Big River Traditions:
Folklife on the Mississippi
I'm responding to
your e-mail re: your river documentary. You and I know quite a few people
in common, including Nick Spitzer, Mark Bingham, and Michaela Majoun.
Many others too, probably. I live in New Orleans where I work as a musician
(drummer/producer for The Hackberry Ramblers), a journalist (author
a book entitled Zydeco!, pub. by University Press of Mississippi)
and a folklorist. In my young/wild early 20s I spent about a year-and-a-half
working as deckhand on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and various
tributaries such as the Kanawha River in West Virginia. I worked on
floating hotels such as the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen, as well
as towboats pushing gasoline barges. Staying on board for stretches
as long as 50 days straight, I tied up boats and shoveled shit at all
points between New Orleans, St Paul and Pittsburgh, and encountered
several asylums full of extreme people in the process.
Enclosed, below, is
an article based on that experience -- it was written, as the gig demanded,
in a somewhat dry/academic style; I'm currently working on thinly-veiled
fiction, also based on that experience, but with a wide-open tone that's
true to the life I lived back then. I don't have a visual/expressive
event to contribute to your project, at least not at this point, but
I do offer my input, perhaps as a consultant; I've worked in that capacity
on quite a few documentaries, including the Smithsonian Institution's
River of Song. I'll send a bit more info about myself in a few
subsequent e-mails, please feel free to get in touch. Your project sounds
great, and I have enjoyed reading/listening to your work for years.
The quiet library
of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville was recently transformed
into a swinging, down-home Louisiana dancehall of sorts when the Hackberry
Ramblers dropped by to donate historic instruments to the museum.
Luderin Darbone, 86, and Edwin Duhon, 89, donated the fiddle and guitar
they used when they formed the Hackberry Ramblers in 1933. The December
3rd private donation ceremony took place one day before the Hackberry
Ramblers -- one of the longest-running bands in the country -- realized
a lifelong dream by debuting on the Fiddler Darbone, accordionist Duhon,
electric guitarist Glen Croker, upright bassist Johnny Faulk and drummer
Ben Sandmel performed their seamless blend of Cajun music, Western swing,
blues and rockabilly during their afternoon visit to the Hall of Fame.
Cajun dancers two-stepped as The Hackberry Ramblers swung their way
through "Jolie Blon," "Old Pipeliner," "Proud
Mary," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Johnny B.
Goode" and several other festive numbers in the library-turned-music
joint. "People were hollering," Duhon recalls. "Some
of them heavyset big-breasted women almost choked me to death! We sold
enough records so that I got $26 and Darbone got $26 in royalties in
Today, the pair is
in Washington, D.C., to collect Heritage Fellowships for folk and traditional
arts from the National Endowment for the Arts, capping a late-career
winning streak sparked by 1993's Cajun Boogie, the band's first album
in 30 years. The Grammy-nominated Deep Water followed in 1997, netting
an MTV appearance with Hanson.
This year brought
more milestones, including their first excursions to Europe for shows
in Holland and France, a debut at the Newport Folk Festival and center
stage in John Whitehead's upcoming documentary, Make 'Em Dance!
"We are the oldest
band in the country," Darbone says. "We're too old to retire."
Darbone was playing
fiddle in Hackberry, La., when Duhon moved in across the street with
an accordion, guitar and violin. They formed a string band in 1933,
predating not only computers, CDs and Velcro but also color TV, vinyl
LPs and nylon.
"We didn't think
we'd play big dance halls, just house parties," Darbone says. "In
those days, you'd pass the hat and pick up a few dollars."
The players, earning
$3 a night, built a strong regional following after landing a Monday
morning radio show and scoring a hit in 1936 with Jolie Blonde, one
of 82 songs they recorded for RCA.
As the venues grew,
Darbone worried that listeners at the back couldn't hear. So in 1934
he ordered a $50 public-address system from a catalog and introduced
electronic amplification to the region. In halls without electricity,
the PA was rigged to run off Darbone's idling 1931 Model A Ford.
from all over to hear the sound system," he says. "I retired
it after two years. It was hard on the car."
They nearly disbanded
in 1963 after 10 years of steady work at the Silver Star Club near Lake
"We'd been there
so long they got tired of our music, and the crowd started dropping
off," Darbone says. "The owner closed shop and put us out
of a job."
The band kept playing
at parties, reunions and nursing homes and got a second wind when Arhoolie
Records released fresh recordings and RCA classics.
During a career that
has spanned 13 presidents, Darbone and Duhon survived everything from
the Depression to disco to each other.
he organized the Hackberry Ramblers, but I'm the one that started it,"
says Duhon, who also takes credit for inventing zydeco. "I taught
him the French numbers, but he'll say different. He's like a brother,
so I don't want to take him to court."
Guitarist Glen Croker,
a relative youngster at 68, says, "The two old ones are really
a trip." He joined in 1959. "It's the ability to play music
that keeps us going. We use the KISS principle: 'Keep it simple, stupid.'
I'm playing strictly melody, where a guy can hum. Another secret to
our success is we surprise you. We'll play a French waltz, then turn
around and do Proud Mary."
Croker, who says he
is amazed that the band draws fans under 35, especially to annual slots
at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, was apprehensive about
playing at that city's rock-leaning Mermaid Lounge.
"I saw the green
hair, so I knew they'd boo us," he says. "Shoot, they followed
us outside, wanted autographs, wanted to hear the whole history."
Ben Sandmel, the baby
at 50, spied the Ramblers at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans and
booked them in Baton Rouge in 1987. When they arrived without a drummer,
he sat in and never left. Bassist Johnny Faulk, 77, completes the quintet.
Sandmel, author of
Zydeco!, formed garage bands in the Beatles era and later played with
such blues greats as pianist Sunnyland Slim, harmonica player Big Walter
Horton and guitarist Jimmy Johnson. He recorded Drinkin' and Stinkin'
with Boogie Bill Webb before joining the Ramblers.
"I pulled the
plug on Boogie Bill's last Jazzfest gig because he was really ill and
didn't know his music anymore," Sandmel says. "I've seen elderly
musicians dragged out on stage when they were way past it, and it's
sad. The Ramblers are a bit of a novelty attraction because of their
age, but the appeal isn't the fact that they're technically still breathing.
While there's some obvious decline of skills, they've still got a strong
groove and a solid level of musicianship. The novelty factor helps get
publicity, but these aren't fossils."
Sandmel, who also
functions as the Ramblers' producer, publicist, booking agent, road
manager and referee, says their jaunty Cajun two-step isn't far removed
from British Invasion beats he grew up on.
"It's dance music.
That's why we get the 20-year-olds with body piercings as well as the
older folks who want their 78s autographed. If people don't dance, the
guys get a little uncomfortable. We're not the slickest band in the
world, but we fulfill our basic function to make people feel good."
While Duhon grouses
constantly ("Glen plays so damn loud, he drowns us out. Don't tell
him that."), he's a Rambler for life.
"I ain't ever
retiring," says the father of 12. "I asked a doctor in Houston
if I should stop doing music. He said, 'Keep playing; it works your
mind.' He knew I couldn't stop seeing women. I date two nurses. I'm
hot-natured that way; I got my daddy's gene."
Darbone, a widower
living in Sulphur, La., says the band is his lifeline. The childhood
violin lessons he got by mail for $8 a month "really paid off,"
he says. "It would be a dull life without music."