Inside the Songs: Ganey Arsement’s Louisiana Cajun Family Roots
I’ve been a fan of Cajun accordionist and songwriter Ganey Arsement for a little while now, not just because of his powerful accordion playing or excellent Cajun singing, but really because he’s a great French language songwriter. There aren’t a ton of Cajun’s actively writing songs in French these days (nod to Anna Laura Edmiston, formerly of Feufollet, who’s another favorite Cajun songwriter), so it’s meaningful to have a good writer bringing out new songs. And Arsement is a good writer. He writes what he knows, the deeply connected families of Cajuns in SW Louisiana and around his home in Lake Charles, and he’s deeply proud of his heritage. It’s a musical as well as cultural heritage; Ganey’s great-grandfather André Doucet was a musician as well as a blacksmith. On Ganey’s new album, Le Forgeron, he pays homage both to his great-grandfather’s roots in traditional Cajun music and to his own love for honky-tonk and urban blues. Songs dip into all these genres, and the twang of the pedal steel and sawing fiddles are always present.
I wanted to know more about the original songs on his new album, so I asked Ganey to take part in an Inside the Songs with us!
Inside the Songs with Ganey Arsement
Le Forgeron (The Blacksmith)
The lyrics of the song pretty much sum up my great-grandfather’s persona. He loaded up his pickup truck with his wife, two children and everything he owned in the 1930s and left Church Point, LA headed to Lake Charles where it was rumored that farmers in that area were in dire need of a skilled blacksmith. My grandmother told me that despite being very young, she remembered that they had run out of gas near Lacassine and were pulled the rest of the way by a team of horses.
He traded his work for a piece of property and the labor to build a house, eventually selling that house and building another on the property. His shop was located on the opposite end of the property on what is known as the Gulf Hwy. After I was born, he bought a house and had it moved to his property for my parents and me to live in. I lived next door to him for the first nine years of my life.
Relative to the quality of life his friends and family had back home, he was considered very successful and was able to afford some things in life that they could not. He never put a dime in any bank, and he slept with a shotgun next to his bed to protect his money.
He had a reputation for being a hard worker. He worked in his shop Monday to Friday, from sun up until my great-grandmother rang the bell for dinner. He never drank during the week, but he would play his accordion for me in his living room every evening. When Saturday arrived, the whisky came out and by sundown, they were at the dancehall.
With all this said, the song was actually a jovial poke at my great-grandfather, his work ethic and his weekend fun. It shares a very similar melody with another Cajun favorite, Tee Mamou. The musicians on the record were mostly Sidney Brown’s band. When I recorded the song, I changed some of the words to include my great-grandmother in the lyrics and partly because I wasn’t sure what was being said.
Here, In My Arms
I first had the idea for this song back in 1998 when I was on tour with Balfa Toujours. My grandparents were well known dancers and charter members of the Cajun French Music Association. They were responsible, in part, for me becoming a musician.
A number of years later, my grandfather lost his leg to peripheral heart disease. On the day he came home from the hospital, literally within minutes of getting home, he had an accident. The curiosity was killing him, and he went to the bathroom scale to see how much weight he had lost with the leg. After weighing himself, he stepped off of the scale leading with the leg that he didn’t have and fell cracking the back of his head on the tub.
We helped him to his chair, and I went to get an ice pack, for him. When I returned, my grandmother was sitting on the stool next to him, holding his hand and talking to him in French. I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but I heard her say, “Je vais rester ici. Prends ma main.” (I will stay here. Hold my hand.)
Losing his leg was something that my grandfather never came to grips with. He was never able to get around well. He went through at least five prosthesis trying to find one to make him feel normal. I abandoned the idea of the song. It was too painful for all involved. He passed about seven years later.
At my grandmother’s funeral, someone commented that they could finally dance together again in Heaven. I remember thinking…they never stopped. I knew then that I had to find a way to finish the song. By the way, we did bury her in red. It was her favorite color.
I struggled for years about how to deliver this song. There were so many things to say about them, and their dancing, but I only had a couple of minutes to say it. If I did it in French, a large number of people who need to hear this story wouldn’t understand it. If I did it in English, it would completely dismiss the importance of the culture and the language. It occurred to me, one day, that I could do it in French and English, and the point would be understood by all.
Quand les temps apres finir (When the End Times Come)
Ironically, I never anticipated that someone would ask for the origins of this song, but here we are. LOL! If you recall, in the latter part of last year, we were anticipating the end of the world. Despite being rescheduled a couple of times, we eventually settled on a date. Anyway, I am a high school teacher, and I run a GED program for students who have fallen too far behind to graduate for whatever reason. Last year, in my group of twelve, I had two students who had Aspberger Syndrome. Each day, as the end of the world approached, one of them got increasingly anxious. On the eve of the supposed event, he announced that he wasn’t coming to school the next day. When I asked why, he replied, “if the world is gonna end, I want to be at home with my mom and my sister.” That stuck with me for days. Even after the apocalypse. LOL! It became a profound thought to me, and I, too, decided that if I had warning, of impending doom, I would want to die with my family. I actually initially tried to write a song in English, but could never seem to convey the sentiment.