Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Ultimate Juke Joint: Musings about Jay's Lounge and Cockpit , Cankton, Louisiana 1973

For my 19th Birthday in  October of 1973, my friends took me to Jay's Lounge and Cockpit to see Clifton Chenier. For a solid week before that night, my friends  had talked on and on about what we were going to see. I did not understand why they were so excited about going to a club smack dab in the middle of nowhere. I had been to many shows by that time, and scoffed at any idea that this could possibly be any cut above any I had already had seen. This was my first introduction a real Cajun Dance Hall. I walked in to find two men dancing on the dance floor with roosters in their arms.

I had seen fighting Cocks before in Biloxi, Mississippi. My father had taken me to a cockfighting pit on Christmas day in 1963. I remember that day like it was yesterday. The building was a round wooden building with backless theater seats encircling the pit. Everything was painted stark white.The whiteness of the arena seemed to accentuate the splattering of the blood. I don't recall being grossed out by it. I was interested in which cock would win, hoping Daddy would win his bets. He won big and stopped on the way back to  Jack Rodriguez's  house to buy whiskey, snacks, and cold drinks for my brother and I. We were Jack's guests for Christmas that year.  Even though I was a girl, my Daddy never sheltered me from much. He was a beatnick of sorts, and a piano player as well, who played gigs in New Orleans.

Just the same, I was amazed to see the two men dancing with these two roosters, with RAZORS hanging off their spurs!  I was astonished but excited.

I walked back to see the pit. It was wild in there, and very hot. I stayed about 5 minutes.The scene at Jay's was not as civilized as the pit in Biloxi was. It was loud and crowded in there.

I had a cane with me that night. It belonged to my boyfriend Reinaldo. It was a carved ebony cane. Over the next few months I went to Jay's quite often with that cane and danced to Clifton Chenier's band. Reinaldo's hand was broken and he was unable to use the cane at the time, so he gave it to me to use "as protection." I never quite understood why he wanted me to carry it, but it seemed to be a cool thing to do. The cane was a fascinating object, designed to be adored and fawned over. I loved carrying it. It was festooned with a carved man's head. Reinaldo had affectionately named the little man "Voo."

Clifton's band was the best dance band that I HAVE EVER SEEN. There is no way that one could be there and not get up and dance all night long. Clifton played a piano accordion, while Cleveland played a custom  frattoire  made by Willie Landry. The wives of the band members sat  at a table up to the right of the stage. I was aware at that time that that was the first time I had ever been in an establishment where both whites AND blacks were in attendance.

I was uninterested in who else was in the band at the time because I was too busy chasing boys and dancing. There were many people who played with Clifton over the years and I am sure I saw them all. Three others I know about are Wayne Blue Burns, Paul Lil' Buck Senegal, and Sonny Landreth. (I can't recall any names of anyone else, and since I am writing from personal experience here, I don't wish to research any of it.) 

Years went by. I would catch Clifton's Red Hot Louisiana Band at various locations: Cahoots in BR, Rock N Bowl: NOLA, Tipitina's in NOLA and at festivals. It always was the best Zydeco Blues, hands down.The band would play three songs. Then Clifton would get up and  play for 3 and a half hours. He would then leave the stage and the band  would play three more. It was always four hours of solid dance music.

At Festival Acadiene in 1987, I was standing in the middle of the grass about 50 yards back from the stage next to the water faucet. Clifton and Cleveland Chenier walked over to where I was and Cleveland said to me, "We have not seen you in a while. Where's your "stick?"

I was astonished that he would remember the carved ebony cane and me. Of course, I had to tell Cleveland that the "stick" was not mine and I had given it back to the man who owned it.  It had been loaned to me by Reinaldo Barnes, its' superstitious owner who had a personal belief that the cane would protect me from evil.  The cane had mysterious origins. Reinaldo had acquired the cane when he was in the Navy by winning a game of bourre.' After having the cane with me for 8 months, Reinaldo's hand healed and he asked me to return it. I was honored to have had it in my presence for those 8 months, and returned "Voo" to him.

They both shook my hand, expressing how good it was that I was there to see their show. They then walked onto the stage, where they proceeded  to  put on a killer show. That was the last time I got to see Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band.

Patty Fuller McGehee

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