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Marc of Distinction
Marc Savoy talks about growing up, building accordions, slopping pigs, preserving culture and marketing quality.
By Reese Fuller.

In a field east of Eunice on U.S. 190 sits a large green building surrounded by trees and meandering chickens. If you're driving 65 miles an hour down the four-lane highway toward town, you might not even notice it if it weren't for the large white sign with black letters that reads "Savoy Music Center."

Marc Savoy is an imposingly tall man. His voice is a deep baritone and, whether speaking in French or English, his words are terse. His large hands could effortlessly wring the neck of a chicken, making quick work of it. Instead, they spend hours connecting reeds, wood, springs, buttons, stops and bellows into his handmade Acadian accordions.

He opened the music store and accordion factory in 1966, but he began laying the foundation in 1965 with the idea that he could operate a successful music store catering to the local Cajun and Creole musicians while still remaining true to his heritage. On average, he constructs nearly 100 accordions a year. For the last 35 years, he has shown his appreciation for his customers by hosting a Saturday morning jam session at the store. It attracts locals and tourists alike who enjoy one another's company and the mutual joy of playing music. It's not uncommon to hear a dozen fiddles accompanying one accordion. The informal setting allows no room for stars and plenty of room for music lovers.

Born in 1940 outside of Eunice on his father's rice farm, his view of the world would be shaped by observing the sheep, geese, goats, cows, pigs, turkeys, ducks and chickens that surrounded him. He was also influenced by the older musicians he heard as a child. Hiram Courville, a tenant farmer and accordion player, suggested to his father that he purchase the boy an accordion. "To me," Savoy has written, "owning an accordion was about as farfetched as owning the moon."

At the age of 12, his father purchased his son's first accordion, a Hohner 114 model, from Sears, Roebuck and Co. for $27.50. His accordion arrived a few days before Christmas and on the opening day of dove season. After lunch, the boy declined to go hunting with his father and stayed behind to unpack his accordion. He withdrew into his room and when his father had returned, he had taught himself to play "J'ai Passe Devant Ta Porte."

Since that time, Savoy has developed his talent into mastery. His playing ability is world-renowned and his handmade accordions are held as the standard for builders to emulate and players to play.

These days, he seldom performs in public, preferring instead to spend his time building accordions and jamming with friends. He rarely grants interviews, believeing that the media has "a skewed view, a preconceived notion of what this culture is." Frustrated by outsiders' assumptions and perceptions about local culture, he has written several unpublished pieces, including Ponderings of a Reincarnated Neanderthal and An Interview with Myself. The latter is generally what he provides journalists requesting an interview. It keeps him from having to provide "the answers for their formula," while still making his thoughts known.

"People always misinterpret the things I say," he says. In the process, he believes the culture ends up being glamorized instead of being understood. In an effort not to misconstrue his intentions, we present his own own words here, from an interview conducted recently in his store.

Dennis McGee was a tenant farmer for my grandpa and he and I were much closer buddies than I was with his kids. I had nothing in common with his kids — who I'm friends with now — but in those days they hated Cajun music. All my friends were people like Dennis and Sady Courville or my grandpa. I wasn't interested with the grandkids. I was interested in the grandparents. I just thought those old people were so amazing. To me they were so much more fun. They were lively. They wanted to play music. They wanted to have a party. They were so interesting.

All these other kids wanted to either go to some teeny-bopper hop or go to some stupid ballgame or cheerleader practice or all this other mundane mediocrity. I just couldn't relate to it. I sure wasn't interested in sports. I couldn't understand what the big attraction was. I still can't understand it. It's kind of like a parade. I don't understand what the big attraction is.

I went to school with a girl and she was just such a beautiful creature. I was in her homeroom for five years. She was this real popular girl, beautiful, very active cheerleader. Everybody loved her. I had this big crush on her because she was nice also and she didn't even know that I existed, which was perfectly normal. I guess I was a fly on the wall.

So about two or three years ago, this woman comes into the store and she's from Eunice. Now listen, I spent five years in the same homeroom sitting right close to this girl.

She says, "My name is so-and-so."

I recognize her immediately.

She says, "Can you help me pick out some Cajun music?"

I said, "Sure."

I didn't say anything. I just played it cool.

I said, "You like Cajun music?"

She said, "Well, I'm beginning to like it, yeah. But I have a daughter that lives in New York and she asked that I pick her out some selections because she just really loves it."

So I helped her and found some CDs for her.

As she got ready to leave she says, "Do you play?"

I said, "No, I don't play."

She said, "Where are you from?"

I said, "I'm from here."

It made me realize how flipped everything was in those days, how out of it I must have been and a misfit as far as what everybody else was doing.

It was very weird growing up and going to school like that, with these kids. I wish there would have been something like nowadays, classes you can go to learn Cajun dance. You can take a course in Acadian history in high school, but in those days none of that existed.

I receive letters from my graduating class saying, "We're having a class reunion. Are you going to come?"

I remember one time a guy called me.

He said, "Don't you remember me?"

I said, "No, I don't remember you."

He said, "Are you going to come?"

I said, " I don't think so."

He said, "Why?"

I said, "I didn't have anything in common with the kids back in '58. I'm sure I'll have less now. I don't mean to be mean, but it's the truth. I didn't have anything in common with y'all then and I'm sure that it's a lot less now."

I'm not saying that I was better than they were or that they were right and I was wrong. I'm just saying that I was so different. And in those days, I didn't have anyone in the ranks to support me. I was a weirdo because I liked that (Cajun music) and nowadays it's cool to like it.

I guess that's why I have a lot of strong feelings about people who I see that embrace it all of a sudden for the wrong reasons. I don't think it's sincerity. I don't think it's for the right reasons. I think it's because now it's cool and popular. When you love something when everybody else hates it, that to me is the real love. It's for the right reasons, you might say.

It was so ridiculous to stigmatize something like that. It was so uncalled for. There was so much energy expended on trying to destroy something that couldn't be destroyed and should have never been destroyed like they were trying to do.

At the age of 17, Savoy discovered that Sidney Brown of Lake Charles was making accordions. "I was very, very impressed, not just with the fact that it was a handmade, but also with the way it handled." While he believed Brown's instrument was an improvement upon the pre-war German-made Monarch and Sterling brand accordions, he found the bass response was lacking. For three years the idea of building his own accordion remained dormant.

I had no woodworking skills at all. My father was a very talented person. He didn't have any power tools though. Only thing he had was a circular saw. And I remember when he bought an electric drill, but all the other tools were just handsaws and a square — maybe a hammer, an ax and a chisel. That's pretty much what I built my first accordion with.

I'd have to go to Futch and Son, contractors in Eunice. They would do woodworking. I remember they had a big table saw in there and I went in there and said, "Can I use your table saw?"

He said, "Who are you?"

I said, "I want to build an accordion."

He looked at me as if, "I'd better call the cops on this guy."

He said, "Well, you can come on Saturdays and use it, but I want you to come with your daddy. I want to talk to him. If you cut your hands off on this thing, I'm not responsible."

He knew my father. So I told that to Daddy.

I said, "He'll let me use his table saw but you have to come and tell him that you're not going to sue him."

So I went and cut all the parts out on his table saw. I didn't even know where the switch was. I don't know how I still have all my members. It's a miracle.

When I finished, it was so awful looking and I knew there was no use for me to go meet Sidney Brown in Lake Charles. Even if it would have been 7 miles, much less 70, he wouldn't have showed me nothing. He was very secretive of that. If I would have had someone to show me just a few basic things, man, I could have made leaps and bounds. But it was all trial and error and the information just was not here. No one knew anything about that. No one knew anything about parts or wood. You'd ask the lumber yard for maple. They didn't even know what that was. Maple syrup they'd heard of, but maple wood?

So I made this thing and it looked like an accordion. I wouldn't say it was an accordion. It was something that resembled an accordion. It sounded horrible. But I was proud that I had put all this together. It was quite an accomplishment. In retrospect, it was really an accomplishment because I didn't have any kind of knowledge about that or any woodworking skills. It was all pretty much put together with a baseball and a sledge hammer.

Even though I was proud of it, I knew that it wasn't much. I keep looking at this thing and I said, "I got to do this over." I was just too proud and I said, "I can do better than that."

To be sure that no one saw it, my father had a barbecue pit that would serve as a trash burner, so one day I said, "OK, in you go, baby."

We always killed a bunch of hogs in the wintertime. Butchering, to me, was the most wonderful day. People would come by with a bottle of whiskey maybe. Those old guys would help my daddy. They'd wake up at the crack of dawn and make a big fire in the yard and get the water started, sip a little whiskey maybe. Boy, they thought they were being so bad. They thought they were really being rowdy drinking a little sip like that. As the dawn would approach and they could see — my father's eyesight was bad by then — he'd say, "You go shoot the hog."

And man, I'd just said, "Great. Finally. I can pay back now."

I hated those damn things.

I said, "Gladly. I'll kill it. How many do you want me to kill?"

Plus I liked boudin, cracklins and sausage and everything else that they'd make.

The reason I hated them so much was because of my job, the chores in the afternoon I had to do. We had a lot of chores to do. We'd always raise a lot of pigs, cattle, chickens and geese and turkeys and ducks. And we'd eat all this. It was a big farm. He was in the field with his help and my job was doing the work. The job that I hated the most was feeding the damn pigs. That is the noisiest bunch of animals when it's feeding time. They make the biggest commotion and they're very vicious. Mean animals, pigs. Very, very mean. In fact, you know, they can bite you. I've heard of them eating a baby once.

And I just hated these damn pigs. They couldn't wait to get at the slop. I said to myself, "You son of a bitches, what's so great about this slop that you just want to fill up on it?"

It was half water. There was hardly anything in there.

I said, "I'm going to try something."

We fed the chickens corn. I'd go in the barn and I'd shuck some corn and run it through the grinder and bring them corn. They were so used to eating slop, they wouldn't even look at the corn. To me — fresh golden pretty clean corn — it looked so much better than slop.

They didn't even touch it, but I'd keep trying. I wanted to see how long it would take them. And finally they did make the switch from the slop to the corn. And they'd even make more racket to get it because they were smart. They are very smart animals. You can train them to do all kind of tricks. I've seen people train them for tricks.

I said, "I just want to see how long it's going to take them." It didn't take them long, maybe four or five times, and then they wouldn't even touch the slop.

I compare that to people. It's pretty much the same way. Unless you offer an alternative, nothing ever gets better. Music has changed so much. It's gotten so watered down and it doesn't have the same feeling. I hear all these bands and I find it so bland and uninspired. Maybe it's technically very good, maybe, but it still doesn't hit you hard. It's cold. It's lacking something. I don't know what that something is. I don't know if I could find a definition in English. There might be a Latin word that would define that.

If you can get people to all think alike and look alike, it's easy to sell them the same product. It's easy to reach them. It's easy to control them. It's easy to dictate to them what they should have. It's easy to control their life for one fundamental reason — money. It's all because of money. And I think that's what the media is doing with us and the way we look, the way we dress, what we eat, what we want to smoke, what we want to drink, what we want to listen to.

It's affecting the whole world that everybody wants to be the same and I think it's an indoctrination process. As I said, because of one little simple reason. It's because of money. If they can't make money, if they can't make you think a certain way, they can't sell you their product, or it's easier to sell you their product if they can make you think a certain way. I think that's what this is about. I think they just want to homogenize everybody for the sake of making it easier to reach us. And it's definitely, surely not because they love you so much. It's because they want your buck

Ann (his wife) says, "You could have offered an alternative."

And I really can't. I can't get out there and play. I've played music for so many years and I got fed up with it. I got fed up with what the audience wanted. I got fed up with just the logistics of playing. I love to play music, but I don't like to start worrying about a P.A. system and I don't want all this gadgetry. I see so many musicians nowadays that are so enamored with all this gadgetry, this electronic stuff and all these amplifiers. Which is all right if you want to play in the big, big audiences.

But personally, my personal taste, I just love to sit down with a bunch of friends and jump on your instrument and play it without all this hooking up and worrying about setting up a P.A. system. I don't like to worry about the logistics of it, like in public places and on a professional level where you have to be there at a certain time. I like to play here on Saturday mornings because you play a few tunes, you go socialize, you drink some coffee, you come back and you maybe pick up a different instrument. It's fun. It's a fellowship involved in it. It's a friendly situation like an old house dance. This is what I try to create here on Saturday morning, an old-time house dance.

Ann sometimes tells me and she is correct, "You could have taken a more active role in the public eye and offered an alternative." Because we only play three piece. We play guitar, fiddle and accordion. We don't have any steel guitar. We don't have any electric bass. We don't have drums. We make, I think, great music. It doesn't have all the kilowatts and the instrumentation that everybody else has, but you can hear it. You can pick out the pieces and you can pick out the different instruments. You can hear it and pick out the different notes. It's not all covered up with a bunch of big, tornado-like sounding music.

But I just can't. I keep telling her that, I just can't. I don't play festivals around here. I just don't really care to go out there and do that anymore. I've done so much of that before and, like I said, I got pretty much fed up with it. I still love music. So the only thing that I can do, the only crusading I can do is via maybe writing about something that I think needs to be written about. It's too bad that sometimes people find offense in some of the things that I say.

Like I have friends of mine who are involved with the Mardi Gras associations around here in different towns — personal friends of mine who are involved with certain, different Mardi Gras associations. I was talking to one of my friends with a Mardi Gras group and I was telling him how I thought their Mardi Gras sucked.

He said, "Well, why? We had a huge crowd."

I said, "Yeah. I know you did, but does anybody know what's going on?"

It's all people from away from here that come down from God knows where. People from as far as Arkansas and west Texas. They come with these huge trailers for three or four days travel with their horses to come down. So all it means to them is a trail ride and they pay $20. And some of these organizations, these Mardi Gras associations, have made a ton of money selling tickets.

But what are you selling? I think you're selling admission to this thing, but you're selling out your culture and your heritage because you've diluted it to the point where none of these people that are coming here have a clue as to what they're here for. They know that they need a costume to run. They don't know why. They're going to drink until they can't hardly sit in the saddle anymore and they're going to get drunk and they're going to fall off their horse. It's just a big bash. And I'm not against that because I sure love to drink and make merry also.

If you sell tickets to an opera, you're going to get people who like opera. If you sell tickets for mud wrestling, you're going to get people who like mud wrestling. So what you're selling depends upon what kind of clientele you're going to get.

I'm a firm believer — in fact it's what I've based my success business-wise in the last 35 years — that there's always going to be a market for quality. If you sell a cheap version of the culture, if you sell a watered-down snake-pit Hollywood-Nashville style of your culture — that's the people that you're going to get to come over here and to take part of it, to look at and to participate in it. Whereas if you sell the real thing you're going to get a totally different class of people.

I think that's what all of these associations have to look at. All of these people who are trying to impose so many of these parallels to Nashville and Hollywood with our culture. The Grammys this, the Grammys that. Well, this is not Hollywood and these things should not be done because it gives a false sense about what this culture is all about and a false sense and reason for doing things. Look at the Grammys. I turn the television on every once in a while and look at the people, the degree of talent, who are getting Grammys on these things. My God! What is their claim to fame? Why are they getting these Grammys? They can't sing. Well, she might have a pretty little behind. Her clothes are transparent and you can see everything she's got to offer. You know what she's selling.

They don't stop and realize that we have a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful culture that we can continue selling. And the thing about it is, it's the sustainability of it, the longevity of it that counts.

It's the same parallel with technology. If the byproduct of our technology today is such that it destroys the planet, then what is the use of the frickin' technology? What good has it done? And whatever you're selling to these people, you're selling your heritage and you're going to water it down to the point where no self-respecting person wants to touch it with a 10-foot pole. What about the future? How are you going to get people to come run Mardi Gras? There won't be a Mardi Gras anymore.

I would personally prefer to see the culture preserved in some kind of traditional way and in a sustainable way that this can act for future generations, for the rest of time and make a bit of money. There's nothing wrong if the tourist industry wants to make money on that. But the main thing is if they want to keep it as a tourist attraction, you better not destroy it. Because if you allow it to be destroyed, then you lose the culture and you lose the attraction as a tourist industry.

I think those things need to be addressed. It needs people to sit down and talk about those things. Just what are we selling? Are we really making money or are we destroying what we set out to preserve? I think those are issues.

It's kind of like when I was in grade school. Nobody wants to think along those lines. The color green is a bright color, man. It's hard. It's hard when you're making 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-thousand dollars on the Mardi Gras run.

It's hard for me to go over and say, "Hey, are you doing this right?"

And they're going to say, "Well, look at all the money. Look at the sack of money we made on it."

"Yeah, but how much did it really cost you to make that money?"

I really believe that there will always be a market for quality. Your clientele depends exactly upon what you're selling. If you sell crap, you're going to get interested people who want to buy crap.

This article was originally published in The Times of Acadiana, and is reprinted with the permission of the author, Reese Fuller.
Photo ©2001 Elemore Morgan Jr

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