REVIEW: Joe Bonsall & The Orange Playboys – Cajun Jamboree

Every type of music has its legendary performers, but because not all genres are widely popular, many treasured artists are something less than household names. A new album from Swallow Records might help to remedy that, at least as it relates to Cajun music.

Cajun Jamboree, a collection of tunes from Joe Bonsall and the Orange Playboys, does a good job of painting a musical picture of the veteran musician. (Who, by the way, is not the same Joe Bonsall who has spent many years as part of the country music supergroup, the Oak Ridge Boys.)

Born near Lake Arthur, Louisiana, in 1921, Joe grew up immersed in the rich tradition of Cajun music, and as a boy became well-acquainted with accordion, fiddle and guitar. During his teen years his family moved to Orange County, Texas, and Joe soon put together a musical group for local dances, naming them the Orange Playboys.

As Joe reached adulthood, World War II came along and he spent his time as a decorated Marine rather than as a musician, but in the post-war years he drifted back into performing. Gradually working his way up to wider popularity, in 1951 he reactivated the Orange Playboys and began to enjoy a long period of success.

For the next several decades, Joe and his boys were one of the most popular Cajun music groups around, performing in clubs and on radio, along with selling lots of records. Joe was very active in the production end of the recording industry too, and was an original member of the Cajun Music Hall Of Fame. By the time of his death at age 75, his career had stretched for over fifty years and he’d reached legendary status among Cajun music aficionados.

This album, which is called The Essential Collection, is just exactly that. It includes twenty-seven songs and they form an accurate record of the musical heritage of Joe Bonsall. Most were made during the 1960’s, when Joe and his group were at the top of their game and the height of their popularity. Included are some of the group’s original hits, such as “Step It Fast,” and later favorites too — for example one of their biggest hits, a delightful Cajun version of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”

Traditional Cajun music is well-represented, and for those who are fond of the Two-Step, most of it is fine dancing music. For example “Bayou Pon Pon Two-Step” sets a lively pace, as does “La Valse du Passé.” Another one I liked a lot was “Chickens Don’t Lay,” a fun song with a great title.

For dancers who’d rather slow down a little, there are several nice Cajun waltzes of varying speeds, ranging from the energetic “Alléman Waltz,” to the softer “Evangeline Waltz,” a piece that salutes Longfellow’s tragic Acadian heroine. It was probably my favorite on the album.

A solid collection and a rich treasury of the music of a Cajun legend.

Full listing and sound clips available at Swallow Records.

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