Todd Mouton: How the King of Zydeco christened Jazz Fest (book excerpt)

All star jam by Philip Gould 650w

From left to right: A who’s who of Cajun and Creole music – Cleveland Chenier, Dewey Balfa, Marc Savoy, Doug Kershaw and Clifton Chenier – are featured onstage together in this historic, previously unpublished Philip Gould photograph taken at a 1983 evening show on The Riverboat President during Jazz Fest. (Used by permission; all rights reserved.)

“Jazz Fest, like Clifton Chenier, came from humble beginnings,” says author Todd Mouton. “And in 1970, the King of Zydeco’s version of Creole culture was still very much a mystery to a lot of folks in the big city of New Orleans, as the interview transcription in this clip makes clear. At the same time, though, this brief passage also demonstrates the bridges that were being built between cultures at the very first incarnation of the now-enormous phenomenon known as The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.”

Mouton will be interviewed with Chenier’s son C.J. at 4 p.m. Friday (April 29) on the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage at The Fairgrounds, and the author will sign books at noon Saturday (April 30) in the Book Tent at Jazz Fest. He’ll also be signing copies at Rock ’n’ Bowl during Sonny Landreth’s performances on Friday and Sunday nights. Complete details are available at waydowninlouisiana.com.

Mouton’s new book on the King of Zydeco includes profiles of numerous other south Louisiana artists and bands from BeauSoleil to Bonsoir, Catin, and it also includes 130 full-color images by two dozen photographers. Herewith is an excerpt exclusive: PopSmart NOLA.

todd-mouton-way-down-in-la-scanIn the fall of 1969, Clifton Chenier crossed the big pond with his trio to take part in the seventh annual American Folk Blues Festival tour. Photos from the trip show the accordionist, his rubboard-playing brother Cleveland Chenier, and drummer Robert St. Julien with blues greats Earl Hooker, Magic Sam, John Jackson, Juke Boy Bonner, Carey Bell, and “Whistling” Alex Moore.

First, though, the King of Zydeco helped christen the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. On Thursday, April 23, 1970, Chenier and his group were featured at the inauguration of what is now the mother of all professionally produced cultural celebrations. The four-day event featured four stages—Blues, Cajun, Gospel, and Street—and cost just three dollars to get in.

Jazz Fest producer George Wein had founded the Newport Jazz Festival and, with Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel, co-founded the Newport Folk Festival. The debut New Orleans program promised “You’ll have the opportunity to explore a variety of musical experiences, folklore exhibits, the art of New Orleans and the great food of South Louisiana.” Creole succotash and Begue’s praline ice cream pie were on the menu. The location – Congo Square, now part of Louis Armstrong Park and the famed site where slaves were allowed to gather on Sundays to sing, dance, and play music – was steeped in cultural history.

At 3:30 on that Thursday afternoon, “Clifton Chenier’s Band” was part of a program called “The Musical World of French Louisiana” along with Adam and Cyprien Landreneau, Bois Sec Ardoin and sons, Ambrose Thibodeaux, and other artists. Co-emcee Dick Allen, curator of the Archive of New Orleans Jazz at Tulane, admitted he didn’t really know all that much about French music, so he passed the baton to “someone who’s come all the way from California, Chris Strachwitz, he’s the manager of Clifton Sha-nay’s band.”

“I think Clifton manages himself, he does a good job at it,” Strachwitz said. “I’m just a good friend of his, I record his records. And if you wanna get Clifton for a party, just look him up in the Houston, Texas, phone book, and he’ll be happy to come and play for you. . . . Last October we were in Europe together on a blues show and he finally got to Paris to speak his French, but here he is, with his own kind of French, Clifton Chenier!”

After some brief instrument line checks, Chenier addresses the crowd. “Well, they call me the Frenchman [laughs]. Eh toi! Whooo, we let the bons temps rouler, baby. I guess the boys ready. See this’s my brother on rubboard, Cleveland Chenier. And this my soul brother, Robert St. Julien, on drums. And I also have Big Butch on guitar. And also Jumpin’ Joe Morris on bass. So now I hope y’all enjoy our music, ’cause we gon’ try to sock it to ya. We gon’ first start with a lil’ boogie woogie first, then we gon’ get back to the French music, get the boys in action, you know.”

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Todd Mouton

A swinging instrumental follows, and the accordionist explains that “Sometime you got ta kinda wake the boys up a little bit, cha know, shake ’em up a little.” “Release Me” and a great three-piece “Zydeco Est Pas Salé” follow, then Chenier says, “Thank you very much. You know, my home is Opelousas, Looziana, and uh, yeah, my hometown. The rest of the boys from Lafayette . . . Looziana, yeah. Well, we do a lot of traveling, and we enjoy our work, and we enjoy the people and everywhere we go, look like everybody havin’ a good time so we gonna play y’all’s a waltz this time. It’s a record by Ray Charles I recorded in French. ‘You Promised Me Love,’ but it’s in French, see.”

 

As was typical, his translation is anything but a duplication, and halfway through he says, “Maybe some uh y’all can’t understand French,” and switches to English.

Before his encore, Dick Allen attempts an interview.

Allen: “Is this what you call zy-DE-co?”

Chenier: “Zydeco.”

Allen: “Tell ’em what zydeco means.”

Chenier: “I told ’em once befo’, I’m ’onna tell ’em again, see. You know, do you eat snap beans?”

Allen: “Oh yeah.”

Chenier: “You sure?”

Allen: “I hope so.”

Chenier: “But you put salt in it?”

Allen: “Mm-hmm.”

Chenier: “Well, that’s what it is. No salt in your snap beans, zydeco est pas salé. You see, it’s just that simple, see. Zydeco est pas salé is no salt in my snap beans.”

Allen: “Well, what’s that got to do with music and dancing?”

Chenier: “Well, you see, where I come from they do the zydeco music. One them days, we gon’, we might get together and rig up somethin’ that I can bring some uh them real zydeco dancers down here and let you see how they used to dance in the olden time. Yeah. We’ll do that. You know, uh, right now, you look at the teenagers right now, if you look at them old people dance the real zydeco where I come from, that’s what’s comin’ back, see? . . . We gon’ let the good time roll in French.”

With that, the band charges through a half-French, half-English version of “Bon Ton Roulet.”

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