Canray Fontenot, Black Creole Fiddler and National Heritage Fellow, was 76 years old when interviewed by Robert Atkinson in 1994. This is how he describes the interview: “After I had arranged to meet him, it took me a few tries to locate Canray’s cottage off the beaten path in St. Martin’s Parish, the heart of Cajun country in southwestern Louisiana. I was immediately struck by his quiet, gentle, nature. His dark, thick rim glasses and his broad, full smile stood out, making him appear larger than his diminutive frame. Born in 1918, into a family of notable local musicians, he has known life at its fullest and its hardest. He was living alone when I visited him in the spring of 1994, his clean, simple, modest home not indicating the worst of poverty that he had once experienced. I was immediately welcomed in and he became an engaging, enduring host, with an irresistible spirit.
As we settled in, it was a marvelous story that I listened to. His parents grew the food they lived on, and bartered for what else that they needed. They barely got by, but enjoyed the weekends, making their own music and having a good time. Often their home was the center of community cultural life. They died when Canray was fourteen, forcing him to go out and support he and his sister. Canray, too, was drawn to music, but not so much the accordion that his father played. He preferred the greater range of the fiddle, and with a friend made his first fiddle out of a cigar box and some screen door wire. He practiced, picked it up quickly on his own, and even performed with his father some before he died, and then with his uncle. He formed a lifelong link with Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin, an accordionist who became a National Heritage Fellow the same year, and together they played all over Cajun country and beyond. Clifton Chenier, the zydeco accordionist who also became a National Heritage Fellow, sought out Canray, seven years his senior, to help get his career going.
In 1987, along with Dewey Balfa, another Cajun fiddler and National Heritage Fellow, Canray was appointed adjunct professor at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. His fiddle technique is legendary, his attitude heart-warming. Though he died in 1995, his voice still shines.
The first festival I went to was in 1966, in Newport, Rhode Island. They had a jazz festival. I had never seen something like that, so many people, so many musicians. When I got there, it was just me and Bois Sec there with this type of music. They had some more people from New Orleans. Some old people, they almost all dead. I played at the Preservation Hall there, so that’s where they saw us.
I said, “Why they call that a jazz festival, and they got us on the program. We don’t play no jazz.” So that’s when I find out that Dixieland Jazz come from an accordion and a fiddle.
Then after that we started going to the Washington D.C. festival. The first festival they had in Washington D. C., I think, was in 1968. I didn’t go to that one. I started going in 1969 and we went 14 years in a row. And every year it was getting bigger and bigger. I know when you go there you learn stuff from other people, and they appreciate what you do, and they learn from you, too.
I was born and raised Catholic. The Catholic people would go to church and go to dance, but them Baptist people, they wouldn’t go to the dance. They wouldn’t dance at all. And we didn’t mix too much, you know. We was friends and all that, but you would find a Catholic man getting involved with a Catholic lady. Baptists married amongst each other. They thought they was more than us, and we thought we were more than them.
Where I was born and raised, they had some people, still do, that wouldn’t go to no dance during the year at all, but on Mardi Gras night they would go to the dance. Once a year, it was a special day ‘cause after midnight on Mardi Gras night you had to get ready to fast for Ash Wednesday. You don’t eat no meat, and most Catholics during lent always give up something, they usually do. Like some of them that drank a whole lot put their drinking aside until after lent. It’s got a lot to do with religion. I don’t know about them other religions.
When I was born, as far as money, nobody had any, hardly. Every now and then, we had a few who would work for them big men there. A man that had a lot of money would probably plant 200 acres of rice, but that was done with a mule and stuff, no tractor. So, they hire one or two men all year around, so much a month, and get it plowed. Everything was done with team in those days. The only job they had going, that I could see, was those people who was raising corn there. We kept wondering how they could make a living cutting cross ties and stuff like that. A fellow would go every day into the woods making cross ties, and all that time we were the dumb people. They was making money all that time there, ‘cause they were working for themselves. When you farming like that all you going to do is make a living, you ain’t going to make no money. That’s one thing I find out when I got grownup.
Everybody planted a little bit of everything, and that’s how they made their living. A little bit of rice, a little bit of everything. The poor people didn’t have no money. As far as going hungry, you didn’t know anything about that. You always had a yard full of chickens, hogs, and all kinds of stuff like that. They raised their own stuff, you know, so it didn’t take much to make a living. The eggs and stuff they bring to the store, you couldn’t get no cash but you could get some grocery for it, in exchange.
My parents died when I was a teenager. They had a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. We made a little bit when they started having a few tractors. It wasn’t much, but everybody always did work hard. People would help one another, not like today. If somebody had a hard time, the people in the neighborhood would get together and go and hoe the cotton in the field, or whatever they had in the field, and get that done all free of charge. Nowadays you can’t get nobody to do anything for nothing.
So, it was a struggle, and in another way I don’t know if it wasn’t better than now. I still don’t understand people on the street, no place to stay, nothing to eat. That’s a strange thing to me. I hate to see that. I went to New York and different places, and saw them people beg for a little bit of something to eat, or whatever they were going to get. I was a poor man all my life, but I never figure I was going to see that. No money was usual for me, but I guess things change.
My grandparents and them were old farmers. As usual, they’d have a little fun on the weekend. That’s something that’s very popular in Louisiana, among the white and the black. They always had somewhere where they were going on the weekend to have some kind of activity going on, a little dancing or something like that.
Where I was born and raised they had something called The Jubilee. The old people would get around and make up some songs and clap their hands and stomp their feet. The young people would dance to that. When a person sings, he can forget about how hard life is.
My daddy was an accordion player. He was one of the best they had in them times, him and Amede Ardoin. Nobody would use nobody’s music unless they were living the way he was living. My daddy didn’t want to make no record. They done tried to get him to record, I don’t know how many times. People came, and he’d say, “No, when a man is dead, he is supposed to be gone. You’re not supposed to hear him on records. When I’m dead, I want everything to be dead.” But he sure could play.
Amede was the first black man to make a record. They ordered my daddy to bring him to New Orleans. They had a studio there, but he didn’t want that. Amede grabbed the chance, though. Amede was a man who never got married. Never did do too much work, either. He was dependent on the accordion to make a living.
When I was coming up, you take education, I went to school a long time and I never got no higher than the 5th grade. We had about three months of school. What they had going on when I was going to school, well they had some people that had some big families and they would pick one or two in the family and put them in school ‘cause they couldn’t afford to send them to school. They had to buy the books, everything, the pens, whatever you needed in school you had to pay for it. It went like that for many years. You could go a long time, but school just stopped. When things started getting good, that’s when my parents died. I didn’t have time to go to school then. I had to do something to make a living. If I get a little job or something, I make a few dollars and that would help my sister, too.
I even work fourteen years at the feed store. When I was a little boy, my mamma and dad would plant some stuff to make some broom straw. You plant that and it grows like corn, but the only thing it is going to make is a bunch of red seed and some straw. I helped my mamma making brooms. She would make brooms for herself and brooms for other people. You don’t have too many people that makes them. But now you can’t find no seed no where.
Some kids near us, their old man was a real good carpenter, could do just about anything in the carpenter way, and every time I look at his sons I feel sorry for them. They never learned how to do nothing like that old man. They wasn’t interested in learning how to be a carpenter. That old man could build so many houses till it was pitiful. And he kept telling them, “The carpenter work is getting a whole lot easier,” ‘cause that old man, he never used an electric saw in his life. When they started coming out with them electric saw, he said, “No, I’m too old. I’m not going to buy that ‘cause I’m too old. I can see how easy it be for people to do some work”.
When I went to school there were a lot of people who couldn’t understand how to fix a money order blank. They had some education but they still didn’t know how to fill that blank. You see, we didn’t have enough time to learn everything. So the thing most important in life they got a jump on that first. They show you how to address a letter, and show you how to order something, and fix that blank, and stuff like that, because they knew it was going to be a long time before we catch up to everything. They would teach us the most valuable stuff so everybody who got any education can defend themself.
I wasn’t a bad child. In my day, we had a few bad ones, but they wouldn’t last for very long because of the way the people would raise their children. If I go over to a neighbor and wanted to be a bully, they’ll give me a whipping and let mamma and daddy know what had happened. Then I would catch another one back here.
It wasn’t like, “Oh! nobody don’t hit my child,” or nothing like that. They would keep the children straight like that. You don’t go over there like you was going to be bad ‘cause if they didn’t whip you then, they tell your mamma and daddy, and you was going to get it from them. Nowadays, you can’t talk to them. You can’t whip them, you can’t do nothing.
I raised six of them. I always told them, I says, “You can holler all you want, but if you do something wrong, see if you ain’t going to get hit as long as you are under my roof, if I’m feeding you, giving you clothes. If you don’t like what I do, you can’t leave.” I never had too many problems with my children. Thank God, they all on their own now.
Nowadays, Lord, Lord, they don’t tell them anything, they don’t teach their children. A few years ago, we was playing in Grove Cage every week. I stopped up there at the Canal Station to get me a cup of coffee, and late in the evening a white lady had came in there crying. The other lady was working in there, and I said, “What’s the matter?”
“My little boy,” she said, “I had to get away before he was probably going to hurt me. Our son was bad. He’s 16 years old and he don’t want to get along with me at all.
“If he would be mine, he would get along with me,” I say. “What about his daddy?”
“He never tell his daddy nothing. That’s because he got him spoiled.”
I said, “When a child can’t get along with his mother, who’s he going to get along with? It may be that’s he’s the one that needs to get out of the house, not you.”
So after she leaves, the lady says, “You don’t have to pay for the coffee because you have the nerve to tell her.”
What my parents really taught me, what all parents taught their kids in them times, was how to work. It wasn’t too bad with me because my daddy was a musician. But, Lord have mercy, them old people, they catch you with some instrument trying to make music, they break everything you have there and beat you up, and when you on your own you got to learn to work first, and then after that when you on your own you could go ahead and learn. But what most musicians would tell you is just the way I’m telling you. They have to do some cheating on it.
My daddy already had the accordion, but he didn’t want me to play. I would play behind his back. He said, “I don’t want you to play behind my back. You go ahead and try to play if you want to learn.”
But I didn’t like that accordion. The accordion was all right, but I noticed you had a limit to that. I had heard some fiddle music from a guy, he probably died with no record, from Appaloosa. I was a small boy then. He had a string band, they would call him Martell, tall fellow, he played the fiddle. Oh, man, I heard that a few times, and I said, “That’s what I want to learn.”
You know, he could play so many different types of music on that. I made up my mind. “Dad,” I said, “I’m going to play a fiddle, or I ain’t going to play nothing at all.”
I was a little boy, about 8 or 9 years old, you know. But I wouldn’t see old man Martell very often, mostly once a year every Fourth of July in Elden, where they always had a big celebration. They had some dance with all the different musicians. Well, every year about ten bands would play there, and he would be one of them. Boy I liked that type of stuff.
One of my mamma’s cousins was from Lafayette and he was a fiddle player. I don’t know what got into him and his wife, but they divorced then he moved around Basile with one of his aunties. It wasn’t too far from where I stayed. His auntie had a boy just a little older than me. We started getting together there, when he wasn’t there, playing on his fiddle, you know, put it right back like it was. So we was doing pretty good, and all of a sudden he started playing here and there, here and there, and we don’t have no fiddle.
I said, “Hell no, we ain’t going to have no fiddle.”
So one day there, “We going to make a fiddle,” he said. “I got two cigar boxes.” And he said, “I got all the plans.”
He had some type of glue for the fiddle. I believe they call that egg glue. It was white powder, you have to put a little water and heat it up. That’s what you glue the fiddle with. I said, “We don’t have no tools.”
He says his older brother, he was a meat cutter, gets drunk every weekend. “I’m going to steal his knife. That’s what he does when he gets drunk, he loses some of his stuff.” Sure enough, that’s what he did.
So we went to work and made our own cigar box fiddle. We used wire from a screen door for the strings, and a branch for the bow. It wasn’t much, but we could hear ourselves on it, and we kept on fooling with that. That’s how I got started. And I kept practicing.
Then I had an Uncle who got interested in playing the fiddle, so he went and got himself a fiddle, and in no time at all he was playing pretty good. I’d go see how he tuned his fiddle. He would sound a string, and then I would try mine, but I couldn’t go as high as his fiddle. Every time I tried to match his pitch, I’d break a string. But when he would break a string, I would take the longest end. Then my fiddle sounded pretty good. That’s how I learned. It’s just a matter of having music on your mind.
So that was in the right direction, but it wasn’t far. He’d play a little while on that fiddle, and then say, “You want to play my fiddle a little bit?”
I’d get on that fiddle and play a little bit, until he had pawned himself a really good fiddle somewhere for ten dollars.
He told me, “If you want to come help me dig sweet potatoes and stuff, I’m going to give you that fiddle.” That’s what I did, and I kept that little fiddle he had. That was a treasure for me then. Kept that many years.
Nobody expect this type of music was going to make any kind of thing. It was just like having pleasure on the weekend. Nobody didn’t take no music serious, and didn’t worry about it. If you played all right, if you don’t that’s alright, too. You always had a job to do. There came a time when the young people didn’t want to dance unless the type of music they had was country and western, that was the white people. Rhythm and blues was the black people.
Oh man, every other house, they had a guitar, everybody trying to play country music, or they trying to play the blues. We didn’t know what was going to happen. The old people, they say, “From now on we bring the young people to the dance.”
Well, the young people would get in there and the old people wouldn’t dare. The old ladies would sit on the bench in the halls there, and most of the time the old men was somewhere playing cards, and the young people would dance. They go ahead and dance they own stuff.
When my daddy, before he died, was playing, I would go and play with him at the house dances, sometimes. I was the only fiddler with him. After my uncle started, most of the time it was my uncle I played with. My daddy played with a lot of fiddle player, him and Amede. All the fiddle player he played with were white fellows. Never had too many black fiddlers, not in Louisiana. I don’t know the reason for that. There ain’t no black fellow playing a steel guitar, either, not as far as I know. That’s one instrument the black people did not play, another kind of guitar but not a steel guitar. I don’t know why.
My daddy would go play house dances, and they might pass the hat and pick up a collection. He and Amede would charge two dollars and a half for a dance. You see, in those days you had to cut the wood for your stove and heat, or whatever, so when they come around seeing about the band playing in the dance, he probably tell them, “When you guarantee me a cord of wood and pass the hat, its all right.”
Or, if it’s something he could use in the kitchen, like rice or something like that, he take some of the stuff and bargain. You know, he would help them out, without out straining anybody. Amede was different. He wanted that cash. So when I started playing with him, we get $2.50 for a player for a dance, and I would get .50 cents. That was a lot of money, too.
A musician could make a better living playing music than anything else he could do with his hands. I remember Leo Soileau and them, they would all come to the house all the time with my daddy and set up there and drink and play and they always had a good old time. They have a few dollars to spend. That’s all they was doing. Yeah, they had it made. In those days there, people was working at a dollar a day, and you go over there and set up and every musician would make more than that in four hours time. You make $5, $6, in four hours. You get in the fields and I mean it was a days work. They didn’t go by so many hours, but by sun up to sun down.
Yeah, I remember the first festival I ever went to was in 1966. And me and Bois Sec came back and Mark Savoy told me, “Man, not no fiddle, but all the black people want to buy an accordion. I can’t make them fast enough. They think you can buy an accordion and the next year go out there and play.”
I said, “They be asking me about the zydeco stuff.” I never knew no such thing as zydeco music. They don’t even know what they are talking about. But I know why it came about.
Clifton [Chenier] and me was real good friends. When Clifton came out a few years back, I had a string band then. I didn’t know nothing about Clifton, and I went to Basile one Sunday evening. He was there.
“Man, you’re the man I need to see,” he said.
I said, “You need to see me? I believe I don’t know you.”
He said, “No, you don’t. I’m trying to get started, a player piano and an old accordion. I got a brother older than me and he said you play at different places and you give me a hand getting some place to play.”
“I never heard none of your music. I would have to hear you before I could say anything.”
Well, his Uncle Morris was with him. I know him good, so I go in and he plays what he wants. He played and played, and I told him, “Man you won’t have no problem. You play just about everything that need to be played. I’m gonna put a good word in to them people there.”
They all play Lake Charles, different places, so the first thing he started getting some jobs there. And, oh Lord, all of a sudden everybody wanted to play like Clifton.
Everybody say, “We going to play some Zydeco.” Clifton would say that sometime.
But you know, that wasn’t the name of no title or no organization or nothing. They just listen to others, some old timer who was playing before, and copy them and make up some, too. When I was growing up we didn’t have no radio. They have a few radios and some people were lucky enough to have a radio in the hall going with batteries. Whenever the batteries run out, they might go half a year before they get another battery. The music was mostly coming from our head.
When it come to taking care of people, they had some people doing all kinds of different type treatment and it would work, too. Make their own medicine and stuff. Nobody had no money to go to the doctor. One of my mamma’s uncle, he could heal a headache. You go there when you have a headache, and that was it.
About 2 years ago, I had been having problems with my sinus for many years, and all of a sudden I had me a swelling on my head. It was big and hurting. So the doctor give me some medicine, and it wouldn’t help. He said, “We going to have to give you something.”
I said, “Okay.” I didn’t know if I had any sugar, so I had to go into the hospital that Monday, but he made me go in that Saturday for them to take a blood test. I knew something was going on, but some kind of way I kept going to the rest room and I drank water and water and water and back and for to the rest room.
By the time they get through with my day surgery, it was going on nine, and they say, “You got sugar. You’re lucky your not in a comma. The thing is 560.” They went and give me a shot, and a bunch of little pills. He said, “You’re going to have to take them for the rest of your life. Every morning. It’s not going to be too bad.”
I said, “I ain’t going to be taking them pills.”
He said, “What! No. What you going to do?”
I said, “Oh, I ain’t got no idea now, but I got something.
Every since then I never took none of them pills. Every morning I boiled me some parsley. I put me a few little leaf in that pan. It’s better than the pills..
I had a cousin in Lake Charles, and he was fighting with sugar. He said, “I got to take them insulin.”
I told him about that stuff. I said, “It don’t cost that much, you can try that.”
After he started drinking that water and taking the parsley, he started getting better and better, and they took him off the insulin, and pretty soon they going to take him off the pill, too.
“You are the miracle guy,” he said.
There’s stuff that can help you out in no time at all. It’s too bad people didn’t try to learn from the old people how to treat this and treat that. Everything is the doctor this and doctor that. They used to have some stuff for everything.
Had a friend of mine, he boiled himself on the leg, but he kept going to the doctor. I went and look at that. I said, “Oh man! That salve he give you ain’t doing nothing for you. You take some flour in a pan, and you get that on top of a stove like you fixing a meal, and when that thing going to get real brown, you take care of that and put that thing on, and in three days you going to see the difference.”
He told me, he say, “Man, you talk about a cure.”
That’s what they did a long time ago. They wasn’t going to no doctor for that. That salve they give keep the thing too soft. That’s no good.
In most every family they had somebody that knew how to treat for something, or they knew somebody who knew something about treating certain things. I don’t know how they would know the things, ‘cause the priest don’t teach you no healing prayers or nothing like that. Them prayers they do some healing, but they’re different from the prayers we know. How they would get that I don’t know.
My life was always a pretty rough life. Always did some hard work, and then when it got to the point where I could retire, that’s when I started being sick with all kind of serious stuff. So there’s nothing I can say and brag about, except that award there. I never expected to get this type of award, because you don’t get but one of them in a lifetime. That’s a National Heritage Award, with that five thousand dollars. I never had put my hand on that much money in my entire life. I don’t know, I must be doing something right.
Some kind of way I went to that tour in Europe last year. They give me another award there in London, it wasn’t much, a plaque and two hundred dollars. My goodness, I must be doing something good somewhere. We didn’t expect to get nothing.
We all done some foolish things, though. We was playing and playing, and some people from Orleans, they were working for union musicians, and them people came there and they wanted us to join, and we never wanted to. Clifton said, “What the hell we want to pay forty dollars a year, for what?”
And you know, we would have hit the nail on the head if we would have got that. Hell, they took some of our old music and made a record and we never got nothing from it. If we would have join them union they wouldn’t have done that. They couldn’t do that. But we didn’t think it was very important. Its just like a lot of things, when you travel a whole lot you blow a lot, you don’t pay a lot of attention to the money.
In 1974, I went to the Hudson River Revival, they got a Festival there. One night some people said, “We want you to come play in New York City.” They was paying good money too.
So our band went. Got down there, I didn’t look at nothing, they had people and people and people everywhere. It was sold out. Everybody was still trying to see if they couldn’t get in, anyway. We passed through the back. No one know we were there.
“How many bands they going to have there?”
I didn’t pay much mind to that until we got back to the place we were staying. ’Cause you go here and go there and they got a lot of people want to know this and they want to know that.
I really can’t tell you who was the most important person in my life. The only man I know, he played a different instrument from me, but he was kind like me, who could take something from a song and change it, and do it in his own style, was Clifton. He’s a man, you know, cause a lot of times I had some ideas, but he could take some song and flip that over, make a fast piece out of it.
Yeah, it’s still pretty good, just like when I was at a certain age there, some of my friends would say, “There’s going to be the time when… Won’t you put that thing away and have yourself some fun? You be playing that thing and we be having all the girls.”
And I say, “There going to be some girls all the time. Don’t worry, they aren’t going to run out.”
And we were laughing a while back, there were a few of us that were in the same bunch. I just came back from a trip, and I say, “I’ll put my fiddle away and go for the girls. How you all like that?” Boy, they would laugh.
It’s a funny thing, when a person is young, if he has a good head, he might have an idea of something real good, and its always somebody that gets him discouraged. I had a friend of mine, he died two years ago there, he went in the service and when he got out of the service, I believe he had a choice of going to some type of school and their governor would pay for it.
So he says, “I’m going to school to be a shoemaker.”
Them people laugh at him. “Oh, a shoemaker, what you want to do with that?”
“Well,” he said, “I’m going to give it a try. That’s what I got in mind. People everywhere wear shoes. If I can work and trade making shoes and fixing shoes and stuff like that, that’s all I need.”
They laugh at him, but he went to his school and he finished that and he opened himself a big business in Lake Charles. When that man died, he was almost a rich man. But they never thought he was going to make anything with that, and that’s one of the best things he ever done in his life.
It’s different world today. There’s always something you can do. If that’s what you would like to do, then go ahead and do it. It can be whatever it is. Just like you got some mechanic, I know, all they can do is sign their name and fix just about any car in the world with no education at all, just what they have in their head. Yeah, that’s what they have. They had a goal, and went for it, that’s for sure.
If I were to have my head be all right, that would be pretty good, ‘cause its bad to be sick. You can’t do what you want, can’t eat what you want, its very rough. For as a long a person has his head, he has everything. I probably don’t realize it when I’m healthy, but when it hit you that you be sick, that’s when everything come to and end.
Well, I believe that the type of living we did, and the type of music we played, is on top of the star right now, ‘cause all the old musicians are dying and them young ones doing nothing that’s going to keep up. What they got going, that can’t hold up. What’s going to happen then? They got so much of the same thing going on.
Sometime they come out with an accordion tune that’s doing pretty good and the first thing you know, they got somebody with a fiddle going to turn around and play the same song on the fiddle. And they be talking about, “This is my new record.”
That’s not new, its just a copy of a song I recorded a few years ago. And they came out with that. Barry Ancelet told them, “That’s not a new record. It might be new to you, but Canray is the one recorded that. I remember when he recorded it.”
They couldn’t say nothing.
Nobody in my family didn’t try to learn nothing from me. Well, Edward Poulin, a cousin, got a little grant, but he was already playing when he got the grant. They couldn’t classify his way of playing, whether it was Cajun or Creole, or what it was. So they kept asking me about him. I said he must have learned that in Beaumont. They give him a grant, and he come to take lessons once a week. He can play pretty much like us. It’s impossible to play like another person exactly. You can be close enough that people can tell he learned something from someone.
Since I been sick, I don’t bother about too much planning, ‘cause you never know. The cancer stuff there, you might be doing good now, and then the first thing you know, you dying. The only thing I tell them, they know they don’t put me on the bill if I’m dying. If it’s not worser than I am, I’ll be there. I got called for New Orleans, for the Jazz Festival, next month, and they called for West Virginia in August, and another booking for June the 24th in London. Like I told them, if I’m not dead, that’s alright. They always got plans way ahead of time like that so they can save on plane tickets and stuff, I guess.