Fiddler and vocalist Dewey Balfa was notable not only as a musician, but also as a cultural ambassador and modern tradition bearer. After gaining recognition as a performer in traditional musical settings associated with Louisiana's French-descended Cajun culture, Balfa reemerged in the 1960s as an icon of the folk and regional music revival. He devoted the rest of his life to promoting Cajun music and working to insure the continuation of the tradition he had helped to shape.
Balfa inherited that tradition from his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, all of whom were fiddlers. He was born on March 20, 1927, into a sharecropping family of cotton farmers in a south Louisiana swampland called Bayou Grand Louis, near the town of Mamou. One of nine children, Balfa would be joined in his musical efforts by his brothers Will, Harry, and Rodney. Despite the hard times experienced by the family during the Depression—in one cabin they called home, they had to move the furniture during rainstorms to avoid leaks from the roof—Balfa was playing the fiddle by the time he was ten.
Early in his life Balfa heard Cajun music in a purely traditional setting. "In my days … there were neighborhood house dances, and you only went by invitation," he told Sing Out! Even years later, though he was acutely aware of the differences in styles among Cajun musicians, the playing of Anglo-American fiddlers all sounded alike to him. Nevertheless, Balfa's own style was shaped by several influences. During World War II he left home for a shipbuilding job in Texas, where he learned to emulate the Texas swing music of fiddler band leader Bob Wills and his contemporaries. Balfa also admired the playing of Louisiana fiddler Harry Choates, who was himself heavily influenced by Texas swing.
Balfa worked as a merchant seaman for a time but then returned to Louisiana, married his wife Hilda, and started a family that would grow to include four daughters. At different times he worked in an oil field, sold insurance, farmed, drove a school bus and, for many years, operated Balfa's Discount Furniture store in the town of Basile. Beginning around 1948, however, the lion's share of his energies went into his music. Performing with several of his siblings as the Musical Brothers and later as the Balfa Brothers, Balfa developed into an unusually smooth and powerful fiddler.
Balfa's band became wildly successful. They often played eight gigs a week—one every night, plus one on Sunday afternoon—and they released a regional recording in 1951. At the same time, Balfa was in demand for his solo skills. He performed and recorded with the legendary Cajun accordionist Nathan Abshire, and although Cajun music was virtually unknown to the wider world at the time, he began to attract the attention of folk music collectors and promoters from the Northeast. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler made field recordings of Balfa in the mid-1950s. The rise of rock and roll and the centralization of country music in Nashville in the late 1950s put a damper on Cajun music, and Balfa's bookings dried up. But the stage was set for the second act of his career.
In 1964 Balfa and his band were asked to perform as last-minute replacements at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, a premier event in the world of folk music and a top outdoor venue. Friends in Louisiana knew that he would be playing the old-fashioned Cajun music they called "chanky-chank," and suggested that the group would be laughed off the stage. Instead, Balfa received a standing ovation. The experience transformed his attitude toward his musical heritage. "I had played in house dances, family gatherings, maybe a dance hall where you might have seen as many as two hundred people at once," Balfa was quoted as saying on the website of his daughter's band, Balfa Toujours. "In fact, I doubt I had ever seen two hundred people at once. And in Newport, there were seventeen thousand. Seventeen thousand people who wouldn't let us get off stage." After a repeat performance in Newport in 1967, Balfa began not only to tour internationally, but also to work to reinvigorate Cajun music and culture in Louisiana.
Balfa worked to establish Cajun music festivals and joined with a group called CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) to encourage the teaching of French in Louisiana schools. After their performances at the new Tribute to Cajun Music Festival (later renamed Festivals Acadiens) in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1974, the Balfa Brothers became widely recognized as icons of traditional Cajun music. Balfa was badly shaken by the deaths of his brothers Will and Rodney in an automobile crash in 1979 and by the loss of his wife a year later. "These combined tragedies were almost enough to bring him down," stated the Balfa Toujours website, "but he realized that his only choice was to carry on with the goal he had set for himself and his only relief from the suffering was the music itself."
The bulk of Balfa's recordings date from the years after his Newport appearances. He recorded not only for folklore-oriented labels like Smithsonian Folkways but also for the Swallow label, owned by Louisiana entrepreneur Floyd Soileau, although Soileau, like many other Louisianans, had to be convinced that there would be any public interest in older Cajun styles. Some of Balfa's recordings were collected on albums released by Arhoolie, an energetic California label devoted to documenting regional American styles. Balfa also appeared in Spend It All, a film about Cajun culture made by the pioneering documentary director Les Blank.
The last ten years of Balfa's life were full ones. In 1982 he was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship of the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States government's highest award given to traditional artists, and in 1988 he was named adjunct professor of Cajun music at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. After a long struggle with cancer, he died on June 17, 1992, remaining musically active until the end. Shortly after his death his youngest daughter, Christine Balfa, formed the band Balfa Toujours—Balfa Always. Her group has continued to perform the Balfa brand of traditional Cajun music into the twenty-first century.
Cajun Fiddle Old and New with Dewey Balfa, Folkways, 1975.
En Bas du Chene Vert (Under a Green Oak Tree), Arhoolie, 1976.
(With Ardoin Family Orchestra) A Couple of Cajuns, Sonet, 1981.
(With Rockin' Dopsie) French Style, Sonet, 1981.
Les Quatre Vieus Garçons, Folkways, 1984.
Souvenirs, Swallow, 1987; reissued, Ace, 2003.
Cajun Legend, Swallow, 1994.
For the Record …
Born on March 20, 1927, in Mamou, LA; died on June 17, 1992, in Eunice, LA; married; wife's name Hilda; children: four daughters.
Performed with father and brother, late 1930s; worked in shipyard in Texas during World War II; formed ensemble with brothers, 1948; also worked as school bus driver and owned furniture store; appeared at Newport Folk Festival, 1964 and 1967; recorded for Swallow label beginning in 1965; performed and participated in efforts to promote Cajun music, 1970s and 1980s.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts, National Heritage Fellowship, 1982.
Cajun Honky Tonk (compilation of 1950s singles), Arhoolie, 1995.
Broven, John, South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous, Pelican, 1983.
Nyhan, Pat, Brian Rollins, and David Babb, Let the Good times Roll!: A Guide to Cajun & Zydeco Music, Upbeat, 1997.
Sing Out!, April 1983, p. 2.
"Balfa, Dewey," Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture, http://www.cajunculture.com/People/balfadewey.htm (April 8, 2004).
"Dewey Balfa," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 8, 2004).
"Dewey Balfa," Cajun French Music Association, http://www.cajunfrenchmusic.org (April 8, 2004).
"Dewey Balfa and the Balfa Brothers," Balfa Toujours Official Website, http://www.balfatoujours.com/brothers.html (April 8, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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