Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Following on foot the well-worn bicycle-tire tracks of Doug Ramsey, time-and-tidesman of that most excellent blog Rifftides, I offer a sort of current weather report. (Absent Jaco, Joe, and elusive Wayne, I'm filling in.) "Everyone talks about the weather," said Mark Twain, or more likely someone else, "but no one does" (read: can do) "anything about it."
It has been a hellacious Spring all across the Midwest, where tornados of a size and wind-strength not suffered in dozens, maybe hundreds of years, have wreaked total havoc, eradicating whole towns and scything off horrific numbers of lives. Drought, storms, floods, earthquakes... disasters are in fact sweeping the world, though "scouring" might be a more accurate verb. If this isn't climate change or global warming at work, well, we must be experiencing the Wrath of an Angry God, and one can only fear for the Fall ahead.
But here comes June, glorious, sweet-scented June... in times past thought of as a most peaceful month, a time for green growth, lovers and weddings, the warmth of the sun, an easy transition into Summer. And--we vaguely recall--what is so rare as a day in June? (Then, if ever, come perfect days.)
Who wrote that anyway? One of the elder poet Lowells? Nature-besotted Thoreau? Old Will himself? (If you picked the first and added "James Russell," you are correct and--in your identification of the author--possibly "so rare," these days, as a dry 24 hours.)
Yes, June is bustin' out all over, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land. (That would be a turtle dove and not the silent twerp who won't come out of his shell.) However, if you are a resident of the Pacific Northwest, specifically the region west of the Cascade Mountains, you have long since come to realize that the voice heard and the green seen are illusions, prevarications, because gray clouds and rain will continue, intermittently but too frequently, for another five to six weeks. Summer around here really begins sometime after the 8th or 10th of July; then, usually, the rains stop.
But the interminable grayness of our skies, lasting for two-thirds of the year and more, causes much complaining--all that talk and no action--not to mention lack-of-light clinical depression and too many suicides. Sad people wait out the Winter and the sodden Spring, only to find a wet June and no hope remaining in them. Mark Twain (in his Samuel Clemens, Western reporter days) supposedly also said something like... "The coldest winter I ever spent was one summer on Puget Sound." However, San Francisco too claims to be the locale he insulted so. Young Sam did get around, but faulty attribution is no surer than a Seattle June.
Idly curious, I looked up James Russell Lowell, forgotten poet and cornstalk philospher, in a funky quotations book I got somewhere; turns out that while he was no Emerson or Samuel Johnson (much less Shakespeare) for number of quotable remarks, his 16 selections do put him on a par with Ambrose Bierce and Albert Camus, and ahead of Keats, Thomas Hardy, and hundreds of other quoteworthy persons. And, remarkably (so to speak), Lowell did have more pithy words on seasonal weather. Here are three pertinent examples (impert- maybe):
Take a winter as you find him, and he turns out to be a thoroughly honest fellow with no nonsense in him: and tolerating none in you, which is a great comfort in the long run.
May is a pious fraud of the almanac
A ghastly parody of real Spring
Shaped out of snow and breathed with eastern wind.
There is no good arguing with the inevitable. The only argument available with an east wind is to put on your overcoat.
Weather or not, drenched or dried out, a Western Washington June just doesn't provide any answers or much relief. What is "so rare" around here? June bug beetles? A Juneteenth celebration? A Seattle sports team becoming national champion, in June or any other month? A song performed by Jimmy Dorsey, with insipid lyrics about old champagne, blossoms fair, heaven on earth, and love so rare? (Sorry; nothing there.) And Lowell's poem is no better. It becomes a laundry list, way too lengthy, of the changes June brings to Nature and Man; the lines are mostly forgettable and, indeed, have been forgotten.
But one brief passage--words taken at the flood, you might say--did catch my eye and ear, its current circling back to the opening sentence of this blog post:
Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back...
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
A friend in Los Angeles named Bruce Lofgren is a working Jazz musician--hard-working, yet still "scuffling," I think--who plays guitar, composes, produces occasionally, leads a big band, and also teaches for a living. Bruce sends out a "Gig Alert!" (a private email blast to fans and friends) whenever he's hired for a night or weekend, usually booked as a duo or trio.
I wanted to give proper credit to that email-notice idea... because I have a big-time Gig Alert! to announce and help publicize. Paul Oliver, the premier Blues expert of the U.K.--a serious scholar, multiple books author, field recorder, album compiler, liner notes writer, records/CDs reviewer, and much more, universally acknowledged as one of the top Blues experts in the world, and a much-honored architect in his "real life"--will be appearing in the East Bay Area on June 4 and 5. He'll be speaking and participating in organized discussions both days at Down Home Music in Richmond/El Cerrito, in a belated but important postscript to this year's 50th Anniversary of Arhoolie Records and its remarkable founder Chris Strachwitz. The main celebrations occurred several weeks ago, but octogenarian Oliver had health problems and could not make it to the States at that time as planned.
The delay might well prove a blessing in disguise, because now the attention of fans, critics, and collectors can be focused completely on Oliver and Strachwitz, who have been good friends and fellow Blues enthusiasts for well over 50 years. How the Polish immigrant turned 78s collector and the English architect first connected I don't know, but Oliver's Blues research began in the early Fifties and by 1960 he had already published a brief biography of Bessie Smith plus Blues Fell This Morning, his inspired study of Blues lyrics--broad themes and individual "pet" subjects, poetic images, hidden subtexts, and personal demons--the book also including an Introduction by Black author Richard Wright.
By the late Fifties Chris's excursions throughout central California searching for 78s had convinced him he needed to get to the Southern source. So in '59 he traveled to Houston and there managed to meet both eccentric collector-scholar Mack McCormick and brilliant, then-littleknown Blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins. As a result Strachwitz decided he'd head back South the following summer to try recording Blues folk he met while scouting those old 78s. Several thousand miles away, Oliver by then had won an assignment from the BBC to create aural documentaries on Southern music and social history; and after initial stops in Detroit, Chicago and Memphis, he and co-researcher wife Valerie joined forces with Chris and his big automobile to follow leads further South, to locate and record interesting characters who might or might not be working musicians too.
And that's what any attendee at the June sessions will be hearing... their adventures on the road and in the field (so to speak); and how Oliver and Strachwitz eagerly, but inadvertantly, kickstarted the Blues Revival. Oh, they won't make such exaggerated claims themselves, but I will on their behalf. The guys will just talk about traveling through Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, connecting with known and unknown musicians, sharing the work and the results of the field recordings, each of them eventually going home with material he could work with.
Chris launched Arhoolie Records on the strength of his "back porch" recordings of newly discovered elder songster Mance Lipscomb, and followed up with LPs from other casual field sessions by Black Ace, Alex Moore, Lil' Son Jackson, Sam Chatmon, Butch Cage and Willie Thomas, and several others. (A fine trip sampler is Arhoolie CD 432, I Have to Paint My Face.) The slow, steady sales of these releases allowed him over the next three years to record Big Joe Williams, master slide guitarist Fred McDowell, more of Mance, Lightnin' Hopkins (at last!), and then Lightnin's "cousin," Zydeco man Clifton Chenier, and many more. The Arhoolie label soon came to mean Roots Music from most corners of America, as forever-whimsical-collector Strachwitz expanded his interests: Tex-Mex border music (norteno, corrido, conjunto and more); Cajun yelps and Zydeco steps; Bay Area folk in both Folk and Jazz; even Polkas alongside more Blues.
Meanwhile Oliver had produced the expected BBC radio-documentaries--and then, using transcriptions of the hundred or so interviews he'd taped during the trip, created a portrait of the Black South circa 1960, his carefully edited compilation titled Conversation with the Blues (published in 1965), one of the greatest of all such books, rigorously organized yet with language left a bit raw, a racially troubling stunner supposedly issued in the U.K. and U.S. both, though I've never come across an American copy. I was a crazed Blues fan in the mid-Sixties and when I read about the book in the English magazine Blues Unlimited, I promptly ordered one straight from England. (A few years later I also found a copy of the same-name, long-play documentary record issued only in the U.K. Both are among my prized collectibles.)
I actually owe Oliver a debt of gratitude. I pored over his book, mesmerized by the localized dialects and colorful slang and the much-prized "poetry of the Blues" that he had captured on tape. Those remarkable interview excerpts showed me the way forward, and when I wrote my Robert Johnson screenplay, Hellhound on My Trail, in 1968-69, I know full well I incorporated some rhythms and diction and a few particular images I'd found in Conversation. The book definitely helped this grateful white boy's dialogue sound more believable, more convincingly Black.
Around 1969 Oliver published another gem, his photo-rich history titled The Story of the Blues--which many, including me, still consider the best single historical text on the subject. And when I worked as a freeform, hippie-FM disc jockey for a year, I used to read portions of his chapters on the air and play the pertinent or related music samples to match whatever subject or period Oliver was describing. (Helped me fill an eight-hour on-air shift too!) The listeners who phoned in ran about four-to-one in favor of my mini-docs on "The Blues According to Paul Oliver," but even better were the complainers who'd say, "Enough already with that boring old stuff. Play some Hendrix... or Led Zeppelin." Right, the irony was perfect.
Here's the final prescient paragraph of Oliver's Introduction written for the earlier work (with English punctuation and spelling), which summarizes nicely the intent of both books; it also shows him as both elegant poet and straightforward scholar:
In retrospect the recorded conversations from which the following transcriptions have been made seem to have been registered at a significant point in the history of the blues. A long musical tradition led to the threshold of the 'sixties; the rapid changes brought about by popularization and imitation were still to come. Far from the close-carpeted artistes' rooms backstage at the concert hall, the coffee lounge or the college auditorium the recordings were made in shot-gun shack and brownstone house, Mississippi barber shop and Memphis pool-room, in Negro juke and coloured hotel, on street corners and front porches, in club and bar-room, basement and tenement, record shop and garage from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Barrelhouse pianists and juke-joint guitarists, street singers and travelling show entertainers, jazz musicians and jug band players, sharecroppers and mill-workers, vagrants and migrants, mechanics and labourers--these were amongst the speakers. Some had secure jobs, some had none; some were on relief and some in retirement; some played for themselves, some played for others, some had once ridden high and others were going down slow, some were famous, some unknown, some were young and others venerable: all had played their part in shaping the pattern of the blues. It was a pattern that emerged slowly, logically, dictating its own order from the many hundreds of thousands of words transcribed from the results of weeks of recording: a pattern that was not the history of the blues in detailed terms of every personality and style and region, but which was, nonetheless, from the lips of those who made it, the story of the blues.
Oliver and Strachwitz will have many fine tales to tell, no doubt; fifty years of collecting, serious research, various other books, and hundreds of new albums and historical reissues give them plenty to talk about. I can't attend--no money for another trip right now, not even just to San Francisco and its environs--but I'll be there in spirit. For now, like the old days at KOL-FM, I'm "Broadcasting the Blues" once more.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
What is it that keeps some actors trapped on the small screen only--stars of the medium, series television favorites for decades, skilled performers commanding respect from many and adulation from still more, yet blithely ignored by Hollywood?
Some varied examples... Clint Eastwood started in TV with not much future, but went to Europe to play a silent gunslinger and returned a triple-threat star (actor, director, composer of film music). Clint and the spaghetti Westerns were a perfect match, but most other "oater" actors rode no further than your living room; even wry and steady James Garner is remembered more for his series roles and TV movies than as a comic "Support" actor. Hugely popular sitcom stars like the Friends and Seinfeld casts basically just disappeared once their shows ground to a halt; only ginger-and-spicy Jennifer Anniston and wee, weaselly Jason Whosit could convince big-bucks film cameras to love them. And the daytime soaps' perennial lean and hungry villainess, Susan Lucci... ready for prime time and beyond, like, say, Joan "Conniving B." Collins? Nope... no chance.
Plum roles, or stereotyping that ignores skills; unexpected audience affection, or inexplicable rejection, or sudden smash-hit fame--these can make or break an actor regardless of talent. What, then, might be held to account for the major stardom and Hollywood credits denied sturdy, steadfast actor Tom Selleck--who just may have been television's top, quietly macho leading man for four decades, bigger and tougher than, say, fave male lead Harrison Ford, but denied the great plots and parts Lucas and Spielberg dreamed up for "IndyHana." Selleck arose from early defeats on The Dating Game, to his Hawaii/Ferrari/bachelor heyday as Magnum, P.I., and a subsequent recurring role in the Friends supporting cast. But he is probably best-known now for his latter-day triumphs in made-for-TV adaptations of Louis L'Amour's laconic Westerns and Robert B. Parker's bleak Jesse Stone "Easterns," and his current anchoring role as the conscientious NYC Police Commissioner, head of the multi-cop, multi-generation Reagan family, in the first-year hit series called Blue Bloods.
After a dozen big-screen, but mostly forgettable films in the Eighties and early Nineties, Selleck retreated to the screen size that seemed to favor his solidity and seriousness. Well, is this then a case for culture cop Marshall McLuhan of the C.S.I. (Canadian Superfluous Interpretations) to unravel? Something like this: our hero, a man of few words but always of his word, functions best in the cool medium where we viewers must do most of the work, fitting video picture itself together, as well as character bits, sketchy simplified sound, plot stories interrupted by commercials and children and telephones ringing, into a "unified" television picture and comprehendable image. No, it seems too doctrinaire an answer.
But there are odd bits to acknowledge here. Selleck actually scored a major movie hit in '87 with Three Men and a Baby, and used his subsequent "juice" (Tom's word) to get the green-light for his (also successful) Aussie Western called Quigley Down Under. And even before those... anomalies, maybe?... he supposedly was first choice to play Indiana Jones but, bound by his Magnum contract, had to turn it down. (If that's accurate, how did he then get to film, still during the Magnum run, Three Men plus The Shadow Riders and Lassiter and one or two other losers?)
Selleck back then was close to 6' 4' and in athletic trim, had played college basketball and then national-level volleyball, was handsome and tough, a tireless tower of strength (literally) who could also smolder in anger, becoming more dangerous the quieter he got. So why didn't moviegoers embrace his films? (Even his fun, mock-Indy movie, High Road to China, just barely got off the ground.) Poor project choices? Inadequate scripts? Too four-square a character and jaw?
The success of Quigley suggested a way forward--continue making Westerns, even if they were to premiere only on television--projects suited to his size and demeanor, his signature retro mustache and Second Amendment, gun-owner attitude. If dumbed-down, no-attention-span moviegoers had no use for all that Old School stuff, then, fine, he'd stick with the becouched and bemesmered older folks at home. And so, with Selleck starring and also serving as Executive Producer, there appeared at irregular intervals Ruby Jean and Joe, a fine modern-times story of rodeo and race (1996); Last Stand at Saber River, a tough tale dating from Elmore Leonard's early Western novels period (1997); Crossfire Trail, the third or fourth Louis L'Amour book that Tom took on (2001); and finally in 2003 his classy and superior remake of Monte Walsh, the classic aging-cowboy novel written by Jack Schaefer. Four excellent Westerns in eight years and each one better than the ones before. The man definitely could sit a horse...
During that same period Selleck also tried his hand at Broadway (a new production of A Thousand Clowns, lost in the post-9/11 malaise); took a close-to-villain part in the courtroom drama Reversible Errors; and portrayed a sexy politician in the romantic comedy Running Mates, with Tom the hens-pecked candidate surrounded by ex-lovers with personal and political agendas! Then Selleck shaved head and mustache both to become a credible General Dwight D. Eisenhower for the compact mini-series Ike: Countdown to D-Day.
As some of those roles suggest, the inescapable aging had begun. Tom was some thicker and some weighted down by time and circumstance. It was time to get down off the horses... and just then came the right circumstance too. CBS proposed that Selleck do a TV film or two based on the on-going Jesse Stone novels by Robert B. Parker, best known as author of the wiseass private eye series about Spenser and Susan and Hawk. His new character Stone was an older, tireder, hard-drinking ex-cop transplanted from Southern California to coastal Massachusetts--to a small town misnamed Paradise.
As the wry and cranky, too-often-silent police chief, Selleck was--not to put too fine a point on it--perfect. Still handsome but starting to go to seed, cagily mentoring his quirky deputies, surviving the prying town council and the dogs that adopt him and the lovely women who drift through and, oh yeah, solving the crimes and mysteries that show up even in Paradise. Jesse/Tom is clearly a flawed but decent man making the best he can of his private sorrows and his unkempt life.
The first film, Stone Cold, proved a welcome success, so the network ordered a second, then a third, and so on; the Stone series has continued right up to the present, one film per year more or less, with Selleck also Executive Producing (lately co-scripting too) and the audience growing exponentially. The seventh film, an original script titled Innocents Lost, will be broadcast on May 22, and I'll be tuned in as always...
Just as I was every Friday night these past several months, savoring Selleck as Police Commissioner Frank Reagan, overseeing the massive New York City Police in the new high-ranking series Blue Bloods. The man at age 60 or so exudes decency, dignity, gravitas, ethical strength, perhaps greatness, and the actor portrays as well Frank's expansive love for, and careful attention to, the extended Reagan family, four generations of policemen, lawyers, spouses, grandchildren and others, that come to his house for dinner every Sunday--a Norman Rockwell scene that may be comical or argumentative or saddened by events. Meanwhile, back on the job, pater familias Tom is by turns witty, sometimes cagey, briskly all-business, cautious about political matters--but when his family or his men or his city are threatened or harmed, he may suddenly become steely angry, but still holding himself back from shouting out orders. A complex guy, our Frank.
Commissioner Reagan is a hell of a part, and the repeating role of Stone a career-maker. Good thing they've been entrusted to quietly extraordinary Tom Selleck... who maybe should stick with television roles after all.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Cajun or Zydeco? Zydeco or Cajun? Which of the Southwest Louisiana-centered Francophone cultures--Black and mixed-blood Zydeco, or White Cajun--is the more vibrant, even perhaps becoming dominant in this second decade of the 21st century?
And, anyway, shouldn't we be talking "Creole" (a social/historical term) rather than Zydeco (a type of music, with some attendant activities)--that is, concerning the folks of Spanish-French-Caribbean derivation, but mixing in gens libres de couleur and migrant Blacks bearing their ex-slave heritage, all of whom moved up-country from New Orleans--when attempting to comprehend such a thriving culture?
The two days we spent zipping around the diamond-shaped area defined by Ville Platte at the top, the Eunice-to-Opelousas horizontal axis, and on down through historic Grand Coteau to Breaux Bridge, gave us only a brief taste of either. We enjoyed Louisiana hospitality everywhere; saw rice farms and running horses and flat expanses to the horizon, as well as beat-down Zydeco dance clubs and abandoned shacks and modern homes up on blocks (for flooding, which the government is about to allow!); sampled Gulf cooking (blackened fish! shrimp gumbo! ubiquitous bright-red crawfish in too many dishes!), savoring all at first but quickly reaching overload; and, forced to travel midweek, heard not nearly enough local music, live or on the radio.
We bought CDs, both Cajun and Zydeco, at Floyd's Record Shop, the six-decades center from which Floyd Soileau issued Swallow and Maison du Soul singles and albums grand and galore. We found the best of Cajun music and quiet, cheerful camraderie at Marc Savoy's spare but packed factory-cum-weekend jam headquarters, where he and main assistant Tina Pilione and an occasional Savoy son build handmade Acadian accordions selling for hundreds and thousands of dollars. And we did manage to catch a couple of terrific sets offered by three of the key players from the young band Feufollet--the basic, traditional Cajun, trio line-up of squeezebox and support fiddle (Chris Stafford), lead fiddle (Chris Segura), and rhythm guitar and vocals (Anna Laura Edmiston)--which really only whetted the appetite... But, sadly, there's not much music happening midweek now.
So we missed out on hearing Zydeco and seeing the dressed-to-the-pommel, boots-to-Stetson-garbed dancers go at it for hours on a Saturday night. And "missed" is the right word, because just two days after our brief visit to Breaux Bridge, the annual Crawfish Festival began, and its music stages were packed with all of the name Zydeco bands, new or established, of the prairies: Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, sassy Rosie Ledet, Keith Frank, Zydeco Force, Terrance Simien, the Carrier clan in some configuration, and umpteen others, but most significantly early Black accordionist/composer Amede Ardoin's third generation descendent, the young accordion genius Chris Ardoin (prime mover in the adaptation of modern Black Music into Zydeco), performing hours on end for three amazing days... or so I assume, not having been able to stick around to experience the festival's music. (Conspicuously missing from the previous list are Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocque, the recently deceased leaders of two driving-riffs, mainstay groups.)
So we came that close to encountering both Black Creole and White Cajun in a much-compressed timeframe. Few would say that racial divides don't still exist in Cajun country. The two musics have their separate clubs and adherents and occasional incidents. But there's much crossing of lines back and forth by the musicians themselves. Master fiddler Michael Doucet and younger accordionist Steve Riley play Zydeco as well as Cajun and appear on Black artists' CDs. Older figures like Buckwheat Zydeco and Rockin' Dopsie have played with Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and other rockers. Generational bandleaders Nathan Williams and Geno Delafose routinely welcome White contributors to their hot Zydeco releases, and both men are quite willing to draw on Cajun classics as well as old Creole tunes for their inspiration. Cajun rocker Wayne Toups mixes the two musics and calls his group the ZydeCajuns. Even original Zydeco king Clifton Chenier, who certainly experienced decades of segregation's offenses, cut one album with Elvin Bishop guesting and later welcomed slide-guitar great Sonny Landreth into his Red Hot Louisiana Band.
Zydeco has become hugely popular around the world, and Cajun music struggles to keep up, still somewhat tied to the old ways and smaller venues, the front-parlor fais do-do dancing and front-porch musicmaking on weekends. Groups dedicated to preserving, and carefully updating, Cajun tradition include Mike Doucet's BeauSoleil, the Savoy Family Band, and the terrific trio merger known as the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band. I recently learned that Doucet and the Savoys are all coming to Port Townsend, Washington's Fiddle Fest this July. (Fifty-some miles away? You can bet I'll be attending a concert/dance/casual jam or three!)
And at the soon-to-come Seattle Center's 2011 Children's Festival, Geno Delafose and his French Rockin' Boogie band will be performing over several days. The Delafose family has been a mainstay of Zydeco for nearly five decades, and I recommend Geno's geniality, exciting accordion work, and solid mix of Zydeco, soul and r&b, old Cajun and older Black Creole, all-spiced with a smidgin of Hip-Hop, and cheerfully blended to make you get up and dance. As he sings, "Everybody dancin' all night long, Somebody dancin' to my song."
Southwest Louisianans? You can steam them and boil them and drench them in oil, but--merci le Bon Dieu--you can't wash them away. And you can't keep them up-country isolate, cher, no more neither.
Monday, May 2, 2011
The first time I was in Cajun country was 1954 or '55. I rode in a panel truck with my maternal grandfather; with no one left to work it, Grandaddy had sold the hundred-acre family farm in Georgia and followed his several sons to their new home in Shreveport, Louisiana. The four Spivey brothers had opened a barbecue place, pretty much a take-out stand in the beginning, which had become an instant rage because folks loved the smoky-hot Spivey barbecue sauce. So the brothers bottled it and sold the sauce locally, then regionally, and eventually all across the South. But that was later. With me as nervous helper, Grandaddy was briefly filling in for a sick driver, delivering barbecue sauce and the new Spivey hot sauce down to the Cajun prairies, to grocery stores located from Natchitoches on eastward.
I don't actually remember much about the day, too restive to pay much attention to the farmlands we rode through, but caught up in the unspoken pleasure of grandfather and grandson traveling together. I was eleven.
The trip Sandra and I are on now comes over a half-century later. All the many elder Spiveys are dead, and the sauce company was bought out and the sauces killed by deep-pockets rival Kraft Foods. We're flying to Shreveport for the wedding of our son Mike, a major in the Air Force, stationed at Barksdale. (The years do go by.) I still have cousins in the area, but we're not close and I don't plan to visit any this time. Instead Sandra and I are driving on south to Opelousas and Breaux Bridge, Mamou and Eunice and Ville Platte, for a quick, two-stepping, two-day sweep and scamper (prior to the wedding duties). We'll be dining on crawfish and boudin and shrimp gumbo and listening to Cajun music--a young band named Feufollet in a restaurant concert, Marc Savoy (I hope!) testing his latest hand-made accordions at his famous music shop near Eunice, checking out CDs and older LPs at Floyd Soileau's Record Shop (a 50-year Cajun country landmark).
My recent crash course in this special dance-oriented music and French-derived, unique sheltered culture opened another door too. The Black and mixed-blood French-speaking Creoles of Southwest Louisiana have their own versions that borrow some from White Cajun traditions, but are much more derived from African and Caribbean, Native American and slave-heritage experiences. The Creole variation on Cajun music's accordion-and-fiddle basics adds blues and r&b and bigger driving rhythms to create what's called Zydeco music. That odd word is an organized modern spelling of some garbled French words once found in several variations probably going back to a folk saying for poverty and hard times, "Les haricots sont pas sale," which translates as "Green beans without salt"--the understood reason being "no salt meat to flavor them."
Clifton Chenier (pronounced shen-YAY) was the great Black Creole musician who codified Zydeco and became its recognized "King," from about 1960 until his death from diabetes problems in the late Eighties; and I have a small connection to Chenier's rise to prominence. In the mid-Sixties producer Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records met Clifton via his cousin, Blues great Lightnin' Hopkins, and immediately began producing/issuing Zydeco albums demonstrating Chenier's astonishing piano-key accordion work and killer vocals, his creative songwriting, range of expression, great variety, and knowledge of older-style Creole musics but combined with a fully modern, r&b-friendly allegiance to funk and soul. Chenier was a bundle of dynamite with the fuse lit, about to explode, and as a crazed Blues fan I happened to buy his first LP, Louisiana Blues & Zydeco, in '66, just out of curiosity.
I loved it. I mean, I really loved it. Played the thing, especially the first side, so much that I wore out that copy and immediately bought another. Played it for dinner guests and made a mental note never to invite back anyone who didn't flip for it too. Also bought his next two Arhoolie albums right when each was released. (They were fine too if not as startling and unique.) The third came out in 1969 about the time that I was trying to persuade Rolling Stone to let me review records, and Chenier's was just obscure enough for me to get the assignment. Editor Greil Marcus liked the brief piece I wrote enough to run it in the August 23 issue, which launched my career as a reviewer. (I lasted a half-dozen years writing for a variety of publications.)
But I like to think my review helped spread the word about Chenier too. Strachwitz enjoyed the slight notice enough to make reprints of it to mail out, and then he included it in a roots-music promotion magazine he created to publicize Arhoolie albums. I don't know if any of it had much effect on Clifton's career in the long run, but I sure hope so.
Can't say if we'll luck into any Zydeco on this hurried visit, but I offer here that 42-year-old review in honor of all things creative in South Louisiana--from New Orleans across to Lake Charles and beyond; Black, White, or indeterminate color--including the long-established but now expanding phenomenon of Creole trail rides complete with Zydeco both live and recorded, recently examined at length in The New York Times. Someone reading the old review now may be new to Chenier and Zydeco, and wisely want to investigate further. NOTE: Album issued originally as Arhoolie LP 1034; half the cuts can be found now on CD-329 along with the whole of Louisiana Blues & Zydeco. And the strange decisions on capitalizing were the magazine's:
Black Snake Blues
Clifton Chenier's name is not exactly a household word--though it should be. But maybe that's all about to change. It can't be every day that "The King of the South" (as Chenier is known along the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast) gets two separate plugs in a single issue of Billboard, as happened in the July 12th edition. Chenier, you see, a blues singer and accordionist-extraordinaire, is the foremost practitioner of that black Louisiana-cajun R&B called zydeco or, sometimes, zodico; and--in my house at least--the release of any new Chenier album is cause for rejoicing.
In the 18th century, the French Acadians of Nova Scotia (remember Longfellow's long poem Evangeline?) fled persecution from the British Canadian government and settled in Southwest Louisiana, where their French influences quickly became dominant. Cajun Louisiana has stayed that way right up to the present. Cajun music--a guitar-accordion-and-fiddle combination of French and C&W--survives today, as does its black variant, zydeco, which adds a heavy R&B overlay of drums and washboard. Waltzes, two-steps, slow blues, rock and roll tunes--they're all a part of zydeco, and they're all in Chenier's fantastic repertory.
Black Snake marks his third album for Arhoolie (though he's been recording regional Southern hits since the early Fifties)--and it's just more of the same great music: plaintive blues like the title tune, Frenchified versions of Fats Domino's "Walkin' to New Orleans" and Ivory Joe Hunter's "When I Lost My Baby," and wild up-tempo rockers like "Johnny Can't Dance," all filled with pumping, jumping accordion and raspy churchkey-scratched steel rubboard.
Zydeco, I admit, is probably an acquired taste--and maybe I'm lucky to have kinfolk living in Shreveport, La. But, brother, you got to get it on. And the album that'll do it best is Chenier's first, Louisiana Blues and Zydeco (Arhoolie 1024). Buy Black Snake if you're already into zydeco; but if you're new to French "La La" music played black Gumbo style, then start with LB&Z. I promise you it'll rock all your cares away.
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In the beginning, it was just Clifton on the huge piano accordion and his brother Cleveland supplying rubboard (frottoir) rhythm. By the time both Cheniers were gone, a hundred Zydeco bands had formed to follow in Clifton's footsteps. Most of the newer leaders--then and still today--do their whipping and wailing on smaller single-, double-, and sometimes triple-row squeezeboxes better suited to the simpler, stripped-down, riff-repeating groove and hip-hop rhythms favored now. But there's another reason: none of them, not even Clifton's successful bandleading son C.J., can match the complex, sophisticated, powerhouse playing of the late and still-lamented King.