With Tropical Storm Lee having battered the central Gulf Coast, specifically south Louisiana, for all of Labor Day weekend, today’s Song of the Day continues the rain theme, with three versions of “Raining in My Heart” by Excello-related artists (or their sidemen) who will be appearing at this month’s 10th annual Ponderosa Stomp. First up, the Excello swamp bluesman who created the anthem, Slim Harpo. Though Harpo is now jamming in that great jukejoint in the sky, Harpo’s primary guitar players — James Johnson and Rudy Richard — are both scheduled to appear at the Stomp’s Excello reunion this year. According to musicologist John Broven in his book “South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous”:
“Rainin’ in My Heart” changed everything for Slim. For a start, The Cash Box warmed to the record: “Slow moaning, earthy blues proves the artist’s meat as he takes the tune for a tuneful ride. A real weeper.” … The mesmerizing “Rainin’ in My Heart” more than justified the reviewer’s optimism. After climbing the R&B charts the record crossed over to the popular ratings and reached No. 34 on the Billboard 100 in the summer of 1961.
Warren Storm, left, with fellow swamp-pop legends, the siblings Van Broussard and Grace Broussard
Next up, a version by brother Warren Storm, who logged many an hour in Jay Miller’s legendary Crowley recording studio playing drums on records by Lazy Lester and other artists with the likes of fellow hired guns: pianists Carol Fran (appearing at the Stomp this year) and Katie Webster; bassist Bobby McBride; guitarists Guitar Gable, Al Foreman, and Pee Wee Trahan; and fiddler/bassist Rufus Thibodeaux, among others. Here is Storm’s own version of “Rainin’ in My Heart”:
And finally, here is a live 1989 version of “Rainin’ in My Heart” by Ponderosa Stomp inspiration Lazy Lester, looking as resplendent as ever in a red Dixie beer baseball cap, now a collector’s item in the wake of the landmark Tulane Avenue brewery’s decimation by Hurricane Katrina and looters galore. We still have a tear in our beer over Dixie’s relocation above the Mason-Dixon line to Wisconsin, which now brews the beverage (presumably) sans its key ingredient of muddy Mississippi River water:
The History Channel’s Louisiana-set “Swamp People” reality series, which tracks alligator hunters in the marshes from Pierre Part to Port Sulphur and all points in between, has become the most popular show in the network’s history. But let’s not forget the original “swamp people”: Doug and Rusty Kershaw of “Diggy Liggy Lo” and “Louisiana Man” fame – the latter having the distinction of being the first song broadcast back to Earth from the Moon by the Apollo 12 astronauts. In their earliest days, the brothers grew up on a houseboat with their parents and siblings with French as their first language, and this song is a tribute to their hardworking father, who probably could have been cast on “Swamp People” to teach Troy Landry a thing or two about “chooting” gators.
Below is modern-day footage of the multi-instrumentalist Doug Kershaw strumming a guitar instead of his fiddle in an interesting rendition of the Cajun dance standard “Colinda” that runs the gamut from mellow to powerfully dramatic. Doug, seen here in a marked departure from his trademark manic performance style, is accompanied by his son Tyler Kershaw on drums.
Today’s Song of the Day is the musical epic that inspired young Cajun-rock revivalists Steve Riley and C.C. Adcock to form the supergroup Lil’ Band o’ Gold in the late 1990s. As regular attendees of swamp-pop elder statesman Warren Storm’s Lafayette lounge performances, the duo was captivated by the singer’s powerhouse interpretation of one song in particular: “Seven Letters,” originally done by Ben E. King of “Stand By Me” fame. Storm had originally made noise around Acadiana with the song in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s midlife of his career, releasing it on his Jin-label album “Heart and Soul,” which was produced in Nashville by Bob Hendricks and Jay Jackson (reportedly with backing by some members of country megagroup Alabama, though this is unverified). After requesting the song from Storm innumerable times, Riley and Adcock decided to form LBOG, with the masterstroke move of getting Storm singing behind the drum kit once more – a duty Storm had forsaken because he was simply tired of lugging the things around at his age.
One of Storm’s most popular vocal tour-de-forces, the version above was video-recorded at New Orleans’ Chickie Wah-Wah club in April 2010, with Storm’s drum kit up close and personal onstage and Adcock’s introduction of “This is the best song in the world right here.”
Comparing and contrasting this live version with the original studio cut above, the listener will marvel at how Storm’s voice has aged with amazing grace, mellowing like the finest Tennessee whiskey in an oaken cask, yet retaining (and even deepening) his trademark stentorian soulfulness. Storm has indeed come a long way since he cut “The Prisoner’s Song” in the late 1950s and walked into Graceland one day to witness his hero Elvis Presley sitting at a piano and launching into the young Cajun’s hit in a Kingly tip of the hat.
Lil’ Band o’ Gold’s studio version of “Seven Letters” also is well-worth a listen, kicking it up a notch with Richard Comeaux’s wailing pedal-steel guitar, soaring like Evangeline’s ghost across the wind-swept Cajun prairie.
Don’t miss Warren Storm at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp – singing and bashing away at the drums in his unique style that is inspired by not only New Orleans’ Earl Palmer but also Cosimo session drummer Charles “Hungry” Williams. For more about Storm’s musical dalliances with the likes of Lily Allen, Robert Plant, and Elvis Costello, click here.
Swamp-pop pioneer Ernie Suarez, otherwise known as Roy “Boogie Boy” Perkins, makes a triumphant return to the 2011 Ponderosa Stomp after several years’ absence. No doubt he won’t get away without rendering his Meladee-label tear-jerking dirge, “You’re on My Mind,” one of the earliest swamp-pop records.
But as today’s Song of the Day – “Ba Da” – attests, Perkins could do a lot more than just cry in his beer. As a bass player with Bobby Page and the Riff-Raffs, Perkins and gang, which also featured sax players Jimmy “Scatman” Patin and Harry Simoneaux, recorded for Mira Smith’s Shreveport-based Ram label under various aliases. The stellar reissue of this material on the UK’s Ace label allows the modern-day listener to enjoy pounding rockers like “Red Beans & Rice,” “Hippy-Ti-Yo,” and “Drop Top” (the latter of which recently surfaced in the background of a Yoplait yogurt commercial), as well as swampy ballads like “Just Another Lie” and “That’s What the Mailman Had to Say,” which evoke Perkins’”You’re On My Mind.”
Ponderosa Stomp fans know that the most magical sounds often emanate from the most primitive of conditions. Take, for instance, the flood of hits that flowed from the legendary 15-by-16-foot hole in the wall that comprised Cosimo Matassa’s original J&M recording studio on Rampart Street. The same with Eddie Shuler’s tiny Goldband studio, which he opened in the rear of his TV repair shop in Lake Charles. The landmark songs recorded in just those two Looziana incubators – like Antoine Domino’s “The Fat Man,” Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do,” and Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love” – mesmerize listeners almost because of their technical limitations, not in spite of them.
Jivin' Gene Bourgeois
Likewise, Jivin’ Gene, aka Gene Bourgeois, of Port Arthur, Texas, began his ascent to swamp-pop immortality by singing in the toilet. Not his greatest hit, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” but rather the equally swampy “Going Out With the Tide,” later covered by another Meaux protégé, Freddy Fender (here in a duet with Tommy McLain).
“He walked in with blue jeans and bare feet and kinda like Clark Kent’s version of Superman, with horn-rimmed glasses. And he wanted me to record his rock ‘n’ roll band. I told him I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but if he wanted to bring his band in, let’s get down to it. In the KPAC studio there was an old Magnecord in mono – you never heard of stereo in those days – and two pots and a toilet in the corner of the room. And he had to sing in the toilet. I had a big old RCA ribbon mike, a diamond-shaped thing, and I hung it up on the boom and put my amplifiers in a horseshoe shape. The drums had to be way back. I thought I was gonna have to put them out in the street before it was over ‘cause it was getting too loud. I called [Ville Platte’s Jin label owner] Floyd [Soileau], saying, ‘I think this guy has potential.’”
Soileau would release “Going Out With the Tide” as Jin 109 (backed with “Up, Up, and Away”), and it became a regional hit. Bourgeois confirms the story, but with a different twist. “Yeah, I really did sing in the shitter. But it was because I was so shy, I didn’t want anyone looking at me when I sang,” he told the 30 Days Out blogger.
In a separate post, 30 Days Out writes about the sonic effects of the commode in creating the plaintive swamp-pop sound (though apparently confusing “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” with “Going Out With the Tide”):
“My favorite Gene story was about the time they recorded ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’ at KPAC radio studios in Port Arthur. Gene used to get stage fright when he sang, even when the audience was only his band and a producer. So Huey stuck Gene in the men’s room along with a microphone and turned out the lights. The great echo you hear on the song came from that location – and it became a trademark of the great Texas-Meets-Louisiana swamp rock sound. Every time I think of Port Arthur, that tune begins to play in my brain: ‘Breaking up is hard to doooooooo/Making up is the thing to doooooooo.’”
Meaux and Soileau then booked a recording session for Jivin’ Gene at Jay Miller’s storied studio in Crowley, La., and it was there that Gene cut the definitive version of his most famous tune, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” which hit #69 on the Billboard charts in 1959. According to Soileau:
“It was about Gene’s wife problems. We did a Fats Domino-type thing and put the record out. Right away Huey started getting airplay on it in East Texas, and I got airplay on it down in this area, and things started happening. And Bill Hall still had his eyes open, and we made a deal with him to get it in on Mercury Records. And as a result his Big Bopper Music got the publishing on the original sides and that was his compensation. And Huey managed the artist and I had the record label and the record company, so I had my compensation. We had a three-way thing going there for a while, and Mercury took on with Jivin’ Gene and did fairly well with him.”
Gene went on to do further recording for Mercury, mostly in Nashville, even redoing a version of “Going Out With the Tide” – cum violins – that made The Cash Box listings in 1960. However, somewhere in the process the “swamp” got taken out of the swamp pop. As Warren Storm, whose own Nashville recordings sound slightly castrated compared with his Louisiana-recorded oeuvre, would tell Shane Bernard in “Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues” about his Music City studio experience:
“Oh yeah. It wasn’t swamp pop. It was more pop than anything else. … It was the Nashville sound, that’s where it was. Nashville. … It was mechanical because it was the Nashville sound. All the records that came out of there, it was the same music background.”
(Apparently Nashville producers found little need to turn to the outhouse as an acoustical accoutrement, what with Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, and Chet Atkins in house at any given time.)
Bourgeois would later record for Chess, Hall-Way, and TCF-Hall into the 1960s before dropping out of music for almost 20 years and working as an insulator – reportedly even plying his trade on the Alaskan pipeline like so many other Cajuns who have found work around the globe in the petroleum industry both on- and offshore. [See author Woody Falgoux's "Rise of the Cajun Mariners."]
By the 1980s, nostalgia for the past took hold, and the accolades began to pour in. Gene was inducted in 1993 into the Louisiana Hall of Fame (Lou Gabus’ precursor to the current hall) and the Museum of the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame in 1995, and he received the Louisiana Hall of Fame Living Legend Award in June 2003.
Jivin' Gene Bourgeois sings at a 2004 benefit at Pat's in Henderson, La.
In recent years Gene has joined forces with fellow East Texan Ken Marvel, a keyboardist and singer whose working band provides able backing for Bourgeois on his semi-regular gigs. However, as a bandleader in his own right, Marvel is not content, like so many other groups, to merely recycle the golden swamp-pop oldies in letter-perfect, note-for-note renditions. Yes, he pays tribute to the masters, but on his two CDs (“Mr. Swamp Pop” and “Swamp Pop Music”) Marvel has actually written numerous well-crafted original songs with mature themes, sung with passion and earnestness. And it doesn’t hurt that he uses a crack coonass band for his recording sessions (including Warren Storm, Wayne Toups, Jon Smith, Pat Breaux, Jason Parfait, Steve Grisaffe, Tony Ardoin, and Mike Burch, among others). Be sure to catch Marvel playing around East Texas’ Golden Triangle area or else at his occasional Louisiana appearances.
No longer reliant on the porcelain gods for acoustical succor, Jivin’ Gene has reunited with Floyd Soileau’s Jin label with a new CD, “It’s Never Too Late,” recorded at David Rachou’s La Louisianne studio in Lafayette and released in 2009. Gene wrote or co-wrote nearly every cut on the 14-song CD and is backed by Warren Storm on drums and rubboard, Ken Marvel on keys, and Rick Folse (son of legendary Vin Bruce band alumnus Pott Folse) on sax, among others.
Don’t miss Jivin’ Gene at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp. To buy tickets, click here. To learn more about this swamp-pop legend, read this and this.
Jivin' Gene's 2009 release on the Jin label, featuring his original songs and drumming by Warren Storm
Superstar Lily Allen celebrated her new lil' band o' gold (or was it a big blue diamond?) by hiring Lafayette supergroup Lil' Band o' Gold to play at her wedding June 11 in England
Being not quite our cup of tea musically, Allen won’t be gracing the Stomp lineup anytime soon, but her unabashed ardor for LBOG isn’t the first time the swampy ensemble has mesmerized Brit popsters. Several years ago Led Zeppelin vocal banshee Robert Plant joined LBOG to record two tracks (“It Keeps Rainin’” and “I’ve Been Around”) for the Fats Domino tribute CD “Goin’ Home,” capped by a live performance at Tipitina’s preceded by a storied soundcheck at which the Fat Man himself joined in with a microphone while nursing a few beers at the bar.
Then, in 2010, Elvis Costello took the stage with LBOG for a Bobby Charles tribute performance at the House of Blues’ Parish Room, singing “Big Boys Cry” and “Before I Grow Too Old,” joined on the latter by swamp-pop legend Tommy McLain.
How did a relative youngster like Allen, who wasn’t even old enough to buy a Guinness when LBOG released their first CD in 1999, hear of the group? According to the London Telegraph:
For the pop singer Lily Allen, it was while listening to the mix CDs that her fiancé Sam Cooper made her when they first dated a few summers back. “You can hear the experience they have in their amazing voices,” she says. Allen jokes that they have spent half their budget flying out all eight members of the group to play at their wedding. “It will be worth it,” she says. “They are already classic and it will be a good way of feeling like Tarka [Cordell, Sam's half-brother and the band's late producer] is there.”
Indeed, Allen apparently couldn’t contain her groupie-like excitement about the band’s impending arrival, tweeting: “Lil’ Band of Gold are coming to london !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Joined by Tommy McLain, the group made their London debut at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on June 14, screening their documentary film “The Promised Land: A Swamp-Pop Journey,” followed by a live performance showcasing songs from their newish CD of the same name on the Room 609 label.
How did the thick Cajun musical gumbo go down at the celebrity-filled reception at Allen’s Gloucestershire estate? Allen tweeted June 13: “I had the most amazing wedding, thank you to everyone who went to such extraordinary efforts to make it that way. Lil Band Of Gold were incredible and they’re playing Shepherd’s Bush Empire tomorrow, I urge you all to go go. And watch them.” She even went so far as to post a link so her fans could buy tickets to the London show.
Though we quibble with his mild criticism of “plodding instead of pounding,” writer Rick Pearson of This Is London scrawled this glowing review about LBOG’s performance in a piece titled “Lil’ Band O’ Gold are fabulous company”:
Say what you will about Lily Allen, but she has impeccable taste in wedding bands.
Lil’ Band O’ Gold, an eight-headed swamp-pop monster from deep Louisiana, played at the singer’s wedding on the weekend and last night came to west London for a rare live showing.
Their recent album, “The Promised Land”, is only their second in 11 years, and had you brought a cat with you to a far-from-full O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, there would easily have been room to swing it.
However, those that were in attendance – mostly men of a certain vintage – were first treated to a film of the band and then a triumphant, two-hour performance.
Songs turned over at a rapid pace, pinballing from raucous rhythm ‘n’ blues (“Teardrops”) to quivering country-rock (“I Don’t Wanna Know”). Vocal duties were shared, although drummer Warren Storm had the best pipes.
And the group were joined by crooner-cum-Catholic minister Tommy McLain, whose gravelly turn on “Jukebox Songs” was almost as striking as his sparkly gold jacket and mighty beard.
Not to be outdone, David Egan channelled his inner Randy Newman on the rambling piano ballad “Dreamer,” before Steve Riley put his accordion through its paces on the 12-bar blues of “Ain’t No Child No More.”
There were too many mid-tempo, momentum-sapping ballads to make this a truly great gig: Lil’ Band Of Gold have a tendency to plod when they should pound.
For the most part, though, they were fabulous company. And let’s hope it doesn’t take another celebrity wedding before they’re back with us again.
The opening of the Morganza Spillway to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from potentially massive Mississippi River flooding has many Ponderosa Stomp fans breathing a sigh of relief, but not so for those still in harm’s way: the hardy denizens of the Atchafalaya Basin’s culturally rich communities, which have served as spawning grounds for Cajun, swamp-pop, and other visceral forms of Looziana music.
“There have been some unique communities in the Atchafalaya Swamp then and now,” writes Jiro “Jireaux” Hatano in a 2003 article titled “The Music Entertainment in the Atchafalaya Swamp.” “While some of them were abandoned after the great flood of 1927, others are still alive, and a couple of communities are doing well at music entertainment business.” As the great flood of 2011 looms, how many of these fragile but surviving music epicenters will be wiped out?
Ancient moss-draped cypress trees tower above the Atchafalaya Swamp.
The dancefloor at Whiskey River Landing in Henderson, awaiting the arrival of the likes of Steve Riley or Geno Delafose.
Swamp-pop legend Tommy McLain performs in front of the massive swamp-scene mural at Pat's Atchafalaya Club in Henderson.
But head south toward Morgan City, where the Atchafalaya River meets the Gulf of Mexico, and along the swamps and bayous and lakes of the basin you’ll find in little one-horse towns – or just up the bend along winding country roads amid dense junglelike vegetation – some still-vibrant oases of coonass culture, where the multi-generations (grandparents, mom/dad, and grandchildren) all come out to kick out the jams on Saturday nights, learn the Cajun two-step at the Sunday fais do-dos, and scream “Aaaaaiiiieeeeeee” to their sometimes angst-ridden, other-times joyous ancestral sounds.
In the relatively large petroleum-powered burg of Morgan City you might find one Vince Anthony, former Looziana rockabilly blazer from the late 1950s who now cranks out countless CDs of well-crafted swamp-pop originals — with the same regularity that sugar cane is harvested each fall — all sung in a voice as smooth as Mello Joy coffee and rich as Steen’s cane syrup. Born Vincent Guzzetta, Anthony and his band the Blue Notes recorded singles for the Hilton and Viking labels, including at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary studio in New Orleans. Later, GG Shinn recorded a scorching version of the Anthony-penned “Devil of a Girl” for Montel Records in Baton Rouge.
Morgan City swamp-popper and rockabilly guitarist Vince Anthony in the late 1950s or early '60s.
Morgan City also served as the post-rock retirement home of former Specialty recording artist and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack runnin’ pardner Jerry Byrne of “Lights Out” fame (not to mention “Carry On” and the humid south Looziana dirge “Raining.”). Having eschewed the decadent life of dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music in his later years, Byrne died in 2010, an apparently successful nonmusical businessman.
Specialty recording artist and longtime Morgan City resident Jerry Byrne ("Lights Out").
Brothers in swamp pop and unique hairstyles: Warren Storm and Don Rich pose outside LA Cajun Stuff record store in Houma.
North toward Pierre Part, along Louisiana Highway 70 midway between Morgan City and Donaldsonville, you’ll find yourself on the shores of Lake Verret – in Don Rich country. Son of the legendary-in-those-parts musician Golen Richard, Cajun keyboardist, accordionist, and soulful singer-songwriter Don Rich is keeping the swamp-pop fires burning in numerous gigs along the U.S. 90 corridor stretching from Lake Charles to Gretna.
Don Rich's sister, Liz the Gator Queen from the "Swamp People" TV show.
A Jin recording artist and Louisiana and West Bank music hall-of-fame member, Rich also tips his hat to traditional Cajun music, classic country such as George Jones, and soul giants like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. When the godfathers of swamp pop pass into that great sock hop in the sky, Don Rich will take his rightful place as an elder statesman of the tear-jerking genre. Don also has a few notable relatives, including cousin Bobby “Da Cajun” Richard, a disc jockey with a swamp-pop and Cajun show on KCIL 107.5 FM in Houma, as well as his sister Liz “The Gator Queen,” who is starring on The History Channel’s “Swamp People” show.
Don Rich is no stranger to the musical venues of Pierre Part and environs, and this writer had the pleasure of visiting one that now is lost to the ages, perhaps a casualty of Hurricane Gustav’s rising waters in 2008: Chilly’s on Lake Verret (827 Shell Beach Road). “The Cajun Country Guide” by Macon Fry and Julie Posner describes the boisterous joint in its latter heyday:
“This is just a great place, a hidden treasure! How could such a wildly popular dance hall exist since the 1930s on a tiny scrap of sinking land 2.5 miles off the Baton Rouge to Morgan City Highway? It helps that the dance hall actually sits on stilts over tranquil Lake Verret and that hundreds of recreational fishermen back their boats in here on weekends. Slow dancers can gaze out the window at moonlight and moss reflecting on the water. The place does not look very old; according to current owner ‘Chilly’ Russo, grandson of the original builder, it was 75 percent obliterated by Hurricane Andrew and few years earlier 50 percent destroyed by Hurricane Juan. After each storm a new plywood floor was placed on the old pilings. A young crowd shows up for the Saturday-night Swamp Pop shows by local singer Don Rich, but the big event is the Sunday-afternoon Cajun dance. Folks drive from Morgan City and Baton Rouge or come by boat from around Lake Verret to dance, drink, and hang out on the patio by the lake.”
Indeed, this place was a true gem, reminiscent of the now-obliterated seafood shacks and camps mounted on pilings at New Orleans’ West End and elsewhere along Lake Pontchartrain. Here’s a video of Foret Tradition playing the Fats Domino classic “Josephine” at Chilly’s (also known as “The Old Lake” club).
The legendary swamp-pop/Cajun music stronghold Chilly's nightclub, mounted over rickety pilings on Lake Verret.
Alas, Chilly’s is gone-pecan, but still going strong is the Rainbow Inn on La. 70. According to Fry/Posner:
“The Rainbow is perhaps the quintessential South Louisiana barroom and dance hall. Built in the late thirties, it is a wooden structure with a broad stucco face that sports two round Coke signs and its name is bold red lettering. An old kitchen and dining area in one side is now unused, but the main room with its long bar and wide dance floor still gets action. Bands are scheduled intermittently but usually on Thursday night. The favorite performer is Don Rich, a young local Swamp Pop singer. In its heyday the Rainbow got top Country acts as well as South Louisiana stars like Johnny Allan and Warren Storm.”
The circa-1930s Rainbow Inn in Pierre Part, also known as "Don Rich country."
Another amazing throwback-style dancehall is Stevie G’s in nearby Belle River, also on La. 70. This joint really packs them in, and during breaks from the live music, the dance floor fills up with young flesh cavorting and gyrating to the sounds of a DJ, generating a sexy, sweaty scene not much different from a late-night Crescent City meat-market bar such as F&M’s or the Goldmine. But when Don Rich or one of the visiting swamp-pop legends takes the stage on weekends, you know you’re in Cajun country, and the elder folk join their younger progeny to cut the rug in grand, effortless, and tireless fashion. Stevie G’s also brings in the torch-bearing young Turks of swamp pop from New Orleans’ West Bank – bands like Foret Tradition, Junior and Sumtin Sneaky, and Brad Sapia – as well as the hugely popular college-and-beer-oriented zydeco stars Jamie Bergeron and Travis Matte from central Acadiana.
The packed dancefloor at Chilly's on Lake Verret near Pierre Part.
A glowing billboard beckons to swamp-pop lovers outside Stevie G's nightclub in Belle River.
Music abounds from the teeming Cajun bayous, but then so does the food – and not just seafood. And some music joints have found new life serving up the grub. One unique venue just outside Morgan City perfects finger-licking-good yardbird in an imposingly squat venue a few miles off U.S. 90: Chester’s Cypress Inn. According to Fry/Posner:
“Nestled in a stand of cypress trees halfway between Houma and Morgan City, this little hideaway has the best fried chicken this side of grandma’s kitchen table. A sign boasts, ‘If the Colonel had our recipe, he’d be a general.’ You won’t find any nouveau Cajun cuisine here, just plates piled high with fried chicken, fish, froglegs, and mounds of crispy onion rings. Chester Boudreaux has passed away, but his children, Calvin Boudreaux and Bobbie LaRose, have kept the Inn much the same as it was when he opened in the forties. The tables are still covered in plastic, and the waitresses still carry cardboard plates laden with golden fried food from the adjacent building that houses the kitchen. Crowds drive the twenty miles from Morgan City and Houma (past dozens of new fast-food franchises) to eat in the homey dining room that once housed a dance hall.”
Chester's Cypress Inn outside Morgan City, where a motorcycling Bob Dylan ate the onion rings.
And I’m not the only outsider captivated by the semi-submerged charms of Looziana’s backroad bastions of swamp culture: No less than Robert Zimmerman, aka world-renowned rock bard Bob Dylan, famously describes a motorcycle sojourn he took through these sugarcane- and cypress-studded hinterlands during his 1990s stint living in New Orleans to record for producer Daniel Lanois. Dylan too has partaken of the joys of Chester’s antique grease, according to this excerpt from his autobiography “Chronicles”:
“Crossing into Thibodaux, we rode near Bayou Lafourche. It was a clammy day, light rain off and on and the clouds were breaking up, heat lightning low on the horizon. The town has got a lot of streets with tree names, Oak Street, Magnolia Street, Willow Street, Sycamore Street. West 1st Street runs alongside the bayou. We walked on a boardwalk that ran out into the water above the eerie wetlands-small islands of grass in the distance and pontoon boats. It was quiet. If you looked you could spot a snake on a tree branch.
“I moved the bike up close near an old water tower. We got off and walked around, walked along adjoining roads dwarfed by ancient cypress trees, some seven hundred years old. It felt far enough away from the city, the dirt roads surrounded by lush sugarcane fields, labyrinths of moss walls in crumbled heaps, marshlands and soft mud all around. On the bike again we cruised along Pecan Street, then over by St. Joseph’s Church, which is modeled after one in Paris or Rome. Inside there’s supposed to be the actual severed arm of an early Christian martyr. Nicholls State University, the poor man’s Harvard, is just up the street. On St. Patrick’s Street we rode past the palatial grand homes and big plantation houses, deep porched and with many windows. There’s an antebellum courthouse that stands next to clapboard halls. Ancient oak trees and decrepit shacks side by side. It felt good to be off by ourselves.
“It was early afternoon and we’d been going for a while. Dust was blowing, my mouth was dry and my nose was clogged. Feeling hungry, we stopped into Chester’s Cypress Inn on Route 20 near Morgan City, a fried chicken, fish and frog legs joint. I was beginning to get weary. The waitress came over to the table and said, ‘How about eating?’ I looked at the menu, then I looked at my wife. The one thing about her that I always loved was that she was never one of those people who thinks that someone else is the answer to their happiness. Me or anybody else. She’s always had her own built-in happiness. I valued her opinion and I trusted her. ‘You order,’ I said. Next thing I know, fried catfish, okra and Mississippi mud pie came to the table. The kitchen was next door in another building. Both the catfish and the pie were on cardboard plates, but I wasn’t nearly as hungry as I thought I was — just ate the onion rings.
“Later on, we rode south towards Houma. On the west side of the road there’s cattle grazing and egrets, herons with slender legs standing in shallow bays – pelicans, houseboats, roadside fishing – oyster boats, small mud boats – steps that lead to small piers running out into the water. We kept rolling on, started crossing different kinds of bridges, some swinging, some lifting. On Stevensonville Road we crossed a canal bridge by a little country store and the road turned to gravel and began to wind treacherously through the swamps. The air smelled foul. Still water – humid air, rank and rotten. Kept riding south until we saw oil rigs and supply boats, then turned around and headed again towards Thibodaux. Thibodaux was neither here nor there and my mind started thinking opposites. Thinking about maybe going up to the Yukon country, someplace where we could really bundle up. By dusk we’d found a place to stay outside of Napoleonville. We pulled in for the night and I shut the bike down. It was a nice ride.
“We stayed at a bed-and-breakfast cottage that was behind a pillared plantation house with sculpted studded garden paths, a cream stucco bungalow that had a certain charm stood like a miniature Greek temple. The room had a four poster comfortable bed and an antique table – the rest, camp style furnishings, and it came with a kitchenette equipped with utensils, but we didn’t eat there. I laid down, listened to the crickets and wildlife out the window in the eerie blackness. I liked the night. Things grow at night. My imagination is available to me at night. All my preconceptions of things go away. Sometimes you could be looking for heaven in the wrong places. Sometimes it could be under your feet. Or in your bed.”
Speaking of Houma, one of the best places to buy swamp-pop and Cajun music CDs (when not listening to the power-packed programming on KLRZ-FM out of Larose or KMRC in Morgan City) is at LA Cajun Stuff in the Southland Mall, a staunch booster of local music from in and around the Atchafalaya Basin, with numerous in-store performances with artists such as Vin Bruce and Treater, always-free bottomless coffee, and the colorful conversation and down-home hospitality of owners Pat and Dale Guidry. A former shrimper from Cut Off — the same town that spawned ex-Saint QB Bobby Hebert and swamp-pop legend Joe Barry — the bilingual Dale is often called out to speak French to the visiting buses of European tourists hungry for a genuine ethnolinguistic experience to write home about. Swamp-pop singer-songwriter and Stomp favorite Jerry Raines of “Our Teenage Love” fame also still calls Houma home these days.
LA Cajun Stuff at the Southland Mall in Houma, your source for swamp-pop, Cajun, and zydeco music.
These are just a few of the Looziana cultural islands — and icons — at risk from the spillway’s rising floodwaters. Though this Touro Infirmary baby can’t claim to know even a fraction of them intimately or to have even scratched surface in describing this diverse, multi-ethnic area, I’d feel gut-punched if they are swept away – like so many legendary local venues lost to the eroding sands of time and/or decay (and a tidal wave of parking lots), like the Dew Drop Inn and the Club Tijuana in New Orleans, the Joy Lounge in Gretna, or the Junkyard in Marrero. And America will have lost some of the remaining, endangered vestiges of a rich culture whose roots can be traced back to the Acadians’ Grand Dérangement and whose contributions to the nation — and indeed the world — are incalculable. And like the wetlands that envelop it — irreplaceable.
The opening of the Morganza Spillway threatens an Atchafalaya Basin teeming with life -- and music.