It's surprising to learn that although Cajun musician Michael Doucet is one of the most respected fiddlers in the world, he didn't really play much fiddle as a child and he was twenty years old before he even owned his own violin. But Doucet, who was a guitar and banjo picker from an early age, grew up playing Cajun music with his uncle T-Will Knight, who was a fiddler. When he was fourteen years old his Uncle Will taught him to play three songs on the fiddle -- "Allons à Lafayette," "Jolie Blon," and "St. Louis Blues" -- but there was a small problem with practicing. "He showed me how to play," Doucet remembers. "But I couldn't take the fiddle out of his house." So throughout his teenage years Doucet jammed with friends and family, practiced his three fiddle tunes and just soaked in the musical culture of Southwest Louisiana. "We would sing French songs with the accordion players and fiddle players from around the neighborhood," he says. "We weren't studying the music, we were just playing it." Doucet and his friends also began to seek out some of the older musicians in the area. "We noticed that people of our parents' and grandparents' generation were going, and with them our culture," he explains.
Doucet grew up without TV and his family spoke French at home, but those days when he was isolated from the English speaking world were changing fast. Meeting the older musicians gave him and his friends a chance to learn more about what the Cajun world was like before the modernizing influences took hold and the pressure to assimilate became too strong. The visits also recaptured some of the sounds of Doucet's own childhood. But searching out the elder musicians offered more than just nostalgia. "It was fun," he recalls. "We got to hang out with these great players and sing songs with them. That was a wonderful period but at the time we didn't think it was a big deal."
In 1969 Doucet graduated from high school and enrolled at Louisiana State University, where two events changed the course of his life. The first event occurred during a class on Anglo-Saxon folklore in his freshman year. "We covered things like the Child ballads, blues, Native American and Appalachian mountain songs, but we didn't cover anything from French Louisiana," he remembers. "Of course I raised my hand and asked why and the teacher said that was because Cajun songs were just translated English songs. I was stunned. I had played the stuff for so long and I knew that wasn't the case. Because I was at the university I had a chance to go and do research in the library. I found a 1939 thesis by Irene Whitfield and a few other things that documented how our music had survived from French songs and Acadian songs. I had never known that and that started me on the research trail."
The second event happened around the same time. "I had a friend who was in the orchestra and one day I asked if I could play his violin," he says. "I hadn't played fiddle in years but I found it came easy. He was so impressed he said I should play in the orchestra." The chance encounter with his friend's violin rekindled his interest in fiddling.
Doucet wanted to learn more songs and research the roots of Cajun music, so he immersed himself in the study of the music of his childhood both as a scholar and as a musician. "Nobody was really studying Cajun music when I started," Doucet says of his early efforts. As he learned more about academic folklore methodology he discovered he had unwittingly been working as a field researcher as a teenager. "The academic, library-based approach was just one way of discovering Cajun music history," he explains. "The other way was what my friends and I had been doing all along: the oral approach. Go out and talk to elder musicians. The memories of those musicians may not have gone back to France, but they did know where they first learned the songs. There are so many different influences in this music and so many different time periods. Just sitting down with someone like Dennis McGee, who was born in the 1890s, gave a whole different perspective than someone who was born twenty years later." Working through LSU had some other advantages as well. "Harry Oster, who was one of the teachers there, made some incredible field recordings, not just of Cajun music but New Orleans jazz and people like Leadbelly. Listening to his recordings gave us a chance to hear a lot of our music, particularly songs and tunes that were no longer played."
Doucet received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to document the music of some of the older Cajun musicians, including Dennis McGee, who had a profound influence on the young fiddler's musical development. "I heard about Dennis from the records he made in the '20s," he explains. "He recorded with Amédé Ardoin, who was one of the first black accordion players, and most of the songs they recorded back then are still played today. McGee continued to play after he stopped recording, but he didn't get out much. I turned up on his doorstep and over time we became friends. We used to hang out together and I began taping him to learn songs. I stopped in the late '70s because I had about 157 songs and I figured that I could never, ever learn all of those so I just stopped. He also played the earlier twin fiddle style that pretty much defined Cajun music before the accordion was introduced in the early 1900s."
Doucet explains the impact McGee had on his playing. "I had to almost relearn Cajun fiddling when I met Dennis for the first time. I played a smooth style that I learned from Doc Guidry. Dennis played an earthier French style, and he taught me to play second fiddle in the old Cajun way. In the early days, there were no guitars, just two violins, so if you played second fiddle, you may have played the melody or the harmony, but you always played the rhythm part as well. In comparison, the Bob Wills swing style of twin fiddling is more harmonic. The fiddles play in thirds or fifths, and the harmony parts are always higher, whereas in Cajun the second fiddle plays lower parts and also supplies the rhythmic pulse of the music."
Doucet also interviewed and learned from Creole fiddle players like Bébé Carrière and Canray Fontenot. "I was also very interested in the blues and jazz aspects of Cajun music," he says. "In 1917, when they closed Storyville, the famous red-light district in New Orleans, a lot of the early jazz musicians like Bunk Johnson, Lorenzo Tio, and Frank Dusen moved to the bayou. They formed groups like the Black Eagle Band, which influenced a lot of Cajun musicians at the time. I went out to research some of the groups, most of whom had fiddle players, and I found one named Bradford Gordon who played in the Martelle Jazz Band about 20 miles from where I live here in Lafayette. He played a lot of different styles, and even if he wasn't a Stuff Smith or an Eddie south, he was a strong jazzy dance fiddler. I asked if he played French music, and he said, 'Nah, I don't play that stuff. But I taught a lot of French musicians.' When I asked him who, he mentioned Leo Soileau, who was one of the first Cajun musicians to record in the '30s."
While Doucet was interviewing the elder musicians, he was also playing in various loosely organized bands, that later grew into BeauSoleil. "I would play in bars, where everyone spoke French, and at dances and at weddings," he says. "But there was no way to make a living doing it." As he became more immersed in the Cajun culture, he realized that he was no longer an objective observer but was instead an active participant. "Basically I quit being a folklorist," he explains. "Because who was I going to study after learning from these master musicians, myself?" But even as he put aside the academics, Doucet continued to absorb lessons from the elders. "Everybody I learned from, like the Balfas and Dennis all said, 'Play the music like you feel it. Don't play it like me.' But they also added, 'When you play with me you have to play it like I say. But when you play it yourself, play it your own way.' They didn't want clones. They wanted people to know the music, but they also wanted younger players to develop their own styles. And that's what I did."
[For the full text of this interview, as well as Michael's tune "Perky Dance Two-Step," purchase the Spring 2001 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Michael Simmons is co-editor of The Fretboard Journal (www.fretboardjournal.com) and the author of Taylor Guitars: 30 Years of a New American Classic.]
Photo: Scott Suchman