Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie, the Bayou Seco Band: "Not Just Tunes -- A Part of our Lives"
The following interview was broadcast on “The Fiddling Zone” on KRCB Radio, Santa Rosa, California, on December 11, 2006. Ken and Jeanie spoke by telephone from their home in Silver City, New Mexico. They were leaving the next day for a short tour in Northern California, including several house concerts in the Bay Area and a fiddling workshop and dance in Berkeley. We spoke about their many musical pursuits over the years, beginning in Louisiana, continuing in New Mexico, and expanding throughout the Southwest, including appearances at major festivals in Europe, Mexico, Port Townsend, Washington, and Washington, DC. They play styles ranging from traditional Cajun music to old Spanish music from New Mexico, the desert music of Southern Arizona to old cowboy and pioneer ballads from all over the West. In addition to playing fiddles and accordions, Ken is also an accomplished luthier and has built fiddles, violas, and cellos for many years. We began the discussion on the subject of Louisiana, where Ken and Jeanie first met.
Ken Keppeler (KK): Jeanie and I met in Louisiana in early 1978 and we lived there for almost three years. Then we moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the summer of 1980. I’d been going down to Louisiana since about 1973. We were both friends of Canray Fontenot, Bois Sec Ardoin, Dennis McGee, and a bunch of older players. We were mostly interested in the older stuff. And then we played a little with BeauSoleil, before they became famous. We were making about $8 a night!
I’m really interested in what Louisiana was like back then, as opposed to now, where Cajun and Zydeco are popular everywhere. What was it like in the ’70s?
KK: Well, the young people weren’t really into it at all. The few that were interested were considered like geeks. At the time, Jeanie was working at Marc’s store (Savoy Music Center in Eunice, LA), and she would try to encourage the young people to play music from the Louisiana perspective. And as time passed, it did become more popular. But part of that had to do with dances and inventing something more challenging than the simple waltzes and two-steps they’d always been doing. This dance phenomenon happened outside of Louisiana, and created more interest from outsiders, which stimulated more interest in the music in Louisiana among the younger people. So the dance thing took off around the country. But we were more interested in the old music, and we hung around people like Dewey Balfa and D.L. Menard and Marc Savoy and Lionel Leleux. It was a hands-on thing for us. Because wherever we go, we try to learn from local people. So that’s what I was doing when I met Jeanie in 1978, and we got together ––
Jeanie: And the fireworks started happening!
I see over the years you’ve covered every-thing from Louisiana music to Arizona fiddlers, cowboy music, Spanish music… How do you keep it all straight?
KK: It’s knowing the people. If you can connect what you’re playing with an image of the people and their culture, then it’s a lot easier. It gives you a whole context. These aren’t just tunes; all this music is a part of our lives and a part of someone else’s life –– someone who took the time to teach us how to play their music.
[Because of health concerns, Jeanie could not continue to live in Louisiana. In search of a drier climate, they moved to Santa Fe New Mexico, and eventually down to Silver City. The name Bayou Seco (“dry bayou”) reflects their lives in both places.]
Moving to New Mexico
KK: Lots of friends came down to see us in Louisiana, and later to New Mexico, to learn with us: Eric and Suzy Thompson, Will Spires ––he documented a lot of great fiddling from Dennis McGee.
Yes, Will Spires teaches here in Santa Rosa at the junior college. And I believe Suzy had an NEA grant at one time to study with Dennis McGee and Dewey Balfa.
KK: Yes, we spent a lot of time with all those people. But Jeanie and I were just living down there and working, we never had a grant. And after moving to New Mexico, we found it was hard to get grants. It was more a political thing in New Mexico, since we weren’t Hispanic.
Jeanie: It never really stopped us, did it? We spent nine years working with Cleofes Ortiz and we got him lots of work, and we backed him up twice at Port Townsend, Washington, at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, and later at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC.
KK: Cleofes Ortiz played the old Spanish colonial music from northern New Mexico. It’s something we love.
How did you meet him?
Jeanie: We’d actually been in New Mexico for four years, and were looking for old fiddlers. We were used to finding so many in Louisiana, it was kind of weird not to findany in New Mexico. We did find a couple, but they were pretty old and they didn’t play very well anymore. So we figured something would turn up. And sure enough, there it was: an event called the People’s Fair in Las Vegas, New Mexico, on August 25, 1984. That’s where we saw two older musicians, Cleo on the fiddle and Augustine Chavez on guitar. And they were exactly what we were looking for. They were just great, except Cleo was playing his fiddle through a terrible amplifier that distorted everything. But we could tell that the music was totally amazing, and we went to his house the next day and we became friends.
And how would you describe the music? Is it like Tex-Mex or Norteño music?
KK: This music is much older. It comes from the colonial period. This is old dance music: round dances, group dances. And a lot of it is really European-based music: waltzes. quadrilles, polkas, schottisches. It’s a very particular fiddling style. The fiddlers don’t play a lot of chords; it’s more linear, melodic. The bowing doesn’t have that rhythmic feel, like the Cajun style or other old time styles.
Jeanie: They were very singular. The fiddlers didn’t do a lot of double fiddling or harmony. If there was more than one fiddler, they’d switch off. They hadn’t developed twin fiddling the way you think of Louisiana fiddlers, for example.
KK: Cleo’s cousin Arturo could do a little rhythmic chunking, but mostly you didn’t do much double fiddling. Jeanie and I started doing some harmonies, but a lot of that came from the Tohono O’Odham fiddling in Arizona. That was different. Those fiddlers learned the tunes about two hundred years ago from Spanish missionaries.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as the tunes “Valse Emiliano” as played by Cleofes Ortiz and “Libby Bird Song Mazurka” as played by Elliott Johnson, purchase the Summer 2007 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Gus Garelick is a fiddler/mandolinist in Santa Rosa, California. He is a member of The Hot Frittatas, an Italian music ensemble, and The Wild Catahoulas, a Cajun/Zydeco band. For eight years, he has worked at public radio station KRCB in Santa Rosa, where he hosts The Fiddling Zone, a program of traditional fiddling from around the world. The Fiddling Zone is streamed on the Internet, c/o www.KRCB.org.]