The concert is still playing
Forty years ago, on March 26, 1974, despite a heavy downpour, “A Tribute to Cajun Music” brought more than 12,000 people to Blackham Coliseum in Lafayette.
The tribute is widely credited with being the turning point in the revival of Cajun French music in Acadiana, which, in turn, spurred a prolongation — if not salvation — of parts of the south Louisiana culture that some thought were all but dead.
It started out to be a modest demonstration of Cajun music for a group of visiting journalists, but turned out to be a catalyst that released a pent-up desire on the part of local people to hold onto some of our old ways and customs.
At the same time, it unveiled to the rest of the nation — and Francophone world — a place and people offering something interesting, different, and, at least until we began to hype and caricature ourselves in chase of the tourist dollar, authentic.
The concert featured a dozen bands playing tunes that traced Cajun music from its origins to more contemporary forms: Bois Sec Ardoin and Canray Fontenot were there, alongside the Balfa Brothers, Blackie Forestier, and Nashville stars Jimmy Newman and Rufus Thibodeaux. Dennis McGee, S. D. Courville, and Merlin Fontenot brought their fiddles. Nathan Abshire and Clifton Chenier played two different sorts of accordion music.
The concert was supposed to be followed by a big fais do-do, but it was impossible to sit still when Dennis McGee put bow to fiddle on “Chère Mama Creole,” or Nathan Abshire started cranking out “Pine Grove Blues.” It was hard to wait to the end.
Folks in the crowd knew they were supposed to stay seated during the concert part, but they couldn’t resist. The fais do-do started early. It began with hand-clapping and toe-tapping to the music, but that quickly turned to dancing in the aisles, or any other space where a two-step could be stepped. The good times, they rolled.
That impromptu dancing was probably to be expected, given the way the concert had taken on a life of its own even before the doors opened.
At first it was to include only two or three bands who would entertain writers and broadcasters attending a convention of the International Association of French-speaking Journalists in Lafayette. But word of the concert began to spread, and other folk wanted to hear it, too.
Promoters decided to move the affair from the hotel that was headquarters for the convention to the Lafayette Municipal Auditorium, which seated about 2,500 people, but offered no place to dance. A few more bands were added.
Public demand continued to grow and the organizers decided to move the concert again, to Blackham Coliseum, which had an official seating capacity of 8,500.
Jimmy Domengeaux, chairman of CODOFIL, which sponsored the event in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute, announced that it would be open to the public, little expecting that the place would be filled to the rafters.
The weather was terrible on the night of the concert. Rain came down by the bucketful. The coliseum parking lot turned into a huge mud hole. But the place was filled to capacity well before the music was scheduled to begin — and still people crowded in.
“You will hear the soul of a people,” Domengeaux had said in announcing the event. In the event, the musicians showed both heart and soul, and the listeners and the dancers wanted more of it.
The visiting journalists went home and told their readers about the stirring music they’d heard and spontaneous celebration they’d witnessed. Local people went home and said, “We’ve got to do this again. We’ve got to keep this alive.”
We’ve done that pretty well, so far. The music goes on. But we need to keep working at it.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.