Written by Shane Speal, www.shanespeal.com
“So, we took some cigar boxes…In those days, cigar boxes were made of wood. So, we worked at it and finally made ourselves a fiddle. For our strings, we had no real strings … we took strands off the screen door. We made fiddles out of that stuff, and then we started practicing. [I visited my neighbor] to see how he tuned his fiddle. He would sound a string, and then I would try mine, but I couldn’t go as high as his fiddle; every time I tried to match his pitch, I’d break a string…. But then when he would break a string, I would take the longest end. Then my fiddle sounded pretty good. And that’s how I learned. It’s just a matter of having music on your mind.”
– Canray Fontenot
Quoted from his National Endowment for the Arts Honor
I first came across the name Canray Fontenot from the dedication page of book, Fiddle Fever by Sharon Arms Doucet. In the book, a young Cajun boy named Felix comes of age when he falls in love with music and decides to build a cigar box fiddle in order to play the sounds. In the dedication, the author reveals that Fontenot was the main inspiration for the story. Those lines of dedication set me off into a rabbit hole to discover yet another legend of cigar box music. What I found was an American icon who lived the simple life of a feed store employee.
Fontenot was born on October 16, 1922 in l’Anse Des Rougeaux, Louisiana. He was the son of a sharecropper and cane cutter and lived in a house filled with music. His father, “Nonc” Adam Fontenot was a legendary accordian player and his uncle also played button accordian. But it was his cousin, Douglas Belair, who became his main influence. Belair was one of the first recorded black fiddle players and his infectous music prompted Canray to build a cigar box violin at the age of nine.
In an interview published in Fiddler Magazine, Fontenot talked to Sharon Arms Doucet about the cigar box violin he built with his other cousin, Joe:
We got some cigar boxes and started working on that. I say, ‘Joe, where we gonna get some tools?’ His older brother was a meat cutter. So Joe said, ‘Horace, he got a good knife. I’m pretty sure Saturday or Sunday he’ll get drunk. I’m gonna steal his knife.’ So he stole his pocket knife, and we made our fiddles. Now after the strings, then we went in the woods and got some little switches that kind of looked like a bow. We took some sweing thread for the horsehair and then we got our rosin from the pine tree.”
The first song young Canray learned was “The Prison Bars,” a tune recorded by Bellair. Instead of copying it note-for-note, he put his own spin on it and played it in his own way.
Fontenot played his cigar box fiddle until he was 11, using discarded strings taken from other fiddle players trash. The homemade fiddle was eventually replaced by a real violin provided by his uncle.
Fontenot would later partner with Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin, an accordionist from Duralde, LA, creating a duo that played together for more than 40 years. They played the great Newport Folk Festival in 1966 and were filmed by Alan Lomax during the event. They also toured the world, playing many dates in Europe especially. Their music has been released on Arhoolie Records.
Beausoliel founder and fiddle player, Michael Doucet wrote in an obituary for Fontenot, “Canray’s unique style was bluesy, yet melodic. His wild slides and gravelly vocals were always accompanied by his mile-wide grin. Canray originals such as ‘Joe Pitre a deux femmes,’ ‘Les Barres de la prison’ and ‘Bonsoir Moreau’ have become standards in the Cajun and Zydeco repertoires.”
A couple years ago, I had a chance to talk to Sharon Arms Doucet about her friend Canray and the book that inspired by him, Fiddle Fever. Here’s what she told me:
Shane Speal: You’ve said that Fiddle Fever was based partly on the stories told by Canray Fontenot and his childhood cigar box violin. Can you tell me a little about Canray and his life?
Sharon: Canray was one of a kind! During the day, he worked as a “go-fer” in a feed store. He was the proverbial ‘guy in the back.’ On weekends, he’d play his fiddle and people fell down and adored him. I remember one time, my husband and his band, Beausoleil took Canray to New York to play Carnegie Hall. As we got closer to the venue, Canray looked around and remarked, “I’ve played in this town before. I was with Boissec Ardoin.” When we arrived at Carnegie Hall, he slapped his knee and said, “yeah, this is the place. We played here before!”
Canray had a smile as big as life. He was a hard drinker, too. When he got drunk on “Creole hot sauce,” he would get really morose and bitter. But he did get out of this area to play. In fact, he played all over the world, Europe, mostly.
Did Canray also tell you how he built the instrument.
Yes. For example, Canray first used sewing thread for the bow and screen wire for the strings. I remember he told me he got in trouble for pulling the wire off his door. (laughs)
Was the instrument built by your main character, Felix’s based on Canray’s recollections?
It was definitely inspired by Canray’s story. He told me that he and another boy wanted to figure out how to play a fiddle. The other boy told him he knew someone else who knew how to make a fiddle. They both made one, but it was Canray who really learned how to play it. Now Canray had an uncle who played fiddle, but not very well. When his uncle heard him playing, he said, “Oh my gosh!” and gave Canray his good fiddle.
But to answer your question, no, the story wasn’t completely from Canray’s tales. I’ve also read a lot, but I also made most of the description up as I went along. Michael [Doucet, Sharon’s husband] helped out because he’s a fiddle player. He knows about fitting the pegs and getting them to stay.
Canray Fontenot died of cancer 1995. Michael Doucet said of Fontenot, “his life was not easy, but he expelled his troubles through his music, a gift which he shared with his neighbors and the world.”
It’s been several years since I interviewed Sharon Arms Doucet and this article remained in the form of notes and Xeroxed clippings stuffed into folders until now. In that span of time, Fiddle Fever has been released in paperback and is readily available at Amazon.com and other retailers. Go get a copy…today. It’s a great tale perfect for middle school students as well as curious Primitive Rock musicians looking for inspiration. Just last week, I got a call from a school teacher in New Jersey who wanted more information on cigar box instruments. It seems her class has been reading Fiddle Fever and now they want to build their own cigar box fiddles.
Canray would be proud.
Resources for the curious…
Canray Fontenot Discography on Arhoolie Records: www.arhoolie.com
Canray Fontenot: “Louisiana Hot Sauce, Creole Style”
CD 381 CD upc: 096297038123
Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin with Canray Fontenot: “La Musique Creole”
CD 445 CD upc: 096297044520
Canray Fontenot featured on Vestapol DVD: www.vestapol.com
“Four American Roots Music Films on DVD” By Yasha Aginsky
“An Interview with Canray Fontenot” by Sharon Arms Doucet, Fiddler Magazine Fall, 1995
“National Endowment for the Arts: National Heritage Fellowships”, http://www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/fellow.php?id=1986_05
Canray Fontenot profile and obituary on Arhoolie Records website: Arhoolie Records