I wrote this article about Walter Polite (pronounced Po-leet) for the Christian Science Monitor in 1997 and Walter died soon after. I reprint it here because I’m going back to N.O. and the memory of this bayou working man sitting on his front porch, grandkids running in and out while he played for me for hours, is one I’d like to summon up one more time…
NEW Orleans and the surrounding Louisiana countryside have proven as fertile in the generation of music as any region of the United States, perhaps the world. Jazz, Cajun, zydeco, and Mardi Gras music were all spawned here; Afro-Caribbean, gospel, blues, and rhythm-and blues have all flourished here.
To explore this legacy and especially today’s Cajun and zydeco (“ZY- deco”) music – a type of accordian-driven Cajun music blending blues and country idioms – I spent some time this spring in New Orleans and the bayou country, timing my visit to coincide with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in May. This event, aside from presenting nationally- known acts, is a magnet for many of the area’s crafts people, chefs, and, of course, musicians. I enjoyed the varied culinary specialties as well as the jazz and blues music, but I especially sought out the Cajun musicmakers.
Allen Fontenot, a Cajun fiddler and leader of a group called the Country Cajuns, recalled what it was like decades ago to be a young musician in local dance halls. Speaking in a patois that is itself a combination of ethnicities, Mr. Fontenot said, “You used to pay a quarter to get into the country dances and for that you’d get a live band and a big bowl of gumbo at 11. We used to call these dances ‘fais dodo,’ which means ‘make sleep. You see, young couples would bring their little children to the dance, and they’d have to try and get them to go to sleep before they could party.”
While this kind of a dance is rare today, I discovered that the bayous and the country roadhouses that keep the music alive have remained pretty much the same for the last 50 years. Swamps dense with vegetation and squat cinder block or tin buildings with names Iike the “Half Moon” and “Coz’s Blue Goose Lounge” still dot the countryside from outside New Orleans to Lafayette and New Iberia, “the heart of Cajun country.”
It was on a trip to New Iberia that I met someone who personifies Louisiana’s indigenous music culture. Walter Polite, born 75 years ago in St. Martinville, La., is a robust working man, who made his living as a laborer.
“I worked in the field, worked in the swamp, worked on the levee–all hand work,” he said. “Never drove a tractor.” There is something else that Mr, Polite does with his hands, and that is play the accordion masterfully.
We sat on the screened-in front porch of his small frame house, as three other generations of the Polite family listened or went about their business. He showed me some memorabilia and talked about his history with the accordion:
“My cousin went and bought a French accordion, but he couldn’t play on it, so he gave it to me; said, ‘If you can play on it, take it.’ So I started to play; little dances, little parties, like that …Then I lost my child, and I stopped playing for about five years, Later on, some folks asked me to play for a dance, and I picked it up and started again.”
It was clear that Polite didn’t really enjoy taIking about himself and wanted to get down to more important business: “Now I’m gonna play you some music – some zydeco music.”
Technically, the instrument he plays is a triple-row diatonic accordion, but I was totally captivated by his playing and had no desire to analyze; the man and his music seemed totally unified. With his foot keeping accurate time, he played and sang, sometime in English, sometimes in patois French: “Hey Lucía,” “Lena,” “My Tutu,” “Zydeco Cha Cha,” and others.
“I don’t say I’m the best.” he explained, “but I try to satisfy the people.”
In the estimation of this visitor, he certainly does that.