Luderin Darbone and Edwin Duhon co-founded the legendary Cajun band, The Hackberry Ramblers, in 1933 and have been leading the band ever since. This long-lived ensemble has combined its native Louisiana French repertoire with string band, Western Swing, and popular ingredients to produce a unique but continually appealing musical program. The group became widely popular in southwestern Louisiana and East Texas by the end of the 1930s, appearing on live radio broadcasts and recording for RCA's Bluebird label, cutting over 100 titles by the end of the 1940s.
Darbone and Duhon were the first musicians to bring electronic amplification to area dancehalls, running a P.A. system off the idling engine of Darbone's Model-A Ford. The remarkable careers of Darbone and Duhon have seen several revivals of popularity and many different bandmates through the years. In 1993, they released their first album in 30 years, called Cajun Boogie. Their 1997 recording Deep Water earned The Hackberry Ramblers a Grammy nomination and an appearance on MTV. "I guess everybody enjoys their life," Darbone reflected at the time. "But being able to play music has added to mine. My life as an ordinary citizen has been good. But if you add the music, it doubles it." In 1999, they fulfilled a lifelong dream by playing at the Grand Ole Opry and in 2002 they made their European debut.
NEA: Congratulations on your award. What was your reaction was when you heard the news?
MR. DARBONE: It was a surprise. We've been playing for a long time and when we first started we were just a local band. When we started working with Ben Sandmill he said, "I think we can get assignments in different states." And do you know in the last eight or nine years we have traveled about forty-five different cities in the United States. Of course we became a national band then and we're now considered an international because we went to Europe a couple of times.
The reaction was great. It surprised us. I never thought we'd get that high up in the art.
NEA: Can you tell me who have been the most significant influences in your career?
MR. DARBONE: We started during the Depression. We were unable to get regular jobs because nobody had jobs to offer. We saw that we could play music and play for parties and maybe dances. So when we organized the band it wasn't too long we started broadcasting from Lake Charles and after a little while we got offers to play music in different places. So that way we got started playing. We were influenced by a lot of the local musicians in those days. We knew fellows like Leo Soileau. I don't know if you ever heard of him but he was one of the fiddlers I tried to imitate. He was a good fiddler.
Of course we also played hillbilly. They call it country now. Of course, in this part of the country they like to dance so we tried to provide dance music. Any good musician that I knew I'd try to imitate, particularly those things that would make people enjoy their dancing.
MR. DUHON: Me and Luderin have always played swing music, dance music. It didn't make no difference where we played, we played dance music. We played over here at the Silver Star. We had dance battle against another band. Cliff Druin and them played out there on the other side. They were a good band. They had judges around to see how many people were dancing and they'd play their best tune and we'd play a Cajun waltz. We'd win every time. We play good swing music.
NEA: I was wondering if you could tell me why you think your artistry, your music is valuable to the community there in Louisiana.
MR. DARBONE: We've always played the tunes the way they've always been played from the time of the Acadians. The selections we play - it's all music we have played ever since we started playing. We learn new selections once in a while but most of the places where we play they want the old time music.
We played over here at the university in Lake Charles about three months ago and we had a sell-out crowd. When we played in Holland and France, after we finished our program they gave us a standing ovation and just kept hollering for more. Nobody would leave until we'd get off that stage. So I figure that they just like the old time music, that it's something that everybody likes. But you don't hear it as much anymore. A lot of the new musicians will sort of change the selections, the tunes, or the melodies.
NEA: I know that you introduced amplification to dance halls. How did that come about?
MR. DARBONE: That was in 1934 and no musician used amplification at the time. One of my singers was a good singer but his voice was a little weak. When he'd sing people couldn't hear him too far into the dance hall. Now, I had seen some of these fellas that were politicking, you know, running for office and they'd use a sound system when making their speeches. I got to thinking that's what I needed for my singer, a microphone and a loudspeaker.
I had a service station at the time and I had a catalog dealing with electrical equipment. They had a sound system priced at about $50. So I ordered it and when I got it we put it out in the hall and played. We didn't have too big of a crowd that night but word got around about this and the next time we played we had a packed house. From then on, when we played anyplace, that's what people talked about, that they could hear the music all over the hall. Before then you could only hear it well about twenty feet from the stage and further back they might hear the rhythm but not the melody. I think that's what really helped us. Once we had a sound system it wasn't too long before other bands starting getting one.
MR. DUHON: When Luderin bought the amplifier they had no electricity in that hall. He got a converter and put it on his car and had to run the car to have the music. Then we'd put the speaker way out there in the corner and when he started going, "Mike testing, mike testing," those old ladies'd run out of that hall. They were scared. They couldn't see anybody in that corner. They could hear that voice coming out there in that corner, they didn't see nobody, and they took off.
NEA: What were the dance halls like?
MR. DARBONE: They were tin buildings built out in the country. They always had a good good dance floor. They'd have the stage for the musicians right by the front of the door because before they had sound systems they wanted the music to be loud right at the front door. That way they'd attract the young people and everybody was going to come in and dance because they could hear the music right there. There was a little spot there where a man would stand outside the entrance to the dance hall. They'd have to pay 25 cents to get a ticket. The ladies didn't pay, just the men.
MR. DUHON: The ticket was a pin with a piece of ribbon on and they'd change the ribbon color every week. The next week they'd have a different color.
MR. DARBONE: But I think sometimes people'd save those ribbons, then after a while they'd get the same color and they'd just walk in.
NEA: You mentioned that you performed Cajun music but you also incorporate hillbilly and maybe some blues. Can you talk about that process as incorporating different styles?
MR. DARBONE: We always played hillbilly music, which is country music now. And we played Cajun music. Those are the two types that we started with. Later on when they started coming out with yodeling numbers and moonlight blues and snappy country numbers, we developed those styles right quick because we'd get requests for them when we played at a dance. When a new selection would come out, we'd learn it and we had it ready for the next time we'd play a dance. That way we developed different styles.
We played waltzes, we played rumbas. Then they'd have what they called circle one-step where everybody would make a big circle and then they'd have a circle going the opposite way and we'd play music then we'd stop and blow a whistle and they'd grab a partner and we'd do that for maybe ten minutes and that way they'd change partners. They liked stuff like that.
We always tried to have what they wanted. Anything different that comes up we learn right away. I guess that's the reason we're still in business. We just kind of stayed with the times.
MR. DUHON: We'd play mostly anything. They'd get mad if you wouldn't play what they wanted.
NEA: How have you been able to keep a band going for so many years?
MR. DARBONE: I was the leader of the band and when something would come up we'd get together and talk about it and the majority ruled. In other words, if the majority wanted to do something we would do it. If anybody was against it then we wouldn't do it. It's pretty much that way now. We're all in agreement. If anything comes up, if there is any objection we sort of analyze it and if the person that's objecting got a good enough reason we probably won't do it We've been together now since Ô33, that's almost 70 years, and we've always gotten along. There was never any difficulty. I think through the years I had to let one fella go because he was drinking too much. But that was the only reason that I ever asked somebody to quit the band. We always had fellas that were willing, they wanted to play and naturally everything mostly went the way we wanted.
NEA: Do you also teach your music to young people or have you taught in the past?
MR. DARBONE: I never had time to teach because I've always sort of had two jobs. I used to work in a plant and Edwin used to work in construction work. The thing is we never had time to teach somebody to learn to play the instruments. I would have liked to have been able to do it, you know. But through the years with two jobs it was rough. And then since I'm retired we've been going all over the country, so there again it looks like I'm still working even though I'm retired.
NEA: What are looking forward to most during when you go to Washington for the awards and the concert?
MR. DARBONE: It's hard to say but we're looking forward to the presentation. It's going to be something that we will never forget. I'm hoping the President will do the presentations.
Performance photos courtesy of Louisiana State University at Eunice