La Gazette de GREENWOOD
n°57 (février 2004)

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e-interview

Roger Mason is coming back !
"That's the blues in French"

de: Stagg'O'Lee <stagolee@club-internet.fr>

French Version

LGDG : Hello, Roger Mason. It's a great pleasure for me to get in touch with you by e-mail. Some time ago, I made inquiries about you on the Internet and I was amazed I couldn't find much information. Then, I had the pleasure to hear from your son Jonathan (I had already spoken to him through a Cajun list) that you were about to have a website. www.rogermasononline.com Why did you wait so long for that website ? Does this announces good news ? The return of Roger Mason ?!

Roger Mason : I stopped performing in public when I became a teacher 20 years ago, and I moved to the United States with my family in 1996 after having lived in France for 32 years. For some reason, during all that time, there has been a continuing request for my records. Well, last summer, I was able play some music with my old friends Steve Waring, John Wright, Catherine Perrier, Tran Quang Hai, Bach Yen and Lionel Rocheman. This convinced me that maybe the music we used to make years ago wasn't so bad! Since I come back to France in June every year to visit, I decided to try and play for a couple of concerts in the Paris area in 2004. We'll see what happens. My sons Daniel and Jonathan offered me the present of a website. You can thank them for it!

LGDG : We thank them for that ! Before you tell us about those concerts in Paris for 2004 (this is a good news !), could you tell us about your arrival in France ? There are today many guitarists playing finger-picking. But yourself, with Steve Waring, helped the French to discover that style with your record "Guitares américaines - Special Instrumentalé recorded in 1970. This is part of history !

Roger Mason en 1970
Roger Mason (1970)

Roger Mason : I arrived in Paris in 1964 from the USA and began playing almost immediately at Lionel Rocheman's Hootenany at the American Students and Artists Center and at the Catacombs of the American Church in Paris. A lot of Americans were playing finger picking style already, although its popularity had not yet caught on with the French public. Don't forget that in 1970, black guitarists in the US had been playing finger picking for probably 40 or 50 years. Finger picking is really just the guitarist's version of ragtime. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mance Lipscomb, Leadbelly, Gary Davis, to name just a few, had been doing this for a long time. Then Elizabeth Cotten was discovered by the Seeger family in the 1950's and by the beginning of the 1960's, every white folk singer and guitarist in the US knew how to finger pick "Freight Train". Commercial recordings by the Farinas, Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan made finger picking even more popular. So when Steve and I recorded that record in 1970, we were just passing on what others had taught us to do. Of course we added a little of our own flavor to it too. Our vinyl 33 record from 1970 was re-released as a CD in 1994, but I was sorry to learn recently that it has now been taken off the market. From 1970 to 2004, that's not too bad a run.

LGDG : I think I saw recently that CD published by Harmonia Mundi. In fact, the finger-picking style had already been rediscovered in the United States but in France, except for a few people interested by pre-war blues (before the forties)or by country music, it remained rather confidential. Which musicians did you meet at that time, in those famous Hootenanies ? Could you also tell us about the Hootenanies ?

Roger Mason : Lionel Rocheman's Hoots at the american Center started in 1963, I believe. I still correspond with Lionel so I will ask him exactly. I started going to them in the fall of 1964. They were what are now called open mikes.
Anyone could play anything and they did. Singing, instrumentals, even some theater.
You would sign up with Lionel at the beginning of the evening and he would put together the order he thought was best. It was rare that there was a dull evening, and the theater held around 500 people, as I remember. It was often full.

Roger Mason, vers 1975 (photo Pierrot Mercier)
Roger Mason, vers 1975 (photo Pierrot Mercier)

Even though the American folk style was predominant, there were lots of echos of "la chanson française" and a lot of pre-world music kinds of acts. Lionel was singing French folk songs at the time, and I know Tran Van Khe, a world famous Vietnamese ethnomusicologist sang there one evening: he sang a song by Aristide Bruant! Of course his son, Tran Quang Hai later would become famous in France (decorated with the Legion d'Honneur) for his services to Vietnamese music, his overtone singing (chant diphonique)and of course his playing of the jew's harp (guimbarde).

Other world music type performers I remember who played there include Chemirami, who played the Iranian zarb, Matt Samba, an African drummer and dancer, Alan Stivell, the Breton harpist and singer as well as more European performers like Maurice Walsh, Christian Leroi Gour'han, Ben, and of course John Wright and Catherine Perrier (who went on to found Le Bourdon, the first French folk club). There were a lot of French fans of American folk music like Phil Froment, Dominique Marousian, and the Bluegrass Connection.

And of course a lot of Americans, some of whom were passing through Paris, and some of whom lived there: Sandy and Jeannie, Chris Smithers, Lynne Esterly, Steve Waring, Pat Woods and Kathy Lowe, Mary Rhoads, Stacey Phillips.

The 60's as you know were a time of great social upheaval. I don't remember if it was in a hootenany or not, but I remember hearing the Art Ensemble of Chicago in full African costume play one evening at the American Center. I was accompanying Brigitte Fontaine for a while during that time. I probably have forgotten some names of folk who performed at the Hoots, but I will ask Lionel to complete this list and will get back to you.

I just thought of two more characters who frequented the Hootenanies: Joel Cohen, a lute player who went on to become the director of the now famous Boston Camerata Early Music Consort, and Réné Zosso, a Swiss hurdy-gurdy player (vielle à roue) who must have been the very first in Europe to revive this old instrument. Zosso looked and sounded like the old sorceror from the Swiss mountains. He even played the hurdy gurdy for a work by the famous German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, not at all folk music, but very much a predecessor to today's crossover world music/electronic music experiments. Don't forget that this was in the mid sixties, some forty years ago!

LGDG : The record " Guitares américaines " is only instrumental and takes its roots in ragtime, folk, country blues and ballads. But in 1971, you cut the record "Le Blues de la Poisse" … A blues record, without any doubt the first one sung in French ! Can you tell us about it ?

Roger Mason: Well, that is a whole other story. Le Chant du Monde offered me a chance to make a solo record with songs and of course I was very happy for the opportunity. The talking blues on this record were really what drove it. The Blues de la Poisse was a very free adaptation I wrote of the old Arkansas Hard Luck Blues by Lonnie Glossom. My French was reasonably good but even so, I had a lot of help from a bunch of friends we had over to our house in the 13th Arrondissement of Paris. We all sat around in a big circle on the floor and everyone chipped in to fine tune the French words.

I must say that this song was magic. Everybody seemed to like it, and I rattled off the very funny words at a face pace with a Buster Keaton style straight face. Well somehow, Jean Christophe Averty, Philippe Bouvard, Claude Villers and José Artur all got hold of the recording and I was invited to do radio and television shows with it. Bouvard invited me to do a Samedi Soir from Maxim's Restaurant and the song became a big success. I was the featured performer for a two week folk festival at the Bobino in 1974 and was an opening act for both Pete Seeger and Robert Charlebois at the Olympia. All because of that song! There were other talking blues on that record too, but none had the success of the Blues de la Poisse.

LGDG : Anyway, that record opened new horizons for you because in 1973, you record "Blues from over the Border" on Barclay (with, among others, a certain Chris Lancry !) and "Le Pedleur", again on "Le Chant Du Monde".

Roger Mason : Actually it was in August and September of 1971 This was a record of blue with a group that busked for a while in Montparnasse: Chris Lancry, a Belgian singer named Karel Bogard, and me. Philippe Rault heard us and asked us to record a record in the new studios at the Chateau d'Herouville. The sound engineer was Dominique Blanc-Francard. The American folk great Derroll Adams was also on this album, singing with his low, slow voice and playing his 5 string banjo. I had a couple of original blues we recorded here and a Cajun song.

Le Pedleur was my attempt to really push Cajun music, and I'm sorry to say that in some ways it was a flop! I had already played in 1970 in an early Cajun group called Grand'mère Funibus Folk along with the late Christian Leroi Gour'han, Daniel Benhaïm, and Croqui. The Pedleur tried to take this a little further and make a link between what was going on with folk in France and a still unknown kind of music where the blues were sung in French and the accordion and violin were king. Unfortunately, I think the public was confused by this long haired hippie (me) playing an undersized accordion and wailing at the top of his lungs. This music was a long way from Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and the talking blues, and people were not so eager to make this leap.

Cajun music, at least most of what has been played, is mainly party music and dance music; and most folk music, up to this point, was really music to listen to while you were sitting down in a concert.

I do think I helped Cajun music become popular in France, but it was less through this album than through helping organize tours in France for Cajun artists like Bessyl Duhon, Rufus Thibodeaux, Belton Richard, and the Balfa Brothers.

LGDG : In 1975, you cut another instrumental record, the legendary "Guitare Cajun" in which you play covers of traditional Cajun songs in finger picking style. As to me, that record is a masterpiece ! And quite a few discovered that our French cousins in America had their own music. The whole record is not instrumental because you sing a few titles. At a moment, you even say : "That's the blues in French !" You seem to have a passion for Cajun music. Why did you also involve yourself in ethnomusicology with recordings about that style of music ?

Roger Mason: Well, the Cajun Guitar record is a nice record. It is an easy record to listen to. The Blues français is one of my favorite cuts on it. It's not a record which shows off fancy guitar technique. It is just a collection of nice Cajun melodies arranged for folk style guitar. David Doucet, the Cajun guitarist and member of the well known Cajun band Beausoleil, says that he owes his start on the guitar to having been inspired by this record. Of course, that kind of comment is very satisfying to hear.

Roger Mason, vers 1975 (photo Pierrot Mercier)
Roger Mason, vers 1975 (photo Pierrot Mercier)
Cajun music has gotten to be very popular in the United States. My wife and I go to a big Cajun festival every year in Florida. The food and music are fabulous and the public is made up of all age groups: little kids, teenagers, parents and grandparents. We went with my mother who is 83 and she danced the whole night! This is music where the artificial boundaries of age which have been created by music marketers are no longer in effect. Every one has a ball.

In terms of ethno-musicology, I worked for a while for the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires and left them my original field recordings. I also worked as a consultant for Alan Lomax on his PBS video on the Cajuns.

The true French roots of Cajun music go back to the French Renaissance. Acadia was founded by the Admiral de Coligny as a colony where French Huguenots could practice their religion in peace. The great affinities between the music of the area around La Rochelle and that of south-west Louisiana underscores this. But after Henri IV was assassinated, Acadians were first discouraged and then forbidden to be Protestants by the new French regime. The English, on the other hand, welcomed the Acadians as Protestants, as long as they enounced being French. A cruel choice!

The Acadians became known as the French Neutrals until the English threw them all out in the Grand Dérangement of 1755. Many of them, as you know, ended up in Louisiana. Another interesting aspect of Cajun music is the importance of inter-racial exchange. There is a tradition of free blacks which dates back to the end of the 18th century in Louisiana, long before the American Civil War. Many of these free blacks were a proud and cultured people and they contributed to modern Cajun music in significant ways. Musicians like Amadé Ardoin, Canray Fontenot, Bois-Sec, the Carrières Brothers and modern zydeco artists like Cifton Chenier and others all owe, in one way or another, a debt of allegiance to the free black tradition.

As you can see, this is a pretty big subject. A lot researchers have said interesting things about Cajun music. Some of them are more worth listening to than others. This is my version. As a school teacher to young children (age 4-13) for the past 20 years, I have found many ways to integrate what I learned from Cajun music into my teaching. I still have friends in Louisiana with whom I correspond regularly. I am still convinced that Cajun music is one of America's great folk musics, that its current popularity in the United States is fully justified, and that anyone who values the music and culture of the French Renaissance will find a surprising echo in some of the strains of Cajun music.

But to get back to my old career as a folk musician, Cajun music was probably just a diversion, but it was a diversion that taught me a good many things, and not just about music.

LGDG : Yes, it's thrilling ! But let's come back to your career as a musician. : in 1977, with a band, you record the LP "Roger Mason et les Touristes". Blues, folk, Cajun music … Another record which spoiled my pick-up ! Then came out "La Vie en Vidéo" (1979) - I've never heard that record - , then nothing else, except the soundtracks for the film "La Mort en Direct" (1979) by Bertrand Tavernier and many records for children from 1974 till 1984. Were you tired of all that or did you want a change in your life ?

Roger Mason : Well let's start with the Tourists. I wanted to have a folk rock band. We tried to integrate Cajun, country, folk. We played adaptations of some great American song writers like Steve Goodman, Pat and Virginia Garvey, we played some old time fiddle tunes, we played some original songs of mine. We had a lot of fun. Tom Pikul was on fiddle, Claude Samart on pedal steel and sometimes Jean-Yves Lozeach, Marcel Bel on drums, François Leymairie on guitar, Marty Freifeld on bass and we had three pretty choristers, Jeanine Bensasson, Cathy Mothon and Dolly West. There were too many people to make a living easily though and I was a newly married man with one young son and another on the way. As time went on, I had to stop working regularly with the Tourists and start touring either alone or with one or two musicians.

I was also not getting a lot of support from Le Chant du Monde, at least not enough for a big group. Then Le Chant du Monde declared themselves bankrupt, and all the records I had recorded were to be auctioned off to the discount merchants (les soldeurs) of the Marché aux Puces. Most of Chant du Monde's artists were not even notified in time to do anything. A secretary I knew there told me and I had 24 hours to find an enormous amount of cash to buy all my record stock. I was able to do that, I rented a garage to store them in. I still have some of them.

In the meantime, Jack Treese was friends with Jean Michel Caradec and introduced us. Jean Michel was working with RCA and had just built a recording studio in the basement of his house in Saint Cloud. He wanted me to come and record there. René Weerner, a fiddler I had known for some time, convinced Bob Soquet, then the president of RCA to sign me--he played him the Blues de la Poisse-- and so I started a new adventure with a new record company.

Roger Mason en 1980
Roger Mason (1980)
This record (La Vie en Vidéo) was a lot different from those I had done with Le Chant du Monde. There was a bigger budget for the production, and a lot of very good musicians helped me out. Some were performing musicians like Dewey Balfa, Jean-Jacques Milteau, Jack Treese, and others were professional studio musicians. But they were the best musicians I had ever worked with.

During the same time, my friend, the composer Antoine Duhamel, asked me to sing the title song for the score he had composed for the movie La Mort en Direct. Bertrand Tavernier was the director and the film starred Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, and Max von Sydow. Of course this was a great experience. I got to record at the Abbey Road studio where the Beatles had played. The music was recorded by a symphony orchestra and I remember I was not satisfied with the first take of my voice and got to ask the whole orchestra to start all over again. What a thrill! RCA liked the fact that I was working on this movie; it gave me a little more weight when it came to signing my contract.

But then there were problems with RCA too. One of the songs on La Vie en Vidéo really rocked: Le Blues du Corbeau et du Renard. It was on Europe No. 1 hit parade for six weeks. Mysteriously, RCA did not put a single copy in the stores. When you say you never heard this record, that is probably why. Total sales of La Vie en Vidéo were 0 records. Now you might find this a strange story. I did. I tried to find out what had happened. I was told that RCA received a large production budget from RCA in New York, but had almost no money for promotion. Go figure. I don't know if this explanation is true, but I do know that my record was never in the stores, that I won a law suit with RCA over this, and that the president Bob Soquet was fired a couple of years later.

So I went back to Le Chant du Monde. They had a new director, Philippe Gavardin. I made a couple of children's records for them, Le Professeur Dorémi, and Histoires de Crocodiles, but Le Chant du Monde did not promote them. Now I still had all my old records I had bought in the auction, so I started my own record company. Then The town of Arcueil hired me to work with the children in their Centre de Loisirs. I put together a song writing project. The kids wrote and performed over 60 songs in a one year period.

The town of Arcueil created a recording studio on the top floor of their old mairie. We made a 33 LP (La Lune Qui Rit) on my own label (Ragtime) which was a huge success in Arcueil. My friend Chris Hayward (he arranged Alan Stivell's Symphonie Celtique) wrote the musical arrangements and other friends like Jack Treese, John Wright, and Jean Jacques Milteau came and played free of charge. For a year we had a lot of fun, and the next year, Arcueil turned the songs we had recorded into the basis of a musical comedy, Moutarde à la Fraise, which was performed to sellout crowds in the Theatre of Arcueil.

But I was tired of trying to keep my head above water. My wife and I had two small children at this point, and when my work with Arcueil finished, there was not a lot of work in sight. This was 1984 and not a great year for the French folk scene. I wrote letters to a dozen schools offering my services as a music teacher--even though I had never taught music in my life.

One of them answered and hired me: Marymount International School in Neuilly. I was 40 years old and had never had a full time job in my life. I jumped at the chance and stayed on there happily as a music teacher there until 1996.

I had dropped out of college when I came to France in 1964. In 1995, my school changed prinicipals and it was time for a change. My wife's parents and my mother were in the United States and were getting old; our two sons were of college age. I got an offer I could not refuse: work at the University of Miami and get my doctoral degree in music education. So I uprooted my whole family and off we went to become immigrants in our own country! In the meantime, my two sons have gone on to finish college and are on the road to doing what they want to do with their lives. My wife and I are still getting used to the Southern life style of Florida. But we love to return to France to visit and try to do so every year. Oh, and I finally got my college degree, after all those years! I still teach music full time to children in a school five minutes from my house.

LGDG : Thank you for those answers which inform us about your sad disappearing from the record shops. We are glad to know that everything was alright during that period away from your public. You say you never taught music before 1984 but however, you helped handing down your music and the finger-picking style when, with Steve Waring, you published tabs in "L'Anti-Méthode de la Guitare Folk" in 1971. That was quite new at that time and many French guitarists must have felt a vocation for finger picking. You also published tabs in the liner notes of the LP "Guitar Cajun" and in many articles for magazines as L'Escargot Folk, Le Guitariste …

Roger Mason : Well it's true that this was teaching too, even if teaching small children every day is quite a different ball game. But I learned to finger pick really from listening to records. I remember the first piece I ever played was Tangerine Puppet by Donovan. I didn't have a good enough ear to get all the licks he was playing. But I had taken solfège lessons at the municipal conservatory of the 13th arrdt. in Paris, so I could write down what I heard on the record. It usually took me a few times, playing the piece over and over until I got it right. Well once I wrote it down, I would figure out how to put it into tablature. It was easier to remember long pieces that way. I built up a whole repertory of pieces that way, Mance Lipscomb, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Elizabeth Cotten, and also Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Danny Kalb. Some guitarists can hear a piece and play it right away. My ear has gotten better over the years. I think I might be able to do that now. But back then, putting it into tablature was the easiest way for me to play it. So once I discovered that other guitarists were interested in finger picking, publishing tablatures along with the records seemed like a natural thing to do.

By the way, remember that tablature is a very very old system of writing down music. It was used in the Renaissance already as the standard way to write down music for the lute. So really, all of us finger pickers are really just carrying on a very old and noble tradition.

LGDG : You told us, in the beginning of this interview, that you were about to have gigs in June 2004. This is a good news ! Could you tell us more about this ? With whom are you going to play ? Are you going to play your old repertory or new songs ?

Roger Mason : For now, there are two concerts at l'Archipel, 17 bld. de Strasbourg in Paris. These will be on Wednesday, June 16 and Wednesday June 23. I'll be playing my old pieces and there will be some surprises as well. The concerts are solo concerts, but who knows? Maybe I will be able to persuade some old friends to come and join me.
For more information, readers should visit our website.

LGDG : We won't lose sight of you ! Your website will be available when this interview is published and your son Jonathan told me this website will quickly develop in the following weeks. Thanks to you, Roger Mason for answering these questions and we'll see you soon on stage, in Paris !

Propos recueillis par e-mail par Olivier de Lataillade, du 18 janvier au 7 février 2004 , traduction Georges Lemaire.

Le site officiel de Roger Mason: www.rogermasononline.com

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