Canray Fontenot Interview
“…We played for white people…I still think about that…You go play dances, you could get in the front, or anywhere. The next day you wanted to buy a drink, you had to go in the back, if you was Black.”
“Now a days I can’t understand that them accordion players, they got a whole band and they don’t sound better than when Amédé and my daddy would play by themselves…” – Canray Fontenot
- Canray Fontenot Interview 00:00
Interviewee: Canray Fontenot
Interviewer: Chris Strachwitz
Location: Welsh, Louisiana
This is an interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. firstname.lastname@example.org
Canray Fontenot Interview Transcript:
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CANRAY FONTENOT: Amédé and my daddy and them they was mostly playing for white people. They would go and get paid two dollar and a half to play a dance. And that’s what I say so nowadays I can’t understand that. Them accordion player they got a whole band and it don’t sound better than when Amédé and my daddy would play by theirself with a triangle or sometime they had somebody to bass the fiddle behind them. They had to make that music. Nowadays, well the accordion player — well the best one I heard was Nathan Abshire. Nathan Abshire could sit down and play that accordion all the way through. They got some of them musician I guarantee if they would have to play a tune all they way through they cannot do it.
I have met a guy there in Lake Charles I don’t know — I never heard him. He was talking about, “Well I play an accordion.” And when I say that they playing there I say “Why don’t you go and,” – Raymond Latour was playing a dance — I say, “Why don’t you go and play. Raymond gonna let you play.” Me and Raymond was raised together. So Raymond say, “Yeah man.” “Oh no but I ain’t got my band.” Well I say then, “Accordion is not a whole band.” I say, “I’ll play a fiddle.” I say, “I don’t have to have a band to play a fiddle.” Say, “Well why don’t you get there and play the accordion.” I say, “You one of them type that are — you play a little verse on it and then when it’s time for you to play again the dance is over with?” “No, no, no.” Well I say, “You should be able to go and take his accordion and play.” I say, “I don’t have to have some special people to play. I play with anybody — whether they’re good or not.” Which it don’t make me no different.
You know. After I find out how they go, I go their way. And lotta people been there and, “How in the hell you gonna go play with so-and-so?” I say, “Yeah. He do his thing and I’m gonna follow him.” And that’s what you call a musician. You take Nathan Abshire. The one man that surprised me is Mouton — who play with that other guy there. When he’s with a band he’s good. And I heard him on TV by himself, mmm-hmm that’s not too hot. No, no, no, no.
Yeah in them time them people had to sit down there when them old kerosene lamp. And when I started with my daddy there — I was about 11 years old I guess — I couldn’t play too much but I could follow. They used to put the table — set a table in the house and two chairs on top and we would play. Oh yeah. No them — Amédé and my daddy and them there never known what a microphone was or nothing like that. It was all done naturally.
CHRIS STRACHWITZ: Would you ever play for white dances or pretty much —
CANRAY: Oh yeah. Yeah. You know they had this stupid idea. It was a funny thing. We played and played for the white people like when they started having club. We played for club Avalon for a long long time. And I still think about that. When we go to play dances we could get in there from the front or anywhere. Then the next day if you wanted to buy a drink you had to go in the back, if you was black. (laughs)
CHRIS: How did that happen?
CANRAY: That’s what I like to know. That’s the way. They had a place — they always had a sign — either “Black” or “Colored” — they had a sign there. If you wanted to go buy a drink. And I kept telling the boy. I say, “God darn that’s stupid. We was here last night playing a dance. Now today we can’t go in the front and get a drink.” You had to go in the back. (laughs) Yeah. But we never had no problem though. We always did go and play and they would treat us nice.
And my daddy and Amédé and them — Amédé — him — he was the lazy type of man. You know he was the baby of the family. And he didn’t like to work. He always was playing. He’ll go somewhere like if he knew somebody was making a big boucherie or something. He go over there and sit down with the accordion and play there and they’ll feed him and maybe give him a piece of meat for him to take home to his brother — he was living with one of his brother. And his brother was about a — mile apart — yeah on the farm — he was a farmer. My daddy was a farmer. And we were all the time together.
I believe I was born at the right time to know all them musician. I like Leo Soileau. I known all of them. And Mayeus Lafleur and them. They all — they used to come to the house all the time. Oh yeah come meet my daddy. He was a better accordion than Amédé but he wouldn’t sing too much. Amédé……. He would always, “Hey, Cadone” — he would tell — my daddy name was Adam but they would call him Cadone. “Cadone,” he says. He say, “I would be just like zero in dust if it wouldn’t be for my mouth.” Cause he couldn’t play like my daddy. And they was all the time together.
And I known they had Leo and he had a cousin too. But I don’t know he didn’t — he was just Alphonse brother there — Alius Soileau He could play the fiddle good yeah. He was a Leo first cousin. But he just liked it to play when he wanted to play. And he would come to the house too. All them musician used to come —
CHRIS: Where did you live at that time?
CANRAY: In the back of Basile — about five mile north of Basile — northeast of Basile. That’s where I was born and raised there. And they used to come there at all hour — “Hey! Cardone, we came to meet you.” You know some time it was 1:00 o’clock at night. I remember I was a small boy there. We always had a bunch of chicken in the chicken coop. And, “We want to eat some gumbo.” Then my mama used to come wake me up, “Go catch a rooster in the chicken coop or get one of them big hen.” And she’d make a gumbo — they always was gonna give her a little bit of something.
But Leo and them — all them people there. And then they had another one. I don’t know what they — he’s still living or not. They had the Amédé Breaux and then they had Maurice Dugas? — boy he was an accordion too. The last time I saw Maurice Dugas — I saw him in Eunice there — he had one of them little cheap accordion. That’s how I recognize him ‘cause he was a tall and he was a double joint, man. He had some big arm? and I say, “That’s Maurice Dugas.” And fella say, “You know him?” I say, “Yeah. He came through the house so many time,” I say to him. But he was getting old. You see if my daddy and Amédé and them would be living them people would be about 88 or 89 years old I imagine.
CHRIS: Did you ever want to play fiddle for a living — for full time
CANRAY: No, uh. I never thought about it. Yeah, no I never did thought about it. You know what they had going on long time ago you had — they had this habit of if you was a musician you were supposed to be a lazy man. Say how they figure if you play music you got to be lazy. Most of the musician was lazy in them time. Like Amédé. You couldn’t get him to work much unless it was some easy job where he could take off whenever he want. And I started working — my daddy die — I was a young man them. In them time there we couldn’t get no welfare or nothing so I had to go to work to support me and my sister.
CHRIS: Canray asked you about whether you ever thought about playing the fiddle professionally as a musician or —
CANRAY: No. I never did thought about that. You know to me it surprise me. Because to my idea — to my own idea — and that’s the truth. Here it’s just like Dewey Balfa though. Me say, “Canray there gonna be a hundred fiddlers.” And he says, “I know whenever you gonna be playing.” Well I say, “What’s so different?” He say, “I know your sound.” He say, “your sound is different from the other sound.” And to me I’m just doing just like the rest. I play the tune and that’s it.
And so I always thought about playing music to have fun, make a little money. And I never thought we was gonna go that far. I remember one year they had a — I used to play — I used to have a string band. And we was playing at the Pofreemo(?) — little hall — I would play one Saturday — Clifton and Cleveland, his brother — that’s all he had — him and Cleveland. He can tell you that any day. He’ll play this Saturday I’ll play the next Saturday — me and my band.
And there came some people — I don’t know where they was from. They wanted us to join the musician union. That was one of the biggest laugh we ever had. Clifton say, “What you want us to –.” He was working in Port Arthur in them time but he would come down in Louisiana and he say, “Canray what you think?” I say, “Man, why we want go and give them people money? For what? Oh man, we ain’t gonna do no more than have fun and make a few dollar.”
CHRIS: What did the union promise you they would do for you?
CANRAY: Protect you from record and stuff. And we had never record nothing then and we never thought of — we thought we was gonna stay right he– I had quit. And Clifton can tell you that right now. I had sold everything I had. That’s it. I stayed there. The first time I quit I stayed three years I didn’t play. Then they started bugging me, I started again. Then the last time I say, “Well, this time I’m gonna rid of that.” So I sold my fiddle and my amplifier and everything. Say, “I ain’t gonna touch that stuff no more.”
Got through everything one day Clifton was there, “Where you working tonight, man?” I say, “Nowhere.” I say, “I don’t play that thing no more.” “Oh you must be crazy.” I say, “I don’t know but” I say “I ain’t playing no more.” “Hey man there’s the time for you to go. Get yourself together.” And he says, “Man I done travel now. I done went to New York and different places, man.” He says, “You’re turning me down.” He say, “We the two best from Louisiana. You the best on the fiddle.” And he says, “They’re gonna have to go to work to beat me on the accordion.” Well I say, “They can’t do nothing with you on the accordion. Not a piano note for sure.”
“And going buy you self something and get — back on the way.” But I didn’t listen to that. Then I was staying in (?) in them time. So they had a guy there he came on — me and him was goody buddy and I knew his father-in-law and mother-in-law — he say, “Canray.” He says, “My wife birthday and my mother-in-law birthday come on the same day.” He say, “Want you to come play. We gonna have a party.” I say, “Play what?” I say, “Man I don’t have nothing. I sold my stuff.” “Oh no” but he was —
(break in audio)
Yeah when he first came to Basile there he was playing with Leo Soileau. He was playing the steel. And he was a good musician. He was kind of like Clifton. He had bought a fiddle with old black man from Mississippi — the man didn’t know how to play the fiddle. Somebody in his family had left him this fiddle. And Harry Choates went and bought the fiddle for five dollar on credit and he never paid that black man. That’s the way he was. Then he came there to Basile there. He had that fiddle there.
And he was playing the steel behind Leo Soileau. But steel and all he was learning how to play the fiddle. Then he started when he got good enough. Every time they would play a dance Leo would let him play a few tune on his fiddle. Then he got better than Leo. And that son-of-a-gun could sing — French and English. And that’s when he got really good he took off on his own. Oh that was a messy little son-of-a-gun. The little redhead and he didn’t care about nobody but himself — just like Clifton, just like Clifton.
Most of the time when had his band there he changed musician I don’t know how many time because he didn’t want to pay them. He go and collect the money and say they hadn’t pay him and raise all kind of hell. Oh yeah he was
CANRAY: We was the same age — me and him.
CHRIS: Canray with all the hard times you’ve had you’ve managed to send some of your kids through school and —
CANRAY: I did. They went to school. You know when I went to school — you see my education is a fifth grade education. We didn’t have but three months of school. And you had to be pretty good to make a grade in [two school time?] you know. I went I-don’t-know-how-long — but I went to the fifth grade. Then I always said I say, “Well, if ever I got some children, long as they gonna be with me they gonna go to school.” And every one of my kid — I got six of them — they all finish high school.
I got one that got a good job in Houston there. She work for some lawyer there. She went through — after she graduate from high school she went to Houston and meet the [rest?]. And she went to some type of school for two years I believe. She wasn’t getting much while she was going to school — something like 50 dollars a week. And they kept laughing I says — well I say, “Maybe later on it’s gonna help” — which it did. Now she make about 26 hundred dollars a month. She work for some lawyer there. She know how to use computer and stuff.
And then my baby one she’s a lawyer. But they all finish — all six of them — they all finish high school and they can defend theyself pretty good. But I seen to it that they go to school because I didn’t get that opportunity. When I was going to school — by the time I could’ve got where I could probably do something for myself that’s when my daddy died and my mama died — the year after. And work was the name of the game. I had to go to work. Yeah.
But I don’t regret it. You know it make you learn — sometime hard time make you learn a lot of thing that you need to know — And I’m proud of them because they tell me some stuff I’ve been hard on them — trying to show them where it was gonna do some good and now they see it pay off.
CHRIS: How do you feel about your kids and your music?
CANRAY: Oh I’m proud of them. Except there’s one thing I can’t understand now that the six — not a one of them don’t play music. They’re not — well they took on their mama side. She never was too much with music and if she ….. it’s all right. If she don’t it’s still all right. And they all like that. Well when they got a birthday or something they might have a bunch of record. They might play some and have fun and that’s it. And I told them. I says, “Ya’ll don’t have to play a fiddle. If you want some instrument,” I say, “I’m willing to buy it for you all.” But it’s not in them. Uh-uh.
CHRIS: Why did you play music?
CANRAY: Well I just wanted — in them time there I wanted to play so bad. That’s the truth here. I would go and listen at them other people. I say, “Oh no. I wanna play. I wanna play. I wanna play. I wanna play.” And which I worked it hard to get the learning. And after I learned the thing really good it was just like anything else — just like a job going to work and if you got a days off you gotta days off. But I never thought about going and do that to make money or nothing like that. I never thought it was gonna happen. And which — that’s the thing — a man can make more money playing music than anything in the world. You don’t ever know.
Look at Rockin’ Sidney. Rockin’ Sidney — I’ve been knowing him for quite a few years there — when he started he was playing his harmonica and his guitar. And he told me the first instrument he played was a piano. He made one or two record with his harmonica and guitar there. But he didn’t make a hit. And now look where he’s at with music. Yeah I talk with him he says, “Man” hey says, “you don’t ever know when you got the right number or not.” He say, “One number can get you way up there if the people like it.”