Cover Story

Don't You Worry About Boozoo

by R. Reese Fuller

In a previously unpublished 1999 interview, Boozoo Chavis explains why there was only one Boozoo.

Anthony Wilson "Boozoo" Chavis lived out his life in Lake Charles, on a few acres he immortalized in song called Dog Hill. Born in 1930, he spent his life farming and raising horses. In 1954, he recorded the regional and seminal hit "Paper in my Shoe" for Eddie Shuler's Goldband Records in Lake Charles. Chavis always contended that Shuler ripped him off, and Shuler always denied it. The experience left a bad taste in Chavis' mouth, and for 30 years he didn't record or perform. But in the 1980s, Chavis re-emerged from obscurity to international acclaim and is credited with revitalizing zydeco music.

On April 29, 2001, just days after performing at the Dewey Balfa Cajun And Creole Heritage Week, Chavis suffered a heart attack and stroke while in Austin, Texas. He passed away six days later. Chavis was a walking powder keg of dynamite, both in conversation and on stage with his band The Majic Sounds. In the following exchange taken from a two-hour interview with Chavis in Lake Charles on Feb. 26, 1999 — published here for the first time — Chavis talked about what made him the one and only Boozoo.

How did you learn to play the accordion?

You know you can't hardly learn nobody how to play the accordion by telling them, "Do this and do that." You ain't going to learn like that. You got to look at your fingers and how they go. Then you can tell 'em, "Push and pull. … Make it rhyme with you words." It's got to ding-dong there in your head. You got to make that accordion say what you want to say, the way that the song goes. You know, like Susie-anna, Susie-anna, don't you cry for me. You heard that way back. (sings) I'm going to Alabama with a banjo on my knee. Susie-anna, Susie-anna, don't you cry for me. Now make that accordion say that, and you can't talk it. You got to rhyme it. I can't read music, but that's the only way I can explain you.

You see, I got a son there. He tries to sing some of my songs, and I tell him, you can't sing that. Let me sing my own. You sing something that I can't sing. His voice is not there at all. You couldn't sing my songs. You know what I'm saying? Because you might talk it. You've gotta let your music go up and down, let it rhyme. On my other record there, "You Gonna Look Like a Monkey When You Get Old," (sings) I can tell about your hair, you been fighting with that bear. You gonna look like a monkey when you get old. See? You can't say, "Hey, you gonna look like a monkey when you get old!" You talking it. You got to sing this thing. You've got to have a tone of voice. I explain that to the people, and it's right. Yeah. You got to make the accordion say what you say, and you got to say it and sing it right, like the song goes.

Did you learn to play the accordion just by watching others?

Yeah, you watch. A lot of them come to the dance where I'm at and watch my songs and my fingers, and they pick up on my songs and they cut it. They change the words around. All that music they got there, you watch all of my music in there. I told them don't be famous on my music. Be famous on your own. … They can't wait for one of my albums to come out so they can copy off of it. They want to make a rock beat with it.

I keep up the tradition, the zydeco. I'm the only one playing zydeco. I'm the oldest one now living, except Bois Sec [Ardoin]. The only one sticking with zydeco. S--t, that old messed up music. They ain't doing nothing but messing that music up. That's why when sometimes somebody asks me something, and I don't be thinking about that, I tell 'em sometimes what I ain't supposed to say.

They want to change the tradition of that zydeco. They don't want to say they're French, they're Creole. They want to try to play something like that come from New York or Chicago somewhere. That thing was born right here in the cotton fields, but they don't want that to be said. But I'm proud where I come from, and I'm proud what I am. I'm Creole, and I'm down to earth. I'm not trying to be something I ain't. That's right. I'm me.

People ask me those things sometimes, and I get angry. I come out with it. I tell it just like it is. I don't bite my tongue, because I know. I'm 68 years old. I've been married 47 years. When I was out there, them boys here wasn't born. Then they want to act like they'll pass over me. No, no. Right here. I speak like it is, and I'm telling the truth because they weren't even here. Ask today. I know. That's like what I be telling y'all. I don't brag, no. I speak right out from the truth. The truth is the light. What I tell you today, I'll tell that other guy that last year, and I'll tell him that next year. Whatever I tell you, I'll tell it again.

If you met somebody who had never heard zydeco before, how would you describe it to them?

The zydeco music is like the Cajun music, yeah, but it's got a little rock beat to it. It's more lively. Well, the Cajun music is lively, but then there's a little rock 'n' roll in there. Now a lot of people say that zydeco is snap beans and salt. That's a bunch of bull. You understand? Everyone use that word. Like you ask me that, I could have told you that. That's what it meant in French, Creole, but that's a bunch of baloney, man. (mimicking) "Oh, zydeco is snap beans and salt."

Well what you explaining? You ain't explaining nothing! Ain't that right? You asked me, what's the difference between zydeco and all this kind of stuff. The zydeco is more like a rock beat to that. See? It's Creole music, but it's got a rock beat.

But that's where the word came from.

Yeah, that's bull corn. Makes me mad. Snap beans and salt and all that junk. That's not the word for that, but it's the word — snap beans and salt. Zydeco sont pas salé. Well that's snap beans ain't salted, but don't use that word. I think that's ignorant, the way I can explain it. That's ignorant. Don't be using that.

What was it like the first time you went up North to play for people up there?

It was beautiful. It was wonderful.

Did they react differently to the music?

Yeah. It's not too much different. They dance just like them out here, but to me they be dancing a little better. Over here, they want to clown now. Them people out there going to out-dance them two to one. And them people love that music over there. They're all friendly. You know, I come from the old school, see. And if I would have been out there and known what I know now 25 or 30 years ago, I would have been out there that way. I wouldn't be here at all. Because the people out here, they're prejudiced.

Over there, them people, we already got a motel, they want to take you to their house, and eat dinner and spend the night over there — some doctors, lawyers. And over there, we call people by their name. They don't want you to call them mister. And over here, I'm older than a bunch of them punks. I forget myself, and I say mister. I'm old enough to be that punky's daddy, and I call that thing mister. But it's a habit I grew up with over here, like Uncle Tom's cabin. S--t. That burns me up, man. If I would have known what I know now, I would have been gone from here 40 years ago. See what I mean? I get mad when I go to answering those questions.

Over yonder everybody's just alike, equal. Everybody's equal over there. S--t.

"Hey Boozoo! Hey, how ya'll doing? Glad you could make it. We seen you on the Internet where you was coming, and we drove 800 miles to come see you." Don't that make you feel good?

These bastards over here don't even want to come here. I give a festival right there (pointing to his yard) every year for Labor Day. All them neighbors there won't come here. First thing, you see them in the store, "Hey Boozoo, where you playing?" Sometimes I be wanting to say, "Go to hell." No good bunch of coonasses over here, I'm telling you.

And the blacks are just like it. They won't come. I got that pasture full of people from Washington, D.C., Chicago, Arizona, New Orleans. All that right here. All these from Lake Charles, nobody comes. My neighbors right there, they won't come. All of them punks out here, man. I was born and raised here. We been married 47 years. I'm 68 years old.

But it's too late for me to move from here now. But I wish I could move from here and go stay out there — Washington, D.C. or Chicago somewhere. I don't want to stay in New York, but Ohio. We went to Cleveland. We went to Minnesota. We went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Virginia. All that. Connecticut, I could go stay up there. S--t, to get away from this. Yeah. Dog eat dog. The people going to help you over there. Over here, nobody helps you. If you ain't got a bite of food to eat, they ain't giving you nothing. Sometimes they told me it was like that in California, but I don't like California. Got a bunch of people there. I don't like it. But over here, if you ain't got no gas to put in that car, well you better leave it parked 'cause nobody ain't going to give you nothing. You eat what you can, egg and rice, maybe get you some meat. But you ain't got nothing. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing. They giving you nothing. They're jealous of you. I'm the only black here got a hurricane fence around here … When I say something on that I be telling you true.

If a promoter asked you to go to Europe, would you go?

They've been asking me that. I ask them what they pay. I ain't going to Europe just to say I'm going. It's gonna cost them. Them other guys went over there for little or nothing. But not me. It's gonna cost some money to go there, for me, and I told my agent that. People been asking me for years why I ain't went yet. Because the money ain't right. My son-in-law went over there. They went to Holland, $400 a piece when they come back here.

S--t, besides the band they're going to have to pay me 25, 30 [thousand] dollars for me by myself. And that's not the band. Then you're gonna pay my motel. One guy told me from London, I met him at Slim's and all that, I said, "What would y'all pay to go there?"

"Well, Boozoo, you play one night over here for a thousand. You play one night over there for 700. You play a night over yonder for — "

I said, "What you saying? You got be hustling them nights like that?"

"Yeah, you know. You play for a thousand one night over here, and you go play the next for 500 over there. Then you play another night over yonder for 800."

I said, "Oh man, I'm not gonna play no thing like that." …

I ain't lost nothing across there. Them people ask me that every year. I don't want to go. Uh-huh. Piss with Europe. I ain't going over there. I ain't going to try to go there because you went. If I see you out with a red car, then I'm going to go buy a red one? Bull corn with that. That's why come I'm gonna stay where I'm at because I'm not that kind of fool. I've been a fool all my life, but I begin to wake up now. And when I tell people that I guess I make 'em mad. I be mad when I tell 'em that! (Laughs).

See I don't try to do like them. They try to do like me. That's where the problem at.

Do you think zydeco is going to continue in the direction of the rock beat?

I think so. All the old ones are going. I'm the only one left here. So all them young punks want to turn that music like that. You see, Wayne Toups was trying to turn that Cajun music to ZydeCajun. Now ain't that something? They think the world of him. Me and him play together on the same stage, but Wayne Toups is just messing that music up. He can play that Cajun music, yeah, but he's going to play you a couple songs Cajun, and then he's going to start singing in English. You know what I'm trying to say. It's Cajun music, but he's singing "I left you crying this morning, blah blah blah."

They're changing it. They're turning it around. They use the English word in that and they change it totally different, but you can tell it's that Cajun music, yeah. You can tell. Like them other boys, you can tell that's my music. [sings] I ain't gonna cry no more; listen what they say, I ain't gonna cry no more! But that's my music. But he changed the words. See? You can listen to my music in there. But that's what they're doing with this Cajun music. I would rather them stay like them other guys — Belton Richard, Jesse Leger — stay with that Cajun music like that. But Wayne Toups, he's changing that Cajun music.

I once read where you said that you don't mind people playing your music, but you mind them playing it wrong. Are there any younger guys trying to play your music the right way?

They're all twisting it around. My grandson wants to try to play my music, but then he's got that Beau Jocque style in there. Sometimes he acts like he wants to play, and sometimes he acts like he wants to go the other way. I gave him an accordion. So I ain't going to mess with him. If you want to play, play. If you don't want to play, well, f--k you. That's the way I see it.

In "Boozoo's Payback" you sing "You play my music when I'm not home, but they can't sing my song."

That's a good song, yeah. You know I don't get to play that song often. (sings) You play music and you doing me wrong. But they can't sing my song. Leona get mad and she stay home. Boozoo gonna keep on going.

On your album Who Stole My Monkey there's an explicit lyrics label because of the version of "Uncle Bud." Does that bother you?

No. I play it good all the time. Then when they ask me to play it rated X, I play it.

"Oh, no! Don't play that in here."

Man, I come out with it more faster you make me mad. If they bother me to play it, if the owner or somebody get disrespect, well I'm sorry. I tell them ladies, I say, "I'm sorry about this ladies." I let 'em have it.

"Oh don't say that!"

Well, what's the matter with you? You got some kids, eh? How you think you brought them kids here? And if you say it, "Oh, that's bad for you to say that." No. Bull, man. Come on. They don't want you to use that bad word, but you know what it is. When you leave out the building you doing it every night.

I tell it like it is, me. I'm serious when I tell you that because it's coming from the truth. Then like [my wife] Leona hollers at me sometimes, you know. She says, "Oh Boozoo, oh no babe, don't say that." I say, "What? It's the truth!" Don't tell me don't say that, but it is the truth. Then I come with it more. I get mad. Just like I tell you, if you play that "Uncle Bud," you say, "Uncle Bud got this, Uncle Bud got that. Uncle Bud got a pecker like a baseball bat."

That offend you that much? Well you ain't got no business being in this hall. If it offend you, don't come here. See where I'm coming from? I don't go out there and sing it all the time. The people ask for it. The audience. Charles tells 'em, "Y'all want it rated X-rated, or y'all want it clean?"

"No, we want it rated X!"

I say, "Y'all want it rated X, I'm going to give it to you." Well, if you don't want it you must as well walk out. You shouldn't have been in here. This is not a church house. You'll hear anything in a club.

On songs like "Johnny Billy Goat" it's just you and the accordion. Would you prefer playing just by yourself or with the band?

It don't make me no difference. Playing by myself, it sounds good yeah. That's on that big accordion. That joker sounds good. So it don't make me no difference. It's a yes and no. You don't want to lie. It will strain you a little bit more to play by yourself. And you're so used to playing with the band. But I come up playing by myself! I didn't have no loudspeakers, no guitar, no bass and all that. We used to hit on the wall with some sticks or some spoons for the drums and hit on the Coke box. So I keep time with my foot, see. I ain't keeping time with them boys now. They got to follow me. You keep time with me. I'm going, me. You catch me.

I guess you prefer playing with the band, but I'm used to by myself. I can play by myself. But the people are gonna want to hear a band. The boss, the owner of the place is going to want the full band to pay you. He ain't going to pay you no good money by yourself. So you got to have a band and look professional. You know like on TV they got about 20 horns in there. That jazz music; I don't like jazz.

I like the best music. I got the best. The Creole. The zydeco. I got the best music. I'm not bragging on that though. I'm just saying, I like the Cajun music and I like zydeco, but I don't like all them jazz outfits with about 20 horns in there. That's just kinda noisy there.

If there's one thing that you would want people to remember about Boozoo, what would you want that to be?

I want them to remember me for my music, as the best in zydeco and remember that they had to copy my music. They know they got that music from me. I kept the tradition up, and then they want to turn it around. Don't forget that. But they ain't going to forget, no. But they gonna want to forget, but they ain't going be able to forget. Some people ain't going to let them forget. Yeah.