A Hearth Music Visit with 94 Year Old Cajun Fiddler Milton Vanicor
This time last year, I was sitting in the light-filled kitchen of an old officer's house in the historic Fort Worden, an old military complex in Port Townsend, Washington that's been converted into the home of the influential arts organization, Centrum. Every year I and 500 friends, colleagues, and fellow traditional music nerds gather around the Fort for the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, filling up old classrooms, dormitories, dancehalls, officer housing, and even elevators with jam sessions, musical workshops, dances, and just plain visits with master musicians. I'll be back again this year on July 4 to enjoy a full day of concerts from some of the best traditional fiddlers in North America. Unlike most music festivals, these artists aren't chosen for their draw or popularity. The Festival sells out most years anyway, so the programmers have the liberty and vision to bring artists most people have never heard of, in fact some are artists who've never traveled outside their local musical communities.
But back to last year. I'm here visiting with Milton Vanicor, the impossibly spry 94 year old Cajun artist. Milton's been a fiddler, dancer, and singer in Louisiana's Cajun Country from the earliest years of the music and the culture's audio history. He was there when Amédé Ardoin and Dennis McGee (one a black Creole, the other a white Cajun) braved a nation intent on segregation to perform AND record together openly. Milton was there for the second coming of Cajun music in the 1950s, playing fiddle in the legendary Iry Lejeune's band. Lejeune came on to the scene when a good number of Cajun artists had converted to the more gentile stringband sounds of groups like The Hackberry Ramblers. A huge fan of Amédé Ardoin, Lejeune exploded with power as a Cajun accordionist, playing so loud that he often drowned out a full electrified band in his recordings. His proto-punk playing brought the Cajun accordion back into everyone's favor and sparked a renaissance of the music that continues today.
It took a while to arrange (Fiddle Tunes is a busy festival!) but I finally found myself in Milton Vanicor's kitchen, eager to learn more about what Cajun music was like in the early days. By any account, he'd been having himself quite the festival, staying up late dancing, jamming and partying, no small feat for a man of my age, let alone a man of 95 years. But Cajuns are made of hardy stock and are not known to turn down a chance to dance and party. Over a cup of coffee, I leaned in to listen to M. Vanicor's stories. Now you can too.
A Hearth Music Visit with Milton Vanicor
Hearth Music: Moi, je parle français. If you speak French, I can understand. Did you grow up speaking French?
Milton Vanicor: Yeah, I can’t speak English hardly. (laughing) We didn’t go to school. I went to 5th grade and that’s it. My daddy couldn’t afford to do that. He had to have us in the field.
What kind of farming did you guys do?
MV: Cotton, corn, sweet potatoes and things like that.
How much land did your father have?
MV: 20 acres, something like that, where he had a farm, maybe 80 acres. That’s what he did for a living.
What town was this in, that you grew up in?
MV: My address was Branch, Louisiana. It was in between Branch and Churchpoint. That’s where both of us was raised, my wife and I. Then we moved south of Lake Charles, from there we moved to Welch. Daddy bought a piece of land there.
Everyone in the family spoke French?
MV: Oh, yeah. My brother, Ellis, he’s the only one left and he can’t read and write. Just work, my daddy had to have him. I did the same. The youngest one, he graduated, so that was one of the ones that went most to school there.
Do you still speak French today? With your family? Do you guys speak French?
MV: Oh, yeah. My boy, Jory, he comes every morning; we don’t speak English at all.
When did you start playing music? When you were a kid?
MV: Yeah, I was about 12 years old, something like that. I had a little stick fiddle.
A stick fiddle?
MV: I couldn’t afford a fiddle and I didn’t even know how a fiddle was, but I had in my mind, a little board that maybe I could make me a little fiddle and play a tune on it.
Did you have other friends who were playing music at that time or family members?
MV: I’d go to the dance and Angelas LeJeune was playing and Amédé Ardoin was our musician at that time, cuz the dances were all house dances.
Were they bals de maison (house dances)?
MV: Yeah, bals de maison, that’s right.. In Eunice, they had a public place, that’s what they called that, they had dances there but my wife wasn’t allowed to go there by her parents. Mom and Dad, they didn’t want that. At the house dances, the mamas would go and chaperone them girls.
That was at the house dances that they had chaperones? So how did you meet your wife then? Did you have to get the chaperone to agree to…?
MV: I went to a dance one time and we looked at each other, I guess, and our date… when you meet a girl at those little house dances and you ask them to walk or to take the wagon [with you], that’s what it was.
Linda (Milton's daughter): It was a buggy.
MV: The buggies, we got that later. The wagon was the only vehicle that we had and then, the buggies came out and my daddy bought me a buggy. That was almost a Cadillac.
Linda: He was a stinker too when he was young. Tell him the story about the bus, Dad. The bus driver. You gotta tell him the story about the bus driver. That’s too funny. (laughing)
MV: I went on a wagon to school. That’s how I started school, on a wagon. This old lady that would drive with the buses, there was a team. Then, the Model T’s come out and they had a bus with the Model T and she had one of my uncles teach her how to drive that thing. Then, she started driving that thing and picked the kids up and she drove that bus. It was the first time, her having something like that, whenever she turned corners, she go down our country road and she bogged down. It was all dirt roads. She’d bog down and she’d say, "All right, y’all get out and y’all gonna push me out. And when we’d heard her say that, we’d pull and whenever she’d say, "Push," we’d pull and whenever she’d say, "Pull," we’d push. We didn’t want to go to school and that’s the way we’d do it. (laughing)
Photo: Iry Lejeune
So how did you meet Iry Lejeune?
MV: When Iry came to my house, he was hitch-hiking. He’d play maybe for a dollar at a restaurant in some town, he’d hitch-hike to go elsewhere and stop maybe at a bar. If you’d tell him, "Play, I’ll give you a dollar," he’d play. If you’d tell him, "I’ll give you 2 dollars," he’d play. It didn’t make any difference to him... He came to my house dirty, dirty clothes, poor thing. He said, "I’ve come to ask you if I could stay with you." And I told him, I said, "You’ve got to ask your cousin, my wife." She put her head down and she said, "I guess so, Iry." She was a good person. So, we got him some clean clothes and he stayed at my house and that’s when we started The Lacassine Playboys and we had a band. Me, and my brother and R.C. (R.C. Vanicor) and my nephew. It was all family, my brothers. There were 3 brothers and then, my brother-in-law and Iry. The Lacassine Playboys. It was a good band... I went over there and recorded with them. We did it in the house with tapes and somebody would interfere with it and we’d just erase it and do another one. That’s how we made those records. We’d play almost for nothin’. We’d go and get maybe $6 a man. It was kind of a lot of money in them days, but at the most I had, the big dances, maybe $12. I played a while with them and then stopped and then, that’s when I started building a house.
Was he really popular, Iry, when he played music? Were there a lot of young dancers who came out?
MV: He was popular, Iry was... He'd play in nightclubs. Before my time, it was house dances only but it’s changed. He’d start playing in nightclubs...
But it changed during your time. It used to be house dances and then, when Iry started playing, it became more dance halls?
MV: Yeah, it started slowly. They had maybe one or two that we knew about. It started a lot. We played in Basile, in Eunice and all over, Lafayette. But then, in the time that it was real good, that’s when I stopped and started building houses. I didn’t think that I could make enough money to live like I wanted to. I quit.
Photo: Iry Lejeune & The Lacassine Playboys
Did your wife approve of you going out to do all of these dances?
MV: No. She did approve it but she didn’t like it. And then, I didn’t like it. She’s a very, very good person, very good. I’m not going to say that she was the best in the world, but she was one of the best in the world. I had a good wife and we were very close. She died 4 years ago. She had died January 3rd; she had died June 3rd. If she had lived until January 3rd, it’d been 72 years together, 72 years. We were very close, very, very much.
Linda: Here’s the wedding ring that he gave her when they got married.
MV: She got sick; she was very close; she didn’t want to lose my sight. If I’d go places, my daughters’d come and stay with her... We were very close.
I’m that way with my wife. We met when we were in high school and we’re the same way. We don’t like being apart too much. I understand. So, Angelas LeJeune, that was Iry’s dad, is that right?
Linda: Explain how he was kin to Mama and Iry; they were first cousins.
Milton: That was my mom’s uncle.
Linda: Let me explain the family tree here a bit. My mama’s parents were : Laurent Bellard and Ernestine LeJeune. Ira’s mom and daddy was : Agnes LeJeune and her name was Lucy Bellard. So, my grandpa and Ira’s mother were brother and sister and Ira’s daddy Agnes LeJeune and my grandma Ernestine LeJeune were brother and sister, so the children born from those two couples were double first cousins. They both had the same grandparents, paternal and maternal.
MV: Iry and my wife were double first cousins.
Linda: So Angelas was Iry’s and my mama’s great uncle.
So, did Angelas play with Amédé Ardoin? Did they play together?
MV: Oh, no. Angelas had a band and that was one of the hottest musicians they had in Louisiana... I knew all of those musicians, you know? I saw them, some I didn’t see but maybe one time, but Amédé Ardoin, when I was a little boy, my daddy let the young kids have his house for a dance. He said, "I’ll let you have the house for a dance, IF you get Amédé Ardoin." I knew him very well. One of my cousins would go get him in Crowley and bring him to the house. My daddy would ask him to go get Amédé early, like on Saturday night, and he said, "I want to hear him with not a lot of noise like at the dance." He’d play around 4 o’clock, something like that... he’d play for my daddy a little bit before the dance. I was little; I remember my mom would cook something good and my daddy had a big, old table with these homemade things and mama set the table and we’d go eat, the whole family. Then, she had a table to wash her dishes because there was no cabinet at that time, we didn’t have no sink or nothin’ like that because we had no electricity or nothin’ like that. My mom would have a… they call that a bassin à vaiselle, a bassin à vaiselle (wash basin). And they had that little table; it was a square table and Amédé wouldn’t come and eat with us and I didn’t understand that. I’d see him eatin’over there and us was at the table but he wouldn’t do it himself. That was his decision.
He wasn’t comfortable?
MV: He said, "I’m black; I’m sittin’ over there." And I think about that very often, that poor man could have eaten with us. My mom and my daddy, they didn’t tell him to go eat there, because they were good people, they were very good people, but that’s where he wanted to be and she fixed him a good plate of food and go bring it to him and he was just as happy as he could be. For himself, his decision was to eat not with the whites. Little kids, sometimes they can’t understand that. But anyway, I learned it quick that the blacks didn’t mix with the whites and then, I grew up and I understood what was going on, like when they didn’t use the same bathrooms.
Did he play by himself for the bals de maison? Or did he have people he’d bring with him?
MV: 'tit fer.
Ti fer [Cajun triangle]? He would have someone who would play ti fer?
MV: Yeah. Whenever he come play at my house, Tanzy would get the 'tit fer, the one that went and got him. Everybody played 'tit fer at that time (laughing)
What was Amédé like? Was he very quiet or was he real friendly or talkative?
MV: Oh, he talked a lot.
What was he like when he was playing for a dance?
MV: I remember. My mama had that table and she’d take that table and put it in the front room and put it out there in a corner and then give him a chair and he’d get up on the table and they had 2 chairs on that table. It’d be up high, you know?
He’d be up on the table on a chair? Really?
MV: Yeah. And he’d play and then they had 2 chairs, one for the 'tit fer and him with the accordion. I remember him playing and somebody else’d take the 'tit fer–because they had a lot that played the 'tit fer–and there was dancing over there and he’d make out a song about Tanzy. That’s the way he’d go.
He’d make up the song?
MV: Yeah, he’d go like, (singing) "Hey, Tanzy, moi, j’connais t’es apres t’amusé. Ey-yi-yi, moi, j’connais t’es apres t’amusé.» You know, he’d go like that. He’d make out his words, like, "Tanzy, we’re having a good fun." And he was dancing and all that and he’d make a song and it would work.
So, did Iry ever meet Amédé Ardoin?
MV: Iry? Iry, no. He was too young.
Did you teach Iry a lot of music? Did you teach him a lot of the tunes?
MV: No, no.
He was already playing when he came to see you?
MV: The only one that I was playing the fiddle before him is my brother, Ellis [Ellis Vanicor]. Right now, he’s better than me. (laughing) He’s playing.
I didn’t realize that. Is that right?
MV: He’s playing; he’s playing every Sunday. And then they play the CFMA thing and some restaurant at Hayes that he played there every once in a while. He plays pretty much here and there.
Photo: Iry Lejeune and Nathan Abshire
Did he keep playing with Iry after you left the band?
MV: Yeah, he did. He played with Iry when I left the band. Not too long after that, he kind of quit playing. He had a grocery store and he quit and then, on down the line, he started playing with Shorty LeBlanc. He played there for a while.
So, what was Iry like? You said he was almost like a hobo, he was traveling around?
MV: No, no, he wasn’t like a hobo. He was just blind and by himself. That’s the only way he could get a little bit of money.
He was a really powerful musician. When I hear the recordings, he’s so loud and powerful on the accordion. Was he really good, for the time?
MV: Today, his records that he made, all of his songs, all of the musicians play more of his songs than any musician that I know of. Dewey Balfa, he plays the fiddle but his brother played the accordion and they took a lot of Iry’s songs to play. Just listen and you know. All of those songs they make today, there’s something of Iry’s songs, you know? Not all of them but I’m saying, the most.
Why is that? What is it about his music do you think?
MV: He’s good, he’s good. ‘Course it’s getting good now but it’s still going, like some musicians, they play Iry’s songs and they don’t know the words, and they just sing it and they don’t know the words but the tune is there. But all of the musicians, they use his tunes a lot, a lot, a lot.
Did he have a really strong personality?
Linda: Did you tell him the story about the coke boxes? That’s what he wants to know. What kind of personality he had.
MV: Well, when we had that little band, the Lacassine Playboys, we were me and my brother Ellis and Orsy, and my brother Asa and he’d play sitting down all the time. He was blind and one night he said that he would have liked to been as high as me and my brother who was playing the fiddle. He wanted to be as high as us. Then, we took some of them coke boxes and we stacked them up until, with a chair on it, he’d be high as us. We were playing and he liked to tap his foot, but he was too high. We were playing at Jones Bar, I’ll never forget that, and Orsy said, "We’re going to fix you up." And so we did with those boxes and put the chair up there and he got up there and he started playing the accordion. He was playing the Lacassine Special, he recorded that, you know.
Of course, it was very famous.
MV: And brother, he could play that. I'll tell you that. And he was playing that Lacassine Special. After a while, those boxes started moving a little bit and I saw where them things were going to fall. I started tellin' R.C., and he shook his head no and he kept going and playing and after a while, after a while, that chair was going backwards and BLAM! fell right on that bandstand. And he held his accordion. My brother Ellis said, whenever he tells the story, he said he never did stop playing but I believe that he stopped a little bit!
(laughing) A little bit!
MV: I believed he stopped a little bit, but, anyway, let’s say he didn't stop, (laughing) and he was playing the Lacassine Special on his back and all the people that were dancing, they crowded the bandstand to see him play that. That was somethin’ else! (more laughing)
I don’t want to take too much more of your time. Maybe I could just ask you though… I’d love to know.. You grew up with the old house dances, from the very beginning of the music, did you ever think that the music would end up like it is today where fiddlers can fly all over the world and play festivals everywhere in the world?
MV: Never. No, no, no. I thought it was going to stay just like it was.
Do you still recognize the music and the culture that you grew up with? Or has it really changed so much that it feels different?
MV: Oh yeah, yeah. It changed a lot, but… even like the other night, I was playing with Joel [Joel Savoy, young master Cajun fiddler], we were gonna play that old-time music, they liked that. I’m telling you that now, they like that very much. You know that!? I don’t have to tell you. You hear about it yourself.
Many thanks to Milton Vanicor for being so willing to visit and talk about his life in Cajun music.
For more reading on Iry Lejeune's legacy in Cajun music, try the book Iry Lejeune: Wailin' the Blues Cajun Style. On sale at County Records.
For more reading on Amédé Ardoin, check out our No Depression article on The Ardoin Family and the recent Tompkins Square reissue of Amédé's music.
Les Amies Louisianaise is a group made up of members of Milton's family. Check them out HERE.
Milton Vanicor In Action
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