Isom Fontenot - Cajun Harmonica Pioneer






Isom Joseph Fontenot was born on July 28th, 1908, to parents Emerson and Marguerite (Manuel) Fontenot, from the farming community of L'Anse Meg, a rural area between Mamou and Eunice Louisiana. His parents, along with his six siblings, three brothers and three sisters relocated to a home on South Street in the town of Mamou. From an excerpt of the book "French Louisiana Music and its Patron's" author Patricia Peknick wrote in an interview with Isom that he learned harmonica at the age of nine and recalled hearing his father sing "old songs". He also said that his favorite music when he was a child was from a Creole musician. He listened to Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride and liked hillbilly and country music. Isom eventually became a very well-rounded musician, having learned to play the violin and the triangle as well as the harmonica. He would use those skills when called upon to fill in for someone's band when needed, but it is his harmonica playing that holds great distinction in Cajun music. He was and still is considered by many as one of the best, if not the best to ever play Cajun style harmonica. He is considered a pioneer for making some of the earliest recordings of the Cajun harmonica, along with the likes of Artelus Mistric and Joe Werner. Cajun harmonica players today ranging from Acadiana's own world class player Jerry Devillier, popular music artist Chris Miller from Southwest Louisiana , to world renown blues harmonica artist Joe Filisko from Chicago, Illinois hold him in high regard. Devillier, who played with Isom and recorded several songs together says  "I do not think anyone will ever be able to play and match his technique and do the things he could do with the harmonica. He was also a very good singer. Isom had a great sense of humor and people were drawn to his larger than life personality. He was extremely talented, loved playing just about anytime, anywhere if asked. There have been times that I have had people from different countries approach me and ask about Isom and his harmonica playing". Miller stated in a popular Cajun music forum, " Isom is amazing and to me, he was the best ever recorded on the harmonica Cajun style I.M.O. His recordings were the reason I and others started playing harmonica". That is high praise from musicians of great merit themselves. Isom married Esther Lee (Fontenot) on October 18th, 1930, at St. Ann's Catholic church in Mamou. They would have 6 daughters: Ethel, Juanita, Mary Elwyn, Gertie, Linda Mae, and Jesselyn. Isom provided for his family doing work as a Carpenter, Welder and small engine mechanic. Those skills helped get him and his family through the Great Depression era and beyond. Jerry Devillier recalls his father Amar and him would bring blades and farm implements for him to sharpen. During the early years he would play music at many bals de maison (house dance) around the neighboring area. He played with notable musicians such as Amar "Ti-Frere" Devillier, Cyprien Landreneau, Adam Landreneau, Preston Manuel, Wallace "Cheese" Read, Eston Bellow, Joseph "Cabri" Menier, Ed and Bee Deshotels, Alfonse "Bois Sec" Ardion, Canray Fontenot, Alton Landreneau, Lindsey Bellard and Shelby Vidrine, Hadley Castille, Zelian Vidrine, Rodnis McGee, among others. He teamed up in his early playing days with Amar Devillier to collaborate on several old tunes such as "Crowley Two Step" and "La Valse de la Misre".  Here is a video which was part of NFB (National Film Board ) of Canada. A full length film documentary by Andre Glodu in 1972 that was posted on Youtube titled "Monsieur Fontenot joue l'harmonica" where Isom, speaking in his native Cajun French language mentions he and Amar playing great music together and also with Cyprien and Adam Landreneau. Isom was a yearly fixture at the popular Mamou Mardi Gras festivities as a member of the local traveling music group.  For years he competed in various music contest at the large festivals in the Acadiana region, such as the Rice Festival in Crowley, LA , Yambilee Festival in Opelousas, LA, Cotton Festival in Ville Platte, LA, Swine Festival in Basile, LA, and Acadian Music Festival in conjunction with the Mamou Mardi Gras. He typically always came out on top, with occasional near top finishes in the Solo Harmonica Division and in Group Division while besting some of the regions most notable artist. He was also presented with a Music Diversity award, a special recognition for finishing high in both the Solo Violin and Solo Harmonica divisions. Isom had a very extensive music recording history. He provided background instruments and vocals on several Cajun compilation albums such as Folk songs of Louisiana Acadians Vol.1 & Vol2, Cajun Fais DO DO, Louisiana Cajun French Music Vol.1 and Vol. 2:Southwest Prairies, Louisiana Cajun & Creole Music: The Newport Field Recordings, Cajun Champs, Allons Au Fais Do Do, and LA Musique Creole featuring Alfonse "Bois Sec" Ardion on accordion, Canray Fontenot on fiddle and Isom on the triangle on 16 of 27 songs. He teamed up with Jerry Devillier to record several harmonica duets such as "N'onc 'dam Et Tante Bassette" and their version of "Crowley Two Step"( A song Isom would record years earlier with Jerry's Dad, Amar) He also had several recordings with other musicians such as Aubry Deville and Preston Manuel. He recorded sixteen classic single records such as "Cadet Rousel", " Saute Crapeau", "Grand Mamou", "Contredanse Francaise", "Madeleine", "Chere Tou Toute", "Quel Etoile",  among others and known to have written and performed the song "LaBetaille Dens Le Tit Arbre". He played in the same music circuit with such greats as The Balfa Bros, The Breaux Bros, Nathan Abshire, Austin Pitre, Edius Naquin, Ambroise Thibodeaux,  Marc Savoy, Tan Benoit, Deo Langley, Chuck Guillory, to name a few. Perhaps his biggest musical feat was helping to continue to introduce Cajun music beyond the Louisiana border when in 1966, he was a part of the 3rd group selected in successive years to perform in front of large crowds at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island along with musician Alphonse "Bois-Sec" Ardion, an accordion genius from the community of Duralde, located between Eunice and Mamou, LA and Canray Fontenot, a very talented violin player from the community of  L'anse aux Vaches, near Basile LA. Both were also considered very good singers as well. It was reported by several Acadiana region newspapers that the harmonica category was "specifically added to the program that year to present Isom's talent, quite a compliment for the town of Mamou and Cajun music", as it was written in 1966. It was also reported that there would be two classifications, as Isom would play a couple of classic Cajun tunes such as Le Betail' and "Le Pistauche a Tante Nana" and the duo of Ardion and Canray would play French-Creole numbers like "Le Hack a Moreau", "Tee Monde", as well as some bluesy style Cajun tunes made popular in the late 1920's by legendary musician Amedie Ardion (referred to as Father of Zydeco), a cousin of "Bois Sec". These tunes were considered early "LaLa", "Zodico" or Creole music at the time which eventually evolved to being called present day "Zydeco". The three would also play some tunes together on stage as well and received a great rousing response from the huge crowd. They shared the billing that year with such artist as Chuck Berry, Richie Havens, The Lovin Spoonful, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger, etc. In 1969, Isom accompanied fellow Cajun musicians Edius Naquin, Shelby Vidrine, Cyprien Landreneau and Adam Landreneau, along with members of the Mamou Mardi Gras Asscociation led by Paul Tate and Revon Reed to the National Folklife festival in Washington D.C. Isom's music could be heard on numerous radio stations in Louisiana and even southeast Texas such as the Camey Doucet Live hour in Beaumont Tx. He was a regular performer at the world famous Freds Lounge in Mamou,(see news clip below) hosted by Revon Reed on KEUN AM live radio in Eunice and KVPI AM in Ville Platte, etc. For years he provided background music for a Sunday morning church Gospel hour on KEUN Eunice. Isom was also known to be quite the comedian, as he would occasionally perform a comedy act on stage doing impressions of well known characters of the 50's era such as "Cousin Gud's" political and "Dragalong" patent medicine spiels that would steal the shows. He had a very generous soul and loved helping others, especially with small engine repairs at which there was no charge beyond the cost of the parts if needed. It was not uncommon for him to  break out the ole Cajun Harp when asked and belt out a few tunes for customers, which was a highlight for many. Sadly, Isom succumbed to cancer on April 7th, 1972,  just short of age 64. In 2014 he was honored at the 43rd Annual Mamou Cajun Music Festival. Still today, members of S.P.A.H.(Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica) the largest international harmonica organization broadly recognizes Isom for his unique sound and playing style. He is also listed in the nationally acclaimed "For Dummies" series training book " Harmonica For Dummies" where he is featured on a list titled "Top 10 Artist You Should Hear." Thankfully, through his recordings his music will continue to live on. He is one of the most decorated harmonica players ever to hail from the State of Louisiana. Isom is part of a audio documentary presented to U.L.L.'s ( University of Louisiana Lafayette) Center for Louisiana Studies in 1970 by author, musician, and ethnomusicologist Roger Mason, who was executing Louisiana fieldwork, such as recording and interviews with various Cajun artist such as Nathan Abshire, Alma Barthelemy, Walter Mouton, Balfa Bros, etc. As stated by Flat Town records " The imprint Isom left in Cajun Music's history is firmly established!". He has done much to instill and preserve his Cajun heritage and deserves recognition. *NOTE: The U.L.L. Dupre Library has live recordings of Isom along with other musicians from performances at various festivals and from the Revon Reed Show which Fred's Lounge in Mamou, that are available to the public. NOTE: A special thank you to the people who laid out the groundwork for my research: The family of Isom Fontenot, Jerry Devillier, Chris Miller, the microfilm archives of The Eunice News, Opelousas Daily World, and The Evangeline News of Ville Platte. Author Patricia Peknick from the book "French Louisiana Music and its Patrons", Author Barry Ancelet and the book "The Journal of American Folklore", Author Ryan Brasseaux from his book entitled "Cajun Breakdown: The Emergence of an American Made Music".  Flat Town Records, Arhoolie Records and many other various internet sites and resources.   NOTE: This post is dedicated to his last surviving child, daughter Jesselyn and the family of Isom Fontenot and his descendants. *Note: Isom Fontenot is now a member of the CFMA Lake Charles Chapter's Cajun Music Hall of Fame. Originally inducted in 2020, the CFMA did not hold its annual  HOF ceremony due to the Covid 19 pandemic. He was inducted in the class of 2021 on November 7th. This recognition was long overdue in my opinion, along with many others that knew of him. Thank You  CFMA- LCC, Especially Ms. Rhonda Istre, who is in charge of the Chapters Hall of Fame.
1959 Mardis Gras in Mamou Louisiana
1966 Yambilee Festival Opelousas La. 1966
1966 Newport Folk Festival announcement. Top picture features Revon Reed on the left with Isom Fontenot to his right. Bottom picture features CFMA Hall of  Famers Canray Fontenot on the left and Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardion on the right. 
Top picture from left to right sitting Isom Fontenot, Amar "Frere" Devillier, Cyprien Landreneau, Jerry Devillier. Standing left  Preston Manuel and right Adam Landreneau.
Isom and Audry Deville
1st Place Solo Harmonica Division, 1st Place Group Division at the 1965 Acadian Music Festival (Mamou Mardis Gras)
One of many regional contest won over the years in the Solo Harmonica Division. This particular contest was the 1966 Swine Festival, Basile,LA
1966 Rice Festival, Crowley, LA


Louisiana Swine Festival 1965 where he received an award for versatility for placing in both the violin and the harmonica. 



Article from the Opelousas Daily World 1963 (Above)
(Below) A sample from the ULL Dupre Library Music Department Collection available to the public.
1st place Harmonica Division. 1st place Group Division at the Louisiana Swine Festival 1965

Daily World 1967 1st Place Solo Harmonica Division
Daily World 1966 Yambilee Festival 1st Place Solo Harmonica Division. Tap on article to read clearly.
2021 CFMA Lake Charles Chapter's Cajun Music Hall of Fame award.