Joe Falcon and Cléoma Breaux

Let’s go to Lafayette to change your name
We will call you Mrs. Mischievous Comeaux
Honey, you’re too pretty to act like a tramp
How do you think I am going to manage without you?
Look at what you done, pretty heart
We are so far apart and that is pitiful
Honey, you’re too pretty to act like a tramp
How do you think I am going to manage without you?
Look at what you done, pretty heart
We are so far apart and that is pitiful

********************

These are the lyrics, translated from French, to “Allons à Lafayette” by Joe Falcon and Cléoma Breaux. This song was recorded in early 1928; it is officially recognized as the first Cajun song ever recorded. It is supposedly based on a traditional song called “Jeunes Gens de la Campagne.” (If you were wondering, “Allons à Lafayette” translates to “Let’s Go To Lafayette” and “Jeunes Gens de la Campagne” translates to “Young People From the Country.”) Just as you see in the picture above Falcon plays the accordion and Breaux (who will later become Joe’s wife) plays the guitar in this song.

I fully realize that a Cajun song recorded before the Depression is something that most people are not eager to listen to. The quality of this recording is nowhere near impeccable, accordions are rarely ever thought of as wonderful things to listen to,[1] Cajun music isn’t something that people in areas outside of Louisiana typically desire to hear (outside of Mardi Gras-themed parties, of course), and, lastly: this is a Cajun song that was recorded before the Depression.

Whenever there is a TV show that has an All-Time Greatest countdown (it doesn’t matter if it revolves around sports or entertainment or history) there will inevitably be someone/something from many many decades ago that sits at or near the top and it feels so out of place to you, the typical casual modern-day person who is watching this more out of curiosity than vested interest. And you maybe think to yourself, “Is this up high on the list simply because it’s old? Or because it’s actually important and deserves to be this high?” And then you listen to the people who gush about this old athlete/entertainer/historical event and you’re still not entirely sure if these people are accurate.

An example: baseball.

A list of the greatest players of all time will include guys like Tris Speaker and Honus Wagner and Hank Greenberg and other guys that make you think (if only for a few seconds) “Yeah, but these guys wouldn’t last a season with today’s players.” But then former players and recognizable writers and historians say stuff like “Tris Speaker redefined the centerfield position” or whatever. And you agree for a few seconds and then you never think of Tris Speaker again because Ken Griffey, Jr. or Willie Mays is more likely to be your default image of a great centerfielder.

The same thing goes for movie lists too. Unless you’re a cinephile do you really give a shit about 9 1/2 or Das Boot? Probably not. But their age and timelessness are also an end to themselves as far as All Time lists go: at the end of the day, how do you argue against something that pre-dates so many other things on a list whose primary goal is to celebrate transcendent creative influence?

I bring this up because “Allons à Lafayette” is probably not going to be your cup of tea, which means that, if this were a TV program you were watching about the greatest songs of all time, someone would be saying things like how this song reinvented something or use a modern (but incorrect) analogy along the lines of “Falcon and Breaux were like the Cajun equivalent of The White Stripes.”

Instead, I will simply reiterate what is stated at the beginning of this post: this is the first Cajun song ever recorded. It is the origin of a genre in terms of what you can listen to by an artist. Its claim as the source of Cajun music is definitive—which is a claim you can’t find with rock and some other genres.[2]

One more thing: because it represents the origin of a genre in recorded form, “Allons à Lafayette” also represents a region of America in a micro sense and America in general in a macro sense. Because it is a Cajun song and includes an accordion and French lyrics its ties to Louisiana (and eastern Texas) are obvious, but this song also occupies a piece—I would argue an important piece—of the entire mosaic that makes up American art. Again, the recording quality of this song isn’t great but damn if the soul of a region and the musical diversity of a country doesn’t come through crystal clear through those simple guitar plucks and an intermittently whirly accordion.

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[1] This Far Side comic comes to my mind.

[2] I.e–is “Rock Around the Clock” or “Rocket 88″ the first official rock song recorded? Or something else? Is DJ Kool Herc or Sugarhill Gang, or someone else, the first hip hop artist? (Or did Muhammad Ali create hip hop as we know it?)

3 Responses to “Joe Falcon and Cléoma Breaux”

  1. Roger Green says:

    1. I like the song.
    2. That Hank Greenberg analogy is true because we’ve never seen them. If we have, it’s on some grainy B&W video
    3. For a librarian, I’m really not that hot with labeling. Someone told me the first rap album came out in the late 1960s (couldn’t tell you who). My own albums are in only two major categories – by artist (most of them), and by composer (the classical, which includes Scott Joplin, e.g.).

  2. MDS says:

    I’m not all about labeling with music either but there is something to be said about good debates about origins of genres, especially modern ones like rock, punk, and hip hop. (I’m in the camp that believes that “Rocket ’88″ is the first rock song.) But it is nicer to be able to point to the definitive recorded origins of the old genres. Like with this song: there’s no debate, it’s the first one and that’s that (until someone unearths a previously unknown recording by someone else or something). Had you heard this song before?

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