Way Down in Louisiana: Clifton Chenier, Cajun, Zydeco, and Swamp Pop Music

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9781935754732: Way Down in Louisiana: Clifton Chenier, Cajun, Zydeco, and Swamp Pop Music
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"If you're a fan of Creole or Cajun music, this will be your bible." - No Depression

This book is about the mysteries of the soul - and the magic born when you make music from your heart. With Clifton Chenier's amazing life and career as the centerpiece, this collection of profiles gathered across two decades unites some of the world's most innovative creative forces.

The propulsive, soulful sounds of Buckwheat Zydeco, the virtuosic blues-rock of Sonny Landreth, and the accordion-and-fiddle-driven bayou backbeat of BeauSoleil were all birthed in Cajun and Creole country, a place where tradition and innovation rub against one another from the kitchen to the festival stage.

Singer-songwriter, poet, and activist Zachary Richard; traditionalists-turned-innovators Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys; and cross-genre artists Roddie Romero & The Hub City All-Stars are among the many gifted players spearheading their cultures' ongoing reinventions. In words, images, and music, the lives of these artists and culture-bearers speak volumes about the power of identity, influence, perserverance, and triumph. From Lil' Band O' Gold to Bonsoir, Catin and beyond, these artists make music that resonates in the hearts of listeners everywhere.
These are their stories.

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From the Author:

[Excerpt] Introduction: Surf Music from Jupiter
 
On a warm Lafayette, Louisiana day in the mid-1990s I ran into a musician named Lafayette Saucier. We were outside the now-defunct Café 101 coffeehouse on Johnston Street, and I was at a table talking with musician and visual artist Richard "Dickie" Landry about Clifton Chenier. The Hub City being the no-degrees-of-separation place it is, I jumped at the chance to add another saxophonist to my rolling cassette tape, and that's when he said it.
 
"The first time I heard Clifton Chenier," Saucier intoned, "it sounded like surf music from Jupiter!"
 
His bohemian baptismal revelation probably parallels the experience most folks who haven't grown up in a south Louisiana Creole household have upon their first exposure to the noun and verb that is zydeco.
 
The music played, danced, and listened to way down in Louisiana and beyond is strange and powerful stuff, and it seems to pull just about everyone-- and everything--in. Our sounds cause adjectives and feelings to collide, and it's just that conjuring, that alchemical combining of elements, that makes Cajun, zydeco, and swamp pop music what they are: gorgeously indefinable and interrelated expressions.
 
 
Clifton Chenier occupies a singular nexus between all that's come before and since, and his music stands at the crossroads of countless cultural currents. He's the sun in this solar system born largely in rural south central Louisiana.
 
By the time the man now known as The King of Zydeco was in his mid-thirties, he'd shared the stage with a staggering array of stars whose work continues to shape popular music. Chenier received little formal education,  but he learned the ways of the road courtesy of blues and soul luminaries  from Jimmy Reed to Big Mama Thornton. By the early 1960s, the French-speaking Creole bandleader's squeezebox riffs had traveled through famed musical constellations crafted by legendary producers and record labels. Bumps Blackwell and Specialty Records in Los Angeles, the Chess brothers in Chicago, Huey Meaux in Houston, and J.D. Miller in Crowley, Louisiana, all provided valuable schooling, and when Chenier came out the other side he birthed a galaxy of sound still resonating across the cultural cosmos.
 
Over the course of his thirty-three-year recording career, Chenier journeyed from the humblest possible beginnings to a pair of Grammy awards, including one for lifetime achievement, and his 1976 Bogalusa Boogie album has been honored with inclusion in the Grammy Hall of Fame collection. He was born on the muddy prairies 140 miles northwest of New Orleans at the dawn of the recording age in 1925, and his story began when south Louisiana was still split in half by the 140-mile-long by 25-mile-wide Atchafalaya Basin swamp, then navigable only by boat. But sound travels well in the humid Gulf Coast air, and like the rest of the country cousins of the Crescent City profiled in these pages, Chenier and his band invented music that stands starkly apart while still remaining deeply connected to the wellspring of funky sounds emanating from The Big Easy.
 
Chenier's homeland is now called Acadiana, a group of twenty-two civil parishes (counties) that derives its name from the first New World home of the French Acadians who came to Louisiana from what is now the Canadian Maritimes after their mid-eighteenth-century exile at the hands of the British. Their descendants, known today as Cajuns, met and mixed with their new neighbors--the region's indigenous peoples, Spanish colonists, slaves, and free people of color among them--to help create the cultural riches this book celebrates.
 
The mysterious process of creolization--in which cultural mixing unpredictably leads to the formation of new identities--often clashed with  the social, economic, and political realities of history, and before long two musical styles divided essentially by skin color spawned further innovation and variation. And when mainstream mass culture further penetrated the isolated coastal marshes, swamps, and prairies of south Louisiana, the Cajun music of white culture and the zydeco music of African American culture served as a springboard for the development of a third art form, the sometimes black-and-white Cajun and Creole R&B and rock'n'roll sound British writer Bill Millar dubbed swamp pop.
 
 
Clifton Chenier died in 1987, and his sixty-two years form the backbone of this collection of stories about artists directly and distantly connected to his life and work. The tales that surround the central section of this volume are like planets, moons, meteors, and comets expanding the boundaries and definitions of roots music, and many of them were gathered during the 1990s when I worked primarily as a music journalist.
 
"Someone really needs to write a book about Clifton," my dad said early in that decade, and I emphatically agreed, before realizing he envisioned me as its author. With his help and encouragement I took up the challenge and began conducting extensive interviews with the surviving members of Chenier's Red Hot Louisiana Band. About a decade later I realized that the King's legacy was perhaps best understood through the diverse work of his many artistic acolytes.
 
So this book travels from the blistering electric slide guitar blues of Sonny Landreth to the bombastic accordion-and-horn-fueled soul of Buckwheat Zydeco, stopping off for visits with dozens of well-known and more obscure musicians gathered across more than two decades. Between the shorter chapters tied to specific datelines and Chenier's chronological throughline, connections are revealed and fade away.
 
King Clifton is one of the world's most important musicians and an historical figure on the order of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Bob Marley. And, at some level, all the musicians in this book are working to stand on the stage he defined. But real life isn't all tied up with neat little thematic bows, so this book is not a definitive, encyclopedic, or exhaustive survey of anything. What you now hold is a collection of glimpses into a living, breathing, evolving culture.
 
....
 
Though this book overflows with first-hand tales of innovators known the world over, these artists' gains have been primarily spiritual. Like Chenier, who was born a sharecropper and lived the majority of his six-plus decades on the road, most of these players live their lives pretty close to the bone, thriving on the intrinsic rewards that come from reimagining your ancestors' music for appreciative audiences. In the words of legendary south Louisiana guitarist and Red Hot Louisiana Band alum Paul "Lil' Buck" Sinegal: "We weren't doing it for the money, no. We were doing it 'cause it was fun."
 
At its core, most of these artists play folk music as described by songwriter and longtime Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys guitarist Sam Broussard: "It's music of the people, by the people, for the people."
 
As current Red Hot Louisiana Band leader C.J. Chenier says of his father in the documentary film Zydeco Gumbo: "It's a pure music. Without all the electronics, without all the gimmicks, just pure down-home, get-down music. I never heard anybody play accordion nowhere close to him. I mean nobody. I mean, he was a incredible blues accordionist, zydeco, rock'n'roll, whatever you wanted to play, he could play it on a accordion. He was number one in my book, number one."
 
Merci à tous!
 
Todd Mouton
Lafayette, Louisiana

From the Inside Flap:

Way Down in Louisiana: Clifton Chenier, Cajun, Zydeco, and Swamp Pop Music

Table of Contents

8 Foreword by David Fricke

12 Introduction: Surf Music from Jupiter

 18 Hot Tamale Baby: Buckwheat Zydeco

32 South of I-10: Sonny Landreth 

46 La Chanson de Mardi Gras: BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet

58 La Vie Marron: Filé 

70 Zydeco Sont Pas Salé: Clifton Chenier 

98 Ay, Ai Ai: Clifton Chenier 

122 It's Christmas Time: Clifton Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band

158 Grand Prix: Clifton Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band

190 La Pointe aux Pins: Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys 

206 Run Down Cadillac: Lil' Buck Sinegal 

218 Dans le Nord canadien: Zachary Richard 

230 Cold-Hearted You: Coteau 

238 In Another Time: Lil' Band O' Gold

252 Mon Aimable Brune: Bonsoir, Catin 

264 Riverside: Roddie Romero & The Hub City All-Stars

280 Acknowledgments

283 About the Author

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