Buckwheat Zydeco–An appreciation

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(Alligator Records)

If all anyone knows of zydeco is Buckwheat Zydeco, well, it’s both the perfect place to start and. Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural Jr., who died Sept. 24 at 68, exemplified the zydeco genre of South Louisiana, such that his very stage name embodied it.

“It’s been said many times–I’ve heard it said many times—but it’s true: For multitudes of people Buckwheat Zydeco was the introduction to zydeco music,” says popular radio and TV personality Todd Ortego, who programs zydeco—the propulsive mix of French Cajun music with Creole music and African-American Creole music traditions of R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel–along with Cajun and swamp pop music, on KBON-FM in Eunice, La. Indeed, Dural, who played organ in zydeco king Clifton Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band before launching Buckwheat Zydeco in 1979, was the first zydeco artist to sign with a major label (Island Records, in 1987).

Buckwheat Zydeco also performed in the Summer Olympics closing ceremonies in Atlanta in 1996, won an Emmy in 2002 for the music in the TV movie Pistol Pete: The Life and Times of Pete Maravich, took the 2010 Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album Grammy award for Lay Your Burden Down, and performed with the varied likes of Eric Clapton, U2, Robert Plant and the Boston Pops. Dural and the band also played both Bill Clinton presidential inaugurations.

“If zydeco music had a rock star, it was Buckwheat Zydeco,” says Herman Fuselier, music and eentertainment reporter for The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette. “Buckwheat wasn’t the first zydeco artist to tour nationally and internationally, but no one else comes close to the massive and consistent success he enjoyed.”

Dural’s music “was literally heard by millions for more than 30 years,” continues Fuselier, “a rare feat for not only zydeco and many roots musicians. When he played the closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, the TV audience was three billion people. But he also had numerous appearances on David Letterman, toured and collaborated with Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and other big names, won an Emmy and a Grammy, and the list goes on and on.”

In a statement, Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow said: “Buckwheat Zydeco embodied a genre and represented a community with his signature playing style that brought distinctly Creole zydeco music to fans across the globe. Buckwheat played both for and with legends, performing at both Clinton inaugurations, touring with Eric Clapton, and collaborating with a seemingly endless list of artists over his 40-plus year career. He won an Emmy for his work in TV and a Grammy in the genre he helped define. The world lost a music heavyweight.”

Concludes Fuselier, “He showed how popular a zydeco musician could be and did it on his own terms. He was always adamant that fans, promoters and everyone else knew that he wasn’t playing Cajun music, but zydeco, the black Creole accordion music that he grew up with in Lafayette, La. He shared his roots with everyone and made millions of people happy along the way.”

Madcity 2016—Corky Siegel & Howard Levy, Le Fete de Marquette, Otis Redding, Ben Sidran, sudden death and Bernie Sanders

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I was at the Delta Terminal at LaGuardia early morning July 14 waiting for my nonstop to Milwaukee when I saw that fellow music writer Joe Bosso Facebooked how he loved Grand Funk Railroad growing up, and how he couldn’t understand how the critics hated them.

I laughed out loud.

I had hated them, too, at the beginning, when me and the guys sat around smoking pot, guzzling beers and sniffing glue nonstop to “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” But everything changed when they started having hit singles like “Bad Time,” “The Loco-Motion” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul.” A million years later I was privileged to write the booklet notes to the box set Thirty Years of Funk: 1969–1999 and become big friends with frontman Mark Farner. Joe, who rightly called GFR “a total kickass band,” had just interviewed Mark, and drew an ambiguous response from the esteemed Ira Robbins-co-founder of the late, great Brit-rock/new wave-oriented mag Trouser Press-who observed that 150 music writers had been invited to meet the band at the beginning at New York’s Gotham Hotel.

“Exactly six journalists showed up,” Ira tallied, then cited the famous block-long billboard in Times Square promoting the Closer to Home album, at a cost of $100,000. He seemed to be suggesting that Grand Funk’s success was due much to marketing; for sure it wasn’t press adulation. Not wishing to cause my usual Facebook firestorm, I merely stated, “I wrote the notes for the box set. Mark is a sweetheart and great as ever,” prompting Ira to kindly reply, “You’re a midwestern partisan, you are!”

“On my way back to Wisco as we speak!” I wrote back, and it was now time to board.

It was my third annual July trip to Wisco, as I call it, to visit my ninetysomething mother in Madison. I didn’t plan anything when I went back two years ago, but I got lucky: My high school buddy Andy Linderman, now the renowned blues harmonica player Westside Andy, had a gig on July 4 at Waupun–a tiny town 50 miles northeast of Madison mostly known for being the site of the state prison–and I tagged along. The annual Celebrate Waupun festival had two stages–the blues stage, that Andy was part of, and of all things, a Cajun music stage, the big name being Feufollet, a Lafayette band I’d first seen there in the late 1990s when they were all kids. They’re young adults now, after personnel changes including the addition of Kelli Jones-Savoy, the hugely talented wife of my dear friend and huge Cajun music talent Joel Savoy from nearby Eunice, The Cajun Prairie Capital.

It turned out that Feufollet was playing one of my old Madcity haunts, the Crystal Corner bar, a few days later, so I got to see them twice while I was in town. But also playing the Cajun stage was of all people, Jim Schwall, guitarist for the Siegel-Schwall Band, one of the main reasons I got into writing about music in the mid’70s in the first place.

I’d first seen Jim at The People’s Fair rock festival in Iola Township some 140 miles north of Madison, which took place in late June of 1970, when Siegel-Schwall played sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. Saturday morning, the second day of the weekend festival. As I’ve written here elsewhere*, it was life-changing. I think Andy was at the fest, but I know he’d originally turned me on to them and I instantly became a devotee, turning everyone I knew onto the band and seeing them again scores of times throughout the next decade. I wrote about them extensively when I began writing about music, and continued after moving to New York in the early ’80s, eventually positioning myself to oversea the CD reissue of their entire Vanguard catalog.

Jim’s Siegel-Schwall partner Corky Siegel became one of my closest friends, but I never knew Jim that well. After moving to New York he moved to Madison, so I missed out on getting to know him better there. So I was thrilled to get to see him and hang out a bit during the day at Waupun, where he was playing bass in Madison’s Cajun Strangers.

“There’s a theory that there are 35 blues bands in Madison, and 28 blues musicians!” Jim told me, by way of explaining how and why he and so many other Madcity blues players end up playing regularly or sporadically in so many local blues bands. I can’t remember what band Andy was playing with, but I know it wasn’t his, and that like Jim, he played in a number of local blues bands as well.

I was smarter last year in planning my trip, but that’s because I knew well in advance Elvis Costello was playing in Madison with The Imposters–their own gig during a couple days off from their tour opening for Steely Dan. I wrote about the show—and it’s significance to me and my career—here last year*; another high point of last year’s trip was getting to hang out again with Jim, at the Atwood (Avenue) Fest.

This year I was hoping maybe Jimmy Liban was playing somewhere. Jim Liban, another great blues harmonica legend, from my hometown Milwaukee.

Of all the artists—and they probably number in the hundreds if not thousands—whom I saw and loved and supported in my writing career who deserved and didn’t get the widespread mainstream recongition they deserved, none ranks higher in my estimation than Jimmy Liban. Luckily, he put out a record a couple years ago, I Say What I Mean, and I made it my Album of the Year in examiner.com. He hadn’t had a record out in God knows how long, and wouldn’t have had not a young (relatively) guitar player named Joel Paterson, who had played with Jimmy when he was cutting his own musical teeth in Madison, decided, now that he was well established in Chicago and had started his own indie label, to put out an album of Liban originals.

I Say What I Mean did get Jimmy a gig in Europe, and also took him to Memphis for the Blues Music Awards. But remember: This is the blues, so there wasn’t much else. When I called him a few weeks before booking my trip, he told me that he was in the middle of a one-year hiatus from playing—though he had promised a friend that he’d play his wedding, and was honoring that commitment. When the year was up he’d decide if he’d want to play again, but for now, it just wasn’t any fun any more, essentially playing the same Milwaukee haunts for the same Milwaukee people. I shared his frustration, and added it to my own.

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That left Corky. I went to his website and sure enough, he had a gig on July 16 in Fort Atkinson, a 45-minute or so drive from Madison, at Cafe Carpe. I booked the trip, flying to Milwaukee and taking the Badger Bus to Madison. That first night, it turned out, was the start of the four-day Le Fete de Marquette festival, in of all places, Madison’s Central Park. I didn’t even know we had a Central Park in Madison, and that it was a walk from where I used to live on South Hancock Street a few blocks back of the State Capitol. I went there with my old pal Jeff Laramie, owner of the booking agency SRO Artists, who used to be second in command at Mountain Railroad Records, home of artists including Jim Post, Steve Young, a pre-Timbuk3 Pat MacDonald and Spooner–which was fronted by Doug Erikson, later to become Duke Erikson of Garbage, and had on drums Butch Vig, also of future Garbage and Nirvana production fame.

It being Madison, I smoked some pot, followed Jeff and wife Terri around and was blown away by the music (like the festival name suggests, it focused on French-related music), and the one artist I remember seeing is Cyril Neville. I only wish I remembered the conversations I had with Jeff and Terri because I know I had at least five ideas for great stories/commentaries, and I was too high to take down any notes, none of which likely would have made sense had I done so. I at least remember one thing that I think Jeff said, that echoed my thoughts on pre-Democratic Convention Bernie Sanders.

I of course supported Bernie’s positions, but I didn’t support Bernie. He lost me from the beginning on vocabulary ,three words in particular—the first being revolution. I don’t care what he meant, revolution connotes violence. If it doesn’t scare a lot of people to death outright, it puts them way the fuck off.

Bernie’s second bad word was obvious—socialism. Again, even though I doubt most people can correctly defin it, socialism scares people and puts them off, especially since it still widely and wrongly connotes communism. Maybe America is ready to elect a socialist, not to mention a Jewish socialist. I just didn’t want to bet the Constitution on it.

The third word was establishment. Bernie kept railing against the establishment, much as I did when I was a teen high school radical in the late ‘60s. Except this ain’t the late ‘60s, and now I’m the establishment—and I’m not ashamed of it. I always love President Obama’s line from the 2008 campaign, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for!” And I’m proud of who I was in the ‘60s in Madison, when there was an awful war going on and a Selective Service draft and a generation gap, and to suggest, like the Bernie or Bust people, that now Obama and Hillary Clinton and I are essentially the same as Nixon, well, I’ll have none of it.

And now I’ll add a fourth word, one that has to do with what Jeff or I did or didn’t say: rigged. Yeah, Bernie, like Trump, riled up his followers by claiming that the “system” is rigged, when he was losing a good fight fair and square. Here he only reinforced a main paranoid tenet of American culture since the JFK assassination, that everything that happens that’s bad is a conspiracy, then, with Trump, helped extend it by giving his followers free reign to believe that winners are corrupt and therefore win unfairly, hence their victories are illegitimate. This breeds cynicism, incivility, unwillingness to compromise, a belief that if you don’t get everything you want, nothing is preferable.

Now by no means an I saying that Hillary is spotless, or that I like her, though it turns out that I do, very much–having in fact hated her eight years ago when she ran against Obama, having been a Clinton hater long before then. But she earned my respect and eventual admiration for sucking it up after losing, campaigning for Obama, serving as his Secretary of State and now winning the nomination fairly and handily as the candidate far and away most supportive of the President–which Bernie was to a lesser extent, his chief supporters to a far lesser one. Again, I support Bernie’s positions, which are closer to mine than Hillary’s, and I recognize her weaknesses and shortcomings as a candidate–but in relation to Trump, they’re virtually nonexistent, and the differences between her and Bernie are likewise truly miniscule. All this said, I do hereby salute Bernie for doing the right thing at and since the convention, and am relieved that the bulk of his followers do appear to have similarly sucked it up.

I just wish I could remember the other stuff we talked about, but that old Madison Green—not to mention a new addition in the Madtown Mule—a beer infused with lime and ginger made by Capital Brewery, that I drank an entire mule team of—-made me forget everything except the sight of people as old as me who still lived in Madison and still went out to hear music, and that it was such a great setting in a park in the middle of the near East Side with the majestic State Capitol building visible in the sunset, the Capitol that you can see from miles away as you near Madison on the Badger Bus, that I used to walk through on my way to State Street and the University-area music clubs when I lived there and wrote for The Madcity Music Sheet and was a stringer for Variety before moving to New York.

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I do remember one other thing, part of the Bernie discussion, that I myself came up with and gave to a girl that we were talking to, a friend of Jeff’s, that I know she never acted on, that I should have—a t-shirt slogan: “Vote conscientiously–not your conscience.” If anyone who reads this is so inclined to print up and sell some shirts, honor compels you to cut me in.

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I returned to the festival the next night to meet up with Rockin’ John McDonald, my friend of over 40 years—as long as he’s had his beloved I Like It Like That oldies radio show every Saturday night on Madison’s listener-sponsored WORT-FM. I thought I was cool wearing my orange New York Public Library t-shirt, but RJ topped it with his vintage blue Dr. Bop and the Headliners entry. That day, by the way, I returned for the first time since leaving my third job with the State of Wisconsin in either 1978 or ‘79 to the old State Office Building on 1 West Wilson, overlooking Lake Monona, where I worked two blocks south of the Capitol.

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I needed a birth certificate, as I was suddenly thinking of fleeing to India and didn’t have a passport. I walked into the building and thought I’d stepped into The Twilight Zone: Not everything was the same—there was a security station in the lobby that wasn’t there in the ‘70s. It all looked brighter outside, too. But the institutional flooring and hallways were the same, and it was a step back in time that I recently depicted here.

I can’t remember, but I think my office was on the second floor; I think my second job with the State, a file clerk at the Division of Corrections, was on seventh floor, and the first, where I was a reader/typist for a blind man at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, was also on an upper floor.

The clerk at the Bureau of Records, of course, was my age 40 years ago, modified in the passage of time and mores by arms full of tattoos. When I was done I walked out and got to the lobby and stopped, giving in to the stupid impulse to go back and tell her that I used to work in the building 40 years ago. She feigned interest.

Since I worked there, and long after I left Madison, they built a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center, the Monona Terrace, behind the State Office Building, on the Monona shore. They put in a plaque on the terrace in memory of Otis Redding, who died when his plane crashed into Lake Monona on Dec. 10, 1967. I was with my friend Beth, whose husband Tim Onosko, the renowned futurist/author, was one of my dearest friends and supporters, an older brother/mentor. Tim died of cancer a few years ago. Pancreatic. I thought he’d beaten it and will never forgive myself for not knowing he hadn’t, though Beth assures me it was okay, he didn’t want anyone to know. Except I should have known and it wasn’t okay.

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We went out on to the terrace, and I sat on one of the benches surrounding the Redding plaque and looked out onto the quiet, still waters of Lake Monona, silently wondering what might have been. What might have been had Otis lived, and Tim. Had I stayed in the Madcity.

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Saturday mid-afternoon I took my mother’s car and drove to Fort Atkinson with my 21-year-old niece Ariela to see Corky and Howard at Cafe Carpe. We got there while they were doing soundcheck. I hadn’t seen Corky since he was in New York four years ago to play Lincoln Center Out of Doors with Dr. L. Subramaniam. I don’t remember the last time I saw Howard, but it was probably at one of his gigs at the Association of performing Arts Presenters (APAP) some 10 years ago, maybe.

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Corky and Howard play together a lot, but this was the first time I’d see them—and I was bringing along my niece Ariela, 21, who’s a classical piano student at New York’s Mannes School of Music, who was also in Madison visiting her mom (my sister). After greeting Corky, his wife/manager Holly and Howard, Corky echoed my excitement over her getting to see Howard (as well as Corky), who does things on a 10-hole diatonic harmonica—i.e., play it chromatically by conceiving an “overblowing” technique–that no one else knows how to do, let alone articulate. You really don’t need to be a musician, let alone understand music, to know when you hear Howard play that he’s doing something that sounds great, but makes absolutely no sense technically speaking.

Howard tried to put it in piano terms for Ariela–but even that was ridiculous.

“I make my mouth do the stuff my fingers would do,” he said. I doubt she understood him. I certainly didn’t.

“I’m not really thinking about this,” he added, speaking, I supposed, of his harmonica. “I visualize the piano.”

He might just as well have been speaking in tongues.

It was at Café Carpe, a wonderful little café/bar/listening room—-maybe 50 seats–in a century-old brick building on the Rock River with a screened porch overlooking the water, owned and operated by regionally renowned folkie Bill Camplin and Kitty Welch. Holly raved about the pumpkin pie; the carrot cake was definitely the best I ever had.

On the wall of the music room was a bumper sticker that read, “I may be old but that’s okay…I got to see all the great bands.”

Bill introduced the show with a Hitchcock like “Good evening,” then asked how many in the SRO room were musicians. At least half raised their hands. I can’t imagine any of them understood what was going on with Howard, either, other than it was, using Bill’s words, “absolute magic.”

Comedic, too. Corky walked to the stage from the back while playing harp, Howard doing same a few paces back in a goofy processional. On stage they tried to out-footstomp each other while Corky played and sang Little Walter’s classic blues “Mellow Down Easy,” leading into a blues harmonica battle between the two.

They went on to trade solo pieces, both on piano and harmonica and sometimes both. At one point Corky laughed out loud at a Howard harmonica solo, which was entirely appropriate considering he was essentially defying all science, such that all one could do was laugh out loud. Howard said that the harmonica is the only instrument that you can pick up upside-down when you’re drunk and not know it. That sort of made sense, but really, it was like listening to Albert Einstein’s feeble attempt at relating with the village idiots.

Then Howard did a Beatles medley including “In My Life” and “Michelle,” his chording so complex that melodies were sometimes barely decipherable, as if he were somehow blowing into a kaleidoscope. “America the Beautiful,” with harp in right hand and left playing piano, segued into “This Land is Your Land,” then he shifted to both hands playing piano and Corky returning, playing harmonica before they sat together at the piano bench duetting—or more accurately, practically crawling over each other while changing hand position, Corky’s at first in between the taller, lankier Howard as he wrapped around him from behind, then the two with their hands alternating before Corky picked up a harmonica, then Howard did the same, each now playing harmonicas with one hand, piano with the other, in left-right-right-left hand mirror image. They also handed off solos on harp and piano and back and forth to where it became dizzying to follow the dazzle.

But that wasn’t all: Howard also played a bass harmonica, penny whistle and on an encore, an angklung set of tuned shakers. But when he doubled the melody on harp and piano simultaneously, well, mouths were agape, and at least in my case, still is. He and Corky walked off together to Siegel-Schwall’s “Hey, Billie Jean,” each finishing the other’s phrases.

The first half of the trip now done, the rest would focus on the few friends in Madison I have left who are still alive, our conversations invariably concerning our respective cancer treatments, except that in Robin’s case he added a new wrinkle to the medical history in having dropped dead at the Minneapolis airport a few months ago—luckily within short distance from a defibrillator. Of course I asked the expected question, i.e., Did you see anything on the other side? Rob’s answer, of course, was no.

Tom, whom I worked with at the State Office Building (same with Rob), seemed to be coming along great after intensive treatment for throat cancer. He was skeletal two years ago, and now he’s playing soccer and drumming in a band.

I had lunch with Chuck Toler, who was partners with Ken Adamany back when I first started writing. The money they made managing Dr. Bop & the Headliners went into developing Cheap Trick. We called Ken, who sounded great. Ken owned The Factory, the nightclub Otis was going to play the day his plane went down in Lake Monona.

Next day was my last—Tuesday, July 19–and I’d end it with some old-time club hopping starting at Otto’s Restaurant & Bar, near my mom’s, where Westside Andy and the Glenn Davis Duo are playing every Tuesday evening during the summer outside on the deck/patio at 5:30 p.m. I’d checked Andy’s schedule before flying out and saw that he was playing every night I was there, all out of town gigs except for this one. He recognized me immediately in his side view mirror when I snuck up on his car after he parked.

It was the second week in a row that an old friend had surprised him, the first being a gal we knew from high school whom he hadn’t seen forever—whom I haven’t seen since—who looked great, who had married the brother of another high school friend, but the husband had died—death being more and more the operative word in these kinds of conversations. Back from a recent Stockholm swing if I heard right–alwasy a 50-50 proposition at best–Andy was still playing with any number of local blues groupings, this one being with Davis, who plays guitar and kick drum and sings. Like Corky and Howard, they turned to Little Walter with “Just Your Fool” while I was there, which was about an hour or so before heading downtown, Andy’s latest album Blues Just Happen in hand, to the Cardinal Bar. I used to hang out there a lot 40 years ago, when it was my corner bar and a straight-friendly gay disco with the best dance music in town.

Tuesday summer early evenings at the Cardinal now are turned over to Ben Sidran’s “Salons for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats and Free Thinkers,” in which my old friend Ben, Madison’s renowned jazz pianist/author/composer who cut his teeth in The Ardells, a Madison band made up of UW students in 1961 that also included Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs—and Jos Davidson, who would go on to play bass in an early Siegel-Schwall configuration. Ben also played in the Steve Miller Band in the late ‘60s.

He was on break when I got there and ran into Stu Levitan, president of WORT-FM’s board of directors and head of the Madison Landmarks Commission, whom I’d hung out with at the Marquette fest when I met up with Rockin’ John. He told me that Ben was at the front of the bar. Sure enough, Ben was sitting by the window, engrossed in a conversation. So I stood nearby waiting for him to look at me, though I wasn’t sure he’d recognize me, it had been so long since I’d seen him in New York. I know the last time I saw him in Madison was at a Dr. Bop gig, since we both would be called up to sit–and drink–at the ultimate oldies show band’s famous onstage Celebrity Bar.

So I stood there waiting, then noticed a familiar looking woman looking at me like she’d seen a ghost—which would have made sense had she recognized me. Except who’s going to recognize me here now? I thought, and usually people who think they recognize me are soon disappointed when they find out I’m not who they hope I am.

Except that now this woman was smiling broadly and seemed certain it was me, and suddenly it dawned on me that she was right! It was Lynette Margulies, frontwoman pianist/vocalist of jazz-pop group Four Chairs No Waiting back in the day, whom I hadn’t seen since back in the day. I have no idea how she recognized me, but really, I should have recognized her right off.

Lynette immediately interrupted Ben and told him who I was, and he practically fell on the floor. “It’s old home week!” he said when he regained his blance and composure, and sure enough, he’d been locked in conversation with another old Madison journo friend who also lived in New York and was in town visiting. As for Lynette, she remembered when I reviewed Four Chairs when I was stringing with Variety just before splitting for New York—and will never let me off now for not recognizing her right away.

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(Photo: Lynette Margulies)

As for Ben’s second set, it really was fabulous—almost all new music by him and and his guitarist Louka Patenaude, bassist Nick Moran and drummer Todd Hammes. Loved the song “College,” especially the line “that’s the place…where I went wrong”–that is, if I read my notes correctly—always a 50-50 proposition at best.

“Who didn’t go wrong in college?” Ben asked when it was over. “And if you didn’t go wrong in college, you missed a huge opportunity!”

“Too Much, Too Late,” he said, was “in the spirit” of his “guru” Mose Allison, which made me think of how I always look at Corky as my guru, though I should add that Simon Burgess is my actual guro, or teacher, in Filipino martial arts.

“It’s the ‘singles’ show!” Ben joked, “just the hits tonight!”

Again struggling to decipher my notes, I can’t tell if someone asked about Steve Miller, or if Ben brought it up on his own. He did say how everybody asks him about Miller, and observed how Miller’s been playing “the same 12 songs for 40 years,” no doubt because of the big bucks he gets paid to do them.

Here Stu, who later explained that he was just quoting Ben from one of Ben’s books, called out something on the order of how those big bucks also paid for Ben’s graduate education so he should shut his mouth, and for sure, Ben’s stint with Miller included his lyrics to “Space Cowboy.”

“At least write a song!” Ben continued, speaking directly to the absent Miller. “It seems like such a waste.”

At least Ben sure made it seem that way from his end, considering the quality of his new songs. I’d been sitting with Patenaude’s proud mom, and he sat with us for a few minutes after the show.

It’s like learning,” said Patenaude, a youngish cat who’s played with Ben since the mid-2000s. “It’s really loose and fun. He tries something out and sees if we feel it and if it works.”

Ben then told me that he rarely makes it out to Manhattan any more.

“There’s no reason to come to the city any more,” he said, though he does get to Brooklyn, where his son Leo, also an esteemed musician/composer who co-produced the Oscar-winning song “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” for the soundtrack to the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, lives. And while he’s working on a new album—and Stu said that the whole first set was new songs that were also great—Ben said that he realized there was no point to it, at least in terms of today’s record companies, airplay and traditional music business marketing.

But what are you going to do? I asked. You’re a musician, and a musician makes music. I’m a writer, and a writer writes—even though I just lost examiner.com, my main outlet, that barely paid. I still have this site, that I have to pay for. But what am I going to do?

Stu, meanwhile, is working a on a book about Madison in the ‘60s, and I again ask you, Stu, to mention that I was one of the Memorial 101 who were suspended from James Madison Memorial High School for protesting Kent State. Before closing out the night—and trip—down the street at the Essen Haus to catch a little of jazz concertina player Brian Erickson, I walked over to where the cigarette machine used to be next to the front door, where I picked up a copy of The Madcity Music Sheet the night I got back from a week’s vacation in Nashville on Memorial Day in 1977-—my first time there—when I dropoped by the Cardinal to hear folk legends Malvina Reynolds and Rosalie Sorrels. There was a stack of giveaway papers on the cigarette machine and I picked one up and paged through it—then just a single sheet of newsprint folded over twice–saw an ad for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes (with guest Ronnie Spector) appearing in town at the Stone Hearth, and went because I was a huge Ronettes fan and understood where Southside was coming from musically.

I met Gary Sohmers, the Sheet’s publisher at the Southside gig, and not knowing anything about me other than that I’d come to the show after seeing it highlighted in his paper, he asked me to write for it. I told him I flunked out of high school. “It doesn’t matter!” he said. And that’s how my career began—and now, some 40 years later, it still doesn’t matter. The only difference is that there was no cigarette machine now at the Cardinal.

I told Stu and his girlfriend how great this night had been, indeed, the entire trip–in terms of seeing so much fantastic music. She said maybe I should move back to Madison–the perfect setup for one of my favorite Sandra Bernhard lines, Sandy, of course, being from Flint, Michigan.

If you can make it in New York, says Sandy, you’ll be a failure everywhere else.

Lafayette fundraiser set to complete ambitious ‘First Cousins’ Cajun/Creole music docu

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Courtesy of First Cousins Film

Lafayette, La.-based folklorist Moriah Istre’s ambitious eight-year documentary project, First Cousins: Cajun and Creole Music in South Louisiana, is almost finished.

The 51-minute film only needs final editing, promotion and distribution, the costs for which will be sought via a GoFundMe campaign commencing shortly. Meanwhile, Istre is holding a “FUNdraiser/Unveiling” Aug. 4—appropriately at Lafayette’s 23-acre Vermilionville museum/folklife park, which showcases the regional Acadian, Native American and Creole culture of 1765-1890.

The First Cousins movie trailer and its forthcoming DVD cover artwork will be shown for the first time at the Vermilionville event.

“We’re really excited about the First Cousins Film FUNdraiser and Unveiling, because the audience there will be the very first to view the trailer, watch artist Tony Bernard unveil his DVD cover artwork, and enjoy music by [Zydeco great] Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie–with special guest Goldman Thibodeaux,” says Istre, who directed and produced the film with her sister Elista Istre acting as assistant director and historian. The sisters both earned doctorates in Arkansas State University’s Heritage Studies Ph.D. Program in Jonesboro, during which they were heavily involved in the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home restoration project in the nearby farm community of Dyess.

“In a time of national crisis where cities are being torn apart by violence, we are fortunate to be in a place where we can stand together and celebrate our similarities instead of criticizing our differences,” notes Elista, who like her sister hails from Lafayette. “As Cajuns and Creoles, we are family. We stand united as family in celebration of the rich cultural heritage we share. Regardless of how we came to Louisiana, whether through the historical [Cajun] Acadian Exile or the [Creole] African Diaspora, we are here now. We made the best of what we had to work with and we have thrived for the last three centuries. We are, in fact, ‘First Cousins.’”

First Cousins: Cajun and Creole Music in South Louisiana, then, explores the rich, interrelated musical traditions of the region’s French-speaking peoples, which traces back to Africa, Europe and French Canada over the past 300 years.

“A little too distant for siblings, these communities and their music are surely related enough to be considered first cousins,” explains Moriah, echoing her sister. “Our Cajun and Creole ancestors did not choose Louisiana. Forced here by tragedy, either through the Acadian Exile or the African Diaspora, they made this place home: They made the best of what they had, and here we are today because of them–and very proud of who we are.”

Adds Elista: “We are all part of the same family tree. Many of us are Cajuns or Creoles or a mixture of both, and our music reflects our shared heritage.”

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D.L. Menard (Photo courtesy of First Cousins Film)

The featured musicians in First Cousins are Delafose, Jeffery Broussard, Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr., Thomas “Big Hat” Fields, Terry Huval, D.L. Menard, Steve Riley, Wayne Toups, Cedric Watson, Lil’ Nathan Williams, Nathan Williams, Sr. and Creole accordion player Goldman Thibodeaux—Moriah’s “adopted papaw [grandfather],” who turns 84 on Aug. 5, the day after the Vermilionville event.

“He’s the most gentle soul you’ll ever meet, and I’m in constant communication with him,” says Moriah, “and he’s the last living legend playing ‘La La music’–the roots of modern day Zydeco. I’d visit him all the time in Lawtell—where he lives—and one day he told me, ‘Cajun and Creole music are cousins,’ and I said, ‘Well, Papaw, you just named the film!’”

Thibodeaux was actually the reason Moriah pursued her doctorate, in addition to being the inspiration for the documentary.

“He told stories about when he was a kid and seeing Amadie Ardoin play at house parties—and it blew my mind!” she continues, invoking the pioneering Creole accordionist, who recorded in the 1920s and ‘30s. “I felt I’d be selfish if I kept it all to myself, because he’s the only one around who remembers it—and there aren’t many living legends left.”

But First Cousins, Moriah adds, “turns into something a lot bigger.”

“My initial goal was to get Papaw’s stories on film. Using a tape recorder is one thing, but film reaches a bigger audience. It grew into a really cool film that not only describes the history of Cajun and Creole music, but provides the context for both music genres in a different way than other films: We really wanted to address not just the Acadian story but the African Diaspora.”

And again echoing Elista, Moriah observes that First Cousins is “being released at a time when the country is being torn apart by violence and racial animosity. With the film title and the fundraiser, we’ll definitely be celebrating our similarities and not criticizing our differences!”

The Vermilionville event was chosen specifically to coincide with Thibodeaux’s birthday, and will also involve merchandise for sale, a silent auction and sponsorshiop opportunities. It will be followed by the First Cousins premiere on Oct. 13 at Angelle Hall on the University of Louisiana campus in Lafayette.

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Lake Martin (Photo: Ezra Istre)

Jillian Johnson: An appreciation

No sooner had President Obama told the BBC that his failure to pass “common sense gun safety laws” has been the greatest frustration of his presidency, the TV news outlets were stuck on the latest episode of what is so wrongly called “senseless” gun violence. After all, when anybody can get a gun, it makes all the sense in the world that sickos will use them indiscriminately, if not with discrimination.

“If you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it’s less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it’s in the tens of thousands,” Obama said, before he had the chance to add two more victims to the tally. Of course, with those numbers and the every week if not every day frequency, it’s only a matter of time before a gun killing episode would hit close to home, if not home itself.

I knew it was my time as soon as I saw that last night’s killings took place in Lafayette, Louisiana, the heart of Acadiana–Cajun country. I used to go there once a year on my way to Eunice, to enjoy the gracious Cajun hospitality and traditions of dear friends Marc and Ann Savoy and their equally wonderful and talented children Sarah, Joel, Wilson and Gabrielle. Lafayette’s the biggest town in Acadiana, but small enough for anyone to know at least someone I know. In the case of Jillian Johnson, sadly, it was many.

“It’s sad that we have to lose someone and after they’re gone, we tell them how amazing and inspiring they were to us, words that they’ll never see or hear,” wrote Wilson Savoy on Facebook, about his friend Jillian, one of the two shot to death by the hate-filled lunatic at Lafayette’s Grand 16 movie theater. She was 33.

“I met Jillian in 2003 and she changed my life forever,” continued Wilson, a Cajun accordion whiz like his father, and a Grammy winner, with Wayne Toups and Steve Riley, for the album The Band Courtbouillon, which was released by his older brother Joel in 2011 on his Valcour Records label. “She inspired me more than anyone else in my younger years, and I wish I had told her what an amazing person she was before it was too late. Before her show last Saturday, before she jumped on stage with The Figs, we stood together on the side of the stage at Blue Moon and chatted all about the past and the future, about her grand plans for projects, renovations, exciting new stuff. Never a dull moment with Jillian. I never said it in the past, but I’ll say it now. Thank You Jillian. I love you.”

His mom Ann, a Cajun music historian and Grammy-nominated artist who performs with numerous bands and artists including Linda Rondstadt, the Magnolia Sisters, the Savoy Doucet Cajun Band and the Savoy Family Band, echoed him: “Yes if only I had seen her recently or if only I had told her more about how amazing she was, everyday…but she knew how we felt, I’m sure..world sadder without her existence…Wilson, that was so well said….” Later, on a burgeoning Remembering Jillian Johnson Facebook page, she added: “Of all the people in the world, why did this one truly astonishing young woman have to go? Brilliant photographer, artist, designer…fun and funny person…gorgeous…I love her so much…goodbye, young friend….”

Sister Sarah Dover Savoy Gonzales, a musician and cookbook author, now living in France, wrote, “Jillian? Don’t be hurt too badly. Please don’t be dead. I just woke up to this news. You’re the closest female friend I ever had.” Speaking to Wilson, she later posted: “We used to joke that she’d marry you…and we’d all live on a farm together.”

Brother Joel, who has also played in numerous bands including the Red Stick Ramblers, wrote: “Makes me think about the early days of the Red Stick Ramblers at LSU. How many times did we stand in front of Jillian Johnson’s camera playing music or goofing off. Her being gone now makes me realize how all those moments she captured are also long gone–the band, that goofy light-hearted easy friendship, busking on campus…. What Id give to stand in front of that camera again and pose for my friendly nemesis. Rest in Peace J”

And from Joel’s wife Kelli Jones-Savoy, currently on the road with the acclaimed progressive Cajun band Feufollet: “So sad and heartbroken to hear about the awful happenings in a city I love so much, and heartbroken to hear our loss of such an amazing woman. Jillian Johnson was an inspiration and a beautiful person. Sending love to everyone and wishing I wasn’t so far from home right now.”

According to New Orleans’ OffBeat Magazine, Jillian had come to Lafayette from Tennessee and embedded herself in the local music scene. She did promotional work for bands including the Red Sticks, documented Acadiana’s music and formed a wonderful old-timey, all-female string band, The Figs–which I’m sure I saw. She was a big supporter of leauxcal music and businesses and owned two of them, the design and apparel stores Parish Ink and The Red Arrow Workshop. Her motto was “Be nice, do good work, try hard, listen, love.”

On Facebook, director/writer Tom Krueger, who made the 2007 Red Stick Ramblers “Made in the Shade” video, wrote: “So random, senseless, and devastating. What a huge loss. One of our dearest and brightest. Jillian was a huge part of why I moved to Lafayette. I’ll never forget the moment I met her, at Festivals Acadiens, just so full of life, joy, and style. Then, this person I hardly knew, jumped head first into the making of the Red Stick Ramblers video, organizing all the costumes and extras and so much more. I thought, if this community is filled with people like her, I want to live here. So, I did. Since that time I would come to know one of the most creative and interesting forces in Lafayette, not to mention our extended community, around the country and beyond. What an amazing and beautiful woman. She will be greatly missed.”

Krueger concluded: “It makes you realize the need to reach out to those we love and show them so, and reach out to those who are so full of hate and just try to show them another way…Every day. Every moment. We will love you always and miss you so much, Jillian. xoxox”

YouTube Discoveries: Jo-El Sonnier’s “Tear-Stained Letter,” with Richard Thompson

I became a music journalist a couple weeks after meeting Jo-El Sonnier (he spelled it Joel then) on my first trip to Nashville in the mid-1970s. I met a guy, Gary Sohmers, who was putting out a one-sheet newspaper, folded over twice and stacked on cigarette machines at bars and music clubs. It was called The Madcity Music Sheet, and my first story was an interview with Doug Kershaw, “The Ragin’ Cajun,” who had just cut Jo-El’s “Cajun Born.”

Fast-forward to today, February 8, 2015, an hour or so after Jo-El won his first Grammy, for Best Regional Roots Album for The Legacy. I’m sure he was crying when he accepted it, but I’m not sure he cried as much as me. I can’t remember how many liner notes I’ve written for him over the years, but I do feel almost like I won, too. In honor of our tears, I posted YouTube of Jo-el’s highest-charting country single, his cover of Richard Thompson’s “Tear-Stained Letter,” which reached No. 9 on the country charts in 1988. Then I found another version, a live one, with Richard on guitar!

It’s wonderful, and you’re welcome to cry along with both of us!

Tales of Bessman: Jimmy C. Newman and his Cajun Joke

I still consider myself a Grand Ole Opry groupie, even if I haven’t been to the Opry now in years.

Used to get there three, sometimes four times a year. Parked in the artists’ lot and hung out backstage with Roy, Minnie, Porter, Grandpa. They’re all gone and now so is Jimmy C. Newman.

“Folks often tell me that my dad is one of the nicest folks in country music. Jimmy C. Newman was, too!” George Hamilton V told me, and both he and the folks who told him so were right.

“He was the water mark in leadership of being a professional musician who followed his own path, believed in his culture and his vision,” said BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet. “And he always had a joke going that kept everyone around him uplifted in the spirit of the moment in doing and being the best they could be in any situation.”

He had a special joke for me every time I greeted him backstage at the Opry, though it wasn’t so much a joke as a code.

“Bessyl’s out in the parking lot checking the tires,” he said. “You better go help him.”

Jimmy C.’s longtime accordionist Bessyl Duhon, son of Cajun fiddle great Hector Duhon—and why couldn’t I have been named Hector, or Bessyl, or at the very least, Jimmy C.?—was indeed out in the parking lot, but he surely wasn’t checking the tires, if you catch my splift.

“I always encouraged my band to smoke pot,” Jimmy explained to me many years ago. “When they drank, they tore up the bus!”

He was speaking mainly of Rufus, I think. Rufus Thibideaux. The legendary Cajun fiddler who played with everyone from Bob Wills to Neil Young—I saw him when Neil played at the pier across from the Intrepid in 1985, I think, when Young was touring with the top Nashville session players he used on Old Ways–and played with Jimmy from 1952 pretty much up until his death in 2005.

I loved Rufus, but Rufus was from a different part of the culture. He used to tell me N-word jokes backstage at the Opry and I laughed, heartily, out of respect to him. He was already an old man, his prejudices ingrained, and by this point, harmless; after all, he was a fiddler.

Jimmy C. never told jokes like that, at least not in my presence. He truly was one of the nicest folks in country music. I’m proud I wrote the liner notes to his 1991 album Alligator Man, and was there to extol the merits of his last album, Jimmy C. Newman Sings Swamp Country.

Tales of Bessman: Alex Meixner and the Future of Polka

I saw polka future, and its name is Alex Meixner.

I say this, of course, with apologies to Jon Landau and Bruce Springsteen. And a nod to Wayne Toups and Zachary Richard and especially Doug Kershaw, who brought a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility to Cajun/country music, not without some degree of crossover breakout.

I’d heard of Alex Meixner—and he’d heard of me. When he heard I was coming to see him Thursday night at  Reichenbach Hall, a German beer hall-like joint near the Empire State Building, the name rang a cowbell.

As he told me after the show, he went back to the comprehensive Billboard cover story I did on polka maybe 15 years ago and saw that I wrote it. That I’d mentioned his name in it was a career highlight, as it was for everyone I noted in the article, polka then and now being an outsider music genre ignored–so very wrongly–by both mainstream and alternative music media.

I walked into Reichenbach and went back in my mind to a place in Madison, Wisconsin, a block or two northeast, I think, of Capitol Square. It was just after I started writing, sometime in the late 1980s. I think it was called Buck’s place, but it was definitely some kind of play on Bucky Badger. Every few minutes one of bartenders would ring a bell and then they’d all pour themselves a shot and down it together while the packed place cheered.

Even then I was too old for the place, and this was some 35 years ago. It was a college frat crowd, or just older. I remember hearing “Emotional Rescue” on the jukebox.

Reichenbach was just as raucous, though mixed age. Yuppie types at play on a Thursday night after work and stretching it out with some suits and a few older people by the bandstand to the side of the door wearing red “Alex Meixner—Polka On”  t-shirts. The door itself was open, and you could hear the loud music coming out of it halfway down the block. A black bouncer in a black suit was standing outside, out of place and never smiling.

Alex was playing “Sweet Child o’ Mine” when I walked in, making me forget, for the time being, how much I hated the song and Guns N’ Roses. He was playing piano accordion and singing, and like the rest of the band, was wearing lederhosen-like shorts. Sometimes he played trumpet and accordion together; other times he played bass guitar parts on the accordion.

The other guys were Ed Klancnik on drums, who’s been with Alex for nine years and also leads Klancnik & Friends and has played with everyone from the late King of Polka Frank Yankovic to Canadian polka legend Walter Ostanek; three-year Meixner band veteran Hank Guzevich on trumpet, sax, clarinet, guitar and vocals—and a member of the International Polka Association Hall of Fame as leader of the Polka Family Band; and newcomer Nick Tiberi on concertina, guitar, keyboards and vocals.

In fact, it was Nick’s first tour with Alex, and a baptism of fire of sorts. One of the waitresses—and they were all young and drop-dead gorgeous—handed Alex a small but solid wooden paddle, and a piece of paper from which he announced an addition to the night’s festivities.

“Anyone who drinks a shot will be paddled three times by one of the waitresses!” he proclaimed. “But you have to sign a release in the event that you can’t sit down for the next four days.”

Being that it was Nick’s first gig with the band, Alex volunteered him, then directed the waitress to whack him harder.

I just stood there dumbfounded until the bouncer came over to me and said, “You’re next.”

“Fuck, no!” I told him. The idea was embarrassing enough, especially since the girls really were stunning and not old enough to be my granddaughter. Besides, I hadn’t signed a release, and was starting to sense a heart attack coming on.

The bouncer smiled.

“Are you ready to polka?” Alex said, as a long line of men—and one heavily-tattooed woman—got in line for their paddling, to the oddly appropriate polka strains of “Hava Nagila.”

“All these places have some kind of gimmick,” Alex said, after closing the night with a non-denominational “Amazing Grace,” amazingly graced by his simultaneous play of accordion and hoseaphone—a horn-sounding homemade instrument made up of long hose and large plastic funnel, held up by Hank.

“Shot skis are pretty common,” he said. “Masskrugstemmen—stein-holding contests–polka dance-offs, a myriad of figure dances.”

The future of polka.