Bayou Seco by Glenda Price
May 2009 – New Mexico Stockman – pp.14,16,17.
Music always has been a vital part of human existence. In the American Southwest, especially Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – people came from many places, and brought their music with them.
Families passed their music down through the generations. Cowboys wrote about their work and beliefs as did Spanish villagers. The rich musical heritage gave life on isolated ranches and in small villages a special dimension. This was all very well until electricity and radio came along. Then, many young people stopped learning their families’ music in favor of the “new stuff.” Very little of the music had been recorded or written, so much was lost.
We can thank Bayou Seco, husband and wife musical team Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie of Silver City, for rescuing and saving much of our musical heritage.
Jeanie says, “Since 1980 we have learned from traditional Hispanic, Cowboy and Tohono O’Odham musicians in New Mexico and Arizona.”
Both Jeanie and Ken play fiddle and guitar, and sing. Ken also plays one- and three- row accordions, five-string banjo (fretless and fretted), harmonica, mandolin and probably anything else that’s handed to him.
They admittedly have traveled down “many a dirt road” to learn indigenous music.
One of the dirt roads they’ve traveled frequently during the past few years is to Crow Flat, N.M. The ranching Lewis family came there in the late 1800’s.
Pete Lewis says, “my granddad came here from Bandera, Texas.” All Pete’s family were, and still are, musicians, mostly fiddles and guitars. Pete took up the fiddle at about age 10.
“My dad knew all the tunes,” Pete says, “and he played quite a few of them on the fiddle, but in his younger years he mostly had to pick the guitar because the older ones were the fiddlers, you know.”
Neighbor rancher Bobby Jones, a mighty fine guitar picker, plays with them when Ken and Jeanie are at Pete and Minnie Lewis’s place.
Bobby says, “They are extraordinarily talented. They collect different styles of music, and they’re good enough musicians to play any style they collect.”
He adds, “They’re just good folks, besides, and sure fun to be around. Plus they support the kind of music most ranch people listen to. That’s what brought them out to this part of the country to start with. They’d heard some of the Lewis tunes and that particular bowing style. It’s been a lasting friendship.”
Pete remembers being at Bobby Jones’s one day helping work cattle.
“Sometimes after lunch if we had time we’d get the instruments out and play a few tunes. If we didn’t have to go out and work pretty soon we’d play a lot of tunes.”
One day Pete was there helping work cattle and a guy from NMSU happened to be there. “Later,” says Pete, “he sent a guy out there and taped some of my stuff. They called me later and wanted to know if I could play for that Folk Life Festival at the Smithsonian in Washington. I said I thought I could but I’d have to have my guitar picker along, so they agreed to pay J.P.’s way.”
That’s J. P. Lewis, Pete’s cousin. Ken Keppeler already was on board to go, and that’s when Pete got to know Ken and Jeanie.
That was in 1992, and they were part of the New Mexico delegation, which included artists as well as musicians.
“They wanted three types of fiddling,” Pete says. Gretchen Van Houten is a contest fiddler. Pete played the old music, like ‘Bull at the Wagon’ and the old schottisches.
“A lot of that music probably originated in Scotland and Ireland,” he says, “but it got changed over time a little here and there.”
Buster Payne from Eunice (since passed away) played a little of both the traditional and the contest tunes. That’s how those three fiddlers were chosen, Pete explains, adding, “Every evening at the hotel we’d have a jam session and everybody played.”
Pete says he never would have gotten to know Ken and Jeanie well if it weren’t for that trip to Washington. They have remained friends. In fact, Jeanie helped Pete’s and Minnie’s grandchildren with their fiddling, and brought granddaughter Mecca a three-quarters size fiddle when she was 7 or 8 years old. Now little brother Jake has even outgrown it.
“We’ve known them 17 years,” says Jeanie, “Mecca is in college now and Jake is 11. Of course, they learned from their granddad.”
There are a very few recordings of the music. Pete says they had a light plant to generate electricity, and a reel-to-reel recorder. “When the light plant dimmed, the tape did, too,” he says with a laugh. “Then it would come back up again.”
Jeanie and Ken have recorded many of the old songs, put them on CDs and given them to the families. They really like tracking down the old music. “We don’t learn it just so it will be preserved,” say Ken. “We learn it because we love it.”
Ken and Jeanie were learning the old, traditional music long before they came to New Mexico and Arizona. Jeanie grew up in New Jersey, Ken in California (although his father was born in Albuquerque and many of his family members lived in New Mexico and Arizona).
Ken says the traditional music they love is “not just somebody looking at a book and playing.” It’s from human experience, and both he and Jeanie are attracted to that.
In their younger days, before they got together, they both traveled in Europe and all over North America, always studying traditional music in whatever locale they found themselves. They met in Louisiana in 1978. They loved it there, but Jeanie has asthma and her doctor finally told her she could leave that area “in a box” or on her own feet.
She chose her own feet. Luckily for us, they decided on New Mexico, and happily went about collecting our music.
They love promoting local musicians they work with, and are happy to let them take the spotlight when they’re playing together. Almost 30 musicians have worked with them through the years.
In the early 1980’s, Ken and Jeanie were part of the artists-in-the-schools. One of their schools was the New Mexico School for the for the Visually Handicapped in Alamagordo. The students loved them and they have kept in touch with many of those students through the years.
Both Jeanie and Ken teach violin, accordion, banjo and guitar. Bobby Jones mentions Jeanie’s extraordinary patience, especially when teaching. They also make violin-family instruments by hand as well as accessories. They can repair instruments, also, of course.
Those of us who love traditional music appreciate Bayou Seco. If you get a chance to hear them play – do it.