Cajun music’s most magical, unique aspect is how it creates joyous, raucous compositions from minimal instrumentation. Most Cajun bands consist, maybe, of a violin, an accordion, possibly a guitar, and not much more. Les Blank’s I Went to the Dance (J’ai Été Au Bal), which has received a glorious 5K restoration courtesy of Harrod Blank and Anthony Matt, encompasses an entire cultural tradition with notes, words, and dances. With an almost non-stop exhibition of different Cajun songs—some classic, others more obscure—as a backdrop to recounting the history of the region and its people, the director forms an inseparable bond between their lives and the music.
One interviewee discusses the inextricable connection between Cajuns and their music as being borne from the need to express themselves––their joys and sorrows, following a hard, long work week. The music, notable for its high-pitched, almost blues-like wailing vocals, exhibits a desperation to let all emotion out. Many roots stem from the Black Creole/Zydeco traditions that eventually came to be mixed with the Acadian music of exiles from Nova Scotia who came to settle in the Louisiana area. This rich and almost recherché culture makes Southern Louisiana seem like, as singer Queen Ida Gillory calls it, “more a separate country than a state.”
The late Les Blank’s documentary oeuvre is filled with deeply humanistic elements that bring his subjects and their philosophies to the forefront in addition to their talents. I Went to the Dance doesn’t just have a bunch of talking heads giving a history lesson, but it displays a deeply philosophical and personable understanding of who they are. Accordion player Marc Savoy explains, while holding his accordion, that it can only play seven notes, but just like seven words, many sentences and phrases and thus compositions can be made up with even a limited sample. He goes on to explain the scale, tempo, and other idiosyncrasies of Cajun musical structure that separate it from its ancestral roots in French/Belgian traditions.
The documentary introduces a vast roster of Cajun musicians, from more contemporary artists like Marc and Ann Savoy, Michael Doucet, Canray Fontenot, Queen Ida Gillory, and Dewer Balfa, to vaunted pioneers of the genre such as Amédé Ardoin, Denus McGee, Nathan Abshire, and Iry Lejune. Through several voices and performances, we’re able to see the evolution of Cajun music in America, the tangential ways it is influenced by class and race relations, and also the ways in which modernization and commercialization of music changed it. Many kids who grew up to love music over time began to express a need to find success in less esoteric and more generalized popular music like rock and pop.
Yet the traditions of Cajun music are shown in the documentary to be adorned and respected for its uniqueness; Blank makes it the film’s central figure. Excerpts from songs like “Hip et Taiau” and “Jole Blon” play throughout I Went to the Dance to the point where, by the end, they’ll be etched in every viewer’s eardrums long after the credits end. A story recounts when Dewey Balfa’s band, consisting of just four fiddle players, was asked to travel to Newport and play alongside living legends like Bob Dylan, the audience gave them a standing ovation for their performance.
There is a wealth of knowledge and information within I Went to the Dance but it is the congenial nature of the people’s relationship to the music that gives the documentary weight. Just like Werner Herzog’s existentialist terrors in Burden of Dreams or the enriching relationship between people and food in Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, Les Blank’s thoughtful and engrossing explorations of humanity through its many cultural traditions, livelihoods, and struggles are eternally ripe for rediscovery by each new generation.
The new restoration of I Went to the Dance premiered at SXSW 2021.