Cajun Band Carries on Rich Musical Tradition


Bryan Rubin

Pine Leaf Boys members Courtney Granger (left), Drew Simon, Wilson Savoy, Thomas David and Jon Bertrand give an enthusiastic performance at the Cat in the Cream. The band returned to Oberlin last Friday to reprise their delightful 2012 performance.

Hannah Morris

“This song is about how life’s too short to sit at home on your computer on Facebook and tweeter… Tweeter? Twitter?” drummer of the Pine Leaf Boys Drew Simon mused as he introduced the band’s first number, “La Vie est Trop Courte,” at the Cat in the Cream Sept. 19. Simon’s slipup underscored the Pine Leaf Boys’ anachronistic vibe as they played a nearly two hour-long set of Cajun tunes.

Cheerful front man and accordionist (Cajun accordionist, to be specific) Wilson Savoy was eager to inform the crowd that this was not the Grammy Award-nominated quintet’s first visit to Oberlin. Sporting a backwards baseball cap and a wide, toothy grin, Savoy was joined onstage by guitarist Jon Bertrand, whose thin, oldfashioned mustache was barely visible under his ten-gallon hat. Rounding out the quintet, and decidedly more conventional in appearance, were Simon on drums, Thomas David on electric bass and Courtney Granger on fiddle.

The set was a fairly even mix of original songs from the band’s own albums, including its 2007 record, Blues De Musicien, which includes covers of upbeat Cajun classics, some country, waltzes and 1950s Jerry Lee Lewis-style rock ‘n’ roll. Savoy’s raspy voice lent a modern twist to songs whose roots go as far back as the early 20th century. Before even playing the first note, he encouraged the audience to get up and dance, citing Oberlin’s reputation for having one of the best social dance scenes in the country. For the first few songs, the audience was hesitant, but once the band launched into a rowdy cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Keep Your Hands Off of It,” nearly half of the audience was on its feet. The band slowed down as Granger lent his classic country croon to several George Jones covers, including the standout “If My Heart Had Windows.”

Savoy addressed the set’s only shortcoming when he explained to an audience member that he would have to wait a few songs to play a request because it sounded too similar to the previous song. “To some people, a lot of these songs might sound the same. Not to me, but to the untrained ear.” That was sometimes the case, as it was hard to distinguish one fiddle solo or bluesy, down-and-out lyric from the next, but the band’s unyielding enthusiasm never ceased to sustain the crowd’s attention.

All members of the band are Louisiana natives and clearly proud of the unique Cajun culture from which their music stems. There’s nothing quite like the contrast between the musicians’ Southern twang and fluent French. On the subject of Creole versus standard French, Savoy said, “We understand them, but they can’t quite understand us!”

Despite the light-hearted banter, Pine Leaf Boys recognize that Cajun music and culture is still something that many people are unfamiliar with, and take seriously the responsibility of sharing it with the world. People often mistake Savoy’s handmade Cajun accordion for things as varied as a concertina or a saxophone. He even claims that an audience member once thought the band was singing in Chinese — “We were in England, and I think the song was in English!”

Granger shared a piece of Cajun music history as he introduced a song called “Newport Waltz,” explaining that the song was written by a group of Cajun musicians, the Balfa Brothers (including Granger’s uncle, Dewey Balfa), after playing the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. According to Granger, it was the first time Cajun music was brought outside of Louisiana, and despite being warned that the sophisticated crowd would ridicule “chank-a-chank” music, the Brothers received a standing ovation. “Ever since that day, [my uncle] would come home and tell the people, ‘What you have in your backyard needs to be played in your front yard, amongst the people. Be proud of what you have,’” said Granger.

The Pine Leaf Boys are clearly proud of what they have, and thanks to them, the legacy of Cajun musicians sharing their rich tradition with us deprived Northerners carries on.