It was an honor to have Louisiana creole accordionist Joe Fontenot perform in my American music class at UCSD last night. Joe was born in the town of Mamou, Louisiana and grew up in a French-speaking home before moving to Los Angeles for work. I met him in 2015 at San Diego’s Cajun/Creole music festival Gator By The Bay. My own jug band had inexplicably been invited to perform and after we finished, as I was packing up I noticed an elder gentlemen with a heavy accent, old-school button accordion, and a particularly handsome Stetson hat setting up for the next act. I knew immediately that I needed to stay for his set and was not disappointed.
Last night, almost a year after Gator, Joe came down to UCSD’s La Jolla campus joined by guitarist Carolyn Russel share his music and stories of growing up in rural Louisiana, his occasional travels to the bayou regions, his Savoy accordions, and even treated us to a spontaneous and unexpected performance on the harmonica. A wonderful time!
G Burns Jug Band had the privilege of opening for folk revival icons Jim Kweskin & Happy Traum and then joining them on stage for a few numbers. We closed the show with the Memphis Jug Band’s classic tune, Stealin’ Stealin’.
Bull At The Wagon is an old time fiddle reel from the southwest. The earliest known recording of it was made by the brothers Dempson and Denmon Lewis in 1929 for Victor Records. Born in San Antonio they lived their adult lives in New Mexico working as cattle ranchers, but occasionally returned to their native state to play dances and record in El Paso. I learned of this tune when Batya played with the contra dance group Crooked, and I became so enamored of it that I began adding it into my sets. After trying a few different instrumentations, I settled on a mandolin-fiddle duet to add some variety to a concert.
“Uncle” Dave Macon was a much-loved banjoist, a performer of so-called ‘old time music’ in the early 20th century, and a seminal figure in the foundation of roots, folk, or country musics as we think of them today. Macon was born in 1870, only a few years after the end of the Civil War, when minstrel shows had reached their peak popularity and made the whole country crazy for banjos, though unfortunately stereotyping and denigrating African American culture in the process. Macon grew up as American audiences shifted away from the rough-hewn comedy and entertainment stylings of minstrelsy towards a newer, more family-friendly form of entertainment, vaudeville, and became one of its greatest stars.
The many recordings and few videos capturing his performances showed him to be a boisterous, exuberant performer, even into old age, but occasionally a more genteel side comes to the fore. In the 1926 recording of his “Beloved Solo”, Macon begins with perhaps a nostalgic gesture, quoting the popular 19th century hymn “Rock Of Ages, Cleft For Me” as assurance that he is, like the presumed listener, a man of God. With that assurance, he then delivers a beautiful, poignant, and still virtuosic performance I’ve tried to recapture here.