Tracy Schwarz

by

from http://articles.latimes.com (1989):

Southern California is not the most likely place to find a passkey into the world of traditional Cajun music, but life-changing discoveries often happen under unlikely circumstances.

Cajun music is rooted in rural Louisiana prairie towns that couldn’t be more remote in setting or spirit from the hubbub of a metropolis or a music business center. But when Tracy Schwarz came through Los Angeles back in the early 1960s as a member of the New Lost City Ramblers, an influential trio of folk music traditionalists, he had his first profound Cajun encounter.

“At the old Ash Grove (the seminal L.A. folk and blues club), I got an album by (Cajun musician) Austin Pitre for a dollar,” said Schwarz, who will play a solo show Saturday night at the Shade Tree in Laguna Niguel. “It was the best dollar I ever spent. It gave me a real good idea of what traditional Cajun music should sound like.”

For Schwarz, who grew up in New Jersey and Connecticut, that album was the start of a musical love affair from which he has emerged as one of the few players to have made a mark in Cajun music without having been born into the French-speaking Cajun culture.

“The sound of the music was what got me first,” Schwarz recalled in a recent phone interview from Fresno, where he had stopped during his annual West Coast tour. “The songs were in a language other than English, but there was a lot of country music in there, too. These two things that are almost contradictory were mixed in Cajun music, and that’s what got me.”

For Schwarz, those seeming incongruities held unusual interest: Country and Western was his first musical love, and foreign languages were another leading passion (he has studied five, including French and Russian, and he holds a bachelor’s degree in German).

Schwarz’s next step on the road to being certified as an honorary Cajun (an award he received last year from the Louisiana-based Cajun-French Music Assn.) was encountering the music in the flesh at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. The festival marked the first time that traditional Cajun music had ever been played on a prominent, mainstream stage. Schwarz struck up a friendship at the festival with Dewey Balfa, an expert fiddler who would become one of the most effective and engaging ambassadors of Cajun music and culture. He also became Schwarz’s coach in things Cajun.

“Tracy was like a child that sees a toy and he grabs for it and he can’t reach it,” Balfa said over the phone from his home in Basile, La., where he still drives a school bus when he isn’t performing. But with enough patience, Balfa said, concluding the analogy, the child finally gets what he is reaching for.

After a decade of running into Balfa on the folk festival circuit, Schwarz’s involvement in Cajun music deepened in 1975, when, at Balfa’s invitation, he visited Louisiana for the first time. Balfa wanted to record a Cajun fiddle instruction album modeled after the “Learn To Fiddle” instructional LP that Schwarz had released in 1965. He asked Schwarz to produce the record.

“We did it back-porch style,” recording at Balfa’s home on equipment borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution, Schwartz said. Schwarz also took the tape machine out to area dance halls at Mardi Gras, where he captured Balfa and other local players for a second album.

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