Like an ancient cypress tree, the roots of American music stretch into the deep recesses of the South. Early roots and blues architects like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson lived short lives, but feverishly spread their respective gospels across the region. Add to that list Louisiana-based accordionist and singer Amede Ardoin.
Ardoin is mostly known amongst Cajun and Creole music aficionados but was a musical and social pioneer. His virtuoso recordings from 1929 to 1934 helped spread the wandering troubadour’s music far beyond his neighboring counties or states. And he broke race barriers by openly performing with the white fiddler Dennis McGee (himself a musical legend). While the details of his life, particularly the end, remain sketchy (a PBS special narrated by Alan Lomax indicated Ardoin was the victim of a racially motivated attack that effectively ended his career and his life), Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone takes a welcome step toward reintroducing an icon to a new generation by collecting all 34 of his known recordings.
The material is comprehensive and overwhelming. The nearly two hours of music cover a range of valses/waltzes, jaunty two-steps and other gin joint stompers. Ardoin’s accordion-playing is remarkably consistent, whether he is squeezing out clusters of notes on “Si Dur D’etre Seul” or leaning into the oompah-beat of “La Turtape de Saroied.” Ardoin understandably earned acclaim for his raw yet captivating shouter style of singing. His vocal melodies often repeat the same wave-like pattern of crescents and dips, but he plays in and off his accordion with aplomb. The duets are an obvious highlight, especially when the interplay between the bon ami can be heard clearly, like on “Madam Atchen” and “Taunt Aline.” Aside from the sheer joy of their playing, the two also achieve remarkable sonic achievements. McGee’s fiddle and Ardoin’s reedy voice complement each other both tonally and pitch-wise, occasionally sounding like a primitive form of double-tracked recording.
The production of Mama, I’ll Be Gone is admittedly only good, not great. The source material was 78 rpm records of varying quality, which explains the range of cyclical background noise (“Valse Brunette” sounds pleasantly crisp while “La Valse a Austin Ardoin” is pronouncedly dusty). However, given the age of these recordings we are lucky to have any at all. Producer Christopher King also wrote the modest liner notes, which gives a cursory overview of Ardoin’s life. At roughly five CD sleeve “pages,” the notes call to mind reissues of a generation ago that prioritized music over packaging. Given the relative dearth of information about Ardoin, more specific information about the recordings or even how this compilation came to be would have been welcome.
Given that, Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone is a case of seeing the forest for the trees. Previously 1995’s I’m Never Comin’ Back: Roots of Zydeco collected 26 recordings, so a more comprehensive package is a helpful upgrade. And the availability of this material arrives at a time when micro-genres are being more widely embraced. Never a better time for Ardoin to come back home.