In Search of a Creole Pioneer ; Music of Amede Ardoin Crossed Strict Racial Lines, but He Died in Obscurity

By Robertson, Campbell | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

In Search of a Creole Pioneer ; Music of Amede Ardoin Crossed Strict Racial Lines, but He Died in Obscurity


Robertson, Campbell, International New York Times


Amede Ardoin brought white Cajun and black Creole traditions together in Louisiana, and it may have cost him his life.

Somewhere among the thousands beneath a grassy hill here lies the body of Amede Ardoin.

He was singular in life: one of the greatest accordion players ever to come out of south Louisiana. A Creole prodigy who traveled the countryside playing his bluesy two-steps and waltzes, he changed Cajun music and laid down the roots for zydeco.

At his death at the age of 44 in 1942, he was Case No. 13387 in the state psychiatric hospital, destined for an anonymous burial.

Years of attempts to recover the body of Amede, as he is widely known, have come to nothing. As with Mozart's grave, Amede's is known only by its general vicinity: the area where the blacks were buried. But a desire for some sort of physical commemoration of his life, beyond a few documents and a blurry photograph, has not gone away.

"I started thinking of possible symbolic ways of bringing Amede home, placing a kind of image of him in the culture, something physical," said Darrell Bourque, a former state poet laureate, who has been trying to raise funds to have a statue erected, most likely in Eunice, La., where Amede spent much of his life.

Mr. Bourque described Amede as bringing the white Cajun and black Creole traditions together in a society that policed racial boundaries so rigidly that it ultimately brought about his death. His music, Mr. Bourque said, represented "a little pocket of possibility that didn't get replicated in the larger culture."

It was only after he began looking for Amede that Mr. Bourque came to learn how complicated those boundaries could be for whites and blacks at that time -- and how deeply connected he was to the people who crossed them.

Amede was born in 1898 in the countryside between Eunice and Basile. A small man, not much for field work, he made his living with his accordion. He played and sang on porches and at dance halls, for Creole and Cajun audiences alike, sometimes alone and sometimes -- improbably for the era -- with a Cajun fiddler named Dennis McGee.

Goldman Thibodeaux, an 82-year-old musician who says he is the last living person to have heard Amede perform live, remembers waiting as an 8-year-old under a china ball tree, watching him come up the road on horseback, his accordion hanging beside him in a flour sack. He was coming for a Sunday afternoon house party, Mr. Thibodeaux recalled, and for three hours he sat in a corner and played, making up songs on the spot.

"Amede," Mr. Thibodeaux said, "he could put the words in a way, the girl knew he was talking about her, the man knew he was talking about him, but he wouldn't name anybody's name."

As Michael Tisserand recounts in his book "The Kingdom of Zydeco," Amede recorded 22 songs in New Orleans and San Antonio with McGee, some of which would become standards, and in 1934 he made a solo trip to New York and recorded a dozen more. At home he had become a sensation: Women wept, men danced, rivals became jealous, whites grew angry. But he toured far and wide, seemingly indifferent to his jeopardy.

The widely accepted account of his death begins on a night when Amede was playing at a white dance hall. At one point, he asked Celestin Marcantel, a white farmer who let Amede live in his barn, for a rag to wipe off his sweat; one of the farmer's daughters handed him a handkerchief. …

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