If Cajun music is one our culture’s richest commodities, then accordion player Cory McCauley is the wealthiest man I know. I arrived at his home – ten minutes outside of the small town Mamou – where he and Alexie, his five year old son, both sporting straw hats, planted cantaloupes and okra. Lisa, his wife of seven years, teaches French at Mamou Junior High and had to attend a meeting at school that day. After shaking hands, I made a failed attempt to correctly pronounce Alexie’s name, demonstrating my deficient French pronunciation, for it came out roughly as Alex-ee not Ahleck-say. The garden was to the right of the house and separated from the front yard by a waist-high wire fence. Egg plants and sprouting tomatoes, in two rows about six feet long, were already in the dry ground.
“We need rain, yes,” Cory said, pouring water for his cantaloupes. The land was dusty and it had not rained for the past few weeks. But that day, lingering like possibility, was a wall of dark clouds to the south. “Always plant in the mud.” Cory dug a small hole with his hand, unwrapped the damp newspaper from the plant’s roots’ and placed a tiny cantaloupe sprout in the ground. Alexie, in shorts and knee-high black rubber-boots, squatted next to his Papa, taking instructions in Cajun French. I was glad to see a member of my generation – Cory is thirty-one – who could speak our language and I was a little envious that I couldn’t understand every thing being said; but most importantly, Alexie did.
After the two rows of cantaloupes and okra were planted and Alexie, hoe in hand, vanquished a lone cluster of grass at the edge of the garden, we went into the house; first stepping into a deep, screened gallery on the backside of the structure that opened onto a large combined kitchen and dining area with a varnished wood floor. A pair of rocking chairs stood to the left of the kitchen table, next to a new Peavey PA and amplifier positioned under two windows looking out at the garage and garden. It was a quarter to noon and Cory prepared two hot dogs for Alexie, who sat across from me at the round kitchen table squirting ketchup on both sides of the buns.
On Cory’s face were small, round glasses, giving him the visage of a philosopher, while his closely cropped brown hair spoke of orderliness, which was also evident in the immaculate house. Not a counter cluttered nor a speck of dust and the wood floor blinded me. To complete the wise, neat look, Cory had a pencil-thin mustache. You may wonder how an individual with an Irish last name can be a Cajun musician, but Cory’s early ancestors who arrived in south Louisiana became Cajun by marrying the women. “My last name is Irish and that was mixed with some German, some Desoehotel, and Manuel, which is probably Spanish. My mother was a Fontenot, her mother was a Miller, German again. Some Reed, which is Irish again. None of my family’s background is Acadian, which is quite common in Evangeline parish.” Also ironic, given that the parish was named after Longfellow’s poem which recounted the Acadian exile from Nova Scotia to Louisiana.
“The first MacCauley to come here was named Patrick and he came from Ireland to Virginia, and he married a woman there, then came to Louisiana and settled near Bayou Chicot. He later moved to Chataignier in about 1770, during the time when Louisiana was owned by Spain. So he was Irish, married to an American, was living in Louisiana under Spanish rule, and was a member of the Opelousas Militia fighting for the Americans against the British. He was really an international type of person!”
Alexie finished his hot dogs and went to his bedroom, off to the right of the kitchen, and played computer games. Cory cleared the dish from the table and fixed us two glasses of ice water.
“I started playing the accordion when I was a teenager in Soileau. I had a neighbor who played, and he really got me interested in it. Not on purpose. He really kind of discouraged me on the exterior. But I was just fascinated by the instrument and the music, so I continued to fight it.”
Speaking of his accordion mentor, Cory’s accent remained the same, but his pace slowed and his voice became solemn. “He lived at the corner of the highway and parish road, where we lived. He had a store and was there all the time. A lot of times he was practicing because he didn’t have all that much business.”
Cory was taught the accordion by Hadley Fontenot, who played with the Balfa Brothers Band during the 1940s and 50s. To truly appreciate who taught Cory the accordion, first you have to look at the band Hadley Fontenot was a part of. The Balfa Brothers, from around Mamou, are the first family of Cajun music. When you want to hear unadulterated Cajun music with nothing but a triangle, two fiddles, an acoustic guitar and accordion accompanied by mournfully jubilant wails, you want to listen to the Balfa Brothers.
Like many Cajun bands during the time of the Second World War, the Balfa Brothers had only a string band. In the late 40s, however, when Cajun soldiers returned home, the accordion made a triumphant return to the music. The glasses of ice water sweated rings on the table as Cory spoke. “People started dusting off their accordions and some of these players, like Mr. Hadley, who had not been in a band, all of a sudden had work again. Dewy Balfa told me the story, and said he went to his dad. ‘Pop,’ Dewey says, ‘we really need to get an accordion player for our band, but we don’t know who.’ His dad thought for a while and says, ‘Oh yeah, I know. Hadley!’
“Sure enough, they went to see him and at that time Mr. Hadley lived straight back in the woods. Dewey told me they got out there and Hadley was trying to farm in those hills and piney woods and wasn’t doing any good. To make ends meet, Mr. Hadley would go to the woods and cut small pine trees. Then he’d go to town and collect people’s waste oil from their engines. He built a trough back at his place out of some old fifty-five gallon drums, and he would take the bark off these trees and put them in the trough, pour that oil on them, then light some pine knots underneath the trough, to boil the oil so it would penetrate the wood. Then he’d take the trees and sell them for fence-posts. Talk about some hard work.
“When Dewey and his brothers got there, they told him they wanted him to play with them, and at that time Mr. Hadley didn’t even have an accordion because he’d sold his. But when they told him what they wanted, he sat down on his porch and just cried he was so happy.
“They started playing dances, eight or nine a week. Twice on Sunday, twice on Saturday. Just about every night of the week at different places. Did that for years. Mr. Hadley moved out of there and kind of prospered, opened his store. By the time I knew him in the 70s he was established in Soileau with his store and his music.
“At the time that I was in my teens and started wanting to learn how to play, Mr. Hadley had been all over the world with his accordion, and I knew doctors and lawyers in town who had never traveled outside of the state. It was just amazing to me that someone with very little education could accomplish these things.”
Cory pulled out his accordion – a shiny sandy-color with gilded ruffles. “This is an old tune that nobody ever plays. It was recorded by Amede Breaux in 1934. It’s a really interesting song. There’s a lot of country and western influence in Cajun music, and that’s been going on since the 30s with Texas swing. But before that, there was influence from popular big band music and jazz. This is an example of that, because it uses the name of an old jazz standard, ‘Tiger Rag.’ It’s not very similar to the song, though. But I guess he’d probably seen or heard it somewhere and he recorded it in San Antonio.” A wash cloth on his knee and the accordion atop that, Cory, right foot patting time, played a jumping beat with short, quickly repeated bars and a fearsome rhythm. “I used to be a trumpet player in high school, and I approach the accordion kind of like the trumpet because the sound is similar: real brassy and quick. The Cajun accordion is not like the regular accordion; it is very strong and powerful; sounds much more like a brass instrument than a woodwind.”
Cory called Alexie back in the kitchen, who sat in his Papa’s lap in a rocking chair while I snapped two photos. The first one was proud Papa with son in lap; the second, son and accordion in lap. The clouds from earlier were now black and low, hovering above the house, and a cooling gust of wind hit us in the face as Cory and Alexie walked me to my car. I shook their hands and had another go at pronouncing Alexie’s name properly, and did somewhat better this time. As I backed out of the drive way, thunder rumbled. Providence, sweet Providence.
Hardy Jones' fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Clapboard House, Miranda Literary Review, Sugar Mule, The Furnace Review, Louisiana's Living Traditions, Diamond Sky Dancer, Dark Sky Review, The Iconoclast, The Jabberwock Review, The Delta Review, and Chips'n'Cheese. In 2001 his memoir People of the Good God won a grant. His novel Every Bitter Thing is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. He currently teaches Creative Writing at Cameron University .