The Magnolia Sisters
The renowned Cajun Singer, Folklorist and Musician, Leader of the Magnolia Sisters, Ann Savoy, interviewed at her beautiful Louisiana home by Madeleine Doherty of Filé Gumbo Cajun Club, London.
Those of you who have previously heard the Magnolia Sisters at File
Gumbo may think of them as an exciting, driving, Cajun dance band. Of course
they are all that, but they are also a lot more. They play a wide repertoire of Cajun and
Creole dance tunes, many of which you won’t hear from other Cajun dance bands.
They are not afraid to take a break in the middle of a kicking dance session to
sing an a capella ballad from old
Madeleine Doherty talks to Ann Savoy about what inspires them, where
their music comes from, and what it means to present Cajun music with a woman’s
Those of you who have previously heard the Magnolia Sisters at File Gumbo may think of them as an exciting, driving, Cajun dance band. Of course they are all that, but they are also a lot more. They play a wide repertoire of Cajun and Creole dance tunes, many of which you won’t hear from other Cajun dance bands. They are not afraid to take a break in the middle of a kicking dance session to sing an a capella ballad from old Louisiana.
Madeleine Doherty talks to Ann Savoy about what inspires them, where
their music comes from, and what it means to present Cajun music with a woman’s
Photo by Gabrielle Savoy
Thank you, Ann, for agreeing to be interviewed about the Magnolia Sisters. We are really looking forward to presenting your band once more at Filé Gumbo in London. As well as telling us about the band, hopefully you can also give us an insight into your knowledge and feelings regarding women in Cajun Music
Firstly could you tell us about how and when the band got together and what sort of music you were playing.
Well, what happened was, I’d been playing music with Jane Vidrine and we had young children and we would sit in the kitchen with the kids and that’s how we would mother. We would get together and let the children play and we would both play music. We both had bands with our husbands that played really hardcore dance music but there was a big side of Cajun music that we both really wanted to play that neither of our husbands wanted to play, for example, the old repertoire of the twenties and the thirties, Joe Falcon and Cleoma Breaux, Amadé Breaux, a lot of this early music with more lyrics. So, we were both into songs and we love singing. We were trying to find Cajun songs that had more lyrics and words to them. We wanted to do a very different repertoire than our husbands wanted to do so I said, ‘I’m gonna learn to play the accordion.’ Marc’s father had given me an old accordion and I liked the music of Cleoma Falcon. When I was pregnant, which was most of my beginning married life, I would sit around playing the accordion while they repaired this old house we live in. I’d sit by the fire and play my accordion and I learned all Cleoma’s music. Jane and I also really loved ballads, which never fitted into the dancehall repertoire, so we had big collections of them. I have a particularly large collection because I’m one of those people who collects things a lot and people had given me archival materials. I’d met some ballad singers and taped them and so we started doing those songs, too, which were really obscure and we started recording those. The words are so pretty in those old ballads.
We started the band with a couple of friends in the neighbourhood and after a few line-up changes it has been formed of Jane and me, Lisa Trahan and Anya Burgess. We have made two CDs with this line-up.
As your band has an all-women line-up, can you tell us a little about the role of women in Cajun music traditionally. Why did they rarely get recorded? What contribution did they make? How have attitudes changed?
I would say that the reason there were not a lot of women recorded in the past was that, basically, it was a very rough scene, the Cajun dance hall scene and it was not a respectable thing to be a Cajun musician and it still isn’t. It’s changed a bit as people have become more educated and the university crowd have all gotten into it, more educated people. Back in the day it was more like people that were more on the poverty level and they were playing Cajun music to supplement their income. They were the outsiders, the Cajuns, the French-speaking Americans. The goal for a lot of people in Louisiana was to become more americanised. That was to join the bigger income crowd that could hang with the English- speaking people and could do commerce with them. Also it was clearly the role of women in this society to prepare food, raise children, make up a home, hold that part together and the man would be out in the field. The women would be out in the field, too, but they had a lot of stuff round the house to do; they couldn’t afford babysitters. This was another good reason why women couldn’t go and play in dancehalls. But Cleoma, who was pretty much my example of a woman who played in dance halls, she made a whole lot of recordings, including the first Cajun recording ever made with her husband. The fact that she played with her husband, that was acceptable at least, She had a guitar; this was a very new idea. A woman and a guitar was like a major draw. Everybody would come to see her. She was really beautiful, a great singer and she had only one child. She would bring her child and let her sleep on the stage on a little blanket and it just seemed like she actually pulled it off. She was a tough cookie, a strong woman and it seemed like she could do her thing. And, importantly, that also brought a double income into her family.
Ann gets up and quickly throws lunch together. She requested I record this to prove the point that women do the fun things between the chores! Or was it chores between the fun things?
Cleoma died very young; I think she was thirty-two, from a terrible accident. Joe got remarried to Theresa; she played with her son. She was a drummer. I also liked Laura Broussard; she recorded with Lee Sonnier. They were really famous for singing ‘The War Widow Waltz.’ Then there was Marie Solange Falcon, who played in a band with Shuk Richard. And there was a female drummer in Nathan Abshire’s band, I think she probably sang in the dance hall but she wasn’t on any of the recordings. A lot of women played the drums.
My understanding was that women, behind the scenes, tended to teach the children to play.
They did. I think I wrote about that somewhere. Women, in their houses, would often play the accordion. There were a lot of women musicians. They just weren’t recorded. In fact most of the men I’ve recorded said,
‘My mom played the accordion, my grandma played the accordion in the kitchen. That was the first place I learned how to play.’
That was very common. And at house dances, a few women were fiddlers, but as far as making recordings there weren’t many. When I moved here Sheryl Cormier was the only one and she had a band of her own. Later she made an all-women band; some tough-cookie Cajun women. Sheryl’s a great musician.
I started singing with Marc (her husband) and Michael Doucet at that time, that’s the first thing I did. As you remember, when we did our first dances at Filé Gumbo, the giant Cajun dances back then. That’s so long ago. When was it now?
Early nineties, ninety-one or ninety two.
It was such a fun scene over there, the Filé Gumbo scene, with Michael Doucet and then Richard Thompson came and sat in at that dance.
Following the world-wide success of your ‘Cajun Music A Reflection of a People Volume 1’, where you sought to capture the spirit of a Cajun era before it was lost, as I understand, I know that you have been researching and collecting material for volumes two and three for many years. You told me that volume three would focus on women in Cajun music. How much has that research and that of Jane Vidine, who I believe has been researching separately, influenced your choice of material for your albums?
We’ve always listened to every female recording we could get our hands on. Historical music, we were always into historical music. We looked for songs that had stories we could relate to, like songs about love and loss. There are plenty of those in Cajun music, songs about marriage, songs about experiences we could relate to and therefore sing with feeling. The ballads are very much from a woman’s point of view; situations a woman might get into. We got a grant from the State of Louisiana to research historical Louisiana children’s music, so we really had fun with that. We collected a huge batch of songs and then we made one record of children’s music and we almost finished a lullaby record from that study but never did finish it. Then Anya suggested that I should take all that research we did and put it into Volume Three, along with my dance hall ladies, but in different sections. I thought it was a brilliant idea. It’s pretty much done, Volume Three, though weirdly, more so than two. I was going to put it out first, because there’s so much more done of it. Then someone said I shouldn’t put the women in a separate book because it makes them look like they’re not as good as the men, putting them aside, but I must say I don’t agree.
Well, I must admit that when you said it was only going to be a small volume, I thought, ‘Oh!’
Well, there are not that many documented women. I’m not putting any modern women in it. If I were to put any modern women in it, the person the most modern I would put in would be Sheryl Cormier but I’m not going to go anybody more modern than that. I’m interested in the old Cajun scene, how it used to be, not how it’s evolved.
I know from watching the band live and listening to your many recordings that you are all multi-instrumentalists, capable of playing in a wide variety of musical genre and in many styles in the Cajun repertoire. How do you go about the process of putting together material for a new album?
Basically, we each of us love Cajun music a lot and feel that we have songs which touch our personal hearts more than others, so we each bring our own songs, or somebody will bring a song and say,
‘Would you like to sing this song, it would sound good with your sort of voice?’
Anya has tended more towards string band music because she was an Old-Time musician first. She picks songs which are more like American songs in French. ‘Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home’ is on the new Magnolia Sisters’ CD. We didn’t even know it in English but later somebody pointed it out to us. It’s ‘Les Clos De Coton,’ by Blackie Forestier but Anya heard it and the way that rhythm is, it’s more like an American rhythm and the other one she picked was like that, too. It was a Rayne-Bo Ramblers string band song. Lisa’s been doing songs by her ancestor, Bixie Guidry,who recorded a bunch of 78s. She likes the same old stuff; she’s got a good little Cajun girl voice. I love her singing. Jane and I picked some songs we could sing together and I wrote a few songs. We make each other CDs and listen and we rule some of them out, We like some of them; we sit around and play them and if some of them work, we keep them. We also keep a few standard dance hall tunes in there because people like to dance to them. But we do that sort of music with our husbands. The goal of this band is our creativity more, our musical creativity. We make the hard-kicking dancehall records. I do that with the Savoy Family Band or the Savoy –Doucet Band, but with this band, it’s my creativity, to find weird stuff nobody’s ever heard and try and make it sound wonderful. I could say it’s a more spiritual, creative thing. And I think friendships with women are very (pause for thought)…it’s amazing a band of women can stay together as long as we have and not killed each other! Women bands often seem to have a hard time, but we seem to get along real well and travel well together. I don’t think anybody’s on an ego trip; we’re all just trying to make this thing happen. It’s worked out well, we have fun together!
Anybody who has a number of Magnolia Sisters' recordings will recognise the consistently 1930's theme of the covers. What fascinates you, or is it fascinates all of the band, so much about the 1930's?
Well, first of all we’re drawn to the feeling of a 78 record; we like the way they were recorded. We like the bass of the accordion; you could hear it really well. We like the honed-down arrangement; we like those songs. Most of those songs are just so obscure, we just like that era. We like it in a fashion sense for the clothing, we like it visually, we like the way the Cajun bands of that era looked. We all had this set of five records from Arhoolie Records, that was Cajun 78’s Volumes One to Five and they were our first experience of Cajun music That was what made us love Cajun music, it was those records. We learned everything on those five records. That is my favourite set of Cajun records ever and they’re gone now. Chris (Strachwitz) doesn’t do them anymore!
I’ve got them on vinyl. Didn’t they come out on CD?
No, they didn’t. I think he might’ve had a couple on cassette, but they were LPs. Those were my favourite, that era, so that’s what formulated my love of Cajun music. The first time I heard Cajun Music I was in a record store in Washington DC flipping through a records. I remember Richard Thompson told the story that he was in London flipping through a bunch of records when he found one by the Hackberry Ramblers . Well, that was me in America flipping in Washington DC through old records.’ Hey what’s this, this looks interesting, Cajun Music from the Thirties.’ That started my life. Literally it changed my life utterly, when I heard that record. It was just like that! ‘I’m going there! ‘It was amazing, the power of those old recordings, the hauntingness, the soulfulness, the groove, the everything. I just loved it!
Yes, I had the same reaction to a set of Folkways LPs from the Deep South, which actually pre-date Chris’ albums. I was bowled over by the six early Cajun tracks and have been hooked on Cajun Music ever since.
But back to Ann and less of me!
Tim and I were talking about the move away from house dances to dance halls and the subsequent banning of children from places where alcohol was consumed. The consequence of this was mothers were presumably marooned at home with children rather than tucking up the kids at the Fais-Dodo. Tim then pointed out the irony of the plethora of Cajun lyrics which have the vocalist actually having a great time at the dance, whilst in his lyrics he is decrying the desertion of the cute little woman, forcing him to retreat to Texas/ Grand Gueydan/ Kaplan etc, when actually she is stuck at home with the kids night after night!
I see that differently from what you’ve described here. When it was house dances, as we were saying, everybody got to be present and then there was the fais-dodo, the cry room at the back where the babies were put in order to sleep but there was always alcohol; the men would go outside to drink. Then when there was the dance hall, women would go out on dates with their husbands. It wasn’t all like they were at home crying . The women would go and dance and dancing is such a big part of this culture. Usually though, the men in the band, their wives were on ‘la table des veuves’, the widows’ table, because they didn’t get to dance with their husbands and the husbands didn’t really like them to dance with other men very much. Even now they don’t! But there was some of that resentment, surely. The women came to resent the men would go to the dances and drink a lot and they were home with the babies. I’m sure there was a whole lot of that and I’m sure there may have been some negative feelings towards their husbands playing music in dance halls, big time. A lot of them quit because their wives gave them too much grief! Plus there was the lack of respectability.
How important do you think such vocals are within the performance of a Cajun number and how much do you feel that the voice was there to function as another instrument before the widespread use of PA systems.
As far as the song lyrics, Cajun music is a lot about blowing off steam. In the early days before microphones the manner in which people sang was always very high-pitched, because the accordions were always in C and sometimes D. That’s what defined the style of the Cajun music, throwing up all that feeling plus the high keys of the accordions. Then later, when microphones came in, 1935 already, it became much more of a croony-country style of singing The string band era then changed the style because they didn’t have to sing loud above an accordion, so they could sing in any key they wanted. But there was very little amplification and people had to be heard. The whole style was created around ‘How much noise can I make?’ Like the fiddle, for example; the more strings you bear down on, the more you’re heard. The bigger strings you could put on your fiddle, like those Black Diamond strings, they’re huge and heavy, the more you could hear it, that big sighing, droning rhythm and the triangle with a rhythm that could cut through anything. The accordion, clearly, is loud enough to be heard if you put some muscle behind it. It’s all based on noise and rhythm. I think the vocals were also based on that in the beginning.
Can you account for the fact that the lyrics are often so much the same?
I have no idea why that is. There are plenty of good, long marriages in the Cajun culture. I’m guessing that, as you imply in your question, the dancehall life put a big strain on a lot of marriages. Probably there were a lot of women who said,
‘Look, I’m going off because he pays no attention to me. He’s off in the dance hall every Saturday night.
I can’t really answer that question but you would think there would have been a lot of strain in the marriages. Some of the wives I’ve interviewed of deceased people, they did say,
‘I don’t know anything about that. I didn’t like that. He quit that. I asked him and he stopped playing’
Most of them did. Dewey Balfa quit for a long time and sold insurance. Dennis McGee quit for most of his life. Dennis’ whole career was like five years and then he just went and started being a barber or a barbeque guy, whatever he could do, just to support his twelve children. Then he came back much later or he was re-found, as were the Hackberry Ramblers. All these people did this when they were young and then they had families, then some of them, when they got older, were rediscovered by people like us, knocking on the door,
’Aren’t you one of the Hackberry Ramblers?’ or ‘Aren’t you Dennis McGhee?
Then they started building up a career with their second breath. It’s interesting because you always picture Dennis McGee playing for a hundred years but, no, it was a tiny period and then he came back. And that could be said about a lot of people that weren’t dancehall people. I think Wade Frugé’s quote is good. He said,
‘I was in the dancehall playing the fiddle and my girlfriend was out there being squeezed by another man and I said, “To hell with this!” I quit playing. I wanted to dance with the girls!’
Can you tell us about your recently released CD?
First I have to mention our Grammy-nominated one, which was the one before. That was pretty big excitement. It was called ‘Stripped Down.’ When it was nominated for a Grammy I couldn’t believe it because we’re more obscure, we don’t hit the roads a lot and so we were pretty honoured with that. This one is an interesting collection of gems that we dug out that people have never heard before. The cover of the CD is designed after an old piece of sheet music for one of our favourite songs on the CD, called, ‘Est-ce que tu penses jamais à moi?’Do You Ever Think Of Me?’ Or ‘Do you never think of me?’ This was a sweet American song which became Cajunised.
I couldn’t work out who it was on the front cover.
Good, we didn’t want you to. It’s supposed to be any lady reading a letter, but secretly it’s Lisa. She’s disguised, she has a very Cajun face and dark Cajun eyes, a twenties looking face. But don’t tell anybody!
Apart from File Gumbo, where else will you be appearing in your forthcoming European tour?
We’re playing at the Birmingham Jazz festival, in Farnesdale. We love that little dancehall there; it’s on the moors, the Band Room. Also at the Sage in Gateshead and in the Outer Hebrides, a Celtic Hebrides Festival. Then we’re doing a pretty big chunk in Spain. And, of course, Filé Gumbo. We’re booked every single day except one. One day we are free!
It looks like quite a lengthy undertaking. I know that you are all true professionals when it comes to such things, but how do you find the stamina?
We pace ourselves; we don’t party hard because there’d be no way you could do that. We’re kinda party girls and so we have to control ourselves! That is what we like to do, party, but we can’t do that and something as exhausting as performing every day, with all that travelling. We just try and give our all to the actual performances.
We love bringing Cajun music abroad because, for one thing, a lot of people abroad seem to speak French and they can understand the lyrics. And I’ve always thought that the British people have great appreciation for really obscure old stuff and I’ve always thought the British were the hippest people in the world. They just get all the most obscure things and embrace them and love them. They always would have old 78 records and I’m thinking, ‘What, we don’t have them in America!’ People from England would come over and collect cool early American stuff and bring it back. Things like that make me think it’s a very fascinating country and I like the British people a lot. I admire them for being thinking people.
I love these little venues where you think you’re in the middle of nowhere and we think there’ll be two people but it’s just packed with all these people who do Cajun dancing and we think ‘How do they know this? Where are they from? Who are these people?’ Yes, we love bringing Cajun music to Great Britain.
Thank you, Ann, for sharing so much with us today. We look forward ourselves to a delightful event with all the band on the 25th July at Filé Gumbo.
We can’t wait! We love to play there, as we have done for so many years, for you and Tim. We have a ball every time!
But I must add that I don’t want to lead anyone astray in thinking that the Magnolia Sisters won’t be playing kicking dance music when we come to to Filé Gumbo, because that’s mainly what we do on stage, we’re a dance band. We play real hardcore Cajun dances that last as much as three and four hours all over America, in Europe. We have a real tight groove and we play a lot of party dance music. In a dance we would not be playing ballads, well, we might do one as a sample. Just so that you understand, our more creative side would be shown in our albums more than at a dance. At a dance we play hardcore Cajun dance music and we love it!
And so do we!
Photo by Gabrielle Savoy
© Madeleine Doherty 24.05.14