Tab Benoit stood up before a group of musicians, journalists, wetlands activists and potential donors in an airplane hanger at the Houma-Terrebonne airstrip last April. It was the Monday between the two weekends of Jazz Fest and Benoit was giving the best presentation about the destruction of the Louisiana wetlands I’ve ever heard.
“What we’re looking at here,” said Benoit, gesturing at the flat grassland stretching off into the horizon outside of the runway, “is the new Atlantis. Out there are the places where people lived that don’t exist anymore. Indian burial grounds that don’t exist anymore. I’ve watched the land I grew up on here in Houma literally disappear. Places where I used to go to camp out don’t exist anymore. The house where my grandma and grandpa lived in is underwater. You have to take a boat to see where it was. It’s like people take a boat out to see where Atlantis used to be, and that’s going to be us.”
The most impressive part of the presentation was when Benoit, a pilot himself, and veteran aviator Charlie Hammonds took the guests up in four-seater Cessnas for an aerial view of what was happening to south Louisiana. The planes took off and headed over the Mississippi delta. The land stretching along the course of the river south of New Orleans was brown, the color of death, empty of any signs of life. Not a bird flew in the sky over this wasteland. The planes then flew west, toward the area around the Atchafalaya delta, where the ground cover was a deep, vibrant green, trees grew bountifully in the cypress swamps, and flocks of birds populated the air.
The difference? The Mississippi levee system has been keeping the river silt from feeding the delta for decades because of a decision made last century by the Army Corps of Engineers to narrow the gulf outlet of the river for shipping purposes. The canals crisscrossing the wetlands en route to the Gulf of Mexico built by oil companies to service their rigs have allowed salt water to flow in and kill everything in its path.
“It’s very simple,” says Benoit. “I live not far from the Atchafalaya River and the Atchafalaya is allowed to do its thing. It’s building land like crazy. It’s filling the oil company canal and it’s rebuilding the marshland like it’s supposed to in nature, and the Mississippi is not. It’s choked off all the way to the gulf.”
Benoit points out that 17 years ago, the two sections of this ecosystem were suffering from the same problem.
“It’s only been since hurricane Andrew (in 1992) when they busted through the Atchafalaya levees and let the river flow,” he says. “I’ve seen a tremendous difference since then. You can see it from the air. Over here it’s brown and there it’s green again. Where you see the brown, it’s dying. What else do you need to know? When the grass dies, it turns into open water. When it turns into open water, you’re seeing the land eroding, you’re losing your protection, you’re losing your land. Forget about rebuilding land for a minute; we’ve got to stop the erosion first. If we can get fresh water back in there, it’s going to at least stop erosion and we know that works because we know that’s the way Mother Nature works. The delta was built by Mother Nature. It was built a long time ago and it was working fine before we messed with it.”
Benoit insists there is only one way to address the problem.
“We have to open the Mississippi River up back to the areas that it used to flow through,” he argues, “like down here at Bayou Lafourche. It’s a tributary, a bayou is a small river that comes off the Mississippi, and that’s where they closed it off. Open up Bayou Lafourche, open up Bayou Terrebonne, it’s a natural pipeline of river water to the wetlands, and that land needs river water to keep building.”
The solution may be simple to demonstrate, but it’s difficult to isolate from the sense of inevitability that accompanies the grim fact that the oil companies exploiting the area are not interested in restoring the wetlands and all aspects of government have either turned a deaf ear to the problem or exacerbated it.
“Basically, we sacrificed the coastline of Louisiana for oil,” says Benoit, who quickly adds, “and I made a living off of it. Everybody around here worked for the oil companies at some point. But we have to make a decision. Everything from the North Shore and the Atchafalaya down—you scoop that whole piece out and look at what you’re missing. Look at what you’re going to lose. Baton Rouge will be the coast. Mandeville will be the coast. Everything south of that was built by the Mississippi River.”
Benoit decided to do something about it himself, forming the Voice of the Wetlands Foundation in 2003. He has personally lobbied members of Congress, spoken out at his live performances and put together the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars. The group, which also includes Cyril Neville, Dr. John, George Porter, Jr., Anders Osborne, Monk Boudreaux, Johnny Vidacovich, Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone and Waylon Thibodeaux, will perform at the 6th annual Voice of the Wetlands festival in Houma. The event at Houma’s Southdown Plantation October 9-11 is free to the public and will also feature a reunion of the original lineup of Louisiana LeRoux, Papa Grows Funk, CC Adcock, Amanda Shaw, Susan Cowsill, Mardi Gras Indians, Chubby Carrier, Southern Cross, Sons of William, the Hurricane Levee Band and Freddy and the Freeloaders. As part of the festival, Hammonds will be taking visitors for their own bird’s-eye view of the problem from Houma- Terrebonne airport. He wants people to see for themselves that time is running out.
Growing up in the oil patch Benoit never saw the bad side of this issue until he was already inside of it.
“I’ve been flying airplanes since I was a kid,” he says. “I was 14 years old the first time I had my hands on a stick and I’ve had my pilot’s license since I was 17. I grew up around oil rigs. I would go out and fly to oil rigs with my dad, fly out to different locations in seaplanes, and I always enjoyed that. I noticed that the happiest guy on the oil rig was always the guy who was flying the airplane back to town that night. I thought that looks like the kind of job I would want to have working in the oil field. Music wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to be a pilot for a living. I got a good job working out of Lakeview airport, out of Houma airport, flying back and forth.”
Benoit was flying pipeline patrol when he first started seeing the results of wetlands erosion.
“You can see things better from the air,” he says. “That’s why we take people flying. I started noticing while I was flying on the coast looking at all those coastal pipelines running through the marshes around the edge of the gulf. You’d see little islands disappear in a matter of months. Then I got a chance to see it speed up, things that would change monthly were starting to change weekly. When I started talking about it people would say, ‘Ah, that’s never going to happen in our lifetime.’ I would have to say it looks like it’s happening faster than anybody could imagine. From the air you can see the whole thing. Go talk to the people who fish in the bayous, go talk to the people who fly over the river to the rigs all the time to go to work. They’re going to tell you exactly what I’m telling you. That’s why I want people to see it; I want them to form their own opinion and not listen to somebody else’s opinion about what needs to happen on the coast of Louisiana.”
Benoit had always played music on the side, and one day while he was flying he realized that music was his real calling.
“I realized that music was a better way to help more than just myself. I wanted to do something that would give me a chance to make my mark, to leave the world a little bit better place than it was the day I found it. It seemed the right road to take. I didn’t know at the time what role music was going to take in the wetlands struggle, but it became clearer as time went on.”
Benoit would go into the swamps to write his songs, and he saw those swamps dying around him.
“I was writing about this stuff before we formed Voice of the Wetlands. I spent a lot of time writing in the swamps, and they were dying as I was writing the songs. I was feeling that out there—I was feeling the land talking to me, telling me it’s in trouble.”
Benoit decided to join a wetlands preservation organization.
“I went to different meetings and every time I’d go to one, I’d find out that these people are making a living at this. Where’s the incentive to really get it fixed? Look, I live there, and none of these organizations were formed by people that live there. So these people are talking about they’re going to fix my home and they don’t even live here. You get this backed-intoa- corner feeling and you realize we’re going to have to start our own organization.”
Soon Benoit realized he had musician friends who were also allies in the wetlands cause. He and Cyril Neville, the most politically astute and outspoken member of the Neville Brothers, was a friend and songwriting partner. Neville quickly joined forces with Benoit and the nucleus of the VOW All-Stars was in place.
“It all started with me writing songs with Tab for his records,” says Neville. “We started talking about this and we realized we had a lot in common about a lot of different things, one in particular being how the loss of wetlands was threatening New Orleans. When he started talking about the Voice of the Wetlands organization, I was very interested in it from the beginning.”
Benoit found another willing VOW partner in Dr. John, who had spoken out about the dangers of coastal erosion even before Tab founded his group.
“Mac’s dad was talking about this in the ’40s,” Benoit explains. “That’s how he got hooked up with us. We were friends for a long time, but I saw his eyes light up when I started talking about forming this organization.”
One of the most remarkable things about the VOW All-Stars is how good they sound together. Very few such supergroup assemblages sound like real bands, especially those in service of good causes. But the cause of wetlands preservation is not a chic Hollywood stance or an ideologically driven crusade. There is no chance it will ever look as wonky as the No Nukes campaign appears in hindsight today. The disappearance of Louisiana’s coastline affects everyone regardless of color, class, religion or political affiliation. Katrina’s impact on New Orleans was far nastier than it would have been if the barrier islands and swamps hadn’t disappeared.
The first time this group played together was the day in January 2005 when they showed up at Piety Street studios to make the first Voice of the Wetlands album. Benoit and Cyril Neville had worked on some material together, but everyone else walked in cold.
“We had clusters of different musicians off in corners throwing ideas around,” recalls Neville. “There was a lot of mutual respect. It was a great experience, really. We had fun and everybody meant what they were saying. A lot of the conversations we were having ended up in songs.”
Fortunately George Porter, Jr., who knew everyone in the project and had played with several members as guests in his Trio gigs with Vidacovich, was on hand to take on the role of musical director, and he became the foreman directing the general flow and arrangement strategy on the session.
“The cohesion of the musicians and the music happened as the record was being made,” Porter says. “There was a lot of cooperation in the studio. Someone needed to step to the front of the room and get these nine bandleaders on the same page with all these different songs. Everything I knew about the music was delivered that day when we got to the studio. I wrote the music for a couple of songs Tab and Cyril wrote the lyrics for, like ‘Bayou Breeze.’ Between songs I was in the room playing that bass line and Cyril came over and said, ‘Man, let’s do something with that,’ Tab and Cyril wrote some words to it and we cut the track. I had the vocal mic and called the changes to the rest of the guys as we went along. It went that way for much of the album, like on Monk’s song. I would call the changes as we went and then say, ‘OK Doc you play the solo here.’ That’s how it kind of went down. Everybody tracked at once, all nine of us in the studio. Tab and the drums were in the isolation room.”
Unfortunately Voice of the Wetlands was one of many recordings made before Katrina that didn’t come out until after the storm. When the record was finally released by Rykodisc, it was treated as something of an afterthought, which is particularly tough because it’s such a great overview of Louisiana music with a powerful message whose impact was mitigated by the very events it so chillingly predicted.
“Everything that we went into the studio talking about, happened,” says Porter. “Unfortunately the record came out after the fact, which made it sound like just another hurricane record. I think that’s the reason it wasn’t heard by more of the right people. I don’t believe this record was really intended for the everyday, record-buying public. I think it was meant to be heard by the powers that be. People who can change something.”
Porter admits that he wasn’t really thinking in political terms when he made the record, which is why the content moved him so much when he heard the finished product only after Katrina hit.
“To me, it was just a recording session. I was more interested in ensuring that this project was musically correct. I walked away from the project feeling that that purpose had been served. It wasn’t until after Hurricane Katrina that I actually heard the finished product. I put the record on while I was driving along the I-10. I had to pull over to the side of the highway because I started fucking crying like a baby. I cried for a good 45 minutes on the side of the highway listening to this record because it broke my heart.”
The VOW All-Stars went on to be a powerful performance unit and even recorded a second album which is scheduled for release next year. Live shows, especially at the VOW festival and Jazz Fest, have become rallying points. Dr. John has taken the cause a step further, taking on Jazz Fest sponsor Shell directly. When news came out that a plane would circle the Fair Grounds during Mac’s Jazz Fest set calling on Shell to accept its role in the destruction of the wetlands and do something about it, his management was forced to issue a public apology to Shell and the festival. But when he spoke for himself, Mac Rebennack didn’t back down. “If you don’t stand for something,” he says, “you ain’t got nothin’ to stand on.” In this case you can take that line literally.
“Mac is old enough where he doesn’t have to care about who he pisses off,” says Benoit. “But somebody has to get aggressive. When you see what’s happened and what’s still happening, it’s hard not to get angry. I think Shell takes a lot of the heat because they claim to be doing something about it, but so far we haven’t seen any results.”
Ironically, the VOW band may have a great future, but time is running out for the cause it is fighting for. Benoit realizes that his efforts to lobby congressional leaders and even the oil companies are getting nowhere.
“I’ve been to Congress,” he says. “I got nowhere in Congress. All of them said the same thing. We walked in there and talked common sense to them and just left it on the table. One of the things that’s easy about talking about the plight of coastal Louisiana is that there’s a recorded history of it, so we can read it to them. We can show them pictures. This is what it was like in the ’50s, this is what it’s like now, this is what it’s going to be in 50 years. What are you going to do about it? And they look at me and go, ‘Man it’s not our decision, all we can do is fund it. All we can do is vote on the funding.’ It has to be a decision by the president, who controls the Army Corps of Engineers, the commander-in-chief is the head of that. So all we can do is get a bunch of people and make a bunch of noise and hope the president hears it.”
Benoit was invited to the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in September, where supporters hoped to get him an audience with the president. He’s not banking on that, though, and the next Voice of the Wetlands festival after this October’s event won’t be in Houma; it will be in Washington, D.C.
“Sometime between now and the fifth anniversary of Katrina, we’re planning on going to Washington and doing a festival. We’re hoping a lot of people are going to meet up with us there,” says Benoit. “We’ll be aiming the speakers at the White House and saying, ‘Make a decision.’ This has got to be a presidential decision.
“They got one shot to make it right. We’ve got one shot to ask for help one more time. And even that’s pushing it. A lot of money has been spent on the coast of Louisiana and a lot of money has been wasted. We’ve got to make sure that we have a voice the next time the federal government spends money on the coast of Louisiana. I want to make sure that the local people here have a voice, that the area has a voice, and not just the people, the land itself. That’s what Voice of the Wetlands is all about. It’s making sure that the right things are brought up and the real problems are brought up and the real solutions are brought up.”
Benoit is issuing an ultimatum. “Just tell us whether you plan to fix it or not,” he says. “It’s a 50/50 proposition. Either you fix it, or you’re going to have to move the port of New Orleans, you’re going to have to move the refineries, you’re going to have to move the people. I’m going to fight this with everything I have because I’m fighting for my home. If you see me leaving, you better move fast because the only way I’m going is if it’s all over.”