BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet Talks Of Hurricanes And Louisiana Music
by Derek Halsey
BeauSoleil has been one of the premier bands to come out of Louisiana since its inception in 1975. Hailing from the Lafayette region of Louisiana west of New Orleans, in the area known as Acadiana, the group started to spread the word on Cajun music long before all things Cajun became hip. The band, which features Michael Doucet, his brother David Doucet, Jimmy Breaux, Billy Ware, Tommy Alesi, and Al Tharp, have mixed the traditional sounds of Acadian music with everything from the blues to jazz to Tex-Mex. The Grammy Award winning group has recorded 27 albums over the last 30 years.
For Michael Doucet, the group’s leader, playing Cajun music is a family tradition. Doucet’s French-American roots go back a long way, as his family’s lineage can be traced to 17th century France. Known as the Acadians, his ancestors were immigrants to the New World who settled in what is now Canada. Around 1750 the Acadians were forced to relocate to the bayous of Louisiana by the British, who were suspect of their allegiance during the French and Indian War. And, as with most migrations, they brought their culture and their music with them.
Earlier in 2005, Doucet was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, a prestigious honor given out by the National Endowment For The Arts that was presented in our nation’s capitol in September. BeauSoleil is currently touring behind their new concert DVD, Live At The New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival. I talked to Doucet by phone from his house in hurricane-weary Louisiana.
Michael, how are things down your way?
I’m doing pretty good. I just back from playing a benefit last night in Atlanta.
I listened to a benefit concert you were a part of in Lafayette a few weeks ago. The theme was somber, but the music was fun.
It was good. I think they raised $20,000. It’s been amazing.
How did the hurricanes affect you personally?
We’re about 30 miles inland. It flooded seven miles from my house. The surge hit a little town called Erath, which is right down the road. We had the typical tree damage and things like that. It’s not going to flood where I’m at. That would be very odd. But that was the biggest that I’ve seen flooding anywhere because the bayous all backed up because of that surge. We had one two years ago, Lilly, that was almost the same path. We get hit pretty bad here. It wasn’t as bad as elsewhere, but we were right in the middle of both of the hurricanes, put it that way. So, we got the fringes of them, which is fine with me. I’ll be glad when this season ends.
You have been playing Cajun music for a long time. But Cajun music and culture wasn’t as popular years ago as it is today, was it?
You just didn’t do it. People were changing their French names in the generation before me. And you have great musicians like Bobby Charles, who wrote ‘See You Later Alligator,’ his last name was Gidreau. Bobby Charles Gidreua. A lot of Cajuns were not even using their last name when they were playing rock and roll and whatever. As far as our generation, there wasn’t very many young people interested in this music, especially with the older music. Our first music here in Louisiana, called Cajun or Acadian, changes about every generation, and it definitely changes every ten years. The music of our grandparents generation was not heard hardly anywhere except in somebody’s home. And that’s the stuff I grew up with, the older stuff that was not really influenced by country and western music because it predated that music. That’s what I really remember from growing up, and that’s the music people should remember.
Being a child of the 50’s and 60’s, why did you like the ‘old’ traditional music at such a young age?
Probably because it wasn’t cool. (laughing) I don’t know, it just did something to me. My sister has reminded me that when I was a kid of three or four I was singing Elvis songs-I just liked to sing. But for some reason those other songs kind of resonated with you because, although they were older and they weren’t as popular, singing the old songs made you feel better. It must have been something like the blues process, as in you sing the blues to get rid of the blues. You would sing the old songs to pass on the songs. Our culture is the kind of culture that was put down for so long. Our culture is over 400 years old. It’s a true North American tradition. Just because we sing in a different language doesn’t make us more or less American, even though this music was definitely created in Louisiana when the Acadians started to come here back in the 1750’s.
Obviously the view of Cajun music and culture has changed over the years.
It continues to do that. (laughing) A lot of people just renounced it, and didn’t want to be any part of it because they wanted to be American. What we call Americanization. Well, I’m part of what I call the Cajunization process that brings you back to your roots and who you are. We have an old adage, ‘If you are old and ugly, be who you are, be old and ugly,’ and let people see who you are, and I think that turns it around.
For my generation it obviously happened in the late 1960’s and 70’s, and because there were different leaders it happened in that era, in that decade. For most people the obvious change came with the food. People used to make fun of us; how we ate, how we spoke, what we played, and the food became a big deal because that became hip, and all of a sudden people looked at the culture. New Orleans, back then, was an urban area and they didn’t really embrace Acadians or Cajun people. It was like we were the heathens from the bayous, and they were like the sophisticated urbanites. You hardly found any Cajuns in New Orleans, or you became assimilated. And, because Paul Prudhomme opened up his restaurant and it became like this haute cuisine, it kind of opened it up to Cajun musicians and the whole Cajun theme. Then you started seeing the word ‘cajun,’
You got to understand, growing up here, I never used the word ‘cajun.’ My family never spoke about a ‘cajun.’ It was always in French, it was called ‘cadjin,’ or it was ‘French music.’ We never used the word ‘cajun.’ So that was the first proliferation of the word cajun. Before that it you would see the word Evangeline, because of the poem "Evangeline" (by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). Here in Lafayette we have Evangeline bread, Evangeline throughway, Evangeline racetrack, so that was the common image, but it wasn’t cajun. There were no such things as a ‘cajun’ restaurant. You went to a seafood restaurant. Paul Prudhomme really opened up that vernacular and use of that word because then you started having ‘cajun’ restaurants. Then, because of its use, then you had people coming back to it. You had born again Cajuns at that point. But as far as instilling the pride, the other thing that happened was some small movies that left an impression on people; a small film by Glen Pitre called Belizaire the Cajun, using the word ‘cajun’, and the other movie was The Big Easy.
So, even the local use of the word ‘cajun’ has changed?
It was cadjin. French and Canadian is ‘Acadian,’ and if you say it really fast you say ‘cadjin.’ It’s probably how the word ‘cajun’ came about, except that it’s not the pronunciation that we use. There was a group of us in the early 1970’s, militants, who wanted to change it. Instead of c-a-j-u-n, which we figured that you never heard the Navajo call each other ‘injun,’ it would be spelled c-a-d-j-i-n. That is how you write it.
Sonny Landreth lives not far from you around Lafayette, and when we interviewed him here at Gritz he mentioned playing the trumpet as a teenager, an instrument you also played as a kid.
Yeah, we played together. In fact, I think that is the first time I met Sonny was at some sort of rally. My uncle taught him how to play trumpet. I used to play in my uncle’s jazz band.
Yet, you guys were still into rock and roll back then, weren’t you?
Oh yeah. It was music, man. We were young. There wasn’t a distinction. We had radio stations where there wasn’t any black or white, country or western, Cajun or not. They played everything. Yeah, at certain times they would play that. But you would hear it all. Sonny is a pop musician. Now they term him a zydeco musician, but he played with Clifton (Chenier) maybe six weeks. ‘I remember you with Clifton, you were bad.’ (laughs) He had no idea what was going on. But it’s like pedigree, things changed. In fact, Sonny used to sit in with us for a long time to try and learn the songs. Because that wasn’t his shtick. His shtick was pop music. I love Sonny. But that was his thing, that was always what he played, the blues. He was a genius at blues.
In the 1970’s you did an interesting thing by going out into the field and finding older Acadians who played Cajun music yet were virtually unknown. And, you worked with the National Endowment For The Arts to do it in a sort of Lomax kind of way. What was that like?
What happened was, I did that anyway, and then somebody told me I could get a grant to do what I was already doing. I had done it before. Actually it helped me to do a little bit more of it and actually tape these people. They were surprised that anyone was even interested, that these people in Washington DC were interested in it. They couldn’t believe it. That happened in the early 70’s. I was mainly looking for people that hadn’t recorded since the 20’s. The kind of research I was doing had never been done before, to basically get a network of fiddle players and fiddle styles from the French speaking people, not only Cajun and Acadian descent, but Creole descent. And I also how songs changed the further west you go in Southwestern Louisiana.
Tommy Comeaux was an original member of BeauSoleil who, unfortunately, died in an accident about 10 years ago. What are your thoughts on Tommy?
Tommy and I were friends for a long time. We went to LSU together and everything like that. We used to jam together. And basically, Tommy just loved to play with great musicians. A great friend, and he just loved to play.
At the heart of traditional Cajun music is acoustic music, going back centuries. What are your thoughts on acoustic versus electric?
I was a strong stickler for the acoustic sound. I mean, even the first idea for BeauSoleil…… most people here, including the (Dewey) Balfa’s and everyone, they would play and plug in to amps and stuff like that. That was what you heard. When you played at a bar you had to hear. Well, I was totally against that. So, I wouldn’t even play with microphones. I was definitely an acoustic hardliner, because I really wanted to bring back the sound that meant the most to me, the sound that was almost like parlor music, or playing in someone’s home around the kitchen table. I turned my brother David onto Mississippi John Hurt, or John Fahey, Doc Watson, all the stuff I grew up with in the 1960’s. I was always more interested in acoustic than electric.
What is the difference between BeauSoleil and your other band, Savoy-Doucet?
The people. It’s two different things, man. It’s like tomatoes and hammers. Basically, with Savoy-Doucet, I was good friends with Marc (Savoy). Meeting Marc a long time ago, it was great meeting somebody in our generation. Marc is kind of on the cusp, as he is 11 year older than I am. So, he is almost in another generation. He is, again, a bridge. When we met each other we realized that. I was a bridge to a younger generation to, and we immediately hit it off. If you look at Marc and I as one person, we have our left foot in the future and our right foot in the past, wherever that body is now. That is how we create music, that’s how we play, that’s how our friendship is. It’s a really symbiotic relationship. It’s also that he is from a different part of Louisiana. He’s from a different parish. It may be only 40 miles north of here, but it’s a whole different place musically. You have different influences, so we are bridging the gap between the two.
Even before that, you played, usually, with people in your town and in your community and there was no sharing of the music. Everybody was living in a closed community and a closed music scene, and that is how the music developed incredibly. You had people who were probably in Nova Scotia together, who were deported together, whose family’s came here together, and so they settled here together. They still had that tie, that language. But even the Acadian language, our French language, changes from parish to parish that you go to. And everybody wrote the song ‘Jolie Blonde.’ Everybody made that song their song. ‘No, I wrote that song.’ ‘Oh really? Hmmm. Ok.’ Everyone has got their own versions, in other words, and that’s what is crazy because the artistry of the individual shines through that way. That’s what makes the culture. That is what makes traditional music. It’s not like this thing called traditional music fell from the sky. It was individuals that created these things. If you look at the sky and see the cosmos and the stars, well, it’s made up of individual stars. Individuals made these songs and created these songs, or added some of their personality to the songs to bring out that particular style.”
Do you see young people learning to play traditional Cajun music these days?
I think there is more than has ever happened. But, it’s in a different way. It’s not like, ‘Let’s just do it for fun.’ They look at us and think, ‘Let’s go make a living with it.’ That wasn’t the choice back then. We never wanted to make a living this way. We got forced into doing this in a weird way. I think, just for the fun of it, you see a lot of jams now, and it’s more open. Before, in the 1970’s, it was totally an underground thing. You played at people’s houses. You played out in the woods when you went camping. It wasn’t something that you heard, or something that was expressed. It wasn’t something that was commercial, for sure. I remember Dewey Balfa tell me that he had to beg Floyd Soileau of Swallow Records in the late 1960’s to even record traditional music because it wasn’t sellable.
BeauSoleil’s new DVD, Live At The New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival, is a blast. You really capture the atmosphere of the festival, and you get people to dancing all over the place.
Well, that’s the basic element. Hopefully the Jazz Festival will come back someday.
The last time I saw you was at the 2004 Merlefest music festival. Do you plan to play at Merlefest again down the road?
Who knows? The problem with Merlefest and us is that it’s at the same time as the Jazz Festival. But who knows what that is going to be like this next time, so it might open up some doors. I remember playing one of the early Merlefests and it was a lot of fun. They way it changed just blew my mind, how extravagant it is now compared to the early days. We played it back when it was small. It was right there in that one field. Doc Watson is a wonderful reason to do it, and it’s a wonderful place.
Louisiana, as the world knows, was hit by some intense hurricanes a couple of months ago. After Katrina hit on that Monday, when did you first see the signs of the migration to your area of Lafayette?
Right after that. We had people at my house on Tuesday. We had 11 people in my house. We missed both hurricanes, but we drove back through Katrina on that Monday because we couldn’t get back to New Orleans. During Rita we were in Washington DC, and the people who were staying here were so freaked out because they didn’t want to stay at the house. But I said, look, I’m living in an old house that was built 200 years ago, it was three feet off the ground, I said, ‘Don’t worry about this house, it’s going to stay there, and it’s going to be fine.’ And they just couldn’t handle it. Everybody was so groundless, but the upheaval, and what that is doing to people is amazing. It is more than you can see on television, when they talk about so many lives and so many families that are affected by it. Baton Rouge is packed, and Lafayette is packed. It’s just amazing.
We played a dance camp up on Lookout Mountain and we were staying at a state park called Desoto Park, (in Alabama) and they had people from Louisiana in this park. I mean, I couldn’t find that place if I was ten miles from it, but somehow they got those people there. But that’s the thing, man, the hurricane completely wipes out houses. Some houses are in ok shape, but if it was ‘just a hurricane,’ people could have come back. In the second one, Rita, Bobby Charles lives in Holly Beach, and there is no Holly Beach. I mean, there is no more town. There is not anything left standing. Your mind just doesn’t accept those kind of things happening, but it did.
Gatemouth Brown’s house up in Slidell was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and as you know, he died soon after. Did you get to play with Gatemouth much over the years?
During the 70’s we played a whole lot with him. We did a nationwide tour with Gatemouth Brown. The group I was in was like an electric version of BeauSoleil called Coteau and we played with him a bunch then. It was great knowing him. I loved him. What a rhythm that he had. He played a little fiddle so we did some workshops together. I think we did the Philadelphia workshop together. He was an interesting guy because he always claimed his father learned how to play Cajun music. His father and him were from that part of Louisiana that was closer to Texas. It was great being around him and hearing him play. He was a wonderful musician.
With many New Orleans musicians and artists dispersed out and away from the city right now, how is that scene going to change?
It is a big pulling of the rug out from under people. The thing of it is, New Orleans was always on the verge of something anyway. And music was created from these people who converged. Now these people are dispersed. Well, the people are still there. I think whatever is going to happen, in one way it may influence a lot of the music in the country, and have more of that style in different places. Because, you can’t take the music out of the people. You can take the people out of the place, but you can’t take the place out of the people. One friend of mine is Dr. Michael White, who is now in Houston. He lost everything. He plays traditional New Orleans jazz. There are going to be some people that are going to go back, but it’s going to be a completely changed place. And again, I’m no fortune teller, but seeing, the other day, this woman from Caldwell Banker real estate selling 1,500 houses in a week, sight unseen, in New Orleans……I mean, you have speculators, so who knows what it’s going to be. But the essence of the people and the musicians are sort of the mirror of the culture, whatever that culture is. So I definitely continue to think that they are going to be heard. And New Orleans was never really the place for music industry ideas of people, or record deals and things like that, but was about playing the music. And what better reason to play the blues than ‘my house just got blown away.’ You don’t forget that one.