Boozoo Chavis has played zydeco music for 50 years and recorded what is widely considered the first zydeco single--"Paper in My Shoe"--in 1954. From that perspective, he has watched with perturbed interest as the rise of a new generation of young zydeco hotshots has erupted into nasty rivalries on the Louisiana bayou.
It’s been all-out war between accordion players Beau Jocque and Keith Frank, the current leading forces in the exuberant African American music of the Cajun-Creole cultures. They’ve dissed each other regularly in interviews, and if a club books one of them for a gig, the other will boycott the venue.
“The don’t like each other because they have a difference over the music,” said Chavis, 66, weary of the warring as he speaks from his Lake Charles home, “Days of Our Lives” audible on the TV in the background. “One says he took his song and the other says no, he took his song. They’re saying they’re copying after one another.”
Chavis would be more than happy to set them straight on the matter.
“I say they both copy after me,” he said, with an air of authority reminiscent of Little Richard’s continual reminders that he’s the “originator” of rock ‘n’ roll.
And, as with Little Richard, it’s hard to argue. Only Clifton Chenier gets more credit for kicking zydeco--the music of the French-speaking Louisiana Creoles--into the modern era. And where Chenier, who died in 1986, emphasized the urban blues roots of the style, accented by his choice of the piano-style keyboard accordion, Chavis represents more of the rural sound with his three-row button accordion, an approach directly descended from such early masters as Amedee Ardoin and his cousin, Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin.
“It got the beat and it got the rhythm and it’s plain to hear,” Chavis said of his music. “It got everything.”
The new zydeco kids have the beat and rhythm too, but Chavis insists that he’s got something they’ll never have.
“I know what I’m doing,” he said, “These other guys don’t know what they’re making. . . . They’re just playing--couldn’t tell you the meaning. I can tell you the meaning of my music. I got the tradition, the tradition of zydeco, and I’m playing my own music, not copying anyone else.”
And that meaning is?
“I’ve been singing about myself and what I experience,” he said.
He makes a good point. Many young players’ music sometimes sounds disconnected from any depth of experience--the focus just on keeping people dancing.
Dancing remains a big part of Chavis’ music, as heard in the nonstop beats of his new, Grammy-nominated album, “Hey Do Right!” It’s also evident any time he and his Magic Sounds band perform live, as they will Saturday at the Ash Grove in Santa Monica and Sunday at the first Zydeco Mardi Gras Ball in the Golden Sails Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom in Long Beach.
The album is perhaps his strongest collection since he returned to full-time musical duty in 1985 after a life of various jobs--a facet of his history that is the key to his art. The thing is, Chavis has a history outside of zydeco.
Today it’s possible to make a living full time with the music, so the successful youngsters can get right into the circuit, sometimes while still in their teens. Chavis didn’t have that luxury, even for most of his adulthood.
Being a zydeco pioneer was worth something, but not enough to stop him from a series of day jobs, ranging from working in packing plants and rice fields to--his true passion--training horses, which he started with his father in the ‘60s. His songs aren’t Springsteenian working-man epics, but snapshots out of his life--from his first song on.
“People say, ‘ “Paper in My Shoe?” What do you mean?’ ” he said. “It mean I don’t have no socks. True story.”
The new album includes true stories--although he admits some are embellished--about things in his life. These range from tales of partying with his daughter, whose nickname, Do Right, provided the title, and his wife, Leona, to horse racing. He even tackles every human’s inevitable fate in the hilarious “You Gonna Look Like a Monkey When You Get Old.”
Chavis also has a couple songs on the album aimed specifically at the young fans and players in zydeco who stake their claim on his territory--"Message From the Master” and “What You Gonna Do.”
In the latter, he sings, “What you gonna do when Boozoo’s gone? / What you gonna do when there ain’t no song?”
In other words, after Boozoo, what’s left of zydeco?
“I got 50 years in this music,” he said feistily. “You name me one of those boys got 50 years.”
* Boozoo Chavis & the Magic Sounds and Zydeco Blues Patrol play at the Zydeco Mardi Gras Ball on Sunday in the Crystal Ballroom, Golden Sails Hotel, 6285 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. 6-11 p.m. $12 advance; $15 at the door. (562) 596-1631.