Dr. Darrell Bourque has been researching the work and times of Amédé Ardoin for a number of years, coming up with an important and timely project to commemorate the poet and songwriter. Kreol Magazine sat down with the Darrell, himself a poet and college professor, to discuss Amédé’s life in more depth and explore the aims of the Amédé project.
Growing the Community as Well
Darrell Bourque is a poet on a mission. Throughout his life, the Louisiana-based college professor and former Poet Laureate of Louisiana has been exploring the past lives and poetic output of his beloved state. One day, while researching the Acadian migration and the effect Cajun and Creole cultures had upon the state’s rich cultural history, Bourque hit upon the work of Amédé Ardoin.
Amédé was a songwriter, poet and storyteller who has largely gone under the radar both in terms of academic research and a wider public scale, with few Louisiana locals having heard of his work. As such, Bourque instigated a new project to help raise public awareness of Amédé as a cultural figure and use the power of his legacy to get young people into creative writing. To celebrate Amédé, the main aim of the project was to put up a statue in his honour.
Kreol Magazine sat down with Darrell to gain a deeper understanding of his motivations for getting involved with the Amédé project, as well as a little more about the history of the singer himself. We started off by discussing how Darrell went about researching Amédé and the way in which Cajun and Creole cultures interacted with one another, particularly as there is so little previous research available.
“The first book that I went to was Ann Savoy’s Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People,” said Darrell, “You open the book and your expectation is that there’s going to be predominantly white people in this book, and that’s not the story that we get. That’s not the narrative that Ann Savoy tells in that book, because it’s a book about exchanges and about cross-currents and about the way those two cultures began to mix.
“Another resource for me was Michael Tisserand, who wrote The Kingdom of Zydeco. The third person that became a major influence on the whole project is the couple Goldman Thibodeaux and Theresa Ledet Thibodeaux, because Goldman and I began to… well, we became friends. Goldman played in the first fundraiser, which consisted of musicians from the Ardoin family and people that the Ardoin family had invited, and they invited Goldman.”
It was at this first fundraiser that Goldman and Darrell found out that they were cousins, deducing the fact from a shared ancestral name – Thibodeaux. It was at this point that the story gets particularly interesting. Darrell’s great-great-great grandfather, Theodule Thibodeaux, had 12 children with a Cajun woman, at least four children with a neighbour named Marie Ophelia Richard, and several children after that.
After finding all of this out, Darrell notes that: “Goldman became a resource for me because, as we talked, he remembered that he had actually seen Amédé at a house dance when he was around nine years old.”
Indeed, as a musician with a history of close involvement with the Louisiana community, Goldman was always more than ready to help Darrell out with his project. As Darrell puts it, “He was with me every step of the way.”
Fundraising for the Amédé Ardoin statue: an arduous success
Having established a vested interest in Amédé and developed an idea for his project, Darrell realised that he will not be able to do it by himself and with help of Pat Cravins, co-founder and an invaluable contributor to the project, set up a committee. The committee also included Lynn Lejeune former mayor of Eunice, and descendants of the Amédé: Dexter Ardoin and Dorothy Fruge Ardoin. Dexter, a musician himself, played gratis at every event he was asked to participate in. It was now time for fundraising: “We were perhaps a little too optimistic about eventually raising enough money to create a statue. We got the attention through the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities who, again, supported us all along the way, as well as the attention of a New York Times reporter.
“There was a woman who teaches at Princeton who sent us a check for $3,000. She’s the largest single contributor. Most of the rest of the fundraising was sort of a grind. We would go into houses and tell the Amédé story, picking up $50 or $100 every time.”
After about three and a half years, Darrell had raised $15,000, which was not enough to get the statue where he wanted it to be. He and Goldman decided to compromise, reaching out to the Mayor of Eunice to see if a statue could be erected there.
“I decided that, if we couldn’t put Amédé that close to his home property, that we should at least get him into St. Landry Parish. I was invited to make a presentation to the St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission to consider the St. Landry Parish Visitor Center as a possible site for the commemorative statue of Amédé. They passed our proposal unanimously and matched our funds, with the condition that sculptor Russell Whiting get involved.”
According to Darrell, Russell was a quick worker, taking around six months to complete the statue, with just the help of a copy of Amédé’s music and a photograph. The creation of the statue was a great turning point for Darrell in terms of getting the story of Amédé out there, with its little details, such as his holding a lemon to clear his voice.
Amédé Ardoin who?
At this point, Darrell expands on Amédé’s life: “Amédé was born in 1898, and the historical documentation on a person like Amédé is quite sketchy. We’ve only been able to find two or three historical documents that even testify to his being alive, other than his recordings.”
It transpires that Amédé and his family, which consisted of seven children, likely moved into the Eunice area in the 1880s. Amédé was the last of seven sons born to Thomas Ardoin and Aurelia Clint.
Darrell continues: “When Amédé was nine months old, his father was killed in an accident. The story goes that his father and mother owned a very successful farm at the time and had earned enough to buy land. Supposedly, they had a 120-acre plot of land, with his father often hauling meat to various places. Apparently, as he was hauling meat across a wooden bridge, his wagon fell into the bayou, and he was killed.
“By the time Amédé was a teenager, he was beginning to play music. He quickly became known and respected not only by the Creole community, but by the white Cajun community. Amédé had three recording sessions, in 1929, 1931, and 1934.
His catalogue is probably about 34 or 35 songs, which undoubtedly represents a very, very small volume of the overall repertoire that he had.”
Death of Amédé Ardoin: the mystery
We move on to the story of Amédé’s demise and death. It turns out there are some fascinating theories: “The story goes that Douglas Bellard wanted to play with Amédé, but a white musician was favoured so Bellard poisoned him.
“Ann Savoy, however, reports that Amédé’s demise may very well have been caused by syphilis. That’s a plausible story, given the situation for medicine and treatment of the time.”
The third possibility is far more complicated, and has the air of legend about it. According to this version, Amédé was playing a house dance and two white men took badly to him, possibly offended that white lady gave Amédé a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his face, following him home and assaulting him.
“There is another story where somebody shot at him through a window. Another time, somebody cut the bellows of his accordion so that he couldn’t play at one of the house dances. But the story that gets more traction than any of the others is that these two white men followed him home. He was walking to the Marcantel farm, they beat him, and they thought they had killed him. They ran over his head and neck with a car. He survived but suffered a brain stem injury, putting him into a very grave condition.”
“One of the things I find fascinating is the variety of stories that circulate about Amédé, and the way they reflect the culture of the time. So when I began to run across all this information, that was exactly the kind of story that I wanted to tell, because I didn’t want to tell a story that was an interesting pocket of information, but one that connected in many ways with what we continue to have to deal with in terms of race, migration and the meaning of home.”
Amédé Ardoin’s statue: stories from the past and for the here and now and the future
Kreol wrapped up our conversation by discussing what Darrell would like people to take away from the statue, beyond appreciating its mere beauty. He notes that, ultimately, he hopes to demonstrate the importance of having a voice in the context of community: “When you deny anyone in the community a voice, then that community begins to fracture. Because communities have a kind of choral voice, and that’s what the lemon in the statue represents to me.”
“On another level, Amédé and the kind of assault that he experienced is still resonant today. The statue opens our minds to people who don’t look like us and people who don’t think according to prescribed ideas. Linked to that particular idea is this notion that when you remove the possibility of voice from anyone, it’s the ultimate impoverishment. Terror and fear and alienation are bred among people who feel they have no voice.”
Darrell hopes this message will also continue through his work with young people, seeing storytelling as every bit as important as test-taking and grades. He elaborates: “We’re testing our kids to death, particularly in the United States, and we don’t give them a chance to tell the stories or to investigate the stories of who they are. Without story exchange, and without storytelling, large pieces of history get dropped, and sometimes they’re the most important pieces of history.”
Throughout the duration of interview, we began to realise the true importance of Darrell Bourque’s work. In our turbulent political climate his thoughtful and timely project is the perfect way for the people of Louisiana and beyond to get together and appreciate the importance of the spoken word and the stories we tell each other. The outcomes of this project and its legacies will resonate for years to come.
Below is a selection of photos from the unveiling of the statue of Amédé Ardoin at the St. Landry Parish Visitor Center, March 11, 2018
Photos: St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission and David Simpson