When the British wanted land to reward the soldiers who had fought on their side during the Revolutionary War in the United States they weren’t too fussy about where they found it. In fact, it was for better if it was already settled; how much nicer it was for the soldier to not have to clear a field and to find a house already built for him and his family.
This is how the French Canadian settlers in the Maritimes found themselves homeless at the end of the 1700s. Instead of staying put and suffering the sight of soldiers living in their houses on the land they cleared, they packed up and moved themselves to the closest thing to France outside of Canada – Louisiana.
They brought with them their fiddles, their music, and a strengthening of the French culture that had taken root there years ago. They were welcomed as part of the mix of cultures that was fermenting into what we know today as Creole: French, Spanish, freed slaves, Native American, and anything else that washed up on the shores of the Barbary Coast and the Mississippi that needed a place to stay.
Aside from a penchant for burning the food (well they call it blackening) and making weird stews out of fish, they’ve also given the world Zydeco; music that’s a party just looking for an excuse to break out. Somehow this music stayed their own little secret until the 1980s when the cat was let out of the bag with the release of the movie The Big Easy and its soundtrack made up of Zydeco music.
One of the names that reappears on the soundtrack credits over and over again is Terrrance Simien. Scion of a family line that dates its landing in Louisiana back to 1700, it’s safe to say that Terrance’s roots run deep into the soil of Cajun country (In case any of us missed the Canadian connection, the word Cajun is a bastardization of the French version Canadien where the d and i are slurred together forming almost a “j” sound. Can-a-dj’en can quickly become Cajun)
Twenty-five years ago at the age of seventeen he left his home to see the world and spread the word of Zydeco, and considering that in 1982 it was just him, Buckwheat Zydeco, Clifton Chienier, and Queen Ida Guillory even playing the music professionally things have gone pretty well in the interim. To celebrate that anniversary the AIM International label of Australia has released Across The Parish Line.
This is not a greatest hits package as it contains music that hasn’t released before, but it does feature a couple recordings Terrance hasn’t been able to find a home for until now. That doesn’t mean this an album of obscure B-sides either as most of the songs were written by him or recorded by him with this disc in mind. Across The Parrish Lines celebrates many of the things that Terrance set out to do twenty-five years ago, and the people he has met on the way.
From the opening track, “You Should Know Your Way By Now” where he confirms his pride in being Creole and reminds people how important it is to discover your own heritage. “Knowing Your Wary” can as easily mean knowing the way your people do things, as knowing where you are going in life. It’s much easier to know either way with a good understanding of where you came from.
The song itself is a classic example of Zydeco with its lilting tempo and the sound of washboard and accordion chugging through like an express train. There’s exuberance, joi-de vivre if you will, about Zydeco that has to make it one of the most life affirming forms of music I’ve ever heard.
When you hear a player like Terrance Simien hit full throttle and putting his heart and soul into driving the beat with his voice and his accordion it’s impossible to keep from being affected. Bob your head, tap your feet, do anything because if you try and stop your body from moving you could cause yourself serious damage. Perhaps it’s because of Zydeco that the myth of zombies came about, as this is truly music that can get the dead up dancing.
I want to draw attention to a couple of tracks on this disc that stood out, especially for me. I know some people are going be interested in the track, “You Used To Call Me”, that was recorded with Paul Simon during the Graceland recording sessions that never made it on the album, and others his cover of Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind” featuring the beautiful voice of Marcia Ball. But for me the two covers that are most captivating are “Twilight” by Robbie Robertson and “Louisiana 1927” by Randy Newman.
Terrance recorded “Twilight” in 1999 with Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, Robbie’s former band mates in The Band. Listening to Rick sing a Robbie Robertson penned tune was compelling enough because it sounded like any number of songs that could have been on a Band album. But then you remember that Rick has been dead since 1999 and this could have been the last thing he recorded and it made me feel a little haunted.
Recording the song with a Zydeco band, and having it sound so right, made me once again realize how much the Band had been able to recapture the sound of early Americana music. It just felt right for Terrance to be recording this song with Rick and Garth, and I can’t think of a more fitting denouement for Rick Danko’s life and career then singing on this album.
On my first listen to “Louisiana 1927” I thought that Terrance had written a great song about Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t until the second time that I caught the name of the President as being Calvin Coolidge and began to recognize the familiar cadences of a Randy Newman song. I can’t remember when Newman wrote that song, but it could have been easily written for Katrina, so little seems to have changed in the attitudes and reactions from politicians to the aftermath and the extent of the damage. Hearing Terrance sing the song in his Louisiana accent, it was difficult to think of any song that so poignantly depicted the plight of people after the recent devastation.
Twenty-five years ago Terrance Simien crossed over his Parish line to go out into the world and offer up Zydeco as a gift. He not only has become one of its most active ambassadors, but he hasn’t been afraid to experiment with other forms of music and incorporate them into his sound with amazing results. Across The Parish Line is a great example of all that and more and would make a great introduction to the work of this gifted musician for those who aren’t yet familiar with him, and a wonderful addition to everybody else’s collection.