Humming at the Fais Do-Do
The whining of a fiddle reverberated throughout the pavilion, interspersed with the harmonic sounds of an accordion and Papa’s unique voice, strong and rich, as he complemented the driving Cajun rhythms. Smiles were abundant as couples two-stepped around the dance floor while the silver-haired clapped and toe-tapped in delight. Sleepy-eyed toddlers rested their heads on the laps of their older siblings. Soon the young ones were put to bed in the adjacent room, their slumber watched over by those appointed for the night. And the band played on until the wee hours of the morning. Oh, there were so many memorable Saturday nights at the fais do-do when my grandfather, Papa Armond, was in his prime.
In south Louisiana Cajun country where I was born and raised, when the fiddler tuned up on Saturday nights, no one was left at home. Mamere and papere didn’t have to worry where the teenagers were nor if Tante Marie was lonely. Everybody went to the fais do-do together and everybody went home together. You see, folks were too busy for socializing…they worked hard all week in the sugar cane fields or on the shrimp boats and had to traverse the fertile land by horse and navigate the bayous by boat or ferry. Saturday nights they got to celebrate the joie de vivre!
I remember being one of those sleepy-eyed toddlers, but by the time I was four I could belt out most of Papa Armond’s tunes, in Cajun French of course, not that fancy Parisian dialect. With great patience, Papa schooled me in his art of accordion playing and for my thirteenth birthday, he surprised with one of my very own.
“Pierre, come sit a spell.”
“Oui, Papa. Will you teach me another song?”
“Sure, mon garcon, but you have learned many already. How’d you like to play with me some at the fais do-do?”
“Mais oui Papa. What songs will we play? I want to write them down so I can practice all week.”
With pencil and paper in hand, I sat at Papa Armond’s feet awaiting his reply.
“Wait a bit, son…” Papa was rubbing his chin and looking up at the ceiling. “We’ll start out with Tout un beau soir, then Trinquons…”
“Then we’ll do that one about the girl who marries a carpenter…”He began humming the now familiar tune.
“That’s J’ai marie un ouvrier!” Come to think of it, Papa had taken up humming sometimes, even on stage.
“Sure, now let me think on this some more…” His boots were tapping out a rhythm. “Just tell me your favorite tune and we’ll do that one!”
“La belle et les trois capitaines!”
“Ah, that’s a fine one. We’ll have a bon temps!”
The glowing coral sun appeared to be descending into the bayou waters in the distance as light quickly vanished from the galerie. Papa picked up his accordion and played a mournful melody as twilight encroached. I hadn’t heard it before and it had no words. Papa was just humming along.
Exhilaration probably couldn’t describe how I felt on the stage with Papa Armond. He was renowned both up the bayou and down the bayou for his Cajun artistry. Guess you’d say he was a legend. His voice remained strong and rich during the first year or so that I accompanied him with my accordion. Then I noticed his humming was more frequent. Sometimes I wanted to sing along to cover, but that would’ve been presumptuous I suppose.
One morning as we sat outside on the galerie sipping café au lait, Papa brought it up.
“You know, mon garcon, Papa is getting on in years and my voice is not so strong anymore. Think you can help me out sometimes?”
“Of course, Papa, but I don’t think I could ever sound like you.”
“You’ll do fine. I’ll let you know when it’s your turn, how ‘bout that?”
It wasn’t very long before one night, right in the middle of Valse du Vacher, Papa Armond started humming then looked straight in my direction and nodded his head. That was the night of my singing debut at the fais do-do. Later that night some of his friends came by and said I was blessed with Papa’s gift.
From then on, we just sang as a duo. It didn’t much matter if Papa resorted to humming now. His accordion never skipped a beat. And my voice blended perfectly with his hum.
The tradition of the fais do-do, an all night Saturday night community dance, predominated in Cajun south Louisiana until the early 1950’s when most of the dance pavilions closed. It was part socialization and a way to preserve their French musical roots. Families attended together and the young were introduced to a type of “slumber party” , being put to bed in an adjacent room under the watchful eye of a volunteer babysitter. Various Cajun festivals today still host a traditional fais do-do under a big tent for the community and tourists.
A few translations: mamere=mother, papere=father, tante=aunt, joie de vivre=joy of life, mais oui=but yes, mon garcon=my boy, bon temps=good time
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