18 May, 2010

"I Woke Up One Morning In May" - Didier Herbert

Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Four: "I Woke Up One Morning In May" performed by Didier Hébert. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in New Orleans on December 10, 1929. Original issue Columbia 40517F (111390).

Almost nothing is known of guitarist Didier Hébert, other than the fact that he was blind and from Louisiana. He accompanied accordionist Dewey Segura on three selections recorded for Columbia in 1929. During that session, Hébert cut one solo recording, "I Woke Up One Morning In May." His birth and death dates are unknown.

Hébert's name is misspelled as "Herbert" in the original Anthology liner note and therefore, one presumes, on the original record label.

"I Woke Up One Morning In May" tells a story of a young woman's unhappy marriage to a man who abandons her and their young children to drink and gamble in the tavern.

Je me suis levé matin dans Mai
Mais bien de bon matin
C'était pour passer
Mais un beau jour dans ma vie.

Oh j'ai trouvé mon père en train de pleurer,
Ma mère qui pleurait dans ses bras.
C'est adieu pour longtemps,
Je me donnes à un jeune garçon.

Oh moi je l'aimais beaucoup,
Beaucoup plus que ma vie.
Il m'avait fait une promesse,
Et cette promesse c'est d'être sa femme

Oh j'ons ferait des enfants,
Il m'a quitté d'un abandon;
Moi bien malade dans mon lit,
Et mes enfants là crèvent de faim

Et mon mari à la table après gambler,
Et moi je ne souhaît que la mort;
C'est tous ces jeunes bébés, grand Dieu,
Dans les jambes de moi

Oh mettez-vous tous vous autres à méfier
De tous ces jeunes garçons;
Ça, ça conte autant de menteries
Qu'en a d'étoiles dans le ciel.

Oh depuis dans l'âge de quatorze ans
J'après misèré avec toi,
Et dès de jour en jour
Mais moi je m'en vas dans l'abandon.

Oh moi je connais je m'en vas dans ces grands chemins,
M'y serai moi toute seule,
Et dès je suis une délaissée
Mais que personne en veut de moi.

I woke up one morning in May, very early;
It was to spend a fine day of my life.

Oh I found my father crying, my mother crying in his arms.
Farewell for a long time, I'm giving myself to a young man.

Oh I loved him very much, much more than my life.
He made me a promise that I was his wife.

Oh we had children, he left me a year ago nevertheless.
Me sick in bed, and my children dying of hunger;

And my husband in the tavern gambling, and I just wish I was dead;
It's all those young babies, great God, around my legs.

All you girls, don't trust those young men --
They tell as many lies as there are stars in the sky.

When I was fourteen years old, I was always with you;
Since then, from day to day I'm left more alone.

Oh I know I'm going on the highways, I'll be there all alone,
And since I'm a deserted wife, I wish someone would make me a widow.

The lyric transcription and translation come from a conversation on the Mudcat Cafe message board. Unfortunately, the identities of the individuals who provided the transcription and translation are hidden behind screen names. I thank levanataylor@hotmail.com and mathias for their efforts.

The detail of the husband spending his time in a tavern rather than with his wife and family recalls the story of the female suicide in "The Butcher's Boy."

The warning to other young girls to avoid the same fate also recalls "The House of the Rising Sun," famously recorded by Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and the Animals.

Smith's notes mainly address the "almost conversational" and "restrained" performance of this song, noting that it is atypical of Acadian singing. While perhaps not as extreme as other Cajun singers, Hébert's voice is almost toneless to ears not accustomed to Acadian singing. I will freely admit that it took me a long time to even begin to appreciate Cajun music.

For more on the music of the Cajun people, see the entries for "La Danseuse," "Saut Crapaud,""Arcadian One Step," and "Home Sweet Home." "I Woke Up One Morning In May" is the fifth Cajun song to appear on the Anthology, and the first to appear on the "Songs" volume.

Smith's fondness for drawing parallels between songs is quite clear with this particular sequence of songs. "I Woke Up One Morning In May" is the third song in a row to feature unhappy lovers. While the speaker in "Minglewood Blues" is a rounder who boasts of his sexual exploits, especially with married women, the speaker in "I Woke Up One Morning In May" is the wronged wife. While the song itself is not set in any particular place, the very fact of it being sung in French (and the fact that it was recorded in New Orleans) suggests an Acadian setting. This will prove significant, as the next song in the sequence (Rabbit Brown's "James Alley Blues") is also set in New Orleans.

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Unable to find any video of a modern interpretation of "I Woke Up One Morning In May," I present a clip of the legendary Ann Savoy and her family performing "The Separation Waltz," another Cajun song that fits thematically with Hébert's song of lost love and heartbreak. In his notes to the 1997 reissue of the Anthology, Jeff Place tells a brief story about how Hébert happened to get invited to his sole recording session. The source of this story is none other than Ann Savoy.

Download and listen to Didier Hébert - "I Woke Up One Morning In May"


  1. This is a good transcription.

    Instead of m'y serais, it should be misèré (to suffer misery)

    I don't know why Smith included two out of tune Cajun songs, out of all the ones he could have included. In Saute Crapaud the singer is not singing in the same key as the accordion. In this one, the guitar is off. Those are not typical of the early Cajun French recordings at all. Still, it's an interesting connection with Anglo songs.

  2. Corrected. Thank you!

    As to the question of why Smith chose two out of tune Cajun songs...I don't know. He may have chosen them because he liked the songs apart from their defects. He also might not have known much about Cajun singing and assumed that these vocals were characteristic. I know that when I first heard the "Anthology," I thought that this is what Cajun singing was supposed to sound like!

  3. I think Harry Smith might not have even seen this as a defect at all. It seems to me he enjoyed a bit of discord, of which there was no shortage in old time music. He also produced the Fugs' first album, which is a case study in beautiful cacophony from long before the concept of "noise rock" (and even before most psychedelic music).

  4. An excellent point, Brendan, and one worth making. We must not underestimate Harry Smith's clear affection for the strange. Many of the performances on the "Anthology" appear to have been chosen because of the effect they would have, especially in juxtaposition with other tracks. This may well have been his intention.

  5. I know the Hebert family. They still live in Iberia Parish. They know all about his music. Dedier went blind due to a gun accident when he was eight years old. I'll have more information coming up soon on my blog site: