Roddie Romero has a deep appreciation for music rooted in Louisiana’s rich and complex history.
The Grammy-nominated accordion and slide guitar player is known for his band Roddie Romero & the Hub City All-Stars. He developed his lifelong respect for Cajun French music from his father while growing up with his three siblings in south Lafayette.
It’s a respect that hasn’t waned over the decades.
“It is important to remember what has come before us,” Romero said. “My dad taught me an important lesson a long, long time ago. He told me, ‘Before you know where you are going, you better know where you come from.’ ”
That mindset is how Romero got involved with Valcour Records box set “I Wanna Sing Right: Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country.”
The set contains four EPs released late last year that features modern-era musicians covering a unique collection of French and English folk songs from southern Louisiana. Alan and John Lomax archived the songs in 1934 for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
To help commemorate those recordings, as well as Josh Caffery’s book “Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings,” the artists involved with the box set will perform Friday night at the Acadiana Center of the Arts in Lafayette.
The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $25 to $35 for nonmembers and $23 to $33 for members. The concert is part of the Louisiana Crossroads series and features performances from Marc Broussard, Wayne Toups, Steve Riley and many more.
“There are so many young musicians that are interested in these songs and inspired by them,” said Dr. Barry Ancelet, who will serve as narrator for the performance. “These musicians are taking these old songs and turning them into brand-new songs.”
The Lomax family traveled throughout southern Louisiana in 1934, with a 300-pound aluminum disc-engraving machine in tow, with the intent of recording songs that major labels like RCA and Bluebird were not recording at that time.
The father-son duo would record songs, many done in cappella or with limited musical accompaniment, in warehouses, bars, churches and people’s own kitchens in towns like Crowley to Erath and everywhere in between.
“The Lomax family was going around documenting what America sounded like,” Ancelet said.
More than a few of those original songs have long been covered by popular Cajun musicians, particularly at the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles.
Ancelet, a longtime professor of language at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, ran into Alan Lomax in the late 1970s and received his authorization to produce a copy of the original recordings.
Those 11 seven-inch reels of tape would serve as inspiration to both Ancelet and his longtime friend and Cajun fiddler, Michael Doucet.
“We sat down together and listened to the stuff,” Ancelet said. “After the second song we looked at each and said, ‘We are going to have rethink everything we knew about French music.’ ”
Ancelet and several other producers would eventually put together a compilation titled “Brand New Old Songs: Recycling the Lomax Recordings” on Soileau Records out of Ville Platte. The recording consisted of 12 live performances from festivals, along with the original songs, and a booklet.
“It was great material to produce new versions of,” Ancelet remembered. “The point of it was not to put this music in mausoleum.”
Beloved Cajun singer and Crowley native Wayne Toups was one of the artists that Ancelet recruited to create new renditions on the project. The Grammy winner was humbled by being part of the project.
“Hearing those songs in their original format is a gift,” Toups said. “When we working on that first project (Ancelet) used the phrase ‘creating tradition within the tradition,’ ” Toups said. “We took the songs and added some bass drums and steel guitar. We kind of just dressed them up a bit.”
Now that archived source material has received yet another breath of fresh air with “I Wanna Sing Right,” which was co-produced by Caffery and Joel Savoy. The new box set features such popular artists as Romero, Doucet, Toups, as well as Marc Broussard, Steve Riley, Zachary Richard, Ann Savoy, Wilson and Joel Savoy, Cedric Watson, Joshua and Claire Caffery, Kelli Jones-Savoy, Megan Brown, Anna Laura Edmiston, Kristi Guillory and Danny Devillier.
At the show, Wilson Savoy will play piano on a total of five songs, including “Batson,” a blues ballad about Edward Albert Batson being accused of murdering the Earl Family, originally sung by Wilson Jones, a.k.a. Stavin’ Chain, in 1934.
“As a folk musician, all we do is take old songs and play them in a modern way,” Wilson Savoy said. “You can take a Cajun song and can breathe other genres into that song. Blues, rock, hard-core rock ... different artists will be coming with different influences on these songs. It is simply amazing to sing a song that a woman sung in her kitchen 80 years ago and perform that song the way you hear it.”
The concert experience is more than just inspiring renditions of historic songs. Ancelet will provide stories for each song being performed, including how the song was recorded, stories about the song and playing snippets of the original recording for the crowd.
“These songs don’t get played often unless they are reinterpreted into danceable songs,” said Brown, who will sing vocals on “Le Garcon Sans Soucis” among others. “This concert is going to allow us to present them to the public. We’re not just preserving them in the archives. We are putting them out there.”
Toups will perform with friends Riley and Wilson Savoy as The Band Courtbouillon for a rendition of “La Fille de la Veuve.”
“That is what the project is all about,” Toups said. “They are going to come and see the artist, and hopefully, they will love a song they never had heard of before.”
For Brown, who studied French under Ancelet at UL-Lafayette and also works at KRVS 88.7-FM, the opportunity to sing ballads with such a compelling story is inspiring.
“I think it’s mostly when you are listening to Cajun music you don’t hear a lot of a cappella singing, the melodies are so striking in these ballads,” Brown said. “The stories behind them are far more complete than typical Cajun songs. In these ballads, you get the complete story.”
As for veteran musicians like Toups and Romero, the latest box set and shows are just a small way to keep the music that came before them alive and well today.
“I am extremely honored to say the least,” said Romero, who will play slide guitar on the Marc Broussard-sung “When I Die.” “I don’t know if there is any other description. To me, it is continuing a legacy. It’s the cycle recreating itself. It’s the younger musicians retelling the stories of old and also telling your own stories or you own spin on those stories of old.
“These songs still have great meaning today. They still tell the stories of hard times here in Louisiana.”