Voices of Americana : Cajun Blue
MP3 Country, Blues
The Rod Bernard story began in Opelousas, Louisiana where young Rod fell under the spell of Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and local boy Frankie Ford, but came to be an originator of ‘Swamp Pop’ (“a rhythm and blues hybrid indigenous to south-east Texas and the Acadiana region of Louisiana and influenced mainly by New Orleans rhythm and blues, country and western and Cajun and Black Creole music” or simply “half Domino and half fais do-do”). His first solo single was “This Should Go On Forever”, a triplet blues that crossed color lines without detection due to a booming baritone saxophone and a voice that oozed sincerity. By spring of 1959 the song had cracked Billboard Top 20, and Rod Bernard hit the big time. He toured the nation with the likes of Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison and appeared on “American Bandstand” and “The Alan Freed Show”, and continued to release Swamp Pop classics, often backed by the then unknown Johnny and Edgar Winter
It has been almost twenty years since Rod Bernard charged onto the pop charts with the million seller “This Should Go On Forever”, which even today ranks as one of the biggest jukebox request records in the South. Yet in all that the time that has passed, that song has stayed with him as he has developed into an explosive stage personality.
The Rod Bernard story began in Opelousas, Louisiana where young Rod fell under the spell of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and local boys Frankie Ford and Jimmy Clanton. After many hours of practice in his room, at school, and while cruising in his car, he decided he could sing as well as his heroes and proceeded to prove the point by travelling to Jay Miller’s recording studio in Crowley, Louisiana. The result was a thick-as-molasses lover’s lament, “This Should Go On Forever”, a triplet blues that crossed color lines without detection due to a booming baritone saxophone and a voice that oozed sincerity.
“It was also very immoral”, Bernard explains, revealing the song’s hidden appeal. He sings out the guilty line: “If it’s a sin to love you / Then a sinner I’ll always be” and explains those were exactly the words he lip-synched on the first of many American Bandstand appearances. Host Dick Clark asked Rod to recut the record, changing the word ‘sin’ to ‘wrong’. Bernard went back to the studio and made a special cleaned-up version for Bandstand. “It was a big thing then!” Bernard muses. “But now it seems kind of ridiculous considering the songs that are played on the radio today”.
Rod’s story, of course, doesn’t end with singing risqué lyrics in 1959. Shortly thereafter he worked on the Mercury label in Nashville trying to follow up his big hit, but to no avail. Ironically, as soon as he returned to the Bayou land, he assembled a four piece band that included two light-skinned teens from Beaumont named Johnny and Edgar Winter and immediately clicked with another national hit “Colinda”, the best selling version of that Cajun classic. “They spent thousands of dollars in Nashville, and couldn’t come up with anything and we paid a Louisiana band ten dollars a piece to cut ‘Colinda’”, Rod says with a touch of amusement.
Today Rod stills sings - on television station KLFY in Lafayette, Cajun capital of the world, and at dances throughout South Louisiana. Although Rod admits his repertoire includes some modern easy listening tunes and songs made famous by other people, he reports fans still demand the hits made famous by Rod Bernard. “Last week in Lake Charles they wouldn’t go home until I did all my own stuff” he says.
True to form, Rod’s material is a s fresh today as it was twenty years ago. Crazy Cajun Records, under the guidance of the legendary Huey P. Meaux, takes pleasure in presenting this compilation of Rod Bernard, old and new, for your listening pleasure. At last, the world can hear the unadulterated music that makes a Lala dance something special to Bayou natives and visitors alike.
Joe Nick Patoski
MP3 Country, Blues
MP3 Pop, Rock, World, Cajun, Rock & Roll, R&B/Soul Released By Demon S&C
MP3 Country, Blues
MP3 Rock, Music, World, Cajun, R&B/Soul, Rock & Roll Released By Demon S&C
This Edsel CD is divided into three near-equal portions reflecting the three distinct phases of Bernard’s career. The first ten tracks in large part are the purest swamp pop, the second ten reflect a country influence, while the album closes with seven mostly classic Cajun tunes informed with a rock sensibility.
The disc opens with ten songs from the infancy of both Bernard’s career and the swamp pop genre, with two of the
numbers by far preceding either.
Both “Jolie Blonde” and “Colinda” are time-honored standards of the south Louisiana songbook. “Jolie Blonde” needs no introduction, dating from earliest recordings of Cajun music and could easily serve as the “national anthem” of south Louisiana, much as “Rocky Top” and “Yellow Rose Of Texas” do for denizens of Tennessee and Texas.
Perhaps of most interest, however, to those of an ethnomusicological bent or those who are fascinated by Louisiana culture, is “Colinda”. Bernard’s bilingual 1962 version, a smash hit in Acadiana and Quebec and a minor one in the rest of America, is but the most famous rendition of a song and dance with roots in Guinea over 400 years ago.
In fact, when the first slavers appeared on that country’s coast, Guineans had been dancing a dance called the Kalinda for many years. They brought this dance with them to New World, most notably to the Caribbean (where it is performed to this day) and to Louisiana. It’s first New World reference comes from Martinique, when in 1678 the Sovereign Council banned it because of both its indecency and its supposed ability to incite slave revolts.
In Louisiana, by the nineteenth century the dance had become associated with both voodoo and a sort of acrobatic Morris Dancing, as folklorist Mina Monroe recorded in 1921: “In Louisiana, the Calinda was a war dance in which men alone took part, stripped to the waist and brandishing sticks in mock fight, while at the same time balancing upon their heads bottles filled with water”.
The dance had become extinct in Louisiana by 1900, but its name lived on in the music of the black Creoles. The Cajuns picked up on these songs and added some variants (most notably, and probably resulting from a misunderstanding of the French homonymic phases allons danser Colinda - “Let’s Dance the Colinda”, and allons dansez Colinda - “Let’s Dance Colinda”). By 1962 the song was well known in the Cajun country, a version having been cut in 1953 by no less an eminence than Governor Jimmie Davis.
Not only are the songs historical, some of them are just plain ol’ pure pop perfection! “You’re The Reason I’m In Love” is a glittering jewel of romantic Swamp Pop that stuns with it’s impeccability. The same could also be said for his biggest hit, “This Should Go On Forever”. Pop music, be it of the Swamp or dry land variety, simply doesn’t come much better than this!
Of note today is the fact that composer King Karl’s lyric, “If it’s a sin to really love you/then a sinner I will be” was
censored by fabled American television emcee Dick Clark when Dick Clark when Bernard was slated to perform the song on Clark’s “American Bandstand”. The concept of a “sinful” love, thought unobjectionable on the Bayou, proved too hot to handle out in the hot dog and apple pie heartland of 1959. Bernard was forced to record a g-rated version, and the lyric was changed to “if it’s wrong to really love you / then wrong I’ll always be”. How rapidly times change.
Other Swamp Pop classics covered in this section include Bobby Charles’ “Small Town Talk” and Jerry Raines’ “Our Teenage Love”. The Chuck Berry style rocker “Recorded In England”, originally cut on Bernard’s own Arbee label, is an interesting novelty. The plight of the home-grown popster in the wake of The Beatles was regarded with bemusement by most stateside musicians, but was nonetheless the death knell for the “golden age” of Swamp Pop. “To Have And To Hold”, in which the singer openly and bitterly regrets his marriage, is another song none too heartland friendly. The chorus, “if I had my life to live over again, then you’d be the one wearing my ring” - directed toward the other woman - would definitely be weighed in the balance and found wanting by the likes of Dick Clark.
Which brings us to one of Bernard’s most memorable compositions, “Fais Do Do”, the opener of the ten-song C&W-flavoured middle portion of the disc. Cajun culture, besieged since the discovery of oil in Acadian parishes at the turn of the century, is chronicled by the narrator at the midpoint of the century. With the oil came roads and bosses who wanted English speaking employees, and also on the part of the Cajuns, a turning away from the age old ways. In “Fais Do Do” (which was co-written with the legendary Jack “Cowboy” Clement) a young Cajun girl chooses to dance “the twist” at the fais do-do, and to the dismay of her more traditional father and boyfriend, eschews cooking gumbo and riding the bayous in a pirogue. A fascinating chronicle of the American melting pot at full boil “Fais Do Do” is presented here in two versions.
“Cajun Blue”, warm as a Gulf breeze, and the bitter honky-tonker, “If You Call This Happy Baby” continue the Pelican State country flavour. “Texas Roller Coaster Feeling”, with its sultry back up singers and wafting guitar, is laid back 70’s country rock at its best. The next three country numbers tackle the dark side of life with “Help Me Put Myself Together” and the mordant “New Orleans Jail” remaining essentially upbeat. The third of this trio, the unsettling “Wish I Could Get Up And Go To Bed” is bleak stuff, real wee hours, fifth day of a bender blues.
Later more C&W inflected versions of “Colinda” and “This Should Go On Forever” ensue, bringing on the sdvent of the Cajun rock phase of the disc. “Bell Bottom Bayou” kicks off with a chugging groove and tasty wah wah guitar. Bernard’s voice to me is better suited to either rockers like this or the swamp pop style heard earlier than it is to country. “Cajun Interstate” is an interesting piece of history. The Federal Interstate program really had it’s work cut out for it in Louisiana. To this day the Atchafalaya Swamp Parkway, the Manchac Swamp Parkway, and the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway alone account for a hundred-some miles of raised interstate highway, with scores of other smaller stretches thrown into the bargain. Indeed a sterling testament to the engineers and roadworkers, it is only stretching the truth a little to say that when the time comes to build an interstate to the moon, Cajun labour will be needed.
Three classics from the Cajun songbook follow: “Big Mamou”, “Jambalaya”, and “Hippi-ti-Yo”. “Big Mamou”, sung in alternating verses of French and English, is a hoary, beer-soaked standard, aromatic of drunken despair and sung here with great gusto. Bernard’s ragged but right cut of the Hank Williams tune is among the wildest and woolliest on record, with the whole band joining in on a singularly boisterous chorus.
Turning away from the composition of an “honorary Cajun” we find a song with roots perhaps as old as the state of Louisiana itself: “Hippi-Ti-Yo”. This song was originally recorded in the Swamp Pop style by Bobby Page and the Riff Raffs. The Riff Raffs had learned it in their Central Acadian hometown, where it had been sung (in various forms) since time immemorial by the black Creoles. Folklorist Alan Lomax has speculated that “Hippi-ti-Yo” has it’s origins in the identically pronounced French phase Hip et Taiaut. Hip et Taiaut (which translates roughly as “clever dog”, and gave rise long ago to the the English “tallyho”) was an exhortation used by black Creole cowboys on the trail drives that once passed from Texas through Louisiana to New Orleans, which up until the middle of the nineteenth century (when it was usurped by Kansas) had served as the processing centre for Texas cattle. (Incidentally, Lomax believes that this phrase also inspired the chorus of the famous cowboy song “Get Along Little Dogies”, whose chorus is “whoopee ti-yi-yo, get along little dogies”. Texas cowboys heard the exhortation used by the Creole cowboys and adapted into their own classic song). So once again a Creole song of obscure and ancient origins evolves into a tasty swamp pop tune thanks to the rolling boil of the Louisiana gumbo pot.
The spoken word, “Tear in the Lady’s Eye” finds ex-marine Bernard offering up a few choice words for those who would set Old Glory alight.
~John Nova Lomax, November 1998
Rod Bernard was born in the steadfastly Cajun, sweet-potato growing town of Opelousas, Lousiana (world renowned chef Paul Prudhomme and zydeco king Clifton Chenier are also natives) on 12 August, 1940. Though his parents were bilingual, Bernard was born into a generation that, in large part, had the Cajun in them crushed by Americanising authorities. French-speakers, black or white were punished (often corporally) for using their native tongue in their schools. As a result Bernard speaks only English albeit with a Cajun influenced south Louisiana accent (though he can sing in Cajun French, as he does on this album). No one in his family played music, cajun or otherwise.
This is not to say that he grew up divorced from his culture, far from it. His grandfather owned a dance hall in tiny Point Barre. Situated smack dab on the banks of the Bayou Teche, The Courtableau Inn afforded Bernard his first early tastes of live music and Cajun culture. The music was Francophone, the ambience Cajun traditional, as Bernard recalled: “(it) was a French night-club were bands like Aldus Roger and Papa Cairo played. We used to go over there and I would just hang on the bandstand and watch the musicians. The old mamas would bring their daughters and the mamas would sit back along the wall while their daughters danced. And the they’d wait till the dance was over and take their daughters home”.
Nights at the Courtableau inspired Bernard and his brother so much that they resolved to get themselves a guitar. The eight year old Rod and his younger brother “Ric” plundered the family pecan grove, soon saving enough of the nuts to earn the money to buy a little Gene Autry model, which they quickly mastered. An Opelousas feed store broadcast an early morning radio show and its proprietor, Felix Dezauche became the patron of the Blue Room Gang, an assortment of young local musicians, in which Rod played a rhythm guitar and displayed a knack for yodelling. Soon thereafter Rod (on his own) succeeded in landing a previously reluctant advertiser to the station’s accounts, thus earning his very own half hour show and by the time he was twelve he added disc jockeying to precocious resume.
Not long thereafter, the enterprising Mr. Dezauche dispatched the Blue Room Gang on a tour designed to promote his Red Bird Brand sweet potatoes. While touring Rod and the gang cut their first record in a studio some 1500 miles north of Bayou Teche in Waterloo, Iowa. Perhaps homesick, the song they cut was Hank Williams proto-swamp pop paean to all things Acadian, “Jambalaya”, and therein lies a story.
Rod idolised Hank Williams, as did virtually every Southern boy his age. But Rod did them one better by receiving an intimate audience with the king, as he related to his son (music historian and writer Shane K. Bernard, whose excellent book “Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm And Blues”, [University Press Of Mississippi], formed the basis of these notes and is required reading for both fans of south Louisiana Music and students of its culture). “I met Hank Williams when I was about eight years old. He played at the Opelousas High School gym. Mr. Dezauche took me backstage and Hank Williams was standing there in his underwear. I’ll never forget that. And I walked up to him and that was my God at the time. It was like Elvis later on. Man, to see Hank Williams in person standing there! And he shook hands with me and I had an autograph book and I found out later that he never signed many autographs. He had a doctor travelling with him and I stayed backstage and about every twenty minutes a doctor would come and give him shot and I kept thinking “Poor guy, he’s really sick. I didn’t realise that it was drugs - they would give him shots to wake him up and drugs to put him to sleep”.
Not so long after his tour and session, the Bernard family moved just across the Sabine River to Winnie, Texas. Though his ties to the Blue Room Gang and Mr.Dezauche were temporarily severed, Bernard continued to perform. By a delicious twist of fate, his barber in Winnie was none other than Huey Meaux, later his producer/manager, and the proprietor of Crazy Cajun Records.
Bernard’s sixteenth year found him back in Opelousas and on the air at KSLO as a full time DJ. By this time, white kids were pricking up their ears to the wondrous music made by their black counterparts, often on the other side of the tracks in their hometowns. Pioneering white DJ’s like Beaumont’s Big Bopper, New Orleans’ Poppa Stoppa and Nashville’s Hoss Allen desegregated their shows long before integration was to occur elsewhere in Southern life, and their audiences ate it up. Soon other DJ’s followed suit and Bernard was among them, adopting the on-air name “Hot Rod”. Bernard was wowed by the R‘n’B he was spinning on his radio shows, as both a fan and musician, and about this time began to mix this final, vital ingredient to the music he was making off the air, the music that was to become Swamp Pop.
Swamp Pop in recent years has become the red headed step-child of South Louisiana music. A hybrid of virtually every form of the region’s music, Swamp Pop infuriates purists with its “taint” of commercialism and the fact that it encompasses outside musical forms such as New Orleans R‘n’B and mainstream country. Definitions of Swamp Pop range from Shane Bernard’s academic, “A rhythm and blues hybrid indigenous to south-east Texas and the Acadiana region of Louisiana and influenced mainly by New Orleans rhythm and blues, country and western and Cajun and Black Creole music” to the epigrammatic Harry Simoneaux’s “half Domino and half fais do-do”. What is certain is that when compared to “pure” forms such as zydeco and Cajun, purists give Swamp Pop short shrift.
By 1956 all of these ingredients were (to employ an overworked, though apt analogy) at a rolling boil in Swamp Pop’s gumbo pot. Inspired anew by local black artists like Guitar Gable, the bluesy Lonesome Sundown, and King Karl, Bernard organised a band named the Twisters, which included his brother Oscar and other high school mates. Newly informed by the thrilling sounds emanating out of the Crescent City - especially Fats Domino, but also Lloyd Price, Frankie Ford and Earl King - The Twisters and dozens of other south Louisiana bands modified their already rich indigenous Cajun Creole music a shade towards New Orleans.
The Twisters waxed with crude equipment two raw singles (“Linda Gail”/”Little Bitty Mama”; “All Night In Jail”/”Set Me Free” in 1957 on the tiny Carl label; both sank without trace. They did however, earn themselves one very important fan: record producer Floyd Soileau.
Soileau was scouting talent for his brand new Jin label and he approached The Twisters with an eye toward making a record. As Bernard put it, Soileau asked them if they were interested in making a record. I said “Yeah sure why not?” and he said “Well, go find a couple of songs”. Bernard had already composed “Pardon Mr. Gordon” (which rhymes in the local dialect) and went in search of one more tune.
He had already found it on the other side of Opelousas’ railroad tracks at the Moonlight Inn. Musicians in Acadiana, unlike their non-musical neighbours, were not big sticklers for the Jim Crow laws and Bernard would frequent black night-clubs after work at KSLO to check out the music. On one such night Guitar Gable seeing the DJ in the crowd announced to Bernard his newest song, “This Should Go Forever”. Bernard was amazed, thinking to himself “Boy - what a hit song!” Only now, Bernard was thinking as an artist rather than a DJ. Later Bernard went to meet Karl at his house and received permission to record the song and some lessons how to play it. He waxed the song at J.D. Miller’s studio in the nearby town of Crowley, and on its release in October of 1958 the single became instant regional hit.
Initially in fact, “This Should Go On Forever” proved too successful for its own good Demand far outstripped supply, allowing two rival groups to record hurry-up copy-cat jobs for competing labels. Eventually Soileau leased the single to Leonard Chess’ (of Chicago blues fame) Argo imprint, which distributed the single coast-to-coast. By spring of 1959 the song had cracked Billboard Top 20, and Rod Bernard hit the big time. He toured the nation with the likes of Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison and appeared on “American Bandstand” and “The Alan Freed Show”.
Unfortunately for Bernard, his follow-up Argo single (“You’re On My Mind”/”My Life Is A Mystery” failed to maintain the momentum. A switch to the Mercury label didn’t help; as it would with the other Swamp Pop artists, the label dredged the swamp out of Bernard’s sound. The Mercury sessions yielded only what English music historian John Broven termed “vacuous teen ballads” and left Bernard several thousand dollars in debt.
Bernard’s next move was to his producer Bill Hall’s Hall Way label, based in Beaumont, Texas. There his fortunes improved as he released several classics of the Swamp Pop genre, often backed by the then unknown Johnny and Edgar Winter. “Fais Do Do”, “Who’s Gonna Rock My Baby, and “Colinda” all made their first appearance in this period.
In 1962, Bernard formed the Shondells with Warren Storm and Skip Stewart. Recording for LA Louisianne Records of Lafayette, this Swamp Pop supergroup released several singles and the album “The Shondells at the Saturday Hop”. During this time Bernard also released singles on the Scepter and SSS International labels as well Soileau’s Jin (“Congratulations To You Darling”) and Meaux’s Teardrop and Copyright imprints (“Papa Thibodeaux”) and even co-founded his own short lived Arbee (“Recorded in England”) label.
In 1965 Bernard took a job as an ad salesman at KLFY-TV in Lafayette, and thereafter recorded rarely and toured less. In 1976 however, Bernard recorded for Jin his most adventurous album, “Boogie In Black & White”, a Swamp Pop/Zydeco summit waxed with no less an eminence than the zydeco king himself, Clifton Chenier. A landmark album in south Louisiana music history, music writer Larry Benicewicz called it a “masterpiece” that, no doubt spawned other experiments’ like Wayne Toup’s “Zyde-Cajun” style or perhaps, a Zachary Richard “Zack Attack”, a similar fusion of Cajun, zydeco and R ‘n’ B.
Bernard at last kicked his alcohol and pill problems in 1980 and exiled himself from the club scene even further. Clearly, the fun had gone out of it for him, as he related: “If you have force yourself to smile and perform when it’s not fun, then it’s not worth it. And it got to that point”.
Today Bernard enjoys it again, enough even to appear almost weekly in Swamp Pop Clubs in and around Lafayette, and remains to this day an ad salesman at KLFY-TV.
~John Nova Lomax, November 1998