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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Tab Benoit

Air Date: Week of December 23, 2005

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Cajun blues guitarist Tab Benoit talks with host Steve Curwood about growing up on the bayou outside of New Orleans. He produced a CD to help restore the coastal wetlands of Louisiana. He plays some live music and recites the Cajun version of the Night Before Christmas.

Transcript

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood and welcome to our Christmastime special, with our guests from New Orleans - the city that taught us how to party.
Maybe Louisiana residents know how to have a good time because of their French heritage, steeped in good cooking and conviviality. Or perhaps it’s because this city has survived such disasters as Hurricane Katrina to the killer flu epidemic of 1918, that it has the slogan laissez les bontemps roulez, let the good times roll.
For New Orleans, Christmas in the year of Katrina can be defined this way. A city where three quarters of homes and business are without power. Where more than a hundred thousand homes and business are uninhabitable. Where only a quarter of the population has moved back. A city where so many have lost everything and where connections to friends and neighbors and relatives are stretched - sometimes broken - in a diaspora that touches every corner of America. A city where nearly half the residents suffer some sort of post-traumatic stress.
But Louisianians are a hardy lot. They know how to survive. They beat the British at the Battle of New Orleans, and they are not going to let the floods keep them down. Take the New Orleans’ coroner, Dr. Frank Minyard. He had to process more than a thousand bodies in the three months after Katrina, including people he knew. 2005 brought him the toughest Christmas ever. Making it hard – he says - to turn to his passions like music and good food to lift his spirits.
That’s why Susan Spicer, chef and owner of the restaurant Bayona, made sure she reopened in time for the holidays. Even if it meant being separated from her husband and kids. She wanted to do her part to get the city back to normal again and served the same holiday treats she’s dished out since the early 1990’s.
Storyteller Angela Davis stuck it out in the city, too. And today she brings us a ghost story. But she nearly got away without telling us that she rescued and housed almost thirty people in the days following the hurricane.
But first we turn to Cajun blues guitarist Tab Benoit who spent the aftermath of the hurricane playing benefits to raise money for Louisiana residents. His CD “Voice of the Wetlands” was presciently produced a year before Katrina to call attention to the plight of the vanishing buffer between the city and the sea.

Welcome to Living on Earth, Tab.

BENOIT: How ya doing?

CURWOOD: Now, you’re hometown is Houma, Louisiana?

BENOIT: Houma, Louisiana, yeah.

CURWOOD: You were born there?

BENOIT: Yeah. I’ve been there all my life.

CURWOOD: So you get around by boats, or bateaux, whatever?

BENOIT: Well, you used to. (laughs) My grandparents used to catch a boat, they called it the school skiff, you know, and that’s how they got to school. I remember when they were telling us about it – I guess I just had a picture in my mind, you know – and I asked them, was it yellow? (laughs)

CURWOOD: (Laughs)

BENOIT: Did it have the little stop signs on the side of it? (Laughs)

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Tell me a bit about what life was like for you coming up. I want to hear – you got kids, by the way?

BENOIT: Yeah, one.

CURWOOD: When he or she gets a bit older, what’s the story you’re going to tell them from your childhood you want them to know?

BENOIT: Well, I hope I’ll be able to show him, you know. We grew up on a bayou, first of all, we didn’t grow like in a neighborhood where you could walk to your buddy’s house. So to kind of get away from your parents and go explore your own, you know, your own life, we’d go back into the marsh and into the swamp and learn a lot of things.

I learned so much about life from being out there, you know? Seems like every square foot there’s something moving. I mean, it’s alive and you feel it, and it gets into you. I mean, that’s where I learned so many things about myself, and that’s where I get my inspiration from.

So hopefully, you know, I’ll be able to bring him out there and let him feel the same things, ‘cause I think that’s one thing that we tend to get away from and we tend to believe that we as humans are the top of the food chain. But if you go out and stand in the middle of a swamp in the summertime without a weapon in your hand, guess what? You’re not the top of the food chain anymore, you know?

CURWOOD: (Laughs)

BENOIT: Not all that long ago I was walking back there without a weapon and I’d taken half a step right over a coiled-up snake. A pretty good sized one, at that. And so I’m standing with one foot in the air hovering over a water moccasin, you know? And I’m pretty far back in the woods, in the swamp, by myself.

CURWOOD: So there you are, your leg is in the air, you decide you better not move…

BENOIT: (Laughs)

CURWOOD: And what did the snake say to you?

BENOIT: The snake said, hey, you know, don’t worry man. I ain’t going to bite you.(Laughs). You okay, you alright, you know. I don’t smell any gunpowder, you ain’t got a knife on ya.

CURWOOD: So there you are, very much of the Louisiana wetlands, and you decide to produce a CD. I think you call it “Voice of the Wetlands.” And you originally produced this to raise money and raise awareness about the loss of wetlands in Louisiana. And what, on this CD Dr. John is there, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, those are a few of the musicians who recorded the CD with you. Could you play something off the CD for us?

BENOIT: I sure could. [TUNES GUITAR] This is a Doug Krenshaw song that me and Waylon Thibodeaux plays the fiddle on this on the album, a great song. Kind of a good ol’ Louisiana standard, you know?

[SINGING AND PLAYING GUITAR: Live rendition “Louisiana Man” from ‘VOW: Voice Of The Wetlands” (performed live in-studio New Orleans - 2005)]

“Well, at birth mom and poppa caught a little boy Ned
Raise him on the banks of a riverbed.
A houseboat tied to a big tall tree,
Home for my mamma and my papa and me.

The clock strikes three, papa jumps to his feet.
Already mamma’s cooking papa something to eat.
At half-past papa, he’s a ready to go.
He jumps in his bateaux going down the bayou.

Got the fishing line across the Louisiana River,
Gotta catch a big fish for us to eat.
Settin’ traps in the swamp catching anything he can
Gotta make a livin’ he’s a Louisiana man
Gotta make a livin’ he’s a Louisiana man.

Muskrat pie hanging by the dozen
Even got a lady making muskrat cousin
Got em’ out drying in the hot hot sun
Tomorrow papa’s gonna turn em into money

Well they call mama Rita and my daddy Jack
Little baby brother on the floor, that’s Mac
Brin and Lin are the family twins,
Big brother is on the bayou fishin’

The river floats papa’s great big boat,
And that’s how my papa goes into town.
Takes up every bit of night and day
To even reach the places where the people stay.

Got a fishin’ line across the Louisiana River
Gotta catch a big fish for us to eat.
Settin’ traps in the swamp catching anything he can
Gotta make a livin’ he’s a Louisiana man
Gotta make a livin’ he’s a Louisiana man.

CURWOOD: Hey, that’s alright.

BENOIT: Thank you, man. And thank Doug Krenshaw for that one.

CURWOOD: Now what were the holidays like when you were growing up? How’d you celebrate?

BENOIT: We celebrated similar, I guess, to other places in the country. Maybe the food’s a little different, you know. I mean, my favorite gumbo is that day after Christmas, you take the turkey and make gumbo with what’s left over the turkey. That’s still the best gumbo around.

CURWOOD: And I guess when you were a kid there was a poem that was pretty common in households in Louisiana around Christmastime, the Cajun version of “The Night Before Christmas.”

BENOIT: Yeah, I used to hear this a lot from my grandparents as a kid. It’s been a while since I’ve heard it, but I’ll give it my best shot.

[MUSIC: Hadley Castille & The Louisiana Cajun Band “Up On The Rooftop” from ‘Cajun Christmas’ (Delta Music, Inc - 1997)]

Twas the night before Christmas,
And all t’ru the house
There don’t a t’ing pass,
Not even a mouse.

The chirren be nezzle
Goodsnug on the flo’
An’ Mamm passed the pepper
T’ru de crack on de do’.

Then mama in de fireplace
Done roas’ up de ham
Stir up de gumbo
And bake de yam.

Then up through the bayou
Dey got such a clatter
Make soun’ like old Boudreau
Done fall off his ladder.

I run like a rabbit
To go to de do’
Trip over the dorg
And fall on the flo’

As I look out the do’
Into the light o’ de moon,
I t’ink, “man, you crazy,
Or I got ol’ too soon.”

Cuz dere on de bayou,
when I stretch ma’ neck stiff
Dere’s eight alligator
and they pullin’ de skiff

An’ little fat drover
Wit’ a long poling stick
I know r’at away
Got to be ol’ St. Nick.

Mo’ fas’er and fas’er
De gator dey came
He whistle an’ he holla,
An’ he called dem by name.

Ha Gaston! Ha Tiboy!
Ha Pierre, an’Alcee’
Gee Ninette! Gee Suzette!
Celeste and Renee!

To de top o’ the porch
To de top o’ the wall,
Make crawl alligator,
And be sho’ you don’ fall.

Like Tante Flo’s cat,
T’ru de treetop he fly.
When a big ol’ houn’ dorg
Come a run hisse’f by.

Like dat up de porch
Them ol’ alligators climb!
Wit’ de skiff full o’ toy
And St. Nicholas behin’.

Then on the top de porch roof
A soun’ like de hail
When all dem big alligator
done sot down
dey tail.

Den down de chimney,
I yell with a bam!
And St. Nicholas fall
An’ he sit on de yam!

“Sacre,” he exclaim
“My pant got a hole!
I done sot ma’se’f
on dem red-hot coal!”

He got on his foots
And he jump like a card
Out to de flo’
Where he lan’ wit’ a splat.

He was dressed in muskrat
from his head to his foot
an’ his clothes was all dirty
wit’ ashes and soot.

A sack full of playting
He t’row on his back
He looked like a burglar
An’ dass fo’ a fact.

His eyes how day shine!
His dimple how merry!
Well maybe he drink de wine
From de blackberry.

His cheek was like a rose
His nose like a cherry
On second t’ought,
Maybe he lap up de sherry!

Wit’ snow-white chin whisker
An’ quiverin’ belly
He shook w’en he laugh
Like dem stromberry jelly

With a wink in his eye
An’ a shook o’ his head
Make my confidence dat
I Don’ got to be scared.

He don’ do no talkin’,
He go straight to his work
He put playt’ing in a sock
An’ he turn wit’ a jerk

He put bot' his han'
Dere on top o' his head
Cas' an eye on de chimney
An' den he done said:
"Wit' all o' dat fire
An' dem burnin' hot flame
Me I ain' goin' back
By de way dat I came."

So he run out de do'
An' he clim' to de roof
He ain' no fool, him
For to make one more goof.
He jump in his skiff
An' crack his big whip.
De 'gator move down
An' don' make one slip.

An' I hear him shout loud
As a splashin' he go
"Merry Christmas to all
'Til I saw you some mo'!"

CURWOOD: (Laughing) Oh, Tad Benoit, that’s amazing, the Cajun version of “The Night Before Christmas.” I wonder if Clement Moore knew what he started with that poem. It sounds like a great tradition to have when you were a kid there on the bayou.

We’ll have more stories and music from Tad Benoit just ahead. And Chef Susan Spicer will cook up some holiday comfort food, New Orleans style. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Evan Johns “Cajun Drummer Boy” from ‘Xmas Hits The Spot’ (Real World – 1993)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. And welcome to our Christmastime special, “Louisiana Longing.” Blues guitarist – Cajun blues guitarist – Tab Benoit is back with me now. How ya doing, Tab?

BENOIT: Alright.

CURWOOD: So, Tab, when I think Cajun country, I think history. The story of the French-speaking people called Acadians who were forced out of Nova Scotia by the British, and their journey to the Louisiana Bayou to join the French colony there. Tell me a bit about how Cajun culture got the blues.

BENOIT: Well first of all, if you go back and listen to traditional Cajun songs and translate the lyrics, those are the saddest songs in the world. It seems like, you know, all these songs are about somebody dies, and a lot of times it’s like a kid or, you know, a guy’s wife. And if you listen to the way that they’re singing, I mean, the traditional Cajun voice, it’s like a cry, you know, it’s like crying out. That’s blues. It comes from the feelings, the bad feelings, we have, and trying to fight your way through it by using music, you know?

Everybody kind of lists the things that we’re losing right now by all this destruction in South Louisiana, but nobody seems to be mentioning the music and the culture and the food. I mean, lord, the only real ethnic American food is Cajun food. It was born right here. And, you know, just the cultural things, I find, have been kind of pushed aside like they never existed, you know? I mean, this music went worldwide and changed the music of the world. I mean, how important is that, you know?

CURWOOD: Before you have to go, Tab, I’m wondering if you can play us another song?

BENOIT: I sure can try.

[SINGING AND PLAYING ACOUSTIC BLUES GUITAR: Live rendition “When A Cajun Man Gets The Blues” performed live in-studio New Orleans (2005)]

My Sally, she has left me for good.
After I gave her my love for so long.
She’s out there with somebody new
And I just can’t sit here alone, no, no.

But it’s so hard to drive with these tears in my eyes
And it takes a long time to get to Baton Rouge.
And all I want is to hear somebody sing my song
Lord when a Cajun man gets the blues

When I’m feeling the weight of the water
Lord I know there’s blues in the Quarter
If I could hold back my tears and make it there I’d be alright
But I might need you, New Orleans, every night

And I don’t know where I’d be without you
When you’ve been there for me all the while
From Lafayette, to Thibodaux, to Lake Charles
And from Cocodrie to Shreveport to Grand Isle

Now when I’m feeling the pain, the bayou’s calling my name
And that’s an offer I can’t refuse
I say it’s hard to miss you Louisiana
Lord when a Cajun man gets the blues

I say it’s hard to miss you, good ol’ Louisiana
Ah, when this Cajun man got the blues

CURWOOD: That was great. That was really just terrific.

BENOIT: Thank you, man.

CURWOOD: Tab Benoit, that must be the song you play when you want to bring the house down.

BENOIT: I tell you, the place where I wrote that song the house is down, you know? I wrote that out at my camp, and it’s flattened and leveled by tidal surf from Hurricane Rita. So. It’s always meant a lot to me, that song in particular, because I think it was just a matter of, you know, my heart speaking out as to how I felt about where I live and where I come from. And trying to put all of it into perspective, not just for everybody else but for myself, you know?

So it’s a very special song to me and it’s actually a hard one to sing right now, you know? And a hard one to play. It’s not that easy to jump into it. But it’s more important than it’s ever been, you know, and it’s just an example of the kind of things that we don’t want to give up on, and the things that we want to try to preserve. And the things that we want to try to say and be honest about, you know? It’s basically getting your heart out there and being naked to the world and letting everybody see your true self and what you’re about. You know? Songs have a way of doing that.

CURWOOD: Indeed. With me has been Cajun blues guitarist Tab Benoit. Tab, it’s been really great having you. Thanks so much for coming on the show.

BENOIT: No problem. Thanks for having me, it’s great to talk to ya’ll, and I hope we get to do some more of these things, you know?

 

Links

Voice of the Wetlands

Tab Benoit's Website

Louisana Standard (mp3)

Louisiana Man (mp3)

Make A Good Gumbo (mp3)

Tab's Cajun Night Before Christmas

 

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