Louisiana’s French Creole population reflects, as elsewhere throughout the Creole world, a variety of ethnicities married into a common linguistic source “le vieux Français”. The old ‘Koine’ French of the former French Empire married to any number of indigenous cultures.
In “la louisiane” a uniquely accented Creole culture (native-born) comprised of Amerindian-Canadian & Colonial French métis, African and later diverse hispanophonic peoples reflects a ‘gumbo’ culture reminiscent of other kindred Creole cultures, but possessing a uniquely American flavour.
These groups were united and bound often by not only their uniquely New World métis, Old French, African and Spanish cultural idiosyncrasies, but also through their shared Roman Catholic tradition and even blood ties.
The Acadian peoples who arrived during the Spanish rule of Louisiana (1762-1803) and almost 100 years after Creole culture was born and established in across “Lower Louisiana”-meaning and including what are now the American States of Illinois, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and part of Texas-adopted and fully assimilated this indigenous Louisiana-made, or Creole culture; later mass-marketed as “Cajun”.
The descendants of both African slaves and free people of colour, Louisiana’s Créoles de couleur know better than anyone how difficult life was on the plantations of wealthy white and non-white Creoles. These were later challenges of the post-Civil War era of sharecropping, to say nothing of the Civil Rights era which was to test America’s commitment to true Democracy and “justice for all”.
One of Louisiana’s many ‘exotic’ gifts to both the United States and to the world beyond is a unique form of music and celebration known as “Zydeco” -a corruption of the French word for “haricot” or green bean! Zydeco reflects the particular joys and sentiments shared by the black French Creole-speaking peoples of south Louisiana; their pain and their passion; their stories and their music; usually recounted during times of working in the field or sitting at home.
It is therefore, absolutely incorrect as it is inappropriate to call it “Cajun,“ because “Cajun” it is not. It reflects the unique Louisiana experience of Creoles of Colour; the descendants more often than not, of former slaves trying to find their way after Emancipation Proclamation.
Zydeco is beyond anything Acadian! It is a reflection of African drumming rhythms matched with the heart, soul and vocals of men who’ve lived, suffered and laughed at life’s most daunting insults and who’ve cherished the most human moments of celebration when there simply was nothing else to do! This music, these songs are accompanied by the French accordion at warp speed, unlike any “chinky-chink” you’ve ever heard and will never hear at Fred’s in Mamou!
Among the priceless gifts wrought of the human heart and of former African slaves and their descendants, who rarely fared better than their ancestors as sharecroppers in the southern states of America, are the gifts of music and song; to which we will add, dance! It was these gifts which kept the spirits and hopes of these once socially and educationally deprived, and materially poor people optimistic and happy; even in an unhappy state.
The “Zydeco style” is symbolic; reflecting the clothing reminiscent of the Creole cowboys of Louisiana’s earliest times, whose starched denim, carefully and artistically crafted leather boots and belts with impressive buckles and matching, impeccably clean, pressed and starched shirts speak of the labour and dignity their mothers sought to communicate; even in abject poverty! Just as we could never miss the metered hat of a cardinal or that of the Pope, that conspicuous cowboy or straw hat is a silent, but obvious tribute to the dignified old men who wore them with pride in both the field and at the house dances on Saturday night.
This clothing reflects and pays homage to the men of the field and country whose proud hearts and humble spirits have left their voices and their lyrics to a world which somehow, in spite of being worlds apart in terms of experience, can still relate to the jubilation and the innocent human spirit inherent to the Zydeco musical experience. It is also from this legacy that their young Creole heirs have and continue to derive fortunes, as they bring this sweet, playful and joyous music, songs and dancing to the rest of the world, far beyond the cotton, cane and sweet potato fields of Louisiana.
Among these remarkable artists of great charisma, energy and talent reverberates the legendary name of Wilson Anthony or better known to the world as: “Boozoo Chavis”! One commentator observed: “For Chavis it wasn’t always about the technical marinade of the music, it was about the spirit and aura that it inspired.”
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana on October 23, 1930, Boozoo was quite familiar with the Jim Crow divide between Creoles of Colour and their white Creole and so-called “Cajun” kinsmen. As is true of most of us Louisiana Creoles whose parents or grandparents were sharecroppers, we all remember the porcelain pans and old split oak baskets used by our denim or khaki wearing menfolk and tignon-wearing grandmothers and aunts, as everyone did their part in shelling peas, shucking corn and adding foot-stomping and singing to what would ordinarily have been a hot summer afternoon.
“Boozoo” brought this tradition out from the back or front screened porches of South Louisiana’s sharecropper family homes and shared it thunderously and joyfully with the world during his tragically short life. He knew, spoke and sang our language; the old French Creole of Louisiana, complete with its Choctaw, Old French, African and Spanish assimilations. He was one of us; a true Louisiana Creole. A good-natured man, a natural performer and entertainer, he drew his own band members into his on-stage fervour, as he electrified and entertained the masses of spectator-revellers and dancers who appeared by the droves to all of his live concerts wherever he travelled.
It has been recalled that: “Chavis was quite the character on stage, often interacting with his band, and informing them that no matter what they played or how they played it, they were to be in unison, even if that meant they were all wrong!”
A masterful accordionist and songwriter yet to be matched in more recent times, when so many would-be Zydeco musicians often appear to be lyrically challenged and resort to redundancy and absurdity, Boozoo knew how to have a good time on and off-stage. He knew how to stir up his audiences to ensure they too would never forget him or the jolt of passion and experience that only a native-son of Louisiana Creole Country could genuinely perform and communicate the emotional impact of the black Louisiana Country Creole experience in every way that mattered! It is this unique experience, and knowledge of the language and culture of south Louisiana’s Créoles de couleur which no young imitator can ever bring to stage; talent and looks notwithstanding!
Due to his rare double talent of songwriter and accordionist, Boozoo’s name soon became inextricably linked to Zydeco. He became the “King of Zydeco” -a privilege literally, bestowed upon him during his lifetime. His lyrics were meaningful, yet entertaining; forceful, yet tender; powerful, yet loving.
A father of 6 children and grandfather of 20 grandchildren, Chavis left behind his loving wife in May 2001, dying in Austin, Texas. The passing of this bigger than life Louisiana Creole and talented musician-songwriter has left a void few have been able to fill in the Zydeco music and entertainment genre.
Few can claim to have been crowned “The King of Zydeco” – as he was in New Orleans during the 1990’s -a privilege he so treasured, during his brief life.
Unlike too many musicians and artists who rarely received recognition and its fruits during their lifetimes, Chavis did have the inestimable privilege of experiencing success along with the accolades due a great artist.
For Louisiana Creoles of every ethnic weave, and for all Zydeco lovers across the world, the King of Zydeco may be gone, but he is decidedly not forgotten! He is still having the last word; he is still setting the standard that many have yet to reach. Long live the King of Zydeco; Louisiana’s Boozoo Chavis!
by John la Fleur II