Monday, May 2, 2011

I Didn't Know Beans

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.


Steve Provizer said...

Little did I know your deep roots with la musique when I posted my little piece... Like you, upon 1st hearing Clifton I was pretty thunderstruck; not just because of how good he was, but also because it made me realize there must be a whole lot more from that family of music that I knew little or nothing about.

I Witness said...

Zydeco today is complexly diverse--rural versions, Creole historical, urban polished, hip-hop beats, but all driven by powerful repetitive rhythms, something I haven't grasped yet called double-kicking or double-clutching (same idea, I think)--unsubtle music very much meant for dancing rather than listening. I suppose that also means Zydeco has splintered into disputatious(sp?) factions like most other musics any more...