The Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage in Jazz Fest’s grandstand always offers added value to the full performances on its stages. In conversation with writers and historians, artists share stories that illuminate their official festival shows and often, the fans’ understanding of them in general. And sometimes, the intimate stage delivers sessions that are truly special in and of themselves. Friday’s conversation between former Louisiana poet laureate Darrell Bourque and accordionist Goldman Thibodeaux, was one of those, a repeat booking from 2015 and well worth it.
Thibodeaux’s Lawtell Playboys band has been playing the rural Creole music called la-la, an ancestor of zydeco, since 1946. As a child, he knew the mysterious and tragic figure Amede Ardoin, a talented accordionist whose 1930s recordings with fiddler Dennis McGee united Cajun and Creole styles, and impacted Louisiana music tremendously. Bourque, in 2014, published a chapbook of gorgeous poems inspired by Ardoin and conversations with people who had known him before a horrific beating, motivated by his race, left him so that – as Bourque put it on the Heritage Stage Friday – “he never knew he was Amede again, another day in his life.”
A small band, guitar, fiddle and rub board, joined the poet and accordionist onstage. Bourque augmented Thibodeaux’s remembered tales with commentary about race, place and culture in rural Louisiana - including a note about the black fiddler Douglas Bellard, with whom Ardoin played before working with the white McGee. Rumors that Bellard had poisoned Ardoin, Bourque said, were pervasive after his beating; an indicator that the community preferred to pass on the blame for the loss of Ardoin’s talent, and to ignore the viciousness of its racism.
Thibodeaux’s memories and Bourque’s contextualizing history were accompanied Friday by performances the songs that, as Thibodeaux said, “told you the whole history of him,” from his lyrical repetition of the word “stranger” to the plaintive “Blues de Voyageur,” the blues of the traveler. As a child, Thibodeaux recalled, he once saw Ardoin play a three-hour show alone and then pack his accordion into a flour sack, to carry it 15 miles to the next show of the night; a constant traveler, indeed.