The Struggle in Louisiana Continues

inArtist Storyon September 15, 2016

You weren’t really worried. This wasn’t a hurricane, not even a tropical storm—no roof-ripping tornado, no tower-toppling earthquake, no fire-spewing eruption—it was just rain. And it doesn’t flood around here. It never has before.

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Even as the water came up higher and higher—higher than anyone ever thought it would—you, like most folks, were basically safe. You tried to salvage what you could. When the military vehicles and boats started coming through, you considered evacuating. But you talked with your family and decided to stay in your home. Gradually, the water receded and you went to work doing what needed done—tossing damaged furniture, appliances, and carpet; ripping out floors and walls. When you finally took a break from the work, you looked down the street. It was a valley between two mountains of refuse. This was a world of total devastation. And that’s when the flood—which had already become ancient history to the 24-news cycle—started to seem like a present reality for you. You’d awakened from a nightmare, only to find that the events of the dream actually happened.

Several people I talked to from the Baton Rouge-area describe something like the story above. Yet, despite the level of catastrophe, they all make a point of putting things in perspective—recognizing that it could be worse (and is for some folks), and that mostly what they lost were “only material things.” Toughness and optimism are thick in that part of the world. But while the talk of “moving on” and “counting blessings” feels absolutely heartfelt, what comes across even stronger is a sense of shock. There was no possible way to prepare for this event. No one thought it would ever happen. Even after it did happen, it still seemed impossible. It was just rain. How can rain cause this much destruction? How could rain completely derail your life?

Of course, the majority of folks hit by the August floods in Louisiana didn’t have flood insurance. They didn’t live a flood zone; there was no reason to think they’d ever need it. FEMA is providing some relief, but in most cases they’re offering people nowhere near what it’s going to take to return their homes to a livable condition. People are tough and optimistic, but they’re facing extreme setbacks.

For a lot of musicians in the Baton Rouge-area, things were not easy even before the flood. With the exception of a few big names that get steady, well-compensated work, most Baton Rouge musicians have to supplement their income with non-music gigs if they’re able, or struggle to eke out a living. Even a veteran artist like Larry Garner, with over a dozen acclaimed albums to his credit, can’t sustain himself playing in the States. His label and most of his gigs are in Europe. “I find a lot more work over there,” he told me. “Some years it’s more, some years it’s less. This year’s been pretty good. I guess the All-Knowing All-Seeing knew that I was going to need every penny I could make to get through this.” Garner’s house sustained major damages in the flood. The 64-year old, who’s had open heart surgery, paused from ripping out drywall to talk with me on the phone. His 83-year old mother’s house got it even worse. She’s had to relocate to California, where she’s staying with family for the foreseeable future. “It’s a life-changing event,” Garner says. He’s working tirelessly now, trying to restore his home as much as possible before he goes back overseas to tour France in October.

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Larry Garner was able to keep his guitars out of the water, but his Fender Deluxe amp was not so lucky. Ruined equipment is a major issue for Baton Rouge’s flood-soaked music community. “Those are the tools that people make a living with,” remarks Lee Allen Zeno, a renowned bassist in the area who’s been with Buckwheat Zydeco’s band for decades. “And for most folks, insurance is not going to cover that stuff.” Zeno lost several bass amplifiers himself. Some musicians lost every bit of gear they owned. Every musician I talked to lost something.

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Lee Allen Zeno (photo by: Timothy Duffy)

The impact of these losses extends beyond live performance, reaching facets of the music community such as education and recording as well. Not only were schools flooded, but individual teachers lost instruments, sheet music, and other necessary tools of their profession. Eric Baskin, for example, the director of jazz studies at Baton Rouge Community College, lost sheet music, keyboards, and an amplifier. Recording studios, such as the famed Dockside Studio, also flooded. Amazingly, despite having two feet of water inside, it looks like Dockside—birthplace of 11 GRAMMY-award-winning albums and a favorite studio of legends like B.B. King and Dr. John—will survive. In the midst of the flood, wheelchair-bound owner Steve Nails communicated by cell phone with his wife, Cezanne, and 16-year old son, Dylan, to coordinate an heroic rescue effort. The two stood in rising water and, with increasingly blistered hands, removed and stacked out of harm’s way 150 40-pound modules from the recording console. After the water receded, an army of volunteers—mostly musicians—showed up to get Dockside’s rebuilding underway. “We’re so fortunate,” Cezanne Nails told the Arcadian Advocate, “People are coming from everywhere. There’s an amazing outpouring of musicians. Musicians really are some of the heroes in our community. They’re always the first to volunteer.”

Nails’ assertions about musicians are echoed by a lot people in the Baton Rouge area. Self-described “gypsy singer” Dusty Lightfoot Cashio expresses deep gratitude for her “music friends” who have been helping her through this crisis. “Music people are the greatest people God ever created on this earth,” she intones. Cashio fights to stay positive, but the flood hit her hard. “I’ve been through all those things that you go through in life, and I’m usually never shook,” she declares, “But this thing really kicked my butt.” The water rose rapidly in her area. “When it started coming through the windows,” she half-laughs, “I knew we were in trouble.” Fighting with the rising water, she tried to prepare her autistic son and 7 animals for evacuation. The first military vehicle that came through claimed they could only take humans. She decided to hold out and see if she could rescue her animals. They said another vehicle would come in an hour or so. “For the first two hours,” Cashio says, “I was tough. After four hours, I was thinking that staying with my animals may not have been such a hot choice.” Eventually, into the night, another vehicle arrived. She felt the wake roll through her living room. Her son was loaded in first, then her animals, then she followed.

Born in Mississippi and raised in Louisiana, Cashio moved to L.A. as a young woman to have a go at the music business. She sang on stages large and small and brushed shoulders with giants of rock world. After her son was born, though, she felt the sounds, sights, and smells of Louisiana calling her back home. “When it comes to music, it’s the heart,” she says, “But I love everything about it. I love the Spanish moss. I love the big Oak trees. I even love the alligators.” She pauses. “But the one thing I never planned for was: we’re going to have the worst flood in history.”

A devoted music fan and side-woman for decades, Cashio had amassed a unique and irreplaceable collection of memorabilia over the years—things like a guitar that once belonged to a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a speaker cabinet that once belonged to KISS. The flood took it all. It also took her 100-year old upright grand piano. “That was the last thing we took out of my house,” she says, “I made the men open it up so they could see her heart before they took her out.” The flood took Big Bertha, too—her vintage Cadillac with a custom Corvette engine that she’d driven for 20 years. “When I got back from the shelter, I opened Big Bertha’s door and a river poured out.” For days, Cashio tried to convince herself that the car was salvageable. But, eventually, she had to let it go like everything else.

Cashio’s son is a painter who lives with autism and severe hearing impairment. “The thing that hurt the most,” Cashio begins, and then fumbles for what to say next. “I saw his paintings floating in the water… And I’ve tried to do all these things to make his life safe and predictable… And he thought I could stop this flood. The look on his face. He was waiting on me to get it done. All I could say was, ‘honey, it’s an act of God.’”

As I talk to folks in Baton Rouge, I keep thinking of Zora Neale Hurston’s account of the hurricane in her famous novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. As the storm rages and floodwaters rise, Hurston’s characters sit in the dark with “their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

What can you do when you’re put face to face with your own powerlessness; when you’re swallowed up by forces far beyond your grasp? I think the music that comes from down there in Louisiana gives us a pretty good idea of what people will do. Those gut-wrenching blues that acknowledge all the hardship in the world but never cave to it. The wild celebratory freedom in their jazz music. That propulsive, irrepressible zydeco beat. Put on Buckwheat Zydeco’s “Ma Tit Fille.” Listen to Lee Allen Zeno’s bassline—driving, repetitive, trance-inducing. Feel how it locks in with the rubboard and the drums, how the accordion playfully dances in their groove. That sound comes from a place that’s as strong as any flood.

The musicians I talked to all expressed deep gratitude for Music Maker and all the people and organizations that have jumped into help. No one is ashamed to admit that they definitely need it. But with a little help, their strength and resilience and optimism with shine through as strong as ever.

 Will Boone holds a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Musicology. He is currently teaching a wide array of music history classes at NC State University and freelance writing. 

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