Getting to know your neighbors can be a good idea, if one studies the example of this man and his partnership with fiddler Luderin Darbone. Darbone moved in down the road from Edwin Duhon in Hackberry, LA, when they were both in ninth grade. When the newcomer first unpacked his instrument, Duhon was surprised to hear the sounds of old-time fiddle music, not something he was that used to in the Louisiana bayous. The fiddle music was one thing; the new neighbor's love of Western swing that was being played on the radio was something else again, and hardly old-time. To the two's surprise, everything seemed to combine beautifully with Duhon's budding mastery of the accordion from a strictly Cajun standpoint. The result became a style that came to be known as Cajun string band music. The group eventually formed by Duchon and Darbone was called the Hackberry Ramblers, and it is credited as the very first professional Cajun performing combo. It was a wonderful format for Duhon, allowing him an outlet for his developing talents as a multi-instrumentalist.
When the group began gigging officially in 1930, his playing partners were the brothers Lonnie and Floyd Rainwater, and the marvelous singer and guitarist Lennis Sonnier. By the middle of that decade, the group began recording, hitting the jackpot with "Jolie Blonde" almost immediately. This has become a standard in the Cajun repertoire, as have several other of the sides the group cut for labels such as Bluebird and Decca. Nonetheless, one should not get the idea that the musicians were getting rich off this group, even with its status as the top Cajun band of the '30s. Beginning in 1927, Duhon pursued a simultaneous career in the state's oil fields. One of the group's most popular songs is "The Pipeliner's Blues," but no song could begin to describe how tough that life was really was. Duhon certainly provided a vivid glimpse with this interview excerpt from an essay by Ben Sandmel: "I was on a land rig once with a driller named Bill Bolton," Duhon recalled, "and we had a roughneck named Vic Legendre working the tongs. We hit a floating rock, and the drill stem was very thin, and this sharp-edged pipe fell on Vic and slashed him open all the way to the bone -- we could see his lung! And Bill Bolton said, 'Get him out of the way, we got to go into the hole and finish the pipe!' Some of the roughnecks put Vic in a car and took him to the hospital, and the rest of them damn near lynched Bill."
Between 1935 and 1940, Duchon was dragged off into concerns of a milder nature, namely a conflict between the band playing and singing in French, or in English as well. The radio sponsorship received by the group from a company that sold tires among other products helped decide the matter. This company had a new tire it was trying to roll out of its warehouses, known as the Riverside Rambler. Singer and guitarist Joe Werner, who leaned heavily into country & western, was brought in to sing in English to insure the company that its audience would consist of both English and French potential tire buyers. With Werner in front, the group even had a separate band name. Guess what? The Riverside Ramblers, just like the tire.
Despite the commercial pressures, this material ranks just as highly as the group's recordings in French. The Second World War shut the group down, but by 1946 Duchon had re-joined the newly energized outfit for recordings as well as a supposedly quite wild Saturday night gig in Lake Charles. The latter club residency lasted a decade, by which time the '60s folk revival was beginning to kick in, and the aroma of genuine roots music lured listeners to the Cajun scene as if it was a slowly boiling pot of gumbo. In the '60s, the group began recording with Arhoolie. While some of the original members such as the Rainwater brothers have dropped out since then, Duhon and his old neighbor kept the group going, adding younger generations of players who have made huge contributions through extra efforts such as production talent. One of the Hackberry Ramblers' '90s releases brought in guest vocal talent such as Texas blues singer Marcia Ball and the much younger Cajun Michael Doucet, seeing as how the band's original vocalists had wimped out. At age 90 in the year 2000, Duhon was a member not only of the country's first Cajun band, but the longest running one as well. He also made his first album as a leader that year, a duet recording entitled Cajun Legacy.