun, Creole, or French tune into high art while preserving a clear sonic bloodline back to its roots."
In 2005, BeauSoleil’s Gitane Cajun, released on Vanguard Records, earned the group its tenth Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album. A reflection of its versatility is that BeauSoleil has also earned a Grammy nomination in the Contemporary Folk category, for the 1999 album Cajunization, with songs that effortlessly span Cajun, calypso, French ballad, blues and other musical styles.
In 2005, BeauSoleil won the Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Cajun Band, the tenth time the band was honored in the 18-year history of the awards presented by the New Orleans music and entertainment publication Gambit Weekly.
In 2005, BeauSoleil founder Michael Doucet was one of 12 artists awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 2008, BeauSoleil won another Grammy in the then newly created Grammy Award for Best Cajun Music Album category for the album Live at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
- 1976 La Nuit (Released only in France)
- 1977 The Spirit of Cajun Music (Swallow)
- 1984 Michael Doucet with BeauSoleil (Arhoolie)
- 1984 Parlez-Nous a Boire (Arhoolie)
- 1986 Allons a Lafayette (Arhoolie) with Canray Fontenot
- 1986 Belizaire the Cajun
[Original Soundtrack] (Arhoolie)
- 1987 Bayou Boogie (Rounder)
- 1988 Hot Chili Mama (Arhoolie)
- 1989 Bayou Cadillac (Rounder)
- 1989 Zydeco Gris Gris (Swallow)
- 1989 Live from the Left Coast (Rounder)
- 1991 Cajun Conja (Rhino)
- 1991 Déjá Vu (Swallow)
- 1993 La Danse de la Vie (Forward)
- 1994 Cajun & Creole Music
(Music of the World)
- 1994 L' Echo (Rhino/Forward)
- 1995 Vintage Beausoleil (Music of the World)
- 1997 L' Amour Ou la Folie (Rhino)
- 1997 Arc de Triomphe Two-Step (Hemisphere)
- 2001 Looking Back Tomorrow: Beausoleil Live! (Rhino)
- 2004 Gitane Cajun (Vanguard)
- 2006 Live in Louisiana
(Way Down in Louisiana)
- 2008 Live At The 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
- 2009 Alligator Purse (Yep Roc)
- 2013 From Bamako to Carencro (Compass Records)
- 1997 The Best of BeauSoleil (Arhoolie)
- 1999 Cajunization
- 2001 Best of Crawfish Years 1985 - 1991 (Rounder)
- 2003 Their Swallow Years (Ace)
- 2003 Encore, Encore!! The Best of BeauSoleil 1991 - 2001 (Rhino)
Information for this article came primarily from Beausoleil album liner notes authored by Michael Tisserand and Ben Sandmel. Learn more about Cajun and zydeco artists by reading these fine books: The Kingdom of Zydeco by Michael Tisserand; Zydeco by Ben Sandmel; and Louisiana Music by Rick Koster.
Beth McKee Makes Her