Interview with Leo Soileau
LISTEN HERE: (15:32) Leo Soileau
Interviewed By: Chris Strachwitz
Date: April 1974
This is an unedited 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
Special thanks to Wade Falcon for transcribing this interview. For more information about the history of Cajun music visit his excellent blog Early Cajun Music.
Chris Strachwitz: When were you born?
Leo Soileau: I was born in 1904.
Chris: And where was that? What town?
Leo: It was in Ville Platte.
Chris: Right here in Ville Platte?
Leo: Ville Platte.
Chris: Did you start playing the fiddle when you were a little child? How old were you?
Leo: I was about 12 years old.
Chris: Who did you learn from?
Leo: My daddy. I’d steal his fiddle from under the bed. And when I’d break a string or something, I’d get a whipping.
Chris: uh oh.
Leo: That’s for sure.
Chris: At that time, did they, you mostly… was, were they using accordion too or were they mostly fiddle?
Leo: Well, we was using both. Yeh, we had accordion in them days.
Chris: Who were some of the other people that you learned from? Just your daddy?
Leo: Well from McGee. You got a record from McGee.
Chris: Dennis McGee, yeh.
Leo: Dennis McGee.
Chris: Oh you learned some of his….
Leo: Yeh, me and him. I learned from him. You know, some of them.
Chris: When did you decide, when did you meet up with this fellow Robin, or what was his name? What was his first name? Do you remember?
Leo: Yeah, Moise Robin. Moise Robin.
Chris: Moise Robin.
Leo: Uh huh. From Arnaudville, Louisiana. He’s from the other side of Opelousas.
Chris: And he’s the first one that you made records with?
Leo: No, no, no, no. My first, my first recording was with Meus [Mayuse] Lafleur.
Chris: Ah yeh. You’re right, you’re right.
Chris: Ma Chere Tite Fille, and…. Oh, this is with Robin.
Leo: Yeah, but I made Grande Basile.
unknown: Here’s Meus Lafleur right here. Mama, Where You At?
Chris: Mama Where You At?
Leo: Mama Where You At? That’s when I started. That’s my first recording.
Chris: That was your first recording.
Leo: Me and him was brought up together as young boys.
Chris: Oh is that right.
Leo: Yes sir.
Chris: And did you go back east to make that record? Or was that made here?
Leo: We made that in Atlanta.
Chris: Oh in Atlanta.
Leo: Atlanta, Georgia. In 1928.
Chris: Did you take a train to go there?
Leo: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: How did they in touch with you when…
Leo: Well uh, there was a little store in Basile, you know. And uh, when Falcon, you know when Joe Falcon, recorded? That man would sell a few records, you know, in that little town. So I was there. And uh, he required me… you know the owner of the store? Required me to that, uh, salesman, you know. So he got in touch with me. Just about six months after Joe, you know, his record came out.
Chris: Do you know what other songs you recorded on that date when you went to Atlanta?
Chris: Can you give me the titles that you remember?
Leo: Well, uh, you want the name of the songs?
Leo: Grand Basile. That was one. Mama Where You At? That was two. Your Father Put Me Out. That was three. And uh, Chère Mam, Où Toi T'es. Do you have that?
Chris: I don’t know. No, I don’t think so. No, I don’t think I have that one.
Leo: No. La Valse Criminelle. La Valse Criminelle, that’s it.
Chris: I don’t think I have that one either.
1: You have La Valse de la Penitentiare
Leo: Yeah, but I didn’t record that.
Chris: Oh, so that was the first ones.
Chris: When did you meet up with this fellow Robin? Did Lafleur die?
Leo: After this boy, you know that boy got killed.
Chris: He got killed.
Leo: My partner got killed. Then I had to find somebody else. So that’s when I find, I picked up Robin, you know. Moise Robin. We went to Richmond, Virgin…. Richmond, Indiana to record that.
Chris: You record for Paramount.
Leo: Yeah, I even record for Paramount.
Chris: Because I have one of those right here. Easy Rider Blues
Leo: Yeah. Yes sir. That was, that was popular down here, boy. Very, very good.
Chris: In Richmond, Indiana. And uh, yeah you made quite a few with Soileau. Ma Chere Tite Fille.
Leo: Yeah, I recorded a lot
Chris: The Easy Rider Blues. And uh, where you playing dances at that time around here?
Leo: Yeah. Yeah. That was my, that’s the route I was making my living out of.
Chris: Oh, you were making a living…
Leo: Yeah, I mean, I wasn’t planning on recording, you know, because, they didn’t pay too much, you know.
Chris: And, was there anybody else on that record with you and Robin or just the two of you?
Leo: No, just the two of us on this one.
Chris: Because on that, with Lafleur you had a bass player, didn’t you?
Leo: No. We just had accordion and fiddle.
Chris: Oh, it sounded like there was almost a string bass fiddle….
Leo: No but he, you know what he got? He had he’d, the way he’d play that accordion, he had a lot of bass on that accordion.
Chris: Ah, I see.
Leo: He was, he was a, he the best, he’d a remarkable accordion player, you know. You can get a lot of music on them French accordions if you can play it. You know what I mean?
Chris: That’s true.
Leo: It’s like a fiddle. You know, you don’t learn, you don’t finish learning the fiddle.
Chris: And uh, in the 1930s, did you notice there was more of a following for this hillbilly music? Is that when you started playing a little bit more with sorta rhythm bands….
Leo: Yeah. Yeah, well yeah, yeah. Down here, we the ones that put it out. Me and the Hackberry Ramblers. We the two only bands in, you know, this country, here.
Chris: Did you have a sense that the old time music was going a little bit out, and you had to….
Leo: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: Was it people asking you if you could play
Leo: You know, I noticed by the rhythm, by the rhythm, the people’s dancing, you know. When I was playing with accordion, I’d play a few with more style, you know, like English. We’d call it English, you know. All them a little more popular, you know what I mean. And I began to understand, you know, understood, that’s what they wanted. And they wanted, they wanted that guitar, they want more rhythm. So I started. I started with two guitars, a standard, and uh, a straight rhythm guitar, and a drum. And I sold that, I sold that like hot cakes, boy.
Chris: Like that, that one we played for you, the Hackberry Hop. That had that bass and drums and the guitarist and drums and…
Leo: Listen. First time I brought a drum to Chicago, they didn’t, they couldn’t understand that. How’s that drum is gonna come in there. You know, when we’d put pillows, we’d put, we’d stuff that drum, we’d could hardly hear that drum. That, that,… you know, that operator? He said, “I don’t know if we can make that with a drum.” He said, ”I never…” That was the first recording with a drum. And it’s not a string band [if] I don’t have a drum. You know, most of them.
Chris: What kind of music were you listening to at that time? Would you listen to the radio or a form of jazz?
Leo: Oh yeah.
Chris: What did you like, particularly?
Leo: Well, in them days, I don’t, it was….You know what it was? It was more jazz. Brass band, you know.
Chris: Did you ever hear any brass band?
Leo: I had that in my mind when I was a little kid, you know.
Chris: What did you, where did you hear brass bands here?
Leo: Oh well, we had, we had some good, we had some good brass bands around here stuff, you know, when, oh, when I was fifteen years old. We had some good, good, you know, jazz bands here.
Chris: Where they colored bands?
Leo: Yeah. Mostly colored bands.
Chris: They come from New Orleans, mostly?
Leo: No, they’d…. you know, in Crowley.
Chris: Oh, is that right?
Leo: Alexandria. Opelousas. They had a very, very good band in Opelousas, old man Martel, they’d call him.
Leo: No, oh, Martel, just Martel. They had, um,… His name was Martel band. And that was just… The old man and the whole family.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Martel Band or The Martel Family Orchestra was led by Albert B Martel on violin. Originally called the Wonder Brass Band, at one point they contained his family Dayton Martel on trumpet or trombone, Mary Hilrey Martel on banjo or violin, Willard “Willie” Martel on banjo, Chester Martel on bass, and Bert Martel on trumpet as well as, other various musicians.
Chris: And they, do you remember these names?
Leo: They had a fine, fine orchestra.
Chris: Was it horns and strings…
Leo: Yeah. Horns.
Chris: Or just horns?
Leo: He had horns and bass fiddle, drums, saxophone, you know what I mean, clarinet. He had […….]
Chris: Do you recall some of the tunes that he would play that you liked?
Chris: Some of the numbers.
Leo: Well, yes uh, well, you know it’s hard to remember. But, Who’s Sorry Now, or something like that, St. Louis Blues.
Chris: I bet you learned High Society from him, did you?
Leo: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Chris: And you did one with violin ….
Leo: Oh yeah, all of, I’d play all of them tunes, you know
Chris: Oh, so you heard some of them live at some dances here and stuff?
Leo: Yeah, yeah. I even set up, sit in with these old…
Chris: Oh you did?
Leo: Yeah. You know, they’d, they liked me so much, you know. The knew I could play.
Leo: And went back. [I went back, cause I go to that jumpy now….. play]. And I knew I could play it, you know.
Chris: You mean once you…
Leo: When I was twelve years, when I was twelve years, when I first start playing, I learned, I learned Home Sweet Home and Dixieland like nobody’s business. I used to play that in school. I played in school. I went to that, I came to that, to the [convent] right there. And we took some music lessons and I just whipper-whipped, you know, I didn’t even use the book.
Chris: When did you sense that you had to add a bigger band? I mean, you suddenly stopped recording, didn’t you? In the mid thirties or late thirties?
Leo: Yeah, after that. During the war. When the war declared, that’s when, that’s when my contract expired, with Decca.
Chris: Did you notice that some of the Cajuns were losing interest in their own music at that time? That they wanted more hillbilly music, or…
Leo: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah, that’s what they wanted. That’s what they [settled]. At one time, the accordion player couldn’t get no job.
Chris: That’s what I heard. That’s what…
Leo: Me and Law, me and uh, what you call Darbonne, you know,…
Leo: Luderin. We had more work than what we could do. We was the only two bands in this country with loud speakers.
Chris: Oh I see. You just added, when did you first use a loudspeaker…
Leo: Oh I mean, in the band, 32.
Chris: That early?
Leo: I had, I had a man from Rayne, Louisiana build me one.
Chris: Is that right?
Leo: I’m [……..] boy
Chris: Did you have an advancement?
Leo: I had a rig, boy. I had a [children] and everything.
Chris: That’s how you kept up with everything new that came out.
Leo: Yes, yes.
Leo: Well, uh, in the forties, well, when, you know when they declared, when gas and everything was rationed, I’d contract my job in night clubs, you know, I stayed there. I had already contract.
Chris: You mean, you played for certain nightclubs?
Chris: Where did you…
Leo: Seven nights a week.
Chris: Seven nights a week?
Leo: For years.
Leo: At the same place. I played for…
Chris: Which night club was that?
Leo: Well, it was the Silver Star in Lake Charles and I played at the Showboat in Orange, Texas.
Chris: That was during the war…
Leo: It makes us two years, two years without take my speaker down. In the same bandstand for two years.
Chris: Was that…
Leo: At the time.
Chris: Was that about the time that that picture was taken, that is…
Chris: On this record here?
Leo: Yeah. Yeah, right.
Chris: And, yeah, because that was Papa Cairo. He came along during the war, he played…
Leo: After I, yeah, a little after, he…before he organized a band, I used him in my band. You know, off and on.
Leo: Yeah, that’s it.
Chris: Do you remember this? Who was the player, playing the mandolin on there?
Leo: Oh that was, uh, Lavergne boy. Rufus Lavergne.
Chris: Rufus Lavergne.
Leo: That was George, that was George Duhon.
Chris: George Duhon on the bass?
Leo: George Duhon on the bass.
Chris: Who was that drummer in the back? He was a good drummer.
Leo: This is uh, Vincent uh,….
Chris: Vincent Crawford? No…
Chris: Oh yeah?
Leo: What you know about him?
Chris: I know him because he was with Luderin Darbone whenever he recorded with him…
Leo: Ah, yeah, yeah. He played with them awhile.
Chris: Ah, I see.
Leo: Sure, he was. And this is Liz.
Leo: That’s all I know. Liz. I knew her name but you know, but boy, she was a good piano player. And this is uh, Thibodeaux. Dalton Thibodeaux. On guitar.
Chris: Dalton Thibodeaux on guitar.
Chris: And then you have Papa Cairo…
Leo: Yeah. I carried him. For that length of time.
Chris: Because I got that picture from him.
Chris: He’s the one…
Leo: Is that right?
Chris: That gave me that picture.
Leo: And uh, then he decided to rig up a band, you know. He really couldn’t play worth a shit.
Chris: [laughter] You’d better not tell him that.
Leo: I like him. He was selling then.
Chris: Oh yeah?
Leo: That’s the reason I got him there. Because he was selling. You know what I mean right?
Leo: There’s some stuff you don’t like in your store either.
Chris: I still gotta put it out.
Leo: But the hell, that boy. That, he was a seller. Play all night on two Coca-Colas.
Chris: Oh yeah.
Leo: No high ball, no nothing.
Chris: Is that right? When did you finally…
Leo: That’s one, that’s one boy that didn’t drink.
Chris: When did you finally quit playing? When did you decide to…
Leo: Well uh, well I tell you what, it’s when gambling quit, you know, you quit gambling in night clubs.
Chris: Oh they used to gamble.
Leo: Oh yeah.
Chris: Until when?
Leo: We had them in the marsh.
Chris: Oh yeah?
Leo: We had something, yeah boy, in Louisiana. And uh…
Chris: When did they quit?
Leo: I was about fed up with it, anyhow. I had enough, know what I mean.
Leo: Getting tired. And they wanted, they wanted, in the night club, couldn’t afford to pay the band anyway, every night, the same price. They wanted to cut off. Set me off with two or three, you know, just anything. And uh, I had an idea to quit anyhow.
Chris: Was that in the late…
Leo: So I fished around for a job at the city service again. And uh, the superintendent over here promised me a job if we quit, you know. It was going to change. So it did change and I went to him and I says “I want my job.”
Chris: When was that?
Leo: He says, “I’ll give you a job.” He says, “I’m proud to give you a job. I see you at work today.” I said, “Alright”. Gave me a job, I says.
Chris: Ah that’s nice.
Leo: So uh….
Chris: When was that? What year? Do you remember?
Leo: Uh, it must have been, uh, in the forties, about, … about 48. I’d say around closer to 48.
Chris: That was after the war.
Leo: Yeah. Yeah. Cause I remember 55. In 55, I was, uh, running a little bar in Lake Charles. It was on the side. And I remember when I bought my license, in 55.
Chris: That’s quite a career. So you play…
Leo: And then I worked, I went to city services. I worked five years and they laughed at me, I was singing Jolie Blonde and…