I followed the coast from Charleston and the Sea Islands to Savannah, where I failed to find any art students with floor space and ended up sleeping in a park until the sprinklers came on. From there I cut inland through Waycross and Valdosta to Tallahassee, then out the Florida panhandle, busking in bars for a few bucks, drinks, and occasionally beds. In New Orleans, I had a connection with a spare room and stayed a few days, meeting the wonderful David and Roselyn, who loaned me an amp so I could back a couple of teenage tapdancers on Bourbon Street and became lifelong friends. (There’s more about them in my post for “Iko Iko,” which I worked up during that trip, while waiting for rides).
From New Orleans I hitched down through Morgan city (as told in my post for “Oil Money“) and on to Lafayette. I arrived late in the afternoon, asked where I could hear good Cajun music and was sent down the road to Breaux Bridge, where there was a club called Mulate’s.
Talk about good directions! Dewey Balfa was playing fiddle with his band, and the food was good, and everybody was dancing — eventually including me, since women kept coming up and offering to show me how. I guess I was a pretty obvious foreigner, since I had a backpack and guitar leaned against my chair, and sometime later a couple of young women asked me if I needed a place to stay and offered me a spare room, and I said yes, and we drank more beer, and then Ricky Skaggs and D.L. Menard came in — Menard was opening for Skaggs at a concert somewhere in the area and brought him down afterwards.
I spent close to a week in Breaux Bridge, staying with Amanda LaFleur, having Thanksgiving dinner at her friend’s parents’ house, where everyone spoke French (but not the kind of French I spoke) and taking a side trip to Mamou, where I ended up playing in a zydeco duo with an accordionist named Ray Fontenot. That night had a kind of comical ending, because Ray’s wife wasn’t comfortable with a “drifter” staying at their place, so he took me to a motel out in the countryside where they explained they had no clean rooms but could give me a dirty room for ten bucks. I took it.
I don’t think I saw D.L. Menard again that week, but I met him a bunch of times over the years, up in Boston and down in Louisiana. When we did the PBS series River of Song, I insisted he be the featured Cajun musician and we filmed his band playing at a crawfish boil in his backyard. A few years later, when Sandrine and I were living in New Orleans, I brought her to see him because she’d been hearing Cajun announcers on the radio who weren’t native speakers and needed to be convinced that it was a real language, not just Americans speaking bad French. We drove out to D.L.’s place in Erath, and he met us in the yard with his chihuahua named Taco, and waxed eloquent, as always. He was playing every weekend for one of those dopey comic wedding dinner theater things, “Boudreaux and Thibodeaux’s Cajun Wedding,” and loved it — as I recall, his particular phrase of approbation was, “C’est fast, Jack!”
D.L. had a lot of great phrases. My favorite was: “I got a real good memory, but it’s short.”
Anyway… he sure did speak fluent Cajun French, and wrote a lot of great songs in that language, and recorded terrific versions of them with his band, the Louisiana Aces. “La Porte en Arrière (The Back Door)” is his most famous, and probably the best-known Cajun song after “Jole Bon.” As he explained to me:
I put the story in my mind and I took it from the everyday procedures; every once in a while I hear or see that people would get drunk and was too ashamed to go in the front door, that they’d come in through the back door so that nobody could see them….
The everyday procedures, that’s what makes the best songs. Because you don’t pay no attention to what you do every day… Just like water: You wash your hands or wash your face and take your shower, you don’t think nothing of it. But let that water run dry. Where you going to take a shower? See if you don’t notice it right away….
I recorded that song in 1962, and it’s still a hit. That’s a standard now, and I only wish I could write another one like that — front door, or side door, or something.
D.L. was known as “the Cajun Hank Williams,” and he patterned “The Back Door” on Williams’s “Honky Tonk Blues.” He only met Williams once, in 1951, but that night changed his life.
I studied that man, I stayed with him from nine till — well, I left the dance hall at fifteen to one, he played from nine to one, and I stayed in front of that bandstand almost all the time, and I studied that man from head to toe…
I talked with him for about ten minutes. And he told me, he said, “You’ve got to sing a song from the heart.” I said, “What you mean by that?” I didn’t know what in the hell he meant. And “region music,” he talked to me about region music. I didn’t know what region music was. I was nineteen years old. So more or less half of what he told me went inside here and out the other side….
D.L. particularly remembered Williams telling him he should play his own music:
I said, “Hank,” I said “I never — it’s French music.”
He said, “It’s yours, huh? It’s your music.”
“Well,” I said, “yeah.” I said, “Well, that’s what I grew up in…”
What he said: “It’s good. It’s good music.” He said, “No matter what kind of music you play, if it’s your music,” he said, “it’s good.”