Some old-timers remember the days when chicken wire was strung in front of the bandstands in some of the Cajun dance halls.
It wasn’t to keep the bands in. It was to keep the crowd out, and to defend the band from beer bottles thrown when somebody’s request didn’t get played quick enough, loud enough, or often enough.
Those dance halls could sometimes turn into pretty rough places. In fact, there’s an old saying that not too long ago folks in the Marais Bouleur area did three things before heading to the Saturday night dance: They put on their good shirt, combed their hair, and sharpened their knife.
Lawmen tried with varying degrees of effort and success to control the fights, but they usually winked at the Saturday night high-jinx — unless it really got out of hand.
That’s what happened in November 1928 when the promising young Cajun accordion player Mayeus LaFleur was killed in a brawl in Basile.
He was born in Mamou in 1906 and began playing and singing when he was just a kid growing up on his grandmother’s farm. She reared him from infancy after he had been abandoned by his mother.
He hooked up with fiddle player Leo Soileau early on and they became a popular duo playing both Cajun music and some of the stuff that was called “hillbilly” back then and that we call Country and Western today.
LaFleur and Soileau had just released their recording of “Hè Mom” for Victor Records, just weeks after Joe and Cléoma Falcon put out their Columbia recording of Allans à Lafayette that is generally regarded as the first Cajun music to be put onto vinyl.
There are two versions of what happened on that deadly November day.
The first is that a man backed his truck into the front porch of the place where LaFleur was playing, causing about $10 in damage. The owner demanded the money to fix the porch. The driver said he didn’t have it. Both were pretty drunk.
One thing led to another, especially after a friend of the driver got involved to make matters worse.
The other is that it was in a fight over some moonshine.
There may be an element of each of those stories in how the brawl started, but it ended with six shots fired from a .38-caliber pistol.
Some of them hit the bar owner, but only one shot was fatal. That was the one fired by mistake at Mayeus LaFleur, who had no part in the mélee, however it began.
He was only 22 when he died.
The New Era, published in Eunice at the time, gave an account of the incident, and also reported this:
“The voice of a dead man pierced the gloomy atmosphere of Second Street last Saturday morning, when a song recorded by Meus [sic] LaFleur, before his untimely death, thrilled hundreds of those who yet speak and understand the Acadian French. ... Tho those who had learned of his alleged murder, the song seemed to grasp their very heart strings, and some even wiped away tears which forced their way to the eyes of those sympathetic listeners, while others not so well informed were happy again for having heard a folk song of their nationality which had never been written but handed down from generation to generation.”
LaFleur had said that he was going to use the $100 he received for recording Hè Mom to find his long-lost mother.
We don’t know whether she ever heard his recording. We do know that he never did.
You can reach Jim Bradshaw by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by regular mail at P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.