Friday, September 01, 2023

Les Blank’s I Went to the Dance

For some reason, French lyrics sound so much better when accompanied by accordion and violin. When you add washboard, you’re really in business. You will hear a lot of serious Louisiana sounds, particularly Creole, Cajun, and Zydeco music in the late great music documentarian Les Blank’s 5K-restored I Went to the Dance (a.k.a. J’ai ete au Bal), co-directed with his longtime collaborator (and editor) Maureen Gosling & Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz, which opens today in New York.

As you should know, Cajuns were originally the Arcadians, who came Louisiana, the nearest French-speaking region on the continent, after the English expelled them from Nova Scotia. Tourists often get chewed out for confusing Cajuns with Creoles, but Blank’s experts, folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet and songwriter Michael Doucet, emphasize the cross-pollination between the two Louisiana cultures.

Blank always had a sly, slightly eccentric sensibility that some people still don’t get, because they aren’t sufficiently hip.
I Went to the Dance is a great example. It starts with a very funny musician’s joke from accordionist Marc Savoy, who later delights Blank by standing on his instrument to demonstrate its strength.  Of course, there is also a whole lot terrific music from musicians like Clifton Chenier (whose appearance is relatively brief, since Blank already devoted a full documentary to him, Hot Pepper), Queen Ida, Dennis McGee, Marc & Ann Savoy, Michael Doucet & Beausoleil, and Dewey Balfa, who gets credit for launching the Cajun music revival at 1960s folk festivals.

Blank and company give us a brisk history of Cajun music, going back to Joe and Cleoma Falcon, who cut the first Cajun records.
I Went to the Dance handles its ethnomusicology quite deftly, but it is Blank’s eye for colorful details that really stands out.

Blank remains one of the few documentary filmmakers who had a distinctly individual style. He also had terrific taste in music, frequently documenting blues musicians like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.
I Went to the Dance is a very entertaining and representative example of his oeuvre. Highly recommended, I Went to the Dance opens today (9/1) at the IFC Center.