When Louisiana musicians Edwin Duhon and Luderin Darbone founded the Hackberry Ramblers, the country was mired in the Great Depression and FDR had just moved into the White House.
More than 70 years later, Duhon and Darbone were still making the good times roll with their lively blend of Cajun, western swing and Gulf Coast dance music, and they had reached late-in-life heights undreamed of when they were playing rural dance halls in the 1930s: a Grammy-nominated album, European concerts and appearances on both “MTV Live” and the Grand Ole Opry.
Duhon, a key part of what may be America’s oldest existing band featuring founding members, died Feb. 26 of natural causes in a hospital in Westlake, La., said Ben Sandmel, the band’s drummer. He was 95.
“Edwin was a tough, tough old guy,” Sandmel, who also serves as the group’s producer and manager, told The Times last week. “He played as recently as November in Baton Rouge, even though he was playing in a wheelchair and it was difficult for him to go.”
But Duhon “had been going pretty strong for the most part” in recent years, Sandmel said.
That included flying to Paris in 2003 for a Hackberry Ramblers performance at a Cajun-zydeco festival in Burgundy, France, where the Louisiana band’s reputation had preceded it:
“The Ramblers sound as spry and spicy as they did back in ’36.” -- Rolling Stone.
“These agin’ ragin’ Cajuns are party animals” who “traffic in jubilation.” -- Dallas Morning News.
“One word: hot.” -- New Yorker.
Over the decades, dozens of sidemen have come and gone from the band, but Duhon, a multi-instrumentalist who played accordion exclusively over the last decade and sang in both French and English, and Darbone, the band’s fiddler, remained the historic core of the Hackberry Ramblers.
“Edwin had a really good ear for music,” said Sandmel, 53, the youngest core member of the band. “He could hear a song as it was being played for the first time and jump right in with either playing a really inventive solo or playing a backup part that would fit perfectly. And he could do that with any style of music -- Cajun, country, rockabilly, the blues.”
The son of an oil field worker, Duhon was born in Youngsville, La., in 1910. A Cajun, he grew up speaking French. He later recalled that he was forbidden to speak French in school and that whenever he did, he was spanked.
Duhon, who learned to play guitar as a teenager, began playing music with Darbone when they were neighbors in Hackberry, a remote oil field settlement in southwest Louisiana. With jobs scarce during the Depression, they formed their band in 1933.
Originally an acoustic trio -- two guitars and a fiddle -- the Hackberry Ramblers were soon doing Monday morning remote radio broadcasts from a hotel in Lake Charles and playing in dance halls throughout southwest Louisiana.
After nine months as a member, however, Duhon got married and left the group to take a job working in the oil fields.
“Since he was married, he had to earn a living,” Darbone, 93, told The Times last week. “With the music, we were lucky to make $3 a night apiece.”
The Hackberry Ramblers became known for bringing two innovations to the music of south Louisiana: They blended the Cajun repertoire with western swing and country songs, and they introduced electronic amplification to local dance halls.
Inspired by a politician he heard speaking over a public address system, Darbone ordered a $50 system through a catalog. Because many of the places they played lacked electricity, he’d hook up the system to a generator connected to the battery of his idling Ford.
“People came from all over to hear the sound system,” Darbone told USA Today in 2002. “I retired it after two years. It was hard on the car.”
In 1935, the Hackberry Ramblers signed with the RCA Bluebird label. The band recorded approximately 80 songs over the next four years, including the first recording of “Jolie Blonde,” which became the unofficial Cajun “national anthem.” (As is often the case in traditional music, the song had been previously recorded under a different title, “Ma Blonde Est Partie.”)
Duhon rejoined the group in 1943, and the Hackberry Ramblers recorded for the Deluxe, Goldband and Arhoolie labels. In 1946, the band began a 10-year gig playing two nights a week at the Silver Star dance hall near Lake Charles.
But music was a sideline for the band’s members.
Darbone worked as a bookkeeper for a meatpacking company, and Duhon by then was an oil industry electrical superintendent whose work occasionally took him to Central and South America.
He later worked as an electrician and at one point served two terms as chief of police of Westlake.
“Edwin was like a brother to me,” Darbone said. “We were very close, although we had different personalities.”
In various newspaper accounts in recent years, Darbone has been characterized as soft-spoken and courtly, while Duhon was more of an extrovert who could be “downright ornery” -- and had an enduring fondness for women.
“That’s what keeps me going,” he told the Lafayette Daily Advertiser two years ago. “You can’t stop.”
Sandmel said Duhon had a “zest for life” and despite his occasionally “gruff exterior, was a really sweet person underneath.” Duhon’s wife, Cecile, died in 1981. Among his survivors are 10 children and his brother, Willie.
The Hackberry Ramblers’ career resurgence began after Sandmel joined the band in 1987 because, he said, he had some experience booking musicians.
Although the band had continued playing local social gatherings, he said, “they were well out of the loop in the contemporary music business at that point. I was amazed a band with all this history was still around and still sounded good.”
Sandmel said the first indication that there was going “to be a big response to the band” came in 1991, when it played in New York City and at a Cajun-zydeco festival in Rhode Island.
“We got a lot of press, and we got a great response at the shows,” he said.
After not recording for 30 years, the Hackberry Ramblers recorded the 1993 album “Cajun Boogie,” produced by Sandmel and released by Flying Fish Records. That was followed by the 1997 album “Deep Water” for Sandmel’s small Hot Biscuits label, which later reissued “Cajun Boogie.”
In the wake of their “Deep Water” Grammy nomination for best traditional folk album, the band received even more media attention.
In 1999, Duhon and Darbone realized a lifelong dream when the band performed on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
In 2002, the Hackberry Ramblers appeared in Europe for the first time, performing in the Netherlands and France; and they made their debut appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.
The same year, Duhon and Darbone received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C.
In 2003, Arhoolie Records released an anthology of some of the band’s music recorded between 1935 and 1950. The group also was spotlighted in filmmaker John Whitehead’s documentary “Make ‘Em Dance: The Hackberry Ramblers’ Story,” shown on PBS stations in 2004.
For his part, Duhon had no intention of hanging up his accordion.
“The doctor told me, ‘Just continue playing,’ ” he told NBC-TV’s “Today” in 2003. “He said music is good for you.”