When you Ann Savoy, you say quite a lot.
Multi-instrumentalist. Singer. Author. Documentarian.
And it’s with those qualifications that you’ll find Savoy moderating the Women Song Collectors: 1900-Present Panel, which is part of Les femmes et les filles: Female Perspectives in Cajun and Creole Culture Symposium, Friday, at the Hilliard University Art Museum, 710 E. St. Mary Boulevard.
It’s a daylong symposium that waltzes right into Festivals Acadiens et Creoles that kicks off an accordion solo away, early Friday evening, in Girard Park. The festival, celebrating the role of women in Cajun and Creole music, runs through Sunday.
“It’s going to be kind of cool because we’re honoring all these pioneer women who were huge song collectors around here,” Savoy said. “While all you ever hear about is John and Alan Lomax, but, in fact, Irene Whitfield is the person who showed them where all the good music was and she wrote the first book with Cajun songs in it.”
Whitfield’s book, "Louisiana French Folk Songs," was published in 1939.
“There are a lot of early women who did incredible field work saving old songs,” Savoy said. “That’s what this panel’s about. We’re going to talk about those women and then we’re going to talk about what we’ve done.”
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Along with Whitfield, there’s other early researchers Corrine Saucier, Catherine Blanchet, as well as today’s March Lacouture Kristi Guillory and Savoy.
“There was a whole lot done, but you don’t hear much about these people,” said Savoy. “So I thought it would be real nice, since this is a festival honoring the women who’ve done a lot of documenting, I said, ‘Well, let’s do a panel about it and talk about that.’”
Savoy said women have eyed the Cajun culture for some time.
“The first thesis that I know that was written by (Irene Petitjean) was in 1930 and it was at Columbia University and it was her master’s thesis and it was on Cajun music,” said Savoy.
Whitfield took Petitjean’s cue and it led to her thesis/book, as well as the Lomaxes and others’ interest in the South Louisiana culture.
“They were French majors and they were aware of the French language in this area and they were trying to preserve it way back then,” Savoy said. “It became sort a thing back in the ’30s.”
So much a thing that researchers “brought the Cajun music to Dallas in the 1930s for the very first Cajun appearance at the National Folk Festival,” said Savoy. “That was all that crew. There were quite an elite academic crowd. They found authentic music and brought it over there. It’s a very special time.”
Savoy, of course, is no stranger to documenting Cajun music and musicians and its found in Savoy’s 1984 book, “Cajun Music, A Reflection of a People.” Through interviews, biographies, historic and current photographs and song transcriptions, the book chronicles the history of Cajun and zydeco music.
The book won the American Folklore Society's prestigious Botkin Book Award, and the film “J’etais au bal” from Brazos Films in California was based on it.
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Although a native of Virginia, Savoy was taken by the Cajun culture when she arrived in 1977 and married a Cajun musician.
“I was so infatuated with the Cajun culture because I married a Cajun man, Marc Savoy, and he’d shown me a lot of really behind the scenes,” recalled Savoy. “I sort of came here to walk on the wild side after Virginia.
“To me, this was the wild world and he showed me the wild world part of it, which I loved,” she said. “I was intrigued by the French speaking people and I started to want to document them.”
Savoy said while “traveling all over the world at the time with the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Everywhere we would go, people were like ‘What is this? What do the words mean?’ And all that’
“So I thought maybe I should put a book out with the songs and the translations,” she said. “I wanted the stories behind the music and that’s what my book was.
“It was a very foreign culture to me and I was thrilled to document it, take photographs of these houses, these people, their world, ” Savoy said. “It was a very creative project about an area that I have grown to love more and more as I’ve lived here.”
Women in Cajun music was a rare sight some 40 years ago.
“The only other woman that I knew of playing music was Sheryl Cormier,” said Savoy. “When I started playing, people would come and look at me and say, ‘there’s a woman on the stage.’ It was very unusual back in ’77. I think it encouraged a lot of young women to get up and start doing what they were good at.
“A lot of these young women started playing,” she said. “When I got here, that wasn’t happening at all.”
Since then, Savoy has found time with the all-woman band, Magnolia Sisters, the Savoy Family Band, and Ann Savoy and Her Sleepless Knights.
Savoy’s love for her adopted home has taken her around the world and four times on the Prairie Home Companion.
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In 2002, "Evangeline Made" included Linda Ronstadt, John Fogerty, Richard and Linda Thompson, Nick Lowe, and Rodney Crowell performing traditional Cajun tunes. Her second project for Vanguard, a tribute to Creole and Zydeco, entitled "Creole Bred," came out in May 2004.
And in 2006, “Adieu False Heart,” duets with Linda Ronstadt hit the streets.
“We’ve had this amazing life,” said Savoy. “And it’s all because we’ve played traditional Cajun music for 40 years all over the place. And we’ve tried really hard to keep it strictly the real thing. We tried to make a point of that and tried to do it.”
An unexpected Japanese artist will play with Cajun band Feufollet and zydeco group Horace Trahan and the Ossun Express this weekend.