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Tales of my Heroes

ifiddlemag Jun 19, 2020

Hi, I’m going to tell some stories about some of the people that I learned Cajun fiddle from one of the guys who had probably one of the biggest influences on me was Dennis McGee. And I was actually never able to visit with him. I was getting ready to and he fell at the Liberty Theater, broke his hip and ended up in the nursing home, and lived there for about maybe six months before he passed away. So I was bummed that I never got to spend any time with Dennis, but I did get a lot of his field recordings from different people. Mike Doucet, Barry Ancelet did some great recordings, and a lot of other people who came from other states and recorded him at his home in Eunice.

But one of the guys who I did spend a lot of time with at his home was Adner Ortego and he was a great old fiddle player and fiddle maker. He lived in Grand Prairie, Louisiana, and he kind of lived out in this pecan orchard. And he had his own chickens and his own little farm, and he made coffee. I never forget the coffee he made. It was called “sweetened in the pot”. He had an old-time drip coffee, and he would pour his coffee grinds in the top. And then he’d pour some sugar in there with the coffee grinds. And then when the hot water came, it all melted in together. So that was pretty awesome. And he made his own boudin, his own smoked sausage, and tasso. He had a smokehouse in the back. So yeah, he was an amazing fiddle player. It was the first time that I ever heard someone play a unison. I had studied violin with a guy named Charles Fuller and he was a great violin teacher and he taught the Suzuki violin method. And I forgot to get my violin. Hold on one second. Let me grab this violin here.

So I was studying classical music, Suzuki music and which is, you know, basically the beginning studies of Bach and people like that. 

Those are the only lessons I could get. I guess it was like the mid-to-late eighties here in Lafayette. There were no fiddle teachers, but Mr. Orgeto used to go to the jams at  Mark Savoy’s and I met him over there and he said, “Come by my house, I’ll show you what I know.” And but that was, that was a big mind-blowing thing. When I heard him do a unison, because that’s a sound that I associated with the fiddle, especially Cajun fiddle, but I wasn’t sure, because of learning classical music, I wasn’t sure what they were doing to get that sound.

And Mr. Ortego kind of a funny story, but he used to go catfishing on the attack, fly river not far from his house. And he caught one day caught this huge catfish and it was a real struggle. I mean, they got all into it. He got the line wrapped around him. He was trying to get the catfish off the hook, and it stung him and the catfish bounced around and ’cause he was fishing on a levee, bounced around, and fell back into the river. He lost it after all that fight and struggle. And then he got stung in his finger, he got stung in his hand… After all that fight, he lost the fish and stung his hand and he was so mad. He said he went home and went straight to bed and with any ball to this, like this, cause he was mad. He lost that fish. And when he woke up the next thing, the finger that got stung wouldn’t work.

So the way he would do a unison was very different from most people. Most people will do a unison and you can pick any string you want just as long as you have a string above it in the pitch. Most people will do it with their fourth fingers. [04:56] So they’ll slide with their fourth but he would slide with his second finger because one of his fingers had got hurt. He never took violin lessons. So fingers were just whatever, you know, the finger you wanted to use, he would use or whatever felt comfortable. So he would slide with his second and that’s how I first learned the unison was with the second finger. So it’s kind of funny ’cause it puts you in a whole nother position on the violin. But what I like about it now, cause I thought about correcting it and using the right finger, but it reminds me of Mr. Ortego, and also it has more of a bluesy sound because you’re sliding further [05:45] so that was his technique. And so like just a quick example, he would do the Lake Arthur Stomp. [05:56]

Whoa, I haven’t done that in a while. So anyway, it was really funky, and using those different fingers gave him a different sound. And he was such a huge influence on me just as a person. He just lived such an old-school life. And he was kind of a rebel against society. You know, he didn’t like the new ways of living, new ways of life, and he lived more old-timey and so he was an awesome person to be around.

The second guy that had a big influence on me being able to go and visit him was Wade Frugè. And Wade Frugè was another interesting character. He was a traiter, he was a healer. So if you had a toothache or an earache or a broken heart or whatever, you could go to Wade, and he would find some kind of herbs to either put in your mouth or put on top of your head, and he would say some prayers over you.

He was a rice farmer. And he told me one pretty funny story. He had this fiddle that he really, really liked at one time. It was a really good sounding fiddle. And his crops were doing really, really well. He just got so busy farming that he wasn’t able to play any house dances or play the fiddle much cause every weekend he had to farm and all through the week. And so he pretty much took his fiddle and he put it on top of this wardrobe really high up there and basically didn’t touch it for a year because he was so busy farming. The next year when he went to finally got to play some tunes, he got his fiddle out. This is how he told the story… a mama mouse chewed the F-hole right here, chewed up the F hole, got in there, and raised a whole family of baby mice. And then she chewed out the other side and let them all out. So basically both F-holes were just completely chewed up, just kind of in an oval-shape. And it sounded great. The fiddle sounded great, once he was able to kind of shake all the nest out of there., I mean at acorns and all kinds of weird stuff that the mama mouse had found and put in there. Once he was able to shake it out, get it out, he put new strings on it, all that stuff, cleaned it up, and played it. It sounded great. So it didn’t really hurt the fiddle.

But yeah, so anyway, I was very lucky to have been born where I was still able to visit with some of these old masters because not only the tunes were important, but the messages, the stories, all that kind of stuff is important. I’ll play a Wade tune that might be a good one. [09:34]

All right, Wade. And that’s a tune called The Little Calf is Dead, a really weird story. It’s about Kiyet, who was the milk cow. The milk cow was kind of like everybody’s pet and it was almost kinda like your family dog, you know, and it would give you milk. So, pretty cool. And everybody played with it, pet it. It’s a weird story though. It goes, the kayak was outside and somebody murdered it just out of spite. They grabbed its feet, tied its feet together, and bashed its head in with a hammer. So interesting little Cajun waltz, not your typical you-broke-my-heart-and-left-me waltz, more like you-killed-my-milk-cow-and-I’m-pissed. So Cajun tunes are hilarious. Cajun songs are really funny. I mean, there are so many different stories, but Wade was a character.

I also did spend some time with Canray Fontenot. And one of the interesting stories about him was I used to go visit him with a friend of mine from Denmark, who studied with him for years and actually met him in Denmark when Canray played there. When we got together at Canray’s house he actually wanted to play some Danish fiddle tunes that my friend Elisabet taught to him. So that was interesting. For the first 15 minutes they were playing Danish music, but Canray was like that; he was a sponge. I mean he loved fiddle music and he loved music. And you know, in his eyes he wasn’t like carrying the tradition. He was just a musician that played tunes. So that was really cool. And he was a great guy too. His wife would bring us coffee on a little tray. He was a great storyteller and told a lot of stories about the old days and when he was a little boy and how it was growing up and how hard it was to learn the fiddle because children weren’t really supported with music like they are today.

He had to make his own violin out of a cigar box and steal some strings. His strings were stolen from the wire on the front door, the screen door had a wire. He undid the wire and put that as his strings. And that was his fiddle. I’ll play a Canray tune now. [13:13]

All right. Canray. So yeah. Thank y’all for joining me. I just wanted to tell you personal stories that I had with these three guys. I am lucky to have had some time to be with them because it seems like that whole batch of players that were just so influential, even still today, all kind of died out together. They all kind of passed away. So I was lucky to catch them. So thank you so much. Stay inspired. Keep on fiddling. I’ll see you around pretty soon.

Thank you. Have a great day.

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