Dirk Powell is well known as an interpreter of old time Appalachian music. His fiddle and banjo can be heard on numerous solo projects and collaborations, including the Cold Mountain soundtrack and Riverdance: The Show. In 1989, he met and played with Cajun fiddle master Dewey Balfa, an encounter that prompted him to pursue Cajun music and learn the accordion. After Dewey’s death in 1992, Dirk joined forces with his daughter Christine Balfa to carry on in the Balfa Brothers’ footsteps in Balfa Toujours. The band, whose name translates to “Balfa always,” has been a driving force in the revival of traditional Cajun music and very active in the dissemination of information about Cajun history, culture, and dance.
Dirk was at the 2001 Festivals Acadiens not only playing with Balfa Toujours but also accompanying the legendary accordionist Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin. Bois Sec, along with longtime partner fiddler Canray Fontenot, had helped to shape Creole and Cajun music over the last century. During a pause between his performances, Dirk shared some of his thoughts about playing traditional Cajun music.
While you obviously draw inspiration from the Balfa Brothers, I imagine that your background in Appalachian music must have given you an alternative perspective on Cajun music?
Somewhat. I learned a lot from Dewey, but having grown up playing more the mountain stuff, I’ve got a style that naturally lends itself to a bit of an older Cajun style. The further back in time you go with Cajun fiddling, the more similar it is to other southern fiddle styles, because they used to play more reels and they used to play a lot faster because they were playing for different kinds of dancing. And it was really in this century that the fiddle style smoothed out a lot, like it did in a lot of other styles. The same thing happened when old time stuff went into bluegrass. It got more smooth and less old, archaic tunings and a different kind of a feel. And Dewey was really right between those two places, the old style like his dad played and the real Harry Choates-influenced, western swing-influenced style. So Dewey had that real smooth bow but he had a lot of those old sounds, too. I tend to do more of a rocking bow motion, which is more like fiddlers like Dennis McGee, Rodney Fontenot, Adam Landreneaux, and guys like that who are from the earlier generation. Probably more like Dewey’s dad would have played. I like a lot of the ornamentation that those older players used. That’s one thing that still does sound like it has a connection with France and the really old Cajun style. A tonality, intonation, and use of ornaments that I think really goes back that far, that I like to try to go for.
How would you describe the groove in the kind of Cajun music you play?
It’s funny. There’s really as many different ways of doing it as there are people and some people play real laid back, kind of behind the beat, and that’s a typical way to play in Louisiana. I think the different influences that came together made it that way, and the heat and just the feel in the air -- it’s not rushing ahead most of the time. But then there’s some players that drive it really hard and do play ahead of the beat and really get that kind of a feel. So it’s real personal, but it tends to be elusive to people that don’t play it a lot because the two-steps sound like a regular 4/4 and the waltzes sound like regular 3/4 time, but there’s elements of the feel that are very different, that are hard to latch onto. There’s a lot in between the notes. There’s a lot of pulse and feel in between the beats that’s not real squared off. In a lot of Louisiana music, some guys in the band will be swinging and some won’t. If you listen to a lot of New Orleans music, you got people playing straight and people swinging at the same time and that happens in Cajun music.
Do you do Cajun dancing? So you can feel it when the band is doing something?
Sure. I don’t really know any Louisiana musicians that don’t dance. Not that they profess to be great dancers, but dancing in Louisiana is social dancing. It’s not about being good at it or bad at it. It’s just a matter of getting out there and doing it, and Cajun music has a lot of extra beats in it that also provide tension for the dancers. If you play Cajun music or if you listen to it, you’ll notice that there are these extra beats and a lot of times what that will do is flip the dance around. So half the time the steps are occurring on the downbeats and the next time they’re occurring on the opposite beat. Then it resolves and comes around again and it’s constantly shifting that way. How that came into the music I don’t know but it really makes it good dance music, because you’re constantly being put on another part of the beat and then when it resolves back again, it feels really good, and that keeps building on itself.
It almost seems like you need to think in twos for the waltz and in threes for the two-steps.
The two-step has three steps and then a pause, so it is actually three steps but then that last pause is what gets it back into 4/4. But the jitterbug is a six count thing over an eight thing, so that has the same effort. Jitterbugging is a three feel over four, which again makes it have tension. You’re not resolving every time on the same beat but when you do, you hit it and it gives you a little boost.
When did that influence come in?
That came in in the fifties when it came in everywhere. I’ve got a friend who is the niece of a great accordion player named Lawrence Walker, who was kind of the king of the Louisiana dance halls in the early fifties. And she was just telling me recently he never got over Elvis. At one point Cajun dance halls were filled with young people and old. Cajun music had gotten to a low point up to World War II but after World War II it got really strong again, with people coming home from the war. So the dance halls really cranked up and Lawrence Walker was one of the kings of that. But that started to shift when the rock ’n roll fad came in and Cajun bands started playing rock ’n roll. Dances started reflecting that jitterbug craze. But, of course, it was done its own way, too. It has a Cajun element, the jitterbug that’s done here.
When you play with Bois Sec, is there more of a black influence noticeable in the music?
Yeah, there is. Before recordings, people used to call Cajun and Creole music together French music. In fact, Christine’s sister used to think that on the dial FM meant “French music” and AM meant “American music.” That’s how rooted in it they were -- there was French music and there was American music. And French music was black and white music. They didn’t consider it a separate thing. And if you look at colonial documents going back as far as you can in history, there is evidence of black and white people playing together. And even though often times the situations they were playing in would be segregated, the actual bands themselves have always been mixed and so there’s been an incredible cross-fertilization between African-American and other different European traditions. A lot of the Creole people have a big part of American Indian influence in their culture. It’s a cliché but it really is a melting pot here. So when I play with Bois Sec, you could say there’s more of a black sound there, but a lot of the tunes that he learned, he learned from a Cajun accordion player Sidney Brown. So he might throw his own spin on it, but the differences between Cajun and Creole, or black and white Louisiana music are pretty insignificant compared to the similarities. Some people choose to emphasize the differences and others choose to emphasize the similarities.
You came into it having previously played mostly old time. How did you have to change your way of thinking to play Cajun music? It must have taken you a while to get the hang of it?
It did. I thought to myself, I’m so ingrained in mountain, Appalachian fiddle styles, I’m always going to have that in my bow arm and in my sound when I play Cajun music, you know. I don’t even want to change that because that’s what I am. The Balfa family -- Balfa’s originally a Scottish name -- they came down here from North Carolina in the early 1800s. Within a generation or two they couldn’t speak English anymore. Then they started learning English again a few generations later. But what I did, instead of trying to play Cajun fiddle all the time, I started playing the accordion. I thought I’d start on a new instrument, something I don’t have a history with. It’s kinda like your first language, or an accent. You’re never going to lose your accent and in some way you should be proud of your accent. When I play Cajun fiddle and I’ve got that older sound, or whatever it is, I just kinda decide, well, that’s me. And if I want to start from scratch with the Cajun stuff, then I pick up the accordion.
[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Winter 05/06 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]