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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Leonard Earl Johnson (photo credit Frank Parsley) covered Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), and the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for ConsumerAffairs.com. He is a contributor to Gambit Weekly, New Orleans Magazine, SCAT, Baton Rouge Advocate, Advocate Magazine, The Times-Picayune, Country Roads Magazine, Palm Springs Newswire and the anthologies: FRENCH QUARTER FICTION (Light of New Orleans Publishing), LOUISIANA IN WORDS (Pelican Publishing), LIFE IN THE WAKE (NOLAfuges.com), and more. Johnson is a former Merchant Seaman, and columnist at Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans; and African-American Village. Attended Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at Piney Point, Maryland. Winner of the Press Club of New Orleans Award for Excellence, 1991, and given the Key to The City and a Certificate of Appreciation from the New Orleans City Council for a Gambit Weekly story on murder in the French Quarter.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

February 2009 / On The Way to Texas, Part One, Joan Baez

Yours Truly in a Swamp

On The Way to Texas,

Where are They Now

Part One


Leonard Earl Johnson
reprinted from Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans
February, 2009

Joan Baez at Grant Street, Lafayette,
December, 2008.
Photo credit:
Kent G. Hutslar

* * *

The day after Christmas, we attended a semi-impromptu appearance by American folk-singer, political activist, and icon of the Fabled Sixties, Joan Baez. It was at the Medicine Show-12, Grant Street Dancehall, in Lafayette, Louisiana, 13o miles northwest of New Orleans.

Lafayette is the hustling "Hub City" of French speaking Louisiana, in the Parish of Lafayette. It is where some 40,000 New Orleanians splashed down after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It is a big parish with a population upwards of 200,000, and a hinterland nearly that large again. It is a kind of capital of Acadiana.

The area undulates on a bubble of oil, sugar and rice, and it is growing so fast no one is quite sure just how large it is. It booms, though more muted of late.

* * *

Acadiana is served by Interstate-10, Greyhound Bus, several airlines, and Amtrak's old Train Number One, the Sunset Limited. This is the mainline between New Orleans and Los Angeles. It follows, pretty much, the Old Spanish Trail.

Interstate-10 is often fast, but accidents on the Atchafalya Basin Bridge can bring traffic to a halt for hours, and to driving time add the cost of market-price gasoline.

Amtrak is sometimes faster, and always cheaper. The Sunset Limited, West, always leaves New Orleans on time. But, alas, America's once glorious passenger trains now give way to oncoming freight trains and are often delayed en route. Of course, during the Bush years, on-board services deteriorated from so-so to not-so-good. But if you enjoy train rides crossing mighty mouths of south Louisiana's many rivers and bayous, it can be a joy only lengthened by a delayed arrival. However, if you are the type who would vote again for Bush, you would likely not appreciate such extended joys.

Trains naturally attract a certain number of National Geographic readers, along with those who might not read anything. A perfect situation for bloviating over sugar cane fields, moss-strewn oaks, and cypress trees kicking their knees in the sun.

There is a restaurant-car, and the food is edible. Sometimes we pack our own and eat in the observation car. But we like the dinner, with its European seating and tourists eager to share our wisdom. (L. A. Norma loves telling them, while batting her well-trained eyes, "No, no, not The Mississippi! We will cross several places that, to untrained eyes, might look like The Mississippi, but they are not.")

At $17, with geezer discount and advance-reservation, this aptly named train is one of the last bargains of our floundering new millennium. The price is higher for young adults. Less for children.

* * *

"But you can smoke in your own automobile," L. A. Norma later exclaimed. Norma likes trains and sometimes takes this one all the way to Los Angeles. She does not like Amtrak's policy of No On Board Smoking. Periodic stops allow quick puffs standing on some station's platform. (Note: trains out of New Orleans do not stop for a smoke-break until Lafayette.)

* * *

We got the call about Joan Baez from Rene Roberts, a Louisiana music and art maven who teaches at the Acadiana Arts Council, and is a past member of Washington's Kennedy Center Board of Advisers. She said, "Joan Baez is sitting in for Zachary Richard, tonight, at Grant Street. Richard has laryngitis."

"Yippee," exclaimed Norma, "Grant Street is just across Jefferson Street from Lafayette's new train station!"

Zachary Richard is a Louisiana icon, with a purity in his voice similar to that which has marked Baez's long and soaring career. You may recall hearing his "Ave, Maris Stella," in a televised mass, celebrated by Lafayette Bishop Michael Jarrel, in 2005. This was the annual Mass commemorating the French-Canadian Diaspora to Acadiana.

In 2005, the Diaspora Mass was extended to include Hurricane Katrina's Diaspora. (Rita had not yet happened.) Louisiana's maligned governor, Kathleen Blanco, was present as Richard's a Capella voice soared up the clerestory, and tears from all over the state fell at her feet.

Richard and Baez are friends. Baez was in Lafayette using the recording studio of Dirk Powell, producer and musician, with whom she has been touring.

Baez began her career when she was in her teens. She was already famous -- in the heady days of the Fabled Sixties -- when she joined managers and stage with Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. The press of the day loved depicting the three of them as grandfather-overseeing-young-troublemaker troubadours and lovers. There was some truth to that.

"Protest singer," is the descriptive phrase used by Joseph Savioe, President of the University of Louisiana, at Lafayette.

"Ooh LA LA!" L. A. Norma stage whispered, as Savioe introduced Baez.

Lafayette photographer Kent Hutsler took a definitive photograph (above) of this sixty-eight year old women, still as beautiful as her songs, and charming as her voice. She opened with "Lily of the West."

The Medicine Show-12, like the eleven before it, was dedicated to the establishment of a music chair, at U. L. L., in the name of the late Lafayette physician and music lover, Tommy Comeaux. A few months ago, U. L. announced over one-million dollars had been raised and the chair is established.

Grant Street Dancehall is a nicely refitted railway warehouse. It is a large and famous venue that once thrived, then faltered, then closed, and then reopened, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with a performance by Jerry Lee Lewis. Most everyone you ever thought of in Cajun, Zydeco, or Creole music has played Grant Street. Along with Joan Baez.

We stood, in the back of the hall, on steps leading up to a section with huge sofas and well dressed young dates. A woman said to her friend, "She played at Woodstock, they say."

The times, indeed, they have changed. Imagine President Savoie giving such an introduction as tonight's, at Woodstock?

"I absolutely can not,"
Norma said, recalling the rain and mud of Woodstock.

Two history students talked to other friends about a recent class where their teacher told them about Lyndon B. Johnson's colorful admonition to his White House aides: "It is better to have them inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in."

BeauSoleil also graced the night. Along with greats like Sonny Landreth, Geno Delafose, and Lazy Lester, who did a perfect heart-stopping version of Hank Williams' Bayou State anthem, "Jambalaya."

Biaz sang "Farewell Angelina," with BeauSoleil front man Michael Doucet. But she brought down the house with her 1971 hit, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." And closed her set with an a Capella rendition of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," dedicated to the late Doctor Tommy Comeaux.

* *

"Was that Dixie song, last night, about the old New Orleans beer?"
L. A. Norma asked, next morning, with a giggle, and a newly opened Abita Amber, which in Lafayette is considered imported beer. Next stop Houston, Texas.