Nathan Williams, Michael Doucet and Dennis Paul Williams
El Sid O’s on a recent Monday afternooN Signs of a successful weekend are still scattered around Sid Williams’ Lafayette nightclub.
Nathan Williams, Sid’s brother and leader of the Zydeco Cha-Chas–who perform here frequently-is moving around the dark hall, picking up the empty bottles and wiping down the bar. “I’m the kind of guy that likes to work, ” he shrugs.
Nathan’s brother, the artist anD Zydeco Cha-Chas guitarist Dennis Paul Williams, comes through the front door. He’s followed by Beausoleil frontman Michael Doucet, who’s carrying a fiddle case. Then Nathan sees a photographer. “We’re taking pictures?” he asks, and quickly sends Dennis to Sid’s store to find a cowboy hat.
Michael Doucet joined the Zydeco Cha-Chas for the band’s fifth Rounder release, Creole Crossroads. As a musical summit of Cajun and zydeco, the disc joins collaborations by Clifton Chenier and Rod Bernard, and Dewey Balfa and Rockin’ Dopsie, among others.
The ties between the styles, however, go deeper. The roots of both Cajun and Zydeco– “Louisiana French music,” as Doucet prefers to call it-are embedded in the historic early collaboration of a Cajun and a Creole: Dennis McGee and Amede ArdoiN
But as is suggested by a recent federal civil rights lawsuit against a Cajun nightclub, invisible social barriers can still divide white and black in this regioN Yet the easy talk at El Sid’ O’s — and the music on Creole Crossroads– show that connections over the barriers are strong.
The two-hour conversation at El Sido’s free ranges over a variety of topics: the elusive meaning of words like “zydeco” and “Cajun”; revelations of strange mystical occurrences experienced under trees and in attics; and memories of Clifton Chenier. In the heat of conversation, the three musicians seemed to forget just why they hail convened: when we broke, Doucet turned to me and asked, “Have you been asking questions?”
How did the idea for Creole Crossroads first come about?
N WILLIAMS: [Producer] Scott Billington and I were in Istanbul, Turkey. We were playing with Johnny Copeland, and we would sit down and talk-we were drinking that Turkish coffee, so we couldn’t sleep. And Johnny Copeland said, “Man, y’all need to collaborate with the Cajuns.”
So Scott said, “You know Nathan, that’s a good idea. Maybe doing something with had me. That’s how he captured me, with songs like that. I’m serious.
Where were you when you were first hearing that music?
N WILLIAMS: I used to hear that when he used to play in the parade a long time ago. They always had a salute to Clifton Chenier in St Martinville. He was always a celebrity in the parade. They’d put him on a float, then the next thing you know, he’d be playing “Aye Tee Fee.” Man, you could hear people all down the street, they’d boogaloo.
Now when they put him up to the Casino Club? Before they get to the club, the club’s packeD Now he’s sitting down in the chair-this is Clir on the chair, drunk. He’s got a big fifth of VO and a gallon of water. They pick his chair up like that with him in it, into the club. They would salute him. Now Clir could have played in the damn bathroom …
DOUCET: When you talk about Clifton, he was so well respecteD He played for black and white, it didn’t matter. To him, he playeD
N WILLIAMS: You ever heard when he made that song “Jambalaya”? He was always talking about the black CajuN Now Clir was the type of person, Clir would get along with anybody, And if the band members made him mad, he’d tell the whole band, “Just get off the stage, just keep the drummer and the rubboarD Everybody else go to your house.”
DOUCET: He was definitely a leader. At Jay’s, we used to have a group called Coteau, and we used to open for him. And it was such a pleasure.
Did either of you ever have words with him or receive any advice from him?
N WILLIAMS: I talked with him. One time, he came and played at my brother’s club, and I wasn’t playing at the time. But I was always watching. And he couldn’t sing one night, ~e had the hiccups, So he couldn’t sing “Hungry Man Blues.” So Harry [Hippolite, Chenier’s long-time guitarist and Nathan’s uncle] was playing with him at the time, and he said, “Come up here, my little nephew, let that boy sing ‘Hungry Man Blues.'” So he started off on the accordioN And I sang, Yeah, baby. [Chenier] looked at Harry: “He bon, he boN”
N WILLIAMS: [singing] You’re the only one, you’re the only one that’s in my life. And he said, “You’re going to be something, you’re going to be something, baby,” When Clifton died — and I’m going to tell you, this is the God’s truth, and I wouldn’t have no reason in lying — when Clifton Chenier died, and after I went to the wake, I came home. He came to me like natural, like hi. my sleep. He said, “Keep on going,” He said, “You’re going to make it. Don’t stop playing that music, just keep blowing it.” I’m living witness — I’m not lying, he came like natural. I said, “Nat, this is something.”
DOUCET: To me, he was the most incredible musician I’ve ever met from here. I think I was always in awe of him. I was always timid around him. I’ve met him, we’d talk and things, and went to his house, and-
N WILLIAMS: You were always careful around him.
DOUCET: Yeah, I had a fiddle and I was always scared to play with him.
Beausoleil performs a number of zydeco songs, and wasn’t Beausoleil the first Cajun band to use a rubboard, which is traditionally a Creole or zydeco instrument?
DOUCET: When Beausoleil started, any kind of French music was being put dowN And our basic idea was to show the whole gamut, that French music or Cajun music wasn’t just twa-steps or waltzes-it’s also blues, it’s Tin Pan Alley songs translated into French, it’s ballads, reels, all this stuff. To me, that’s what makes the sounD That’s the synthesis of the sounD
I always liked the basic rubboard, because it keeps the sound without the drummer. This was early-Billy [Ware, Beausoleil percussion-ist] was one of the first guys. We both went down to Champagne’s metal shop — this was before the boobs [on rubboards) and all that other crap.
It wasn’t to emulate or be like Dopsie and be a main character. But if we’re going to play zydeco music, let’s try to do it as close as possible. But I think you’re right, I think we were the first. I had never thought of that before.
N WILLIAMS: One thing that I’ve been concerned about is about the rubboard, the real rubboarD Cleveland [Chenier], he invented the rubboarD And he should have had a patent. Because now, anybody can make a rubboarD
DOUCET: Oh I know, maN
N WlLLIAMS: I think everybody that has a rubboard should have Cleveland Chenier’s name on it, because he’s the one that invented it.
D WIlLIAMS: Another one of those players that was always well respected was that little guy they called Chester. One hand! I saw him one time at the Bon Ton grab a chair with his mouth and keep playing.
DOUCET: It’s like Ironjaw. He used to pick up a chair with his jaw.
N WlLLIAMS: Hello!
DOUCET: He was related to Redd Foxx, from Lake Charles. But Chester was an old guy. Now, how the hell could he do that stuff?
I’m sure that, on the road, Beausoleil has been called a zydeco band and the Zydeco Cha-Chas have been called Cajun more times than you can count.
N WIlLIAMS: Yeah, with me, it doesn’t make any difference.
D WILLIAMS: We’re up there, they enjoy themselves. When they come home, they’ll know the difference.
DOUCET: When we do a sit-down concert, and we get to a song about Freeman Fontenot–
N WILLIAMS: I like that song.
DOUCET: –so I say, well, this is an old-time zydeco song, and I tell the story about FreemaN
D WIlLIAMS: So you get them in the mindset.
DOUCET: You give them an idea. For the most part, we are Cajun musicians. We have a fiddle and a Cajun accordion, and that’s it. But the heart of the music comes from the French people that were in Louisiana; it wasn’t just music from Acadie.
I don’t call myself a zydeco musician, because I’m not. I’m not a zydeco musiciaN I love to play-I love Clifton, I love Bois-See [Ardoin) and Canray [Fontenot)–that’s some of my favorite music. But I’m not like that, and I think it would be wrong for me to say that I play zydeco music.
And you can tell, when we do a song about Clifton Chenier, that really wasn’t a Clifton zydeco song–
You’re talking about your song, “La Nuit De Clifton Chenier,” which Nathan sang on this recorD
DOUCET: What I find in that thing, and (to Nathan and Dennis) y’all did a much better job of bringing it out of it than we did — was more of an island thing.
I heard the Cha-Chas perform that song Wednesday at El Sid O’s-you’re including that song in your show?
DOUCET: [To Nathan] I didn’t know y’all were playing it.
N WILLIAMS: People love that song. It’s just like what I do. I give them a flavor of Cajun, I give them a flavor of zydeco. I pass them a waltz. I give them a flavor of everything.
I have to satisfy the people. That’s what I’m there for. Whatever makes them dance. If a waltz is going to make them dance, we can waltz all night long.
DOUCET: Well, I love the name Zydeco Cha-Chas. It just kind of says it right there. People say, “You play Cajun?” and you can say, “That’s why we call it Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas.”
One of the things that Cajun and zydeco music certainly share is that both styles are dance music. Was that one thing that gave you a common language when you came together to make this album?
D WILLIAMS: But you know, Michael, there’s one thing about zydeco musicians that I’ve noticeD The beautiful waltzeS that some of the zydeco bands used to play, very few of them can play it now.
DOUCET: The old stuff.
D WILLIAMS: The old stuff. That’s part of the music, see?
DOUCET: You said you’re a zydeco musician I like to call myself a French musiciaN What is a zydeco musician? You tell me. Is it from Clifton on, or is it from before Clifton? Where does it start?
D WlLLIAMS: From Amede, from way back. DOUCEl: Would you call his music zydeco?
N WILLIAMS: I would call it CajuN Now, Clifton Chenier’s music, I would call it zydeco.
D WILLIAMS: I think that’s the problem with the metaphor. I think there is an element of the la-la, and there is an element of the zydeco. And it’s a marriage, so [you] can’t separate it and not lose some pan of the definitioN
DOUCET: When Clifton started playing, it was more of an urban sounD So he got this rhythm and blues stuff. When I hear the word “zydeco,” I hear a modem musiciaN When you see somebody like Bois-Sec or Canray, you wouldn’t say they’re playing zydeco, would you?
N WILLIAMS: I would call it longtemps passé, from way back.
DOUCET: They used to say they played French music. I’m not saying you had to speak French or be of French descent or anything like that, but it was a certain designation for that music. I don’t even call it CajuN
Ever since Amede Ardoin and Dennis McGee-and maybe earlier-Cajuns and Creoles have shared a certain musical language, even at times when they might not have been able to go into each other’s dance halls. Did you grow up with these kinds of barriers? Did music help you cross them?
DOUCET: I saw racism. And I saw it here. It exists, I’ll tell you that. And I guess I was raised right, or something like that, because I never had that problem in our family. In the early ’70s, when I first went to Bebe [Carrier]’s house, I just knocked on his door. He didn’t know me from anybody, maN Or Canray’s house, or Bois-Sec’s. And I said, “I love the music, I’d like to hear the music.ff And it was open arms. And all of a sudden, we became real good friends, we’ve gone around the world together. And it’s the kind of thing where you want to say, “Well, this is what the world should be.” And you realize how close you are.
What is some of the earliest music you heard when you were growing up?
N WILLIAMS: Our uncle was a musician, you know. They’d sing and play Bazaar — he used to sing Soul man, a good man, going to the war/fighting in the battle, going to the war. Have you ever heard that?
N WILLIAMS: [sings] Because this is the baby soldier, going to the war. My uncle, he would do most of the singing, him and this old guy named Voorhies, he used to sing juré. [Sings] juré, juré/ juré going to marry me.
And that old man would be having a spoon in his hand, he’d be jam-ming-washboard, foot, that’s how they’d do it.
D WILLIAMS: When Nathan does the zydeco, that reminds me of the juré kind of stuff.
When you say “the zydeco,” you mean …
D WILLIAMS: It’s just hearing the accordion and the rubboard and the triangle, that’s closer to it.
Michael, is there anything in that musical history you can relate to when you think back on your childhood?
DOUCET: We had some ballad singers, but it was different. My father had five sisters, and we would all get around the house, and they would sing, but they would sing these old French songs, and it was amazing. And they would carry you further back. This kind of stuff, it sounds like it’s light up to the minute here.
D WILLIAMS: It’s spontaneous.
DOUCET: It’s amazing, but to answer your question, it would go back to France, and they would talk about kings and stuff like that I’m sure they didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, these kings, but they were stories that always had a point. The old people, man, they would always have a moral. It was a lot of unhappy endings.
Those kinds of stories, in a roundabout way, would get to you. They were all in French.
What other kinds of lessons did either of you learn about how to play music, or how to get the right feeling in your playing?
N WILLIAMS: I had one man, he was Claude Faulk. He told me, “Now what you gotta do.” He says, “You get you a doggone little black cat, and tie it onto the chair .• And he says, “Stan playing that accordion, and you gonna learn like that. And I said, “Well, Mr. Faulk, I’ll tell you what.” [laughs) I said, “If I got to sell my soul to the deVil to play accordion, then I don’t want that. ” I said, “I ain’t gonna do that, maN”
D WILLIAMS: They’re very superstitious around here.
N WILLIAMS: Then he said, “The best thing you do, man, you go out to the end of the old gravel road there. Where they got the dead enD At night, you go play there. You’re going to see.”
You know, one thing I believed in — I had an oak tree behind the house. He told me, “The best thing you can learn, you go there and sit under the oak tree, at about 12 o’clock at night, and you’re going to see how you’re going to learn fast. I used to go behind-when I was staying right there.”
D WILLIAMS: You did that?
N WILLIAMS: I’d sit myself under the oak tree, I’d sit down and blow, maN And that’s how I was getting all kinds of keys, and I’m not lying. And I didn’t know a damn thing about keys. You know what I’m saying, bro? This was feeling. I’m not going to lie. I’m not saying it made me learn, but I was playing beuer. I was feeling better.
DOUCET: let me tell you this. You know that old house I live in-it’s an old house. And it’s kind of spooky in some ways. Well, I went upstairs when I was restoring that house. And I’d go up there and just make all these sounds, man, I’d just walk around the room and it would sound real good upstairs. And it’s a small ceiling, and they have four windows on each side. And I was barefooted, I was playing, and I was really doing it up, and I realized that where my feet were, where I landed, it was almost worn, it was almost carved out. And it’s still there today. It’s just like somebody was either rocking or something in that same place where my feet were. But the spiritual thing, it happens man, it comes.
N WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah.
DOUCET: It was the weirdest thing. I looked down and I jumped up. I don’t tell that to too many people, but —
N WILLIAMS: It’s true, and that’s my first time saying what I’m saying about that oak tree. I’m not lying to you. And I still like to play my accordion so much, maN It’s just like Clifton Chenier’s songs. I’m going to play that reeling I have inside-I’m going to express my feelings about the song.
We’re sitting here under a painting that Dennis did of Canray Fontenot, which reminds me about the fiddle. Clifton played with his Uncle Morris on some recordings, but the fiddle isn’t a part of most zydeco bands right now. This album is a rare example of a fiddle on a zydeco recorD
D WILLIAMS: Which is a shame.
Do you think your audience wants to hear a fiddle?
N WlLLIAMS: If it’s done light If the fiddle is playing what I’m playing, if he’s in tune. like in “Hard to love Someone” — it’s beautiful, maN
DOUCET: But can the fiddle be reintroduced? Can we get young kids to pick it up?
D WILLIAMS: I saw Canray at the Rhode Island festival-it was the last time I saw him. Remember when we played Rhode Island, Nat? And I had a long conversation with Canray. I told him I had bought an old fiddle-remember when I bought that old fiddle at the pawn shop? And after talking with him I was so moved by him. I saw the hun in his eyes. Because he didn’t feel like his people, the blacks, were really receptive to his fiddle playing.
Do you think you’d like to collaborate again some time in the future?
N WILLIAMS: Oh yeah.
DOUCET: They’re going to play on my record the next time. I think we were getting a synthesis of the styles-next we’d need to try getting together, just us, and looking at some different songs, maybe writing some songs. Because this one, it was fuN You never knew what was going to happeN Playing together opened the possibilities of expanding this thing to what it could sound like-it wasn’t an alien thing, it wasn’t an uncomfortable thing.
N WILLIAMS: That’s right, because I can’t play uncomfortable. You know what I’m saying? •
Michael Tisserand wrote the liner notes Jor Creole Crossroads. His Jorthcoming book on zydeco will be published by Faber and Faber in spring, 1997.