comscore Mystery, and discovery, on the trail of a Creole music pioneer | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Mystery, and discovery, on the trail of a Creole music pioneer


PINEVILLE, La. >> Somewhere among the thousands beneath a grassy hill here lies the body of Amede Ardoin.
He was singular in life: one of the greatest accordion players ever to come out of south Louisiana. A Creole prodigy who traveled the countryside playing his bluesy two-steps and waltzes, he changed Cajun music and laid down the roots for zydeco.
At his death at the age of 44 in 1942, he was Case No. 13387 in the state psychiatric hospital, destined for an anonymous burial.
Years of attempts to recover the body of Amede , as he is widely known, have come to nothing. As with Mozart’s grave, Amede’s is known only by its general vicinity: the area where the blacks were buried. But a desire for some sort of physical commemoration of his life, beyond a few documents and a blurry photograph, has not gone away.
"I started thinking of possible symbolic ways of bringing Amede home, placing a kind of image of him in the culture, something physical," said Darrell Bourque, a former state poet laureate, who has been trying to raise funds to have a statue erected, most likely in Eunice, Louisiana, where Amede spent much of his life.
Bourque described Amede as bringing the white Cajun and black Creole traditions together in a society that policed racial boundaries so rigidly that it ultimately brought about his death. His music, Bourque said, represented "a little pocket of possibility that didn’t get replicated in the larger culture."
It was only after he began looking for Amede that Bourque came to learn how complicated those boundaries could be for whites and blacks at that time — and how deeply connected he was to the people who crossed them.
Amede was born in 1898 in the countryside between Eunice and Basile. A small man, not much for field work, he made his living with his accordion. He played and sang on porches and at dance halls, for Creole and Cajun audiences alike, sometimes alone and sometimes — improbably for the era — with a Cajun fiddler named Dennis McGee.
Goldman Thibodeaux, an 82-year-old musician who says he is the last living person to have heard Amede , remembers waiting as an 8-year-old under a china ball tree, watching him come up the road on horseback, his accordion hanging beside him in a flour sack. He was coming for a Sunday afternoon house party, Thibodeaux recalled, and for three hours he sat in a corner and played, making up songs on the spot.
"Amede," Thibodeaux said, "he could put the words in a way, the girl knew he was talking about her, the man knew he was talking about him, but he wouldn’t name anybody’s name."
As Michael Tisserand recounts in his book "The Kingdom of Zydeco," Amede recorded 22 songs in New Orleans and San Antonio with McGee, some of which would become standards, and in 1934 he made a solo trip to New York and recorded a dozen more. At home he had become a sensation: Women wept, men danced, rivals became jealous, whites grew angry. But he toured far and wide, seemingly indifferent to his jeopardy.
The widely accepted account of his death begins on a night when Amede was playing at a white dance hall. At one point, he asked Celestin Marcantel, a white farmer who let Amede live in his barn, for a rag to wipe off his sweat; one of the farmer’s daughters handed him a handkerchief.
Several white men saw the exchange. They waited for Amede afterward, then beat him savagely; some say they ran over him with a Ford Model A, crushing his vocal cords. Amede did not die immediately, but the beating left him, as one man described, "stone crazy."
In September 1942, he was admitted to the state mental hospital in Pineville. Six weeks later, he was dead.
In recent decades, admirers of his music began to question why there is so little to commemorate such an influential figure. "There wasn’t a whole lot of evidence for his existence at all except for the music," said Barry Ancelet, a historian of south Louisiana culture.
He and others began searching for Amede’s burial site, contacting state officials, only to meet with frustration. Lawrence Ardoin, a distant cousin who, like so many Ardoins, is a musician, traveled to Pineville two years ago, hoping that a visit by a relative would be more fruitful.
"They said from this point right here to this point right over here is where the black folks are buried," Ardoin recalled being told. The area was large and presumably crowded; pinpointing Amede’s grave would be impossible.
Ardoin seemed hesitant about the statue plan. "It’s just something they want to do," he said, adding that somebody would probably make money off it, and that it would not be family.
The music may be memorial enough, he said, though of course people have appropriated that, too.
Others are still not resigned to the notion that the only memorial for Amede is an unmarked spot in a part of the state that meant nothing to him. "Those New York recordings that he did, every single cut he made up there it was some improvisation on ‘I’m so alone, I want to go home,’" Ancelet said.
"We need to bring his spirit home."
Bourque did not know much about Amede until a few years ago. But the music Amede played, known as la la, was the first he had known as a child. At night he would listen to the sounds from his uncle’s little bar up the road, where white customers played cards in one room and Creoles played their music in the next. It was some of the only French he heard growing up, having been reared by parents who, like many Cajuns in the 1950s, were careful to speak only English in the home so their children could better assimilate.
Last year, Bourque published a short book of poems about Amede, "If You Abandon Me, Comment Je Vas Faire" — in English, roughly "what will I do?" And he joined others to create what has come to be known as the Amede Ardoin Project. In August, he helped arrange a fundraising concert in Lafayette, inviting the Ardoins, Thibodeaux and other musicians.
Bourque and Thibodeaux, meeting for the first time at the concert, made small talk; Bourque mentioned that he, too, was a Thibodeaux. Names were compared, faces studied. Bourque spoke of his great-great-grandfather Theodule, who had at least a dozen white children, while Thibodeaux recalled his grandfather Theodule, who had four Creole children. It did not take much to learn that this was the same man, and that they, in fact, were cousins.
Through chatter at family fish fries, Bourque has since found that the family relationship was not new to the whites or the Creoles of the Thibodeaux family, some of whom lived within shouting distance of one another.
"Incredible finds," he said this week about a batch of old photos he had received, describing "those pockets of alliances" that he had not known about.
Bourque said he was trying to find out if this relationship had been formalized in a marriage, as some say, though he has doubts. The public crossing of racial lines in those days was only for the fearless, Bourque said.
As an example of such fearlessness, he referred back to Amede, the musician who led him to these family discoveries, brought together Creole and Cajun musical traditions, captivated audiences across racial divides and, in return, was sent to an unmarked grave.

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