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  • Ann Savoy’s Life of Art in Another Heart

    Ann Allen Savoy has lived a life created by art. With a musical career spanning more than forty years and more than twenty albums, she has traveled the world with her music and art. Yet when I asked Savoy, now seventy-two, how her vision of herself as an artist has changed over the course of her life, she laughed.

    “Interestingly, not at all!” she replied. “I’m exactly that same person. I never thought to change. I’ve always been Ann Allen from Richmond, Virginia.”

    It’s that Ann Savoy that we meet through her newest album, Another Heart, released on Smithsonian Folkways in April. I see the record as a portrait of a Southern woman’s journey to becoming who she is today.

    For Savoy, Another Heart is a musical journal of her life, and it paints a very visual picture of who she is as an artist and a person. Ever since she was a young girl, listening to her mother read poetry or watching her father make pencil drawings, she gravitated toward the creative life, and we hear it clearly in each of the songs. Her history is baked into each original and borrowed selection. The music swings across time, from the folk traditions of her home in Virginia to covers of the Kinks, Bruce Springsteen, and Donovan that she loved during her teen years in the 1960s, when she experimented with photography and painting.

    “That was a very formative period of my life,” she reflected. “I traveled to Europe to study the French language and fell in love with French literature. It shaped my way of looking at the world, and I’ve carried the music and the feeling with me in my music and visual art ever since.”

    Colored pencil illustration of a man and woman at a fair, near a tent offered Red Beans and Rice.
    At the Jazz Fest 1978, depicting Marc and Ann Savoy
    Artwork by Ann Savoy, courtesy of the Ann Savoy Collection

    The album also features original songs that reflect her own stories of love and life, opening with “Cajun Love Song”—an ode to her marriage with accordion player Marc Savoy. The couple met in 1976, and he introduced her to the rich world of culture in his homeland. In Louisiana, Savoy found an outlet for her art, through the darkrooms that Marc made for her, the Cajun French language she had already come to love, the Cajun music she learned to play, and the local population, whose very existence seemed to be a form of art.

    Marc Savoy was part of a movement of musicians, such as Dewey Balfa and D.L. Menard,  helping to put Cajun music on the map during this era through performances and albums on Arhoolie Records (now in the Folkways catalog). Ann quickly became a part of that story. She became a young mother to four children, sewed clothes to wear on stage, studied the history of Cajun music, and collected the stories of its people in Cajun Music: A Reflection of the People, Vol. 1 and 2, colloquially referred to as the “Cajun music bibles.” All the while, she continued to journal and paint the story of her own life.

    “I created a fantasy world that became real, which I think one has to do. You have to create your own world if you’re given the opportunity to. And it’s that world that I hope can be heard on this record.”

    The record features all four of her children, all of whom now play music professionally. Her daughters Sarah and Gabrielle sing harmonies, and sons Joel and Wilson play fiddle and accordion. And although all the songs on the album resonate with Savoy’s personal story in some way, it may come as a sonic surprise to those who are used to hearing her as a “folk” artist.

    “I guess I don’t see myself as a traditional or folk musician, though the version of Cajun music that I love is strictly traditional,” Savoy said. “I’m a very independent artist and have always had the good fortune of doing exactly what I wanted to do musically, and to live exactly as I wanted. So, all of these songs are just different styles of people that live within me, different poetry from around the world, told with an acoustic guitar through my voice and my heart—which is deeply folk, deeply American.”

    A man holding an accordion and a woman holding an acoustic guitar pose on either side of a white picket fence in front of a house. Black-and-white photograph.
    Marc and Ann Savoy
    Photo by Philip Gould, courtesy of the Ann Savoy Collection
    A woman smiles slightly in a rocking chair, holding paper to her chest. Black-and-white photograph.
    Ann Savoy, 1975
    Photo by Raleigh Powell, courtesy of the Ann Savoy Collection
    A woman smiles slightly in a rocking chair, holding paper to her chest. Black-and-white photograph.
    Fiddlers Dennis McGee and Sady Courville with Marc Savoy in Eunice, Louisiana
    Photo by Ann Savoy, courtesy of the Ann Savoy Collection

    The music Savoy grew up with was traditionally folk and all about linking people together: music around campfires, in church choir, and jamming with friends. In some ways, music still holds that space for her today.

    “Music has always created community for me,” she said. “It’s a gathering point. It’s a reason and an excuse to gather with amazing musicians. We’ve become close friends and get to express ourselves together. To me, that’s what the community of music has become—less about the ‘folk community’ but more about a community of like minds.

    “This record is a product of a community of like minds,” she continued. “We all see and hear this music together. It’s my vision, but they can do it because we all have a lot in common.”

    One such like mind is record’s producer and mixing engineer, Dirk Powell. A veteran performer deeply rooted in American traditional music, Powell sees music in a very visual way, like Savoy—which helped her bring her vision to life.

    “We are both so deeply interested in folk and roots music, but we let ourselves be—maybe for one of the first times—very artistic on this record. It’s rooted in folk. It’s rooted in poetry. But we said, ‘Let’s turn it into the art in our minds. Let’s paint these songs and turn them into what we really feel about them. What are we hearing? What are we imagining? What picture do we want to paint?’”  

    It’s an approach one wouldn’t find in the production of a traditional Cajun album. That’s why Savoy makes it a point to warn listeners that this isn’t a Cajun record—and it was never intended to be.

    “But I will say that because these are all Louisiana artists, it’s infused with the feeling of Louisiana, and there are intonations of Louisiana on here—an accordion in the background somewhere, you know. The Louisiana musical tones crept into the music, colored it and layered it. It’s a musical painting of my life, and each song is the canvas. So yes, there are some shades and tones of Louisiana in it, but it’s not a Cajun album.”

    A woman plays a steel guitar, framed by the interior apex of an A-frame house.
    Photo by Gabrielle Savoy, courtesy of the Ann Savoy Collection

    In many ways, it resonates back to her GRAMMY-nominated 2006 duet album with Linda Ronstadt, Adieu False Heart, which also featured heavy Louisiana sounds but reflected a wide variety of genres. The finished product becomes an “art music project,” synchronizing all the art forms Savoy has practiced throughout her life: music, poetry, painting, journaling, storytelling, photography, and motherhood. One only has to read her detailed liner notes with the stories behind every song or take a look at the album’s companion online exhibition of photography and art to realize that, for Savoy, music and art have always been a lifestyle—something not at all distanced from daily life. Hers is a continuous stream of learning, inspiration, and effort that is best expressed through art and shared with close friends and family.

    Another Heart takes us through an adventure of so many different genres and styles, and yet all seems to carry the same thread of feeling that is uniquely Ann Allen. She is a master of atmosphere and a champion of storytelling. With a feeling somehow simultaneously nostalgic and current, Savoy speaks in an authentic voice that honors the tradition of folk but isn’t bound by it.

    “Music is the deepest feeling there is, in my book,” she mused. “It’s the best way we can know each other. Roots music defines people of a folk community: these are their songs. This is the music that their life is made of. It’s their social activity. These songs are them. And in the same way, these songs tell the story of my life. They’re my life, my heart.”

    Mollie Farr is an archival contractor at Smithsonian Folkways and the founder of Lost Buffalo Artists, an independent booking and music management company based in Lafayette, Louisiana.

    This project received federal support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative Pool, administered by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum.

    Video produced by John Smith
    Produced and directed by Charlie Weber
    Cinematography and sound by Albert Tong, Charlie Weber, and Jacob Weber
    Story by Isabel Spiegel and Charlie Weber
    Additional sound by Tony Daigle
    Family photographs and home movies courtesy of Ann Savoy and Marc Savoy
    Original artwork by Ann Savoy
    Additional photography by Raleigh Powell
    © 2024 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

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