Luderin Darbone: Fiddle player and bandleader at the forefront of Cajun music

The leader of the Hackberry Ramblers for more than six decades, Luderin Darbone was a fine fiddle player and, more importantly, one of the great innovators in Cajun music.

Today, both the music and the cuisine of the Cajuns of Louisiana are popular around the world but this wasn't always the case. Descended from French colonists who had been evicted from their homeland in Acadia (now Nova Scotia) by the English following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and who had then migrated south, settling around the bayous of modern Louisiana, the Cajuns remained, until the early decades of the 20th century, isolated by culture and geography.

It took both the discovery of oil and Governor Huey Long's highway construction programme to open up the area and the state legislature's much-hated ban in 1916 on the use of French in public schools accelerated its Anglicisation. With this social and economic change came greater affluence and a ready market for recordings by local musicians; people like Joe and Cléoma Falcon who, in 1928, cut the first commercial Cajun discs. It was they who heralded an era that would see Darbone's Hackberry Ramblers become not only one of the most popular and durable acts in Cajun music, but also one of the most revolutionary.

Having been brought up in Texas, Darbone absorbed the disparate blues, hillbilly and western swing sounds that filled the airwaves there and went on to incorporate them into the Ramblers' sound. On a more practical level, his swing fiddle supplanted the diatonic accordion used by more traditional outfits and, using the battery in his Model-A Ford, his became the first Cajun band to use electric amplification in local dance halls.

Darbone was born, the son of an accordionist, in 1913. His parents gave him his first fiddle at the age of 12 and he learnt to play through a correspondence course. In 1930 he met a guitarist called Edwin Duhon and together they formed the nucleus of a band they named the Hackberry Ramblers in honour of their hometown. By 1933 they were making regular radio broadcasts and two years later signed to RCA Bluebird, with whom they would go on to cut more than 70 sides. In 1936 they recorded their most celebrated disc, a superlative version of the Cajun anthem "Jolie Blonde" with Lennis Sonnier on vocals. Darbone himself took the lead on numbers like "Oh Josephine, Ma Josephine", "One Step De L'Amour" and "Faux Pas Tu Bray Cherie".

In 1937, and using the name the Riverside Ramblers in deference to the Riverside tyres manufactured by their then sponsor, Montgomery Ward, they recorded the English-language "Wondering", a blatant and successful nod to the hillbilly market that became the first of several cross-over hits. During the Second World War, with Darbone working in a munitions factory, the band's activities came to a halt but in 1946, having re-formed, they landed a decade-long Saturday-night residence at the well-known Silver Star Club in Lake Charles.

The 1950s saw a serious decline in interest in the Ramblers' music as younger Cajuns turned to rock 'n' roll. In common with many of their peers the band considered retirement. In 1963, however, they were approached by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, who persuaded them to record again. The resulting album, Louisiana Cajun Music, performed well on the back of the then current folk boom and inspired a number of young Cajun musicians to investigate their musical heritage. The band became mainstays of festivals and fairs throughout the South and both Darbone and Duhon found themselves venerated by a younger generation.

In 1993, when Darbone was 80, the Ramblers recorded an acclaimed album, Cajun Boogie, for Flying Fish. Featuring guests like the fiddler Michael Doucet and the noted country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, it included standards like "Old Pipeliner" and Howlin' Wolf's "Sitting On Top of the World" as well as Darbone's own "Une Piastre Ici, Une Piastre La Bas". It was followed four years later by the Grammy-nominated Deep Water, on which Crowell, Doucet, Marcia Ball and Jimmie Dale Gilmore abetted them in delivering effective covers of numbers like "C.C. Rider", "Proud Mary" and "Frankie and Johnny".

The Cajun approach to life has long been summed up in their declaration "Laissez les bon temps rouler!" ["Let the good times roll!"] For well over 60 years Luderin Darbone succeeded, in his music-making, in doing just that.

Paul Wadey

Luderin Darbone, fiddle player, vocalist and bandleader: born Evangeline, Louisiana 14 January 1913; married (one son); died Sulphur, Louisiana 21 November 2008.

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