Photo credit: Melanie Plesh
Yours Truly in a Swamp
Leonard Earl Johnson
* * *
T'is The Season of The Fests
by Leonard Earl JohnsonWe catch the train back and forth across the Atchafalaya Basin just to be in Acadiana for the twelfth annual Washington Catfish Festival (recently Americanized from Festival du Courtableau) one week and back in New Orleans the next, for the twenty-fifth annual Tennessee Williams Festival.
Despite very Yankee names like "Washington" and "Catfish Festival," Washington is one of the older French settlements in Louisiana, 1720. But with strong American inclinations. Located along picturesque Bayou Teche, this area had early access to French Canadian (the Cajuns), and French European (the Creoles) immigrants.
Their music is hot, Cajun (white) and Zydeco (black). Few horns and lots of cultural/racial overlap. This year I saw a license plate that read, "Proudly Mulatto." Gino Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie played. Food stands sold popcorn balls, booze and the best catfish you ever ate.
In New Orleans, the ultra-urban Tennessee Williams flock gathered to honor their god, in the city he called his spiritual home.
TennFest has been the premier literary festival commemorating Williams for the past twenty-five years. And it has never looked better. Also this year, Tennessee turned one-hundred while moldering in his Saint Louis, Missouri grave. Therein lies a story.Blood is Thicker Than Water!Blood is thicker than water, as fear all us carpetbaggers. Tennessee made no secret of his dislike of his Saint Louis boyhood. When he passed away his Brother, Dakin, had him planted in the Saint Louis family plot. Grumblings have gone forth since to the effect he would rather not like the location. This year, on a panel of Festival Founders, Errol Laborde told of a recent visit to Saint Louis. When asked, the tour guide said Tennessee was buried in Saint Louis because his family is. Laborde shrugged, "There it is."TennFest is a large fest. Not large like French Quarter Fest or the god-fest, Jazzfest, but large. "Thousands, many thousands. It's hard to say," said a Festival spokesperson. "We sell tickets to individual events and individuals come to more than one event. And some buy passes good for it all. How do you count that? But we had around ten thousand."
There must have been a thousand at the Stella Hollering Contest on the last Sunday. The Stella Hollering Contest chooses from any who care to participate the voice most something. It is never clear what. But the objective is to yell for Stella from Jackson Square, below an Upper Pontalba balcony in some fashion that honors Tennessee Williams' character Stanley Kowalski yelling for his Stella, in the 1951 New Orleans-set Streetcar Named Desire. Often cited by New Orleanians as Tennessee's best.
We did not holler for Stella, but watched from the corner near Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre. We were helping break the record for sales of signature Festival Mint Juleps, assisted by the amply consuming BY THE LIGHT OF THE JUKEBOX author, Dean Paschal; and Dean Faulkner Wells, niece of William Faulkner. She was in Town promoting her memoirs, EVERY DAY IN THE SUN, at Faulkner House Books, a bibliotech's dream shop in nearby Pirate's Alley. Paschal and I were in Town to drink it dry. The butler at Faulkner House eventually left us our own bottle. Not there just for the wine, we also watched and listened to everywoman-grandedame Dean Faulkner Wells signing and chatting up her fans. At one point, her assistant presented a seeker as the something-relation to someone from some family with kin in California. Faulkner could have written the scene. Tennessee Williams probably did. Those two literary giants were not particularly friends, but Faulkner House sells both. And we loving followers intermingle.
It was theatrical serendipity -- as happens in towns like New Orleans -- that Paschal and I gathered by the trashcan on the uptown corner of the Cabildo, waiting with William Faulkner's niece for her car to be brought round. Four doors down people were yelling for STELLA.
Paschal, a physician by day, suggested some new medicine for Dean Faulkner Well's arthritis. "Take two mint juleps and call him in the morning," some passing college boy offered.Wells lived in Panama. I told her of my sailor days hanging out in the Crossroads of the World Bar and Whorehouse, after first asertaining that she had not been there as a missionary. She had not, she told us, "I was at the Crossroads with you."Four doors down, people were ripping their shirts and yelling, "STELLA!"
* * *
Copyright, 2011, Leonard Earl Johnson