Nathan Abshire

b. 27 June 1913, near Gueydan, Louisiana, USA, d. 13 May 1981, Basile, Louisiana

MÉLANGE OF Old World French ballads and dance songs, Scots and Irish fiddle music and the blues, the cajun music of Southern Louisiana has been one of the most tenaciously regional and unassimilated idioms in the United States. On early recordings it was chiefly performed on fiddle or the diatonic one-row or two-row button accordion, or on both together. The status of the accordionists, however, was enhanced by the fact that one of them, Joseph F. Falcon, was the first cajun musician to make records, starting in 1927 with ‘Allons à Lafayette’ (Columbia). Falcon was one of the most popular artists in the first decade of recorded cajun music, under contract successively to Columbia, Bluebird and Decca.

Falcon apart, in the ’30s accordion players were out of fashion. The most successful recording acts were fiddle-led stringbands like the Hackberry Ramblers – who as the Riverside Ramblers had a hit with ‘Wondering’ (1936), later picked up by Webb Pierce – and Leo Soileau with his Three (or Four) Aces; both groups recorded English as well as French songs in order to reach hillbilly record buyers.

Though he had a recording session for Bluebird in 1935, Nathan Abshire’s career did not gain momentum until after the Second World War. In 1948, with a residency at the Avalon Club in Basile and a hit record in ‘Pine Grove Blues’ (O.T.), he not only improved his own prospects but brought the accordion back into public favour. The instrument’s reputation was reinforced by the appearance of other excellent and popular players, including Lawrence Walker, Austin Pitre, and, in particular, Iry LeJune, but cajun musicians generally found it hard to keep even their local audience in the post-rock’n’roll 50s, and Abshire’s fortunes ebbed once more. They recovered in the 60s with a series of superb singles for Jay Miller’s Kajun label and Floyd Soileau’s Swallow. Both contracts produced remakes of the evergreen ‘Pine Grove Blues’, the Swallow period also providing Abshire with hits like ‘The Lemonade Song’ and even Joe South’s ‘Games People Play’ (1970).

On some of his Swallow recordings Abshire worked with the Balfa Brothers, Dewey (fiddle/vocal), Will (fiddle) and Rodney (guitar). Dewey Balfa, an articulate spokesman for cajun values, led the renaissance of cajun music in the ’70s and ’80s through his festival appearances, lecture tours and frequent recordings on Swallow, Sonet and other labels (notably Under the Green Oak Tree, Arhoolie, 1973) with accordionist (and accordion-maker) Marc Savoy and singer/guitarist D. L. Menard.

In the ’70s Abshire was at first popular on the festival circuit, where his unforced emotional singing and blues-ridden playing were not tempered for the unfamiliar audience, but personal problems began to sap his abilities and his later recordings, though moving, are not representative. A PBS documentary, The Good Times Are Killin’ Me, mapped this decline with almost too much candour.

Among Abshire’s musical descendants are such players as Marc Savoy, Jo-El Sonnier, Bessyl Duhon, who regularly played with the pop-cajun artist Jimmy C. Newman on the Grand Ole Opry, Wayne Toups and Pat Savant. Sonnier had numerous country hits. Savant was a member of Lesa Cormier and the Sundown Playboys, whose ‘Saturday Night Special’ (Swallow, 1972), leased to The Beatles’ Apple label, was the first cajun single ever issued outside the US.

© Phil Hardy, Dave LaingFaber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, 2001

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