A seminal figure in the revival of traditional Cajun music, fiddler Dewey Balfa was among his native culture's most impassioned ambassadors, helping introduce the Cajun sound to countless new fans across the globe and inspiring an entire generation of performers to explore their roots. Born March 20, 1927 in Mamou, LA, Balfa was one of nine children in a family of sharecroppers; when not picking cotton, he learned to play the fiddle from his father, taking early inspiration from the music of Leo Soileau, Harry Choates, and Bob Wills. During World War II, he worked in a Texas shipyard, later enlisting in the merchant marine; in his off hours, he continued playing music, sitting in with a variety of western swing bands. By the late '40s, Balfa returned home to Louisiana, where he teamed with his siblings Rodney, Will, and Harry to play local parties and dances as the Musical Brothers; by 1951, they even amassed enough of a local following to cut a 78 rpm single, "La Valse de Bon Baurche."
Acclaimed for his fluid, precise style, Balfa emerged as so much a fiddle virtuoso that he was much sought after by other Cajun performers, most notably by Nathan Abshire, whom he accompanied on a variety of recording sessions and live dates. During the '50, conventional wisdom held that Cajun music was old-fashioned and commercially irrelevant, but Balfa forged on; he and his brothers continued performing live, and even hosted their own radio show. A mid-'50s Newport Folk Foundation field recording brought them limited exposure outside of the southwest Louisiana area, and in 1964, Balfa led a group of Cajun musicians during a landmark appearance at the Newport Folk Festival which ended in a standing ovation from the 17,000-plus in attendance, offering the first concrete proof that the music could find a wide audience. With Rodney and Will, daughter Nelda, and accordionist Hadley Fontenot, Dewey officially formed the Balfa Brothers band in 1965, and with them returned to Newport in 1967 to a similarly rapturous response.
Balfa's experiences at Newport galvanized him to become an advocate for traditional Cajun culture, and he worked closely with the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana to increase studies of the French language in the state's schools; he also pushed for a Cajun music festival. At the same time, the Balfa Brothers continued recording and performing live on a regular basis, growing in popularity throughout the years to come. However, tragedy struck in 1979, when Will and Rodney were both killed in an auto accident; within the next several years, Balfa's wife and son died as well, but he soldiered on, re-forming the Balfa Brothers with daughter Christine and nephew Tony. In 1982, he also won the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest award given to folk artists by the National Endowment of the Arts. After a long battle with cancer, Balfa died on June 17, 1992; his daughters soon formed Balfa Toujours -- "Balfa Forever" -- to continue promoting the Cajun tradition into the next century. ~ Jason Ankeny