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Accordion Dreams

A Journey into Cajun and Creole Music

Blair Kilpatrick

Publication Year: 2009

By age thirty-nine, Blair Kilpatrick had settled into life as a practicing psychologist, wife, and mother. Then a chance encounter in New Orleans turned her world upside down. She returned home to Chicago with unlikely new passions for Cajun music and its defining instrument, the accordion. Captivated by recurring dreams of playing the Cajun accordion, she set out to master it. Yet she was not a musician, was too self-conscious to dance, and didn't even sing in the shower. Kilpatrick's obsession took her from Chicago's Cajun dance scene to a folk music camp in West Virginia, back and forth to south Louisiana, and even to a Cajun festival in France. An unexpected family move brought her to the San Francisco Bay Area, home to the largest Cajun-zydeco music scene outside the Gulf Coast. There she became a protégé of renowned accordionist Danny Poullard, a Louisiana-born Creole and the guiding spirit of the local Louisiana French music community. Engaging, uplifting, and illuminating a unique patch of the American cultural landscape, Accordion Dreams is Kilpatrick's account of the possibility of passion, risk-taking, and change--at any age. Blair Kilpatrick has an independent practice in psychotherapy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also performs and records with Sauce Piquante, a traditional Cajun-Creole band she founded in the late 1990s. Learn more at www.blairkilpatrick.com

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

First, I offer love and gratitude to Steve Tabak, my partner in life, in music, and all good things. By now, he must know this book almost as well as I do. My deepest thanks go also to our sons, who have grown into wonderful young men. They have followed their own paths— Alec into his own kind of music, Nate into journalism. I like to think their early Cajun- Creole immersion didn’t hurt! I am grateful to my mother, for her support of my music and my writing and for her willingness to let me share...

Part One: Beginnings

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1. Swamp Tour

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pp. 3-14

Papa Joe didn’t have what you’d consider a pretty voice. It sounded too life- roughened— whether from late nights, cigarettes, whiskey, or simply the passage of time, I couldn’t say. And as a tour guide, he had more skill in steering a pontoon boat through the Louisiana swamp than navigating his way around a melody. But once he was moved to sing, he didn’t appear concerned about his audience— or the road ahead. He turned up the tap...

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2. Accordion Dreams

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pp. 15-29

I emerged from sleep disoriented, half- awake, still wrapped in a dream. An accordion dream, once again. I could feel the nocturnal music, refusing to retreat in the face of insistent morning sounds: Steve shifting beside me, child stirring, cat scratching, city street noises filtering through the window along with the sunlight. But I kept dancing with the accordion. It was playing...

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3. Charivari

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pp. 30-36

At first, I felt like celebrating: I finally had my hands on a real accordion. But what I deserved was an old- fashioned Cajun “charivari”— a mocking, raucous serenade, when the neighbors gather outside the window of an ill- fated couple on their wedding night. It is a party for a pair that’s mismatched or outside the bounds of propriety, like when an old man takes a young wife or a widow remarries with unseemly haste, or when an older couple gets together, second time around for both of them...

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4. Allons

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pp. 37-49

Let’s go to Lafayette. That was the proposition of a young man to his sweetheart in “Allons à Lafayette”—the first Cajun song ever recorded, back in 1928. I’d made exactly the same pitch to Steve and he was happy to follow along. So now we found ourselves driving west on Interstate 10 toward the largest city in Acadiana, the capital of Cajun country. Much as I loved the color and excitement...

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5. Les Femmes d’Enfer

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pp. 50-60

Les Femmes d’Enfer. The women from hell. Not a sorority I ever expected to join, but I signed on gladly, after a meeting in a church social hall— just after my first Cajun music workshop. The name didn’t really suit a group of beginners who played with more hesitation than fi re. And we certainly didn’t qualify as a bunch of hell raisers: four women in our forties, three of us therapists, with six kids and two husbands among us...

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6. Awakening at Augusta

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pp. 61-74

Of all the enchantments at Augusta, the best was this: drifting off to sleep late at night, with the sound of Cajun music ringing out into the mountain air. And then waking up the next morning, after just a few hours of sleep, to the same sweet wild sound. It felt as though the music had awakened me, and not dawn’s first light. But the dance of accordion, fiddle, and guitar had gone on all night, out there on the porch. I was the one who had drifted away, until the music called me back...

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7. After Augusta

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pp. 75-85

“Let’s swear,” Joan said. She extended her pinkies, one to each side. The arrival of the okra had inspired her. I ignored trucker stares from the nearby tables and linked one little finger with Joan, the other with Jessie. Over a heaping plate of fried okra, we hammered out a pledge to keep the Augusta spirit, the music— and our connection— going strong. “We promise to practice every day on our own.” “ Well— that might be tough...

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8. Return to Acadiana

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pp. 86-95

“Do we really have to go to Lafayette— again? It was so boring last time.” Alec’s voice mixed the whine of a toddler with the disdain of a worldly thirteen- year- old. Not that he minded another family trip to New Orleans, his fifth in four years. But the thought of a second excursion into southwest Louisiana left him cold. “We’ll have plenty of time in New Orleans at the end of the week,” I reminded him. “And Lafayette will be better this time. You’ll see.” At least I hoped so...

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9. Finding My Voice

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pp. 96-104

“It’s like Purgatory,” wrote a friend of mine from music camp. I knew exactly what she meant, even without reading the rest of her letter. I felt it too, that suffering that came with the music. Burning with desire. Doing penance, as I submitted to the regular discipline of practice. Eyes fixed on the elusive goal of mastery. Like my friend, I agonized, wondering whether I’d ever make it across the gulf that separated the music of my imagination from the confi ning limits of my own experience...

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10. Going Deeper

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pp. 105-123

“Hey. It’s me. Harton. I just had an idea.” To me it sounded more like a brainstorm, judging from the urgency I could detect beneath the low drawl at the other end of the line. “Why don’t you get really drunk some time and then try to sing?” “Well, I don’t know . . .” I hesitated, trying to digest this latest bit of wisdom from my new Cajun friend. So he quickly amended his suggestion: “You’d only have to do it once. Think about it.”...

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11. Our Town, Good Night

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pp. 124-134

I held up the blue leather miniskirt, considering. I’d squeezed myself into it exactly once, on that first trip to New Orleans. No amount of nostalgia could justify keeping it— and besides, I hadn’t grown any thinner in the past seven years. Maybe one of my skinny friends or neighbors would appreciate it. No telling who would show up for our moving sale. I moved on to the kids’ stuff. I gently smoothed out the white and navy sailor suit, size 2T. Both boys had worn it, though...

Part Two: Danse de Poullard

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12. First Jam at Danny’s

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pp. 137-149

Steve and I sat in slow- moving freeway traffic, heading north from Berkeley toward Danny Poullard’s house in Fairfield. The heavy August air magnified the oppressiveness of rush hour. Since I hadn’t started my new job, at a mental health agency an hour south of Berkeley, I hadn’t faced the frenzied Wednesday night rush that would soon become part of my weekly routine. Still, I felt impatient and keyed up, unable to shake that queasy mixture of excitement and anxiety...

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13. Musical Chairs

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pp. 150-158

I was sitting in Danny’s garage at the regular Wednesday night jam session, trying my best to stay out of everyone’s way. Dennis, our old friend from Chicago, sat to the right, playing my accordion with exuberance. Every time he opened the bellows, I got jabbed in the side. I tried to shuffle my chair to the left, but I ran into Maureen, leader of a popular local Cajun band— perched on a high stool, looking good in her short dress and pastel tights. She sounded good, too, on her latest instrument, a fiddle, while she waited for her turn on the accordion...

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14. Sauce Piquante

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pp. 159-170

The parish gym was nearly empty when Steve and I walked in with our instruments on a gray afternoon in March. We saw little evidence of the festival we’d been expecting, aside from some Mardi Gras decorations scattered around. KP approached us, straining under the weight of her electric bass and amp. Looking a little wan, as though she really did belong home in bed, nursing her cold. I felt a twinge of guilt for talking her into this. “So where is everyone?” I figured maybe she’d know, since she’d arrived ahead of us, as usual...

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15. In the Blood

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pp. 171-178

“She looks good for seventy- seven, doesn’t she?” I had to laugh at myself, showing off my own mother. “Yes, she does,” Danny agreed. He had just set down his accordion to take a break. I had introduced them as soon as we walked in. Now my mother stood a little distance away from us, talking with Steve and one of our music friends. Danny peered at her more closely. “I can definitely see the family resemblance,” he concluded...

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16. Return to Augusta

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pp. 179-187

I looked up from my accordion and spotted Jean, smiling as she made her way through the festive crowd. It was Wednesday, the night of the midweek Cajun- Creole class party, and Halliehurst porch had filled up with clusters of people— eating gumbo, dancing, making music. Jean was a tall, pretty woman, with reddish hair and fair skin. She managed to be self- possessed and folksy, all at the same time, a disarming combination. I felt immediate pleasure as I watched her approach, accordion in hand...

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17. Singing Higher

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pp. 188-198

“You need to sing higher, Blair.” It was Danny’s latest piece of advice. Even though he didn’t sing much himself, he had definite ideas about every aspect of the music— including this one. He’d first made the suggestion in the summer, and he continued into the fall, repeating it regularly at the jams. Eventually, he revealed how he’d reached this conclusion: by hearing me sing at the Augusta student showcase. “Don’t be afraid to push yourself,” he reminded me. It was just one sign of Danny’s growing seriousness that fall. It came out in little ways. He was starting to correct people when they referred to his Wednesday sessions as jams— they were workshops. Or he’d make critical comments about students who didn’t practice enough. It was a little disconcerting, this air of urgency...

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18. Orphan’s Waltz

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pp. 199-208

Steve and I were a little late getting to Danny’s— as usual. By the time we arrived, the Wednesday night Cajun jam session seemed to be in full swing. We thought we could hear the faint sounds of fiddle and accordion filtering down the driveway as we approached the familiar suburban split- level. Danny lived in a middle class subdivision in Fairfield, close to Travis Air Force Base, a good forty minutes northeast of our house in Berkeley. It was farther than that, in more ways than you could...

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19. Mon Coeur Fait Plus Mal

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pp. 209-219

This Wednesday night there was no jam at Danny’s. He had a gig at Ashkenaz with his side band, Danny and Friends. So instead of hurried Chinese take- out, our usual fare on jam nights, we’d lingered over one of Steve’s home- cooked meals. The band didn’t start playing until 8:30, and Ashkenaz was just five minutes away by car— much closer than Fairfield. We had just finished clearing up when the doorbell rang. I was pleased, though not surprised, to find Danny at the door. He often dropped by on his way to a gig...

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20. The Last Session

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pp. 220-236

Danny held his final jam session on April 25, 2001. He died two days later. He had been working in his yard, waiting to take his daughter to school, when he suffered a massive heart attack. I was at home that Friday morning when I received the phone call I had feared for months. By chance, a musician friend had called Danny’s house just after the ambulance left. Delilah had the great kindness to call a small circle of other women in the music community who were close to him. Word spread quickly among the network of Danny’s friends and students. His death wasn’t confi rmed for a few hours. But no one held out much hope. The numbness, the phone calls back and forth, talking to Steve, trying to reach Harton in Louisiana— it all kept my grief in check...

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21. Another Wednesday Night

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pp. 237-240

From the outside, the house looked dark, just like the other small stucco bungalows lining the street. No sound disturbed the autumn air. It was late, at least by the standards of this quiet residential neighborhood on a Berkeley side street: nearly ten thirty on a weekday evening. It was only when I reached the door that I heard the faint promise of music, coming from deep inside the house. “There must be a couple of people still inside,” I thought, “hanging on till the very end.” I opened the door and walked in...

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Coda: Higher Ground

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pp. 241-246

We’ve finished the sound check— finally. “Let’s go,” I say, after an impatient glance around the room. I kick off the first set with “Lacassine Special” and then move on quickly to “Quoi Faire.” I don’t say much in between, either to the rest of the band or to the small crowd starting to fill the bar. I just play my new red accordion— and sing. If I play hard and fast enough, if I try to pierce the darkness with my voice, then perhaps my spirits will be lifted...

Suggestions for Listening

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pp. 247-250

E-ISBN-13: 9781604733389
E-ISBN-10: 1604733381
Print-ISBN-13: 9781604731019
Print-ISBN-10: 160473101X

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2009