During the summer of 2012, on the banks of a south Louisiana bayou, a small group of folks made their way through briars, cypress knees and clouds of mosquitoes to the “Promiseland Abandoned Slave Burial Site.” With a Nigerian priest in tow, they set about to consecrate their ancestors lying there in once-forgotten shallow graves. After the blessing, one of descendants of the unsung heroes played his accordion among the iron stake grave markers. In the language of his progenitors, Creole French, Joe Hall sang “Home, Sweet Home.”
Joe Hall, the 41-year-old Creole musician from Eunice, Louisiana knows his music. Joe knows horses. And Joe also knows roots.
“You are who you are,” says the big man with the even bigger smile, and he freely claims to be a product of the Louisiana Creole “holy trinity”: Native American (Atakapa- Ishak), African (Wolof) and European (French). Joe Hall is a modern-day living testament to the original “creolization” process in its myriad manifestations where the best of all available resources blend together in a celebration of resilience and syncopated survival.
Coming up in the 70s, the Hall family was blessed with a hard-working father figure who provided in every way for his family of six out there on the southwest Louisiana prairies. Even though Joe never had to work in the fields like most of the Creole shar ecroppers since the days of the Civil War, his is an old soul. During his formative years, young Joe did not pick sweet potatoes but instead, bushels of stories. He did not necessarily break corn but he did lend an attentive ear to the many kernels of ancient wisdom from his elders. They recognized him as the “anointed one ” and willingly, Joe Hall accepted the torch of the Creole cultural flame.
The history of pre-Civil War Louisiana is … well, it’s complicated – no matter who’s telling it. It’s not exactly black and white, yet the contrasts are often glaring. Many skeletons lie in Louisiana ’s controversial past, some in the splendid tombs of the “Cities of the Dead,” many in the forgotten potter’s fields of the Mississippi delta. The skeletons hidden in closets, how ever, were a luxury for the privileged whose secrets were comfortably cloistered. Open the Creole’s chifforobe and one was likely to find a sharecropper’s overalls, a wedding dress, an old pair of boots … but no skeletons. With no small amount of family pride, Joe Hall relates the story of a Creole ancestor whoinherited property from the Frenchman with whom she had children. Endowed with 300 acres, 150 head of cattle and 12 slaves, this was a free woman of consider able means and, evidently, remarkable character as she subsequently freed all of her “slaves” (who according to Joe were surely her own relations). One can only imagine the inconvenience created by this woman of colour in the antebellum South: this was an act that did not bode well for future prospects of the plantation system. Joe tells with unbridled admir ation how this Creole woman persisted in going all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court on several occasions to defend her property rights. Thus, the pecan does not fall far from the tree: as a self-described “stand up ” person – like his people before him – if something is “just wrong,” Joe Hall will stand up and Joe Hall will tell it like it is. Call it DNA . He is not, how ever, a man who dwells on the inequities or the atrocities of the past: [I]“You can think about it and get angry at it, but at the same time, that’s something that happened then. We ain’t going back there.”[/I] On the African side of the family, Joe’s folk have been there.
It was the music that transported him out of the fields and back to Africa. Joe’s mother hailed from a long line of Creole musicians. Her grand-father and his siblings all played accordion and her father, Clement King Ned, was one of the most renowned house dance musicians and who was even recorded by the prestigious Smithsonian Institute. Back in the day, Creoles and Cajuns would gather at a neighbour’s house for a balde maison where they would move all the furniture and two-step the night away to the sounds of an accordionist, a fiddler and perhaps a rub board player. Chicken and sausage gumbo might have been served along with homemade wine, lemonade and pecan pralines. Children were instructed to fais do do, or go to sleep, as the parents kicked up clouds of poussière. And the dust did not settle until the final strains of “Home, Sweet Home.” Joe spent many an hour in his little chair at the knee of his grand-father, mesmerized by the pushbutton accordion and his grand-father’s songs of another America. He got the bug. Joe Hall and the Louisiana Cane Cutters continue to play those traditional Creole/Cajun classics: Quand j’étais pauvre[/I] (When I was Poor), Colinda, [I]Faire l’amour dans l’poulailler (Makin’ Love in the Chicken Coop), and Two Step Afrique to name just a few. As a Creole roots musician, Joe knows why the Cajun bird sings. He gets down in the muddy field songs of juré. He lives la la and he blackens the blues right out of Zydeco. It’s a renaissance thing that for Joe Hall will never die.
One of the classics played by the Cane Cutters is La valse du vacher (The Cowboy Waltz). Joe Hall may not have to grab his cape and spurs and ride off like the song says, but he does recognize his Creole cowboy heritage.“My dream,” says the thoroughbred owner with a wistful grin, “is to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby.” As an equine entrepreneur, he plans to start his own broodmare business. In this land of horse racing, trail rides, and the “gallop” of Zydeco, it all just makes good horse sense.
Joe Hall’s dreams are needed inspiration to local youth who are drifting away from the tried and so true old ways. Whether he’s feeding his horses at 5:30 A.M., nailing down the all-important day job or sharing a cup of black Creole coffee with some old-timer, Joe is always thinking about the next generation and the urgency of making those connections. On the bandstand or in the stables, every chance he gets, he is reaching out to youth and passing on that drive … and he connects! “What’s wrong with these kids? They think I’m cool!” Joe knows cool.
For the man who can trace his family back to Africa, Joe Hall still has questions. In that overgrown burial site on the banks of the bayou, he asks, [I]“What happened? Why? Who are you? What is your name? Could we be related?”He explains, “These people never got the chance to have the indication that it was time to go home,” and so he plays for them. “I felt that it was time for them go home, sweet home.”