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Amede Ardoin - Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin 1929-1934

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Artist: Amede Ardoin

Album: Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin 1929-1934

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Mar. 23, 2011

Tompkins Square’s new Long Gone Sounds series takes the research and packaging approach it used for its compilation anthology People Take Warning and applies it to the single-artist format. The first release in the series, Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone, is a two-disc set of all 34 tracks recorded by Cajun music pioneer Amede Ardoin. The songs here weren’t unearthed by Tompkins Square; they’ve been in and out of print in various forms over the years, the most notable recent edition being Arhoolie’s 1995 26-song set. Yet it is a testament to Ardoin that passionate music aficionados refuse to let his music die. Cajun music is a tough sell in any era, and scratchy recordings from nearly a century ago don’t make that sell any easier. Hats off to Tompkins Square for that commitment alone.

Indeed, Cajun music never made it too far out of the swamps of Louisiana and certainly never touched the world like the blues. And even if the sounds that Ardoin recorded failed to capture the imaginations of a bunch of white British guys decades later, his career poses some interesting parallels to Robert Johnson’s. Neither man was the very first to play their respective genre of music, yet they provided primary texts to be studied by anyone wishing to play them going forward.

Ardoin recorded at roughly the same time as Johnson (though slightly earlier) and left behind less than 40 sides in all before having his career cut short from violence. Ardoin’s death isn’t the stuff of Faustian legend like Johnson’s, but it is a matter of conjecture and debate. The most popular story goes that one night while playing a dance for a white audience, a white woman gave Ardoin — a black Cajun — a cloth to wipe his face. Seen as an inexcusable breach of the oppressive social contract of the time, a group of white men hit Ardoin with their car later that night and drove over him repeatedly. He was found in a ditch the next day. He didn’t die immediately, but his musical career came to an abrupt end.

Many debate the veracity of this story, but no one argues the influence Ardoin had on codifying the Cajun sound and paving the way for the more blues- and R&B-inflected offshoot of zydeco. At its core, this is textbook Cajun music: French balladry sent south from Nova Scotia until it reached the bayous of Louisiana. Ardoin’s specific sound is built around his masterful accordion playing — accompanied by fiddler Dennis McGee — and his heart-breaking hi-lonesome singing. The music is bright, jovial, celebratory, and perhaps best understood as dance music. If Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone begins to feel a bit repetitive by disc two, consider its role as party music designed to get couples drinking, dancing, and generally carrying on. Like any kind of dance music, repetition is essential: You can’t find your groove without a groove. Whether or not Ardoin was thinking in those precise terms, he clearly knew it to be the truth.

The basic melodic structure of these compositions is nearly the same every time, but Ardoin’s vocals are always a surprise. His voice is sturdy and direct, yet permeated by sadness. When at its most forlorn, it creates a stirring juxtaposition with the peppy instrumentation beneath it, while never encumbering the forward drive of the song. Frustratingly, at least for the English-only speaker, all of the songs are sung in French (or more accurately a Caribbean infused dialect thereof), so the full impact of Ardoin’s tales of woe and hard living might suffer a bit. Still, this music has enough passion to transcend time and place — don’t let the language get in the way.

By Nate Knaebel

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