After the American Revolutionary War in the 1700s, those soldiers and civilians who had either fought on the side of, or remained loyal to, the British were rewarded for their actions with tracts of land in the nearest crown colony. In order to accommodate this sudden influx of people looking for space, the former subjects of New France, themselves only recently conquered by the British, in the Maritime region of what would become Canada eventually, were displaced from their farms and cast adrift.
With nowhere else to go, these Acadians headed south to the last remaining French colony in North America, Louisiana. Here they not only joined other Francophones, but the closest thing to a multicultural community to be found in the New World at the time. For not only did they find Spaniards left over from its time as a Spanish colony, but ex-slaves from all over the Caribbean, settlers from the British Isles and sailors and pirates from home ports scattered around the globe.
When Jefferson purchased the territory from the French government, and its important access to the Mississippi River from the Gulf, the social order was shaken up as the majority non-anglo/non-white population became second class citizens in keeping with the laws and conventions of its rulers. Of course, having laws and enforcing them are two entirely different matters, so life in places like New Orleans probably continued on much the same as it did before the purchase.
In fact, if the new American government had harboured any hopes of subduing and assimilating the polyglot population of its newest territory, they were sorely mistaken. For not only have the distinct cultures stayed around with only minor variations – Acadians have become Cajuns – they have cross-pollinated and created a culture unique to the region.
While it’s doubtful few will remember its true significance as the last big blowout before Lent, Mardis Gras is a reminder of the area’s Catholic heritage, and the sounds of France, Spain and Africa can still be heard in the languages people speak and the words that come out of their mouths. However, where the glorious multicultural nature of the region really blooms is in its music. Where else are you going to find a place where music with origins in so many different cultures not only happily co-exists, but has merged and mingled with such ease and wonderful results? While its probably impossible to ever come up with a compilation that would include samples of all the musical influences present in the region, a new disc out on the Honeybee Entertainment label, Louisiana Swamp Stomp, provides listeners with a good indication of the diversity at play.
Aside from being an amazing collection of music, which I’ll get to in a second, the other reason for picking up a copy of this disc is that all the proceeds from its sales go to the Northern Louisiana Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Foundation (NLBSCIF) to help fund their programs, including research into finding cures for the various neurological disorders that effect the brain and the spine.
The inspiration for this disc comes from the remarkable story of Louisiana musician Buddy Flett’s recovery from encephalitis. Upon waking from the medically induced coma required to save his life, Flett was not only unable to play guitar, he had also lost the ability to walk and talk. Amazingly, only a few months later, he was well enough to play at his own benefit, and because of the support of his family, and the music community at large in Louisiana, he was able to make a full recovery. Now that same community, plus visual artists who have donated their work for the CDs cover and accompanying booklet, are hoping to help others by raising money to help neuroscience research in Louisiana.
Unlike other benefit discs of this type, which often feature big names parachuted in for an event, this is a true local community effort. Only one song isn’t by a Louisiana native, and the only “name” on the disc is Percy Sledge, and his contribution is a live recording he made of Buddy’s song, “First You Cry”, at a concert in Baton Rouge. While the rest of the names on the disc may either be only slightly familiar or not ring any bells at all for people outside of the Gulf Coast area, once you listen to them, not only will you not forget them in a hurry, you’re going to want to search out more of their music.
Omar Coleman kicks off the disc with a rollicking blues number, “Scratch My Back”, and although both it and his other contribution to the disc, “Mojo Hand”, were recorded in Chicago with local musicians, there’s just as much bayou in his music as there is the concrete of the South Side. The connection between Chicago and New Orleans can’t be measured by the miles that separate the two cities when it comes to the blues, as the influences have run both ways.
Eighty-five year old Henry Grey only reinforces the connection with his two contributions, “Times Are Getting Hard” and “How Could You Do It”. Born in Louisiana, Grey played with Howlin’ Wolf from 1956-1968 in Chicago and a variety of others across the country, including Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Billy Boy Arnold, showing just how much Louisiana gets around.
While the men make some great contributions, including Buddy Flett playing all the instruments on his own aptly titled “Livin’ Ain’t Easy”, the women of Louisiana, and in particular Carol Fran, are present and accounted for as well. Ms. Fran has had to overcome many of the same problems Flett did after she suffered a stroke, but listening to her sing on this disc you’d never know she’d been sick a day in her life.
She starts off with “Tou’ Les Jours C’est Pas La Meme” (Everyday Is Not The Same), a bilingual blues/cajun tune that will blow you away. While she does a great job of performing both it and her second tune, “I Needs To Be Be’d With”, I was just as impressed by the fact they are both her own tunes. Why this woman has not achieved international, let alone national fame is beyond me. Just listening to her you can feel the amount of presence she possesses and I can only try and imagine how amazing she must be in person.
Of course, the same goes for everybody on the disc. Each of them: Little Freddie King, Paul “Lil Buck” Sinegal, Sonny Landreth, Dwayne Dopsie, Larry Garner and Charlene Howard, whether we’ve heard their names before or not, have distinct personalities that shine through during their performances. Unlike so much of our cookie cutter world today where everything sounds the same, looks the same and tastes the same in order to make sure nobody is offended, and nobody is ever satisfied, Louisiana is full of a variety of tastes, sounds and sights. The musicians on this disc, and the colourful, flamboyant art included as part of the CD’s packaging, might only be a small sampling of that wonderful diversity, but compared to what you’ll normally hear or see around you, it will be like a cornucopia of delights.
There must be some sort of magic down in Louisiana that helps them survive with their spirit intact. For in spite of the American government allowing oil companies to rape her, destroying her natural protection against the post Katrina floods and spilling massive amounts of oil off her shores with impunity, they haven’t attempted to violently secede from the US. In fact, instead of telling the rest of us to piss off, they keep sending us their wonderful music and inviting us to enjoy what they have to offer.
Listening to the music on the disc, Louisiana Swamp Stomp, is to be given a little bit of that magic to carry around with you, and you might just find yourself smiling a little bit more because of it.