Black Snake Blues

Here's an exclusive excerpt from "Way Down in Louisiana: Clifton Chenier, Cajun, Zydeco, and Swamp Pop Music" by Todd Mouton, one of 2015's best books.

Courtesy Arhoolie Records

Todd Mouton’s new book is like a family album tracing the global impact of Acadiana-area music. Interlaced, lavishly illustrated chapters on Buckwheat Zydeco, Sonny Landreth, BeauSoleil, Zachary Richard and many others roots music innovators surround the volume’s centerpiece, the first book-length exploration of the life and career of The King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier.

From Bonsoir, Catin to Lil’ Band O’ Gold and beyond, the book weaves through nearly 100 years of our homegrown music and its impact on listeners the world over. “I started on the book way back in 1995, and lots of the material comes from the 1990s, when Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana bandmates including superlative saxophonist John Hart and stalwart bassist ‘Jumpin’ Joe’ Morris were still alive,” Mouton, the former editor-at-large of The Independent says. “Their stories are just incredible, and I think really pull the reader into their grand musical adventure.”

“This excerpt covers one of many peak periods for the band, and it takes place not long after the ground-breaking Louisiana Blues and Zydeco album, when the group traveled to the Bay Area to record the desolate and soulful Black Snake Blues album,” Mouton adds. “As a bonus, this part of the book also touches on some cool Lafayette history, right from our McComb-Veazey neighborhood, and explains how our neighbors made music whose impact still reverberates worldwide.”

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Lafayette bassist “Jumpin’ Joe” Morris joined Clifton Chenier’s ensemble in time for the genre-defining Black Snake Blues album, and he remained a member of the band until 1978. Morris was born into a musical family, and a love of blues and early encouragement from legendary Gulf Coast blues-jazz guitarist and rootsy violist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown led him to the guitar at a young age.

“The first time when I start playin’,” Morris remembered in a 1995 interview at his home in Lafayette, “I was playing with accordion bands. At that time, I played with some guys, some ageable guys, you know. They had nothin’ but uh accordion and uh scrubboard. That’s all they had. And they’d come and get me to play guitar to bass ’em.”

Cleveland, left, and Clifton Chenier
Photo copyright Chris Strachwitz

Morris learned guitar from Raymond “Schwank” Monette, a gifted player who would later join Chenier’s band and who also tutored future Chenier and Morris collaborator Paul “Lil’ Buck” Sinegal.

Accordionists Paul McZeal and Paul Harris were some of the first musicians the young Morris accompanied on two-steps and fast dances like the barré. Morris fondly remembered gigs at Lafayette clubs like The Happy Hour and Freetown’s Good Hope Hall. “It wasn’t no more than a scrubboard, accordion and a guitar,” he said. “That’s all it was. And them people was—you could’ve swore, man, it was James Brown, that’s just how them people enjoyed that. And then to get in the door it was fifteen cents and a quarter. Fifteen cents for the lady and twenty-five cents for the man. That’s what it was to come in there. And the place was jam-packed.”

“Them guys, they’d do it all French,” Morris recalled. “Some of ’em, they couldn’t speak English too well. So that’s how I learned how to play that French music.”

It wasn’t long before the young musician heard of Chenier. “He was playing in Port Arthur. And I had a friend of mine that was livin’ in Port Arthur and he used to come to Lafayette all the time. And he’d talk about Clifton Chenier, you know. And so, I said, one day I’m ’onna meet Clifton Chenier. So it just so happened he came to Lafayette. Some Boudreauxs had a club like The Blue Angel Club, they’re the ones that brought him down here to Lafayette.

“I wasn’t doing nothing one Friday and he came over by my house. His bass player, you know, he was an alcoholic. So they asked my brother, they say, ‘Do y’all know where to find Joe?’ So my little baby brother say, ‘Yeah, I know where he at, I’ll go, you want him?’ So I was to a friend of mine house, he said, ‘Joe, come on to your house, ’cause Cliff want to see you. I think he wants you to go play with him.’ I said ‘OK.’ I went on down to the house, there Cliff was, he said, ‘Man, what you doin’?’ I said, ‘So you’re Cliff, hunh?’ He said ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Would you like to play with me tonight?’ I said, ‘I’m a guitar player Cliff, I’m no bass player.’ He said, ‘I’m ’onna make a bass player out of you.’ ‘But I ain’t got no bass you know.’ So he said, ‘Don’t worry.’ So my little brother told me, he said, ‘Joe I know a fella who got a couple of bass, you know, I’ll talk to him, probably he could lend you one.’

“So he loaned it to me. And the guy that was playing guitar, he was from Jennings but he was living in Houston, so I said, ‘Man, look, I’m ’onna do the best I can.’ The guitar player’s name was Cleveland Keyes. He said, ‘Joe, all you do [is] watch me.’ We went play at a club near Bridge City, in Port Neches [Texas] at The Rodair Club.

“Clifton wouldn’t call out no keys. You got to pay attention, you know, ’cause he gonna sound the accordion, that’s how we know when and what he was gonna play. So when he sounded the accordion, Cleveland [Keyes] would tell me, ‘Joe, it’s in C.’ I’d say okay, I got it. He’d sound the accordion, start playing a song, we’d fall in. If it’s a slow song, you know, he’d sound his accordion, he’d sound it on the tempo and we’d follow that tempo. So then it start gettin’ into me, you know, then it start gettin’ good, I say, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh, good, I like this. I’m gettin’ somewhere now.’”

After his baptism by fire, Morris rushed in to share news of the gig with his wife Theresa. “Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened,” he said. “‘T, you shoulda seen your husband and heard your husband, playin’ behind Clifton Chenier.’ I said, ‘Boy wait until the people from around here hear that I played with Cliff.’

Courtesy Bill Boelens

“It was a Friday night, we played at the Rodair Club. And that Saturday night, we came to Lafayette, we played at the Four Aces Club. And I took off from there,” he said. Chenier was living in Houston, playing jobs during the week with Texas-based musicians. For a short while Morris continued working as an apprentice plumber.

“When he’d come down here, he’d get us,” Morris recalled. “His friend had The Blue Angel Club [on the corner of Twelfth Street and Orange Street], they had a house on Apple Street. Him [Chenier] and his wife used to stay at his house. So, we’d leave from, you know, he’d pick up everybody. Robert [St. Julien] was living on Ninth Street, I was living off of Twelfth Street. We was all living close around. So all he’d do, he’d pass around, he’d pick us up.”

In the fall of 1967, Chenier invited Morris to join a tour out west that would include a recording date for the Arhoolie label. Lafayette six-stringer Felix James “T-Jim” Benoit and tenor saxophonist John Hart completed the now six-piece group’s lineup.

“From Bridge City, Texas, all the way going into Vancouver,” the bassist remembered. “We’d play the same clubs on the way coming back. And our last gig on the way back was in Bridge City, Texas.” The club was Sparkle Paradise, just across the Rainbow Bridge over the Neches River from Port Arthur. Run by owner Tiny Richardson, the dancehall was later immortalized in song by Louisiana/Texas pianist and bandleader Marcia Ball. “Oh man, it was a huge club. It was really huge. And everybody would turn out. People were like, you know, on the bandstand, we were standing high over and it would look like, you know, ants, there were so many people that was there,” Morris said.

“[Chenier] had a ’59 Cadillac—that’s the car we went in, pullin’ a trailer. Black, solid black. That was a monster, brother. And all of us got in that car to go and we was all comfortable in that car. We were six in there,” Morris related. “But, the only thing was, you see, his gas gauge wasn’t working. And so when we got in [New] Mexico, well, we got in the middle of the desert. And the gas played out. Now what? And they had lights up front, it’s like a town, you know, but it looked very close. [Chenier] say, ‘Well, fellas, we gonna have to start pushin’.’ But you know, a power steerin’, you know, it’s hard when you’re pushin’. So we all got there and start pushin’, except [blind saxophonist] John Hart, because John couldn’t see, you know. We start pushin’, so, we wouldn’t be gettin’ very far, you know, but we get all tired out. So they had a soldier pass. He went up here, he stopped and he backed up. He asked what was the problem. He seen, you know, the name on the trailer and everything, you
know, and he said, ‘Well, if you got a can, I’ll take one of y’all and get some gas and I’ll bring you back. Or you can buy one at the station.’ So, Clifton say, ‘Joe, you go.’ I say ‘Alright.’ I got in the car with the soldier. He ain’t had far to go, he was goin’ to some camp by that town. So I got five gallon of gas. He said ‘Well,’ he said ‘Next time I see you guys,’ he say, ‘probably y’all can get me a ticket or when I get at the door,’ he say, ‘let me in, I want to hear y’all.’ [We] say ‘that’s fair enough.’ So we put the gas in there you know, and then we took off ... we finally made it.”

When the band arrived in Los Angeles they made camp at the home of J.R. Fullbright, the talent scout who first brought Chenier to the West Coast a dozen years earlier.

On Tuesday, October 10, 1967, the band cut twenty-one tunes, some in multiple takes, at Sierra Sound Laboratories in Berkeley.

Choosing the title Black Snake Blues must have been an easy task for producer Chris Strachwitz. The brooding, stripped-down trio track and album opener is a deep, desolate number that stands apart in the history of southern American music.

From the opening notes, it’s clearly blues. A telepathically quick first snare drum hit syncs the accordion’s sonorities with Robert St. Julien’s insistent bass drum and Cleveland’s loping, polyrhythmic rubboard rattles and scrapes. Clifton’s bass-side accordion patterns support his mournful vocals. “Pleeease, baby, won’t you come on home,” he sings in the second verse. “I’m not gonna tell nobody, but black snake is in my room.”

The album maintains a tight focus on the band’s rootsy side, and the recording and mix are clearly Chenier’s best to date. Bassist Morris and guitarist Benoit are featured on just two of the dozen tracks, Morris recalled, “’cause Chris wanted mostly French.”

One of the biggest advantages provided by the minimalist settings and improved recording quality of Black Snake Blues is that Cleveland’s brilliant, often otherworldly rubboard playing cuts completely through the mix for the first time. Nothing locks in with his brother’s accordion playing like his percussion work, which, in tandem with St. Julien’s authoritative deep pocket drumming, takes the sound from two to three dimensions. The rhythm tracks alone sound like zydeco, and together with Clifton’s now-more-audible bass-side accordion runs, the ensemble builds an unmatched rhythmic backbone for the bandleader’s accordion and vocal melodies. Their insistent, propulsive sound is zydeco, both the noun and the verb.

The taut, circular rhythms of “Let’s Talk It Over” and the bass-drum heavy 12/8 triplet feel of “Walking to Louisiana” take the record into the stratosphere, before the gorgeous accordion-and-sax-led “Key to the Highway” – the sole cut featuring tenor man John Hart – brings the release full circle. And all three of these songs sound a world apart from their origins in other artists’ repertoires.

“Let’s Talk It Over” aka “Don’t You Lie To Me” aka “I Get Evil” was first recorded by Tampa Red in 1940 and covered by Fats Domino in 1951, Chuck Berry in 1961, Albert King in 1962, and The Rolling Stones in 1964 (though their version was not released until 1975). Chenier’s backbeat-heavy reading picks up the pace of the album with its urgent, pre-rock’n’roll feel.

“Walking to Louisiana” drops the tempo, and the accordionist’s fantastically rootsy transformation of Abbeville, Louisiana, native Bobby Charles Guidry’s “Walking to New Orleans” is a stark contrast to the string-section-sweetened 1960 #2 R&B/#6 Billboard hit by Crescent City pianist Domino.

In Chenier’s hands, Big Bill Broonzy’s eight-bar-blues “Key to the Highway,” first tracked with acoustic guitar and harmonica, seems a million miles away from the bluesman’s 1941 original as well as the turbocharged rock version Eric Clapton and Duane Allman would release three years later on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.

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