Violinist, singer, songwriter
Michael Doucet and the band Beausoleil have been getting the world up to dance since 1975. And although Doucet traces the growing popularity of Cajun music in the United States to when “some big guy from New Orleans [Chef Paul Prudhomme] burned the fish” and started the Cajun food craze of the 1980s, according to the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, it is more likely an outcome of South Louisiana’s own peculiar mix of music styles. Beausoleil has been the premier ambassador of that mix, offering music that is usually melodic and harmonically interesting, in addition to its riveting rhythmic drive. Doucet’s vocal style copies the nasal quality of early Cajun musicians, but overall the band is slick in its transformation of the different meters and spontaneous chord changes of the old Cajun masters.
The name of the band acknowledges the history of the Cajun people. The Cajuns are descendants of French-Canadians who were deported from Acadia, Nova Scotia, by British colonists in 1755 and settled in southern Louisiana. Beausoleil was the name of one of the leaders of a rebellion against the forced deportation of the Acadians, from which the word Cajun is derived. Once the French-Canadians were in Louisiana, their culture became intermingled with that of Native Americans, African-Americans, Spaniards, and Britons. As Doucet explained in Dirty Linen, “Cajun music has been the definitive ‘World Music’ for a long time. If you look at the history, not only does it have French folk songs in it, but it’s always had Afro-Caribbean sounds as a big influence.”
Doucet’s own roots reveal much about the music he and the band play. He grew up on his father’s farm about five miles west of Lafayette, Louisiana. His father’s side of the family was steeped in traditional Cajun music, and his mother’s family had been classically trained and played jazz. Doucet played the trumpet as well as the guitar in elementary and high school. He didn’t seriously take up his signature instrument, the violin, until 1972.
By 1974 Doucet was playing in local hangouts to the approval of an older audience that was appreciative of his return to traditional Cajun roots. At one of these performances a French promoter asked him and his band to come to France for two weeks to play at a folk festival. The two weeks stretched into six months. “So we went to France,” Doucet related in Sing Out! “Wow! They know about this music. I remember being woken up with about ten hurdy-gurdies and a bunch of fiddle players playing ‘Jolie Blonde’ under our windows. Where
For the Record…
Born in 1951 in Scott, LA; married Sharon Arms; children: Melissa, Ezra, Matthew. Education: Louisiana State University, B.A. in English, 1973.
Cajun fiddler, leader of the band Beausoleil, and solo artist, mid-1970s—. Played trumpet and guitar in elementary school; began playing violin, 1972; played for local audiences, beginning in 1974; began intensive study of Cajun music styles, 1975; has performed with traditional, acoustic, and rock bands, including Coteau, before 1977, and the Savoy-Doucet band; founded Beausoleil, 1975; recorded first album with Beausoleil, La Nuit, in France, 1976; has recorded with various record labels, including Swallow, Arhoolie, Rounder, and Rhino; has toured extensively with Beausoleil, including performances in Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas; performed with Beausoleil at former President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural gala, 1977; composed and recorded music with Beausoleil for Belizaire the Cajun, Skouras Pictures, 1985, and The Big Easy, Columbia, 1987; made numerous appearances on the radio show Prairie Home Companion.
Awards: Grant from National Endowment for the Arts, 1975; three Grammy Award nominations, including one with Beausoleil, for Bayou Cadillac, 1988; received first Clifton Chenier Award, 1990.
Addresses: Agent —Herschel Freeman, Herschel Freeman Agency, Inc., 1404 Vickers Ave., Durham, NC 27707. Record company —Rhino Records, 2225 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
were we? Died and gone to heaven, you know. It was amazing. It was like speaking to people of our greatgrandfathers’ era who were our age. It was the turning point of my life.”
It was also when Doucet realized the importance of correlations between old French songs from the Middle Ages and modern Cajun music. Upon his return to the United States in 1975, he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study the music styles of such living Cajun music legends as Dennis McGee.
Cajun music had developed over time from the old French ballads to dance tunes played by two fiddles. The accordion, introduced to Louisiana by German immigrants from Texas, replaced the fiddles in the 1920s. But by the 1930s, fiddles had returned and guitars became popular, and Cajun music became increasingly tinged with country and western sounds.
Though Doucet was mainly drawn to the older styles and has continued to play them both as a member of Beausoleil and with other musicians, he has also always been influenced by rock and roll. His early band, Coteau, until its dissolution in 1977, fused Cajun and rock. That same year marked Beausolei’s first release in the United States, The Spirit of Cajun Music. Appropriately, the band’s first album had been recorded in France the year before. Since then, Doucet has been involved in projects with the ultratraditional Savoy-Doucet band as well as other Cajun and non-Cajun musicians. Though he has also embarked on some solo efforts, he has spent most of his time with Beausoleil since the band’s inception in 1975.
Beausoleil’s different record companies reflect the band’s changes throughout the years. Their albums released by the Louisiana-based Swallow Records as well as their recordings with the traditional Arhoolie Records are usually old-time Cajun numbers or contemporary compositions in the same vein, often recorded without over-dubbing and thereby capturing the intimacy of live performance. Their move to Rounder Records in the late 1980s was accompanied by a return to the more rock-oriented sounds of Doucet’s earlier band, Coteau. Later issues from Rounder have included a variety of styles as the band continued to expand its horizons.
The composition of Beausoleil changed over the years, though Doucet’s brother, David, long played guitar for the group, and the percussion section for a considerable time included washboard player Billy Ware and drummer Tommy Alesi, both of whom have jazz backgrounds. For their 1991 album, Cajun Conja, the band also featured Doucet’s school friend Tommy Comeaux on bass and mandolin, Al Tharp on banjo, and Jimmy Breaux on accordion. The group continued to tour worldwide, performing in the Middle East in 1990 and frequently holding gigs in Europe and the Americas.
Beausoleil has been involved in numerous projects over the years. In 1986 the band composed and recorded the sound track for the movie Belizaire the Cajun, and they did the title song for the 1987 romantic thriller The Big Easy. Their influence even can be heard on Frito-Lay snack food commercials, on which the band actually played to the work of Paul Simon and John Cougar Mellencamp. Doucet has collaborated with Richard Thompson, and the band has made several appearances on Garrison Keillor’s radio show Prairie Home Companion. Keith Richards asked Doucet to play on his solo release Talk is Cheap, and in 1990, Beausoleil celebrated Mardi Gras with the Grateful Dead for 17,000 fans at Oakland Coliseum.
Despite their success the band continued to resist commercializing their tradition. This does not mean, however, that they remained static. In fact, they had four different accordion players in a period of 15 years. In a 1989 Rolling Stone review, Steve Pond described Beausoleil’s 1988 Grammy-nominated album, Bayou Cadillac, as “rooted in tradition but far from traditional.” Pond wrote further that Doucet and Beausoleil, “after proving themselves masters of traditional music, have in the past few years grown looser and more eclectic, drawing on pop, rock, and R & B songs and riffs. What distinguishes their recordings from the pop covers performed by some of their Cajun and Zydeco colleagues is that Doucet and Beausoleil are clearly not trying to get a crossover radio hit or make their music more palatable to the masses, but rather add fun and spice to what was already a rich musical sauce.”
Doucet summed up the band’s direction in his 1990 interview with Mike Greenberg in Sing Out!: “We’ve always dug up old songs, songs that were forgotten, just to revive them—not to play them exactly alike but just to show what kind of music we had. I think people respect that. We’re at a very nice point where we don’t have to prove ourselves with anything, because nobody knows what to expect from us next.”
Beau Solo, Arhoolie.
Cajun Fiddle, Beausoleil Productions.
La Nuit, Pathe Marconi, EMI, 1976.
The Spirit of Cajun Music, Swallow, 1977.
Les Amis Cadjins, Modulation, 1979, reissued as Zydeco.
Dit Beausoleil, Arhoolie, 1981.
Parlez-Nous a Boire, Arhoolie, 1984.
Belizaire the Cajun (original motion picture soundtrack), Arhoolie, 1986.
Gris-Gris, Swallow, 1986.
Bayou Cadillac, Rounder, 1988.
Live! From the Left Coast, Rounder, 1989.
DeJa Vu, Swallow, 1990.
Cajun Conja, Rhino, 1991.
Hot Chile Mama, Arhoolie.
Bayou Boogie, Rounder.
Michael Doucet and Cajun Brew, Rounder, 1988.
Christmas Bayou, Swallow.
(With Savoy-Doucet) Les Harias Home Music, Arhoolie.
(With Savoy-Doucet) Two-step d’Amede, Arhoolie.
(With Danny Poullard) Cajun Jam Session, Arhoolie.
(With Canray Fontenot) Allons A Lafayette, Arhoolie.
(With Savoy-Doucet) With Spirits, Arhoolie.
Ancelet, Barry Jean, Cajun Music: Its Origins and Development, Center for Louisiana Studies, 1989.
Ancelet, Barry Jean, The Makers of Cajun Music, University of Texas Press, 1984.
Broven, John, South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous, Pelican Publishing Co., 1987.
Dirty Linen, Summer 1989.
Eugene Register (Oregon), January 11, 1991.
Frets, September 1987.
Rolling Stone, June 16, 1988; September 21, 1989; February 6, 1992.
Sing Out!, fall 1990.
"Doucet, Michael." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/doucet-michael
"Doucet, Michael." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/doucet-michael