NEW ORLEANS — It was a Sunday in 1934, when alcohol was illegal and Cajun French was spoken only by old fogies. But 20-year-old Lanese Vincent was in a bar and this young fellow from New York was asking if he would sing some old-time French songs for a recording machine.
"I said no. I refused right away," Vincent recalled. "Then after a while I told him: 'If you promise not to play it around here where somebody knows me, I'll go.' "
So he and his cousin Sidney Richard went over to a rice mill warehouse--it was away from traffic--and sang into a microphone for the fellow from New York, Alan Lomax, who is now retired after a celebrated career as a special research scholar in the anthropology department at Columbia University.
Songs Sung by Parents
"We sang songs my mommy and daddy used to sing when I was small," said Vincent, now 73.
He had forgotten that day until Barry Ancelet of the University of Southwestern Louisiana's folklore program recently brought a tape recording to his home in Kaplan.
"We played a cassette for him and he said, 'It sure is me,' " Ancelet says.
Times have changed. Cajun is hot stuff around the country. And Vincent doesn't mind that some of the songs he and his cousin sang for Lomax more than 50 years ago have resurfaced from the dusty archives of the Library of Congress onto a two-album set.
"We have 38 brand new old songs, songs that have not otherwise been heard in 40 or 50 years," said Ancelet, who edited the albums from the Lomax recordings in the Library of Congress.
Recycle the Music
"We wanted to bring them back home so people could not only know where the music came from but so we could recycle the songs among young musicians who are interested in playing Cajun music."
Ella Hoffpauir Boudreaux was 10 when she, two of her older sisters and their father sang for the man she remembers as Mr. Womack.
"I tell you, when I heard that voice of my daddy singing, naturally the tears just started coming down," said Boudreaux, 63 and the only member of the quartet still alive.
She says her family--she was the eighth of 12 children--had always sung together.
"We'd be scrubbing floors or washing clothes or anything," she says. "We were just plain folk. No radio. We were too poor to have one. But what we did have was a lot of love and respect for one another."
In 1934, Lomax was 19 years old and out on a folk song-collecting trip with his father, John Lomax, then working on his autobiography, "Adventures of a Ballad-Hunter."
"He didn't speak any French and I spoke freshman French but was bold and young," Alan Lomax, 72, recalled in a telephone interview from Columbia, where he still keeps an office.
The Lomax recordings are a treasure trove, Ancelet says.
Commercial studios had recorded Cajun music in 1928, but they were bringing musicians into studios to record tunes they thought would sell record players to young people, he said.
"The Lomaxes came six years later, in 1934," he said. "But they were recording people who were old then, and taking machines to houses and recording home music.
"They were recording a whole different side of music in south Louisiana--unaccompanied ballad singers and solo instrumentalists and unaccompanied group singing. They were recording styles that were old then, as opposed to styles which were popular then."
Transferred Onto Discs
Lomax used the Library of Congress' 300-pound machine, which transferred the sound directly onto aluminum discs. That's one reason the sound is so clear on the new record, Ancelet says.
"The sound wasn't very hi-fi, but it sounds exactly today the same way it sounded then."
When Ancelet went to listen to the Lomax recordings in the Library of Congress in 1980, he brought back 11 hours worth of tapes that deepened the roots of Cajun music and its black cousin, zydeco, far beyond anything he had known before.
"All anybody had ever heard was the commercially recorded stuff," Ancelet said. "Our notion of the history of Cajun music was based on what we had heard."
The Lomax collection included songs about elves and magic traceable to the Acadians' origins on the western coast of France, which shared ancient Celtic traditions with the British Isles, Ancelet says.
Spirituals in French
There were black "jure singers," French-language renditions of the old African question-and-answer "shout" tradition. There were spirituals in French.
One of the most important cultural finds, Ancelet says, is the first-known recording of the word zydeco, a word whose origins have been discussed and debated for years.
One explanation is that it came from the phrase "Les haricots son pas sales ," pronounced more or less "LayzAHdayco sohn PAHsahlayz," and meaning: "The string beans aren't salty."
"This recording of jure (zhoo-ray) singers . . . they were not only singing about zydeco, but using the phrase in songs," he said.
Lomax says working on the album was a double pleasure for him because he has since worked out a method to track the stylistic roots of songs back to their origins.