A Man and His Music
by Ann Henry
On the evening of March 22, 2014, the Liberty Theater “Rendezvous de Cajun” in Eunice, La. culminated with 45 years of quiet humility and hard work. The weekly Saturday night broadcast over KRVS public radio paid tribute to living legend accordionist Milfred Simon.
After years of playing many clubs and local venues Milfred was invited to be the guest performer, leading his son Mitchell, guitarist, brother Victor, drummer, with fellow musicians Ganey Arcement, bass guitarist, Jason Frey, an accomplished accordionist in his own right, fiddler, Daniel Cormier, steel guitarist, and David Greely, fiddler.
Friends and relatives from throughout Vermilion Parish were in attendance to honor this gentle giant. The air was electric with excitement as friends and neighbors kissed and embraced acknowledging what we already knew, this tribute was long overdue. As someone later commented, “It’s a good thing thieves didn’t know we were all at the Liberty Theater or we would have been wiped out.” Another commented, “My husband and I used to follow the band when he played with Blackie Fruge and the Hicks Wagon Wheel Ramblers. It was good to see and hear him again”
However, the story begins September 9, 1947 in the small railroad stop community of Wright. La. located along Highway 14 between Kaplan and Gueydan in Vermilion Parish. “If you lived in Wright you’d be home now” the sign on the side of the rice dryer decries. Milfred was born the eldest son of Adley Trahan and Edia Simon with a brother Victor to follow 13 years later. He attended both Gueydan Elementary and High School where he became an award winning athlete in track and football. He continues to hold the school record in the shot put of 52’ 4” and was the state champion as a junior in 1964. His lifelong mentor and friend, Coach Dallas Abshire (Sebastian), was the impetus of Milfred’s achievement and success, driving him home after practice from Gueydan to Wright, a distance of 12 miles one way daily...this was dedication! Milfred was a powerhouse as a football player, being a fullback. A fellow classmate, Sean Gayle, recently commented, “I still have images of Milfred running in for a touchdown with about 10 defenders from the other team hanging on to him.” His weekends are often spent at the camp watching Notre Dame Football and cooking for family and friends. When asked why he is such a “Fighting Irish” fan he laughed and again pointed to Coach Abshire. “They were such a powerhouse under the direction of Coach Lou Holtz, we are anxious for them to return to their former glory.” His camp is painted in the green and gold of Notre Dame and sports the traditional “N D” logo on the front façade.
After high school Milfred attended USL for a time and Gulf Area Vocational and Technical School. “I wanted to rice farm with my dad as this was the way of life I had grown up with. I later received ‘Greetings’ from the draft board as this was during the Vietnam War. I went to New Orleans for my physical, and when I got on the scale (it was one of those big ones with the large face) and it went all the way around to 300 (I weighed about 320). This, along with my high blood pressure, I was deferred.”
Several students rode the bus with Milfred from Gueydan to Abbeville while attending trade school, and he sang French music throughout the trip coming and going with his all-time favorite being “The Millionaire’s Waltz.” Get the cd....play it over and over again for many months and you will get the idea!!!!!!
It was during this time that he met and married Saundra Breaux of Mermentau. They met at the River Club where he was playing. Saundra recalls, “We dated for 8 or 9 months and he got tired of borrowing his mother’s car and spending money on gas. Milfred, being the practical man he is, suggested we get married and stop this long distance romance.” They were married in December of 1968 and several years later became parents of their only son, Mitchell. Mitchell is a pharmacist as well as being outstanding musician and songwriter in his own right. Early in his musical career Mitch wanted to quit college to concentrate on his music. Milfred explained he would always have his music, but if it came to an end he still needed to have a profession to earn a living. Again, practicality ruled the day. Mitch is married to Sally Simon, with Saundra and Milfred being the proud grandparents of Mikayla and Hayden.
His son Mitch recounts, “Dad’s musical career began at the tender age of four. He came from a very musically gifted family, and although his father didn’t inherit the musical gene as his siblings had, he loved French music and encouraged Milfred and Victor to pursue their instruments of choice. His Uncle Joe was a very proficient accordionist and as was done years ago, friends and families gathered on weekends for ‘porch/house dances.’ Uncle Joe frequently sat in with Laurence Walker’s band at the Reno Club and suggested Edia buy Milfred an accordion. He bought a Horner.”
“Dad excelled under the direction of his Uncle Joe, even sitting in with Lawrence Walker’s band himself at 4 1⁄2 years of age (he had to sit on a chair and his feet didn’t touch the floor). It wasn’t long before he wore out his Horner, so in 1953 he and his dad journeyed to Jennings where they purchased a used Monarch accordion with carrying case from Mayo Broussard for $125.00. He played the Monarch from 1953 until around 1990. He still owns the Homer and Monarch.”
“From that point on my dad played mostly for family and friends gatherings. Sometimes much to his chagrin as a young child he would have rather been playing with other children instead of entertaining old folks at a party. However, he obliged, not knowing this would be the catalyst for his future experience and proficiency on the instrument which would garner attention down the road.”
“At the age of 18 he received a call from Orsy Vanicor, famed steel guitarist known for his work with Iry LeJeune, one of dad’s early heroes. Orsy needed an accordion player for that nights gig at the River Club. With him being so young, he was flabbergasted to learn that someone would PAY him to play his Monarch. He was bitten by the bug and things would never be the same again. As any true musician will tell you ‘it’s in the blood....when you are a musician you HAVE to play your music.’”
“Dad’s first attempt at forming a band was the ‘Accordion Aces’ which played from 1966 to 1967. During this time, he realized finding and keeping musicians was quite a task and maybe not for him. He met and teamed up with guitarist and fiddler, Laurence “Blackie” Fruge. They pooled their resources and the Hick’s Wagon Wheel Ramblers was born. This collaboration proved successful as gigs were plentiful and they were able to share management responsibilities. Blackie was almost twice dad’s age, and his experience helped guide the way with he becoming a sort of ‘big brother.’ The two would play off and on for some 40 years. Their friendship continues to this day.”
“The band played countless dances throughout their career including the Shamrock Club in Lake Charles, the famed Rodair Club in Port Neches, Texas, the Coliseum in Nederland Texas, the River Club in Mermentau as well as a 3-year stint at the Lake Shore Club in Lake Arthur on Sunday afternoons just to name a few. They performed at every club between east Texas and all of Louisiana. Sadly, few of these clubs are still in existence, as they have given way to more modern forms of entertainment. They were the FIRST band to ever play the ‘Cajun Days’ celebration coinciding with Contraband Days in Lake Charles.”
“Dad has recorded over a dozen 45’s with Blackie Fruge and the Hicks Wagon Wheel Ramblers, and a cd with Blackie in the early 2000’s entitled “Roll On.” He also recorded a cd with his brother, Victor, and son Mitchell, titled “Down South.” Throughout the years he has lent his interim services to other popular Cajun bands, including the Fa-Tras, Lisa Cormier and the Sundown Playboys. On several occasions he sat in for Belton Richard and the Musical Aces when Belton would need a replacement.”
His accordion style is reminiscent of his heroes of yesteryear: Aldus Roger, Lawrence Walker, and Iry LeJeune. He plays with effortless fluidity best suited for orchestral type dance hall arrangements meant to be accompanied by steel guitars and twin fiddles and an almost metronomic timing which appeals greatly to dancers; a trait he learned from years of studying Aldus, or as Milfred himself says “The University of Aldus Roger.”
He and Saundra faithfully attend mass at St. David’s Chapel. For exercise, he can be seen walking 4 miles daily rain or shine, waving and talking to passersby, as well as stopping to visit with friends and neighbors along the way.
Milfred’s brother, Vic, is married to Lorine Hanks with them having two children, Megan and Jordan. The strong family bond continues to this day between Mildred, Vic, Mitch and their families. In 2002 Milfred and Saundra began inviting friends and neighbors to an annual afternoon of food and musical jam sessions. Five years ago Vic’s sister in law, Aunderia Hanks (Tootie) began hosting the annual event now known as “Tootie Fest” and like the mythical village of Brigadoon, comes alive only once a year for a few hours...(Brigadoon really only comes alive only once every 100 years, but, who’s counting).
It is said that good things come to those who wait. This was evidenced by his recent recognition at the Liberty Theater. After many years of musical hard work and dedication it is edifying to see him being rewarded with the recognition he so truly deserves.