By Dr. Shane Rasmussen
Four musicians and a renowned filé maker were inducted into the Louisiana Folklife Center’s Hall of Master Folk Artists held at Northwestern State University as part of the 40th Annual Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival. Inductees included Louisiana Music Hall of Famer Tab Benoit, who also served as Honorary Festival Chair, Cajun musicians Jamie Berzas and Bruce Daigrepont, filé maker John Oswald Colson and country singer Vanessa Niemann.
Dr. Shane Rasmussen, director of the Louisiana Folklife Center at NSU, led the induction ceremony, assisted by State Representative Kenny Cox and Dustin Fuqua, Chief of Resource Management at Cane River Creole National Historical Park.
Benoit is one of the foremost blues singers and guitarists in the world. Hailing from Houma, his music ranges in style but mainly focuses on Delta blues. Benoit has been playing the guitar since he was a teenager. As a regular at the Blues Box in Baton Rouge, he learned from many blues legends such as Tabby Thomas, Raful Neal, and Henry Gray. In 1987, he formed a trio and began touring across the United States around 1991. His 2006 album “Brother to the Blues” received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album. On two occasions, Benoit has been a recipient of the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award and Blues Music Awards Contemporary Blues Male Artist award, and in 2010 was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. He is also very active in promoting the conservation of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, founding the “Voice of the Wetlands” organization, and receiving the Governor’s Award for Conservationist of the Year in 2010 for his efforts. In addition to performing on the main stage, Benoit also appeared in two narrative sessions. In the first, “Tab Benoit: A Man and his Guitar,” Benoit talked with fellow blues musician and Master Folk Artist Ed Huey about his experiences performing his distinctive Louisiana style blues around the world. In the second, Benoit discussed his environmental efforts with the Voice of the Wetlands Foundation.
Berzas was born in Mamou. Berzas’ musical background began when he was only ten when he learned how to play the accordion from his father. He later learned how to play the guitar and the drums as well and is now the lead vocalist of Jamie Berzas and the Cajun Tradition Band, founded in 1979 in Mamou. The band played at the 1984 Louisiana World’s Fair and at the 1987 Annual Cajun Music Festival at Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch. Berzas was honored at the 2000 Mamou Cajun Music Festival for his contributions to Cajun music. In 2005, he was inducted into the Cajun Music Wall of Fame in Fred’s Lounge. The band’s 1988 album, “A’ La Veille Facon,” received a 1989 Grammy nomination for Most Traditional Folk Music Recording. In 1987 the band was awarded the title Musicien Du Bal as first place winners in a Bal Du Maison contest held at Acadian Village in Lafayette. Berzas performed music at the Festival with the Cajun Tradition Band and also took part in a Cajun accordion workshop.
Colson is a renowned filé maker, tour guide, and oral historian. His mother and generations before carried the tradition through the years to provide filé for the Cane River community. He has been making filé for over 60 years. He has been a returning participant of the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival for years. He has also contributed to projects and events for the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, the Cane River National Heritage Area, Northwestern State’s Creole Heritage Center, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, the St. Augustine Society of Isle Brevelle, the Experience Louisiana Festival in Eunice, Creole Culture Day at Vermilionville, the Sassafras Festival in Texas, and summer workshops at the Tunica Biloxi Museum in Marksville. Colson was named a Louisiana Tradition Bearer in October of 2018. Colson demonstrated aspects of filé making to festival patrons.
Born in New Orleans in 1958, Daigrepont grew up in a Cajun family from Avoyelles Parish. The family was deeply imbued in folk music, and Daigrepont took up the guitar at 5 and the five-string banjo at 10. In 1978, after attending Festival Acadiens in Lafayette, Daigrepont was inspired to devote himself to the French accordion. By 1980 he had his own Cajun band, and was honing his skills at fais do do dances. Daigrepont has emerged as one of Cajun music’s finest cultural ambassadors. He has performed at such prestigious venues as New York’s Lincoln Center and the National Folk Festival. At the request of the American Embassies, Daigrepont and his band have performed in El Salvador and Venezuela. Daigrepont is fully immersed in the singer-songwriter tradition, and several of Daigrepont’s compositions such as “Marksville Two Step” and “Nonc Willie” have entered into the standard Cajun dance band repertoire. He sings in the traditional Cajun way: in French. His band includes accomplished fiddler Gina Forsyth. Daigrepont performed rousing sets of music on the Festival stage, and he also took part in the accordion workshop.
Sometimes called “The Punk Rock Patsy Cline,” Vanessa Niemann (a.k.a. Gal Holiday), an Appalachian-born songstress, has lent her powerful voice and magnetic stage presence to various musical projects in New Orleans, around the country and internationally. She has shared the stage with greats like Willie Nelson, Marcia Ball, the Blind Boys of Alabama and many others. Vanessa and the Honky Tonk Revue have played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for years and are repeated recipients of the Big Easy and the Best of the Beat awards. In 2017, she was nominated for an Ameripolitan Award in the category of Honky Tonk Female, and Gal Holiday won the 2018 Offbeat Magazine Best of the Beat Music Awards for Best Country/Folk/Singer-Songwriter Artist and for best Country/Folk/Singer-Songwriter for the album “Lost and Found.” Niemann performed on both Friday and Saturday at the Festival, and also discussed her musical journey in a narrative session.
There are now 115 members in the Hall of Master Folk Artists, which was started in 1981. This year’s festival theme was “Vive la Louisiane!” The Festival is held annually in air-conditioned Prather Coliseum on the Northwestern State University campus. The theme of next year’s festival, to be held on July 24-25, 2020, will be “Celebrating Louisiana’s French Cultures,” which will recognize many artists young and old who are keeping tradition alive in Louisiana, and will include performers such as the Pine Leaf Boys, the LaCour Trio, the Lee Benoit Family Band, Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys, Rusty Metoyer and the Zydeco Krush, Soul Creole, a Cajun fiddle workshop, and the annual Louisiana State Fiddle Championship.
Support for the Festival was provided by grants from the Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc., the City of Natchitoches, the Louisiana Division of the Arts Decentralized Arts Fund Program, the Louisiana Office of Tourism, the Natchitoches Historic District Development Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and the Shreveport Regional Arts Council.