OPELOUSAS, La. — Seventy-five years after his death, Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin is still inspiring. Ardoin couldn’t read or write and spoke no English.
But in the 1920s and ‘30s, Ardoin performed French waltzes and two steps that made women cry in the dancehalls. Ardoin’s songs of a lost love named Joline and life as an orphan helped to lay the foundation for modern Cajun music and zydeco.
Ardoin lived and died with his blues. Severely beaten for wiping his brow with a white woman’s handkerchief, Ardoin was left for dead on a dirt road.
He was eventually committed to the state mental institution in Pineville, where he died in 1942. Hospital records listed him as case No. 13387. His burial site was recorded as “here,” an unmarked grave on the hospital grounds.
Folklore states in his last days, Ardoin was seen wandering the dirt roads, trying to find his way back to St. Landry Parish. His home parish returns him, symbolically, Sunday, the 120th anniversary of his birth date.
A life-sized, forged steel sculpture of Ardoin will be unveiled at 4 p.m. Sunday at the St. Landry Parish Visitor Center in Opelousas. The ceremony includes a candlelight vigil, jam session and other presentations.
Organizers of this “Bringing Amédé Home” project used performances, home visits and donations, many as small as $2, to raise $15,0000. The St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission matched those funds to commission steel sculptor Russell Whiting of Breaux Bridge.
Whiting used the lone picture that exists of Ardoin to create a 1,500-pound statue of Ardoin standing on an accordion. A yellow, brass ball, symbolic of the lemons Ardoin used to soothe his throat, rests in his right hand.
Whiting admits he had never heard of Ardoin. But he’s pleased to be part of his homecoming story.
"I’m not a big music lover and I’m not a historian,” said Whiting, 63, a native of Bastrop, Texas who grew up in Bastrop, Louisiana. “So the connection is making a piece of art that I know is going to make a lot of people happy, to have an image of him.
“It’s something concrete that they haven’t had. He’s buried, who knows where? So it’s finally bringing Amédé home. It’s something for them.
“For me, it’s a really interesting thing for the people going up and down I-49. People that have no clue are going to see it and learn more about him. That’s the important part for me.”
Whiting remains amazed that others pay attention to his art, a craft learned behind bars. At the age of 18, Whiting was in a fight that ended in the death of his foe.
Whiting was sentenced to 12 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. During his seven years served, he learned to draw, paint, sculpt and weld.
After his release, he quickly found jobs in New Orleans shipyards and offshore oil rigs.
“One day it clicked on me, I can use a torch and carve steel, just like people use chisels and carve wood,” said Whiting. “No one in the world does this but me.
“This is what I’ve given to sculpture. It’s a new way to work steel.”
In 30 years, Whiting has shown his art at galleries across the country. He has created more than a dozen public sculptures, which include works at Gallo Wine in Modesto, California and the River Gallery in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Whiting calls the Ardoin statue his “favorite piece to date.” But like his other art, Whiting is ready to let go and point the musician home, to his roots in St. Landry Parish.
“I did sign it with a W, but you’d never find it. After Sunday, I’m out of the picture. This is about Amédé. I think that’s beautiful. I love that kind of beauty.”