Well, we whizzed by Mardi Gras this past Tuesday and, I am sure, the good folks down in New Orleans are still cleaning up the messes in the streets of the French Quarter, the Garden District, Congo Square, Treme, Storyville, and all those other “Nawlins” hotspots. So, it seems like a good time to muse on another tasty Louisiana tradition made famous in a simple song that is one of the most well known in America–“Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” We have all heard this foodie/frolic tune a few hundred (thousand?) times over the years, but the story behind our song is is also worth a listen.
Our song was written (sort of) and recorded by the great country music singer Hank Williams. It was first released in 1952—a year before his untimely death at the age of 29. It was named for the Creole/Cajun dish by the same name—Jambalaya. Mmm . . .
And, of course, Crawfish Pie. Mmmmm . . .
And, File Gumbo. Mmmmmmmmm . . .
Our song tells the pretty story of a young man poling his flat-bottomed pirogue through a Louisiana Bayou to meet up at a house party–what the Cajun community calls a “Fais-do-d0“– with the extended family of his girlfriend, Yvonne.
Needless to say, this lively tune spawned many, many cover versions over the years. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a look at and listen to the original:
Now for the backstory.
The melody that Williams used (purloined?, harvested?) was based on a much older Cajun song, “Grand Texas,” that didn’t have a thing to do with food or, for that matter, frolic. Rather, it told the woeful story of a lost love–a Louisiana bayou man’s sweetheart who left him in the lurch to run off with another man to the big, bad state of Texas. It’s still a popular Cajun “swamp fiddle” tune and the similarities with Williams’s song are easy to discern.
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to listen to a take on the original Cajun song. I hope you understand Cajun French!
Williams’s version, however, is much more “Country than Cajun.” He understood that his broader audience would probably not relate to a true Cajun two-step led by a scratchy fiddle with an asthmatic accordion and lyrics in 17th century French-Canadian patois!
Anyway—just to make a point—click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a real Cajun version of “Jambalaya.”
“Jambalaya” was most likely co-written with a hillbilly piano player, one Moon Mullican, with Williams’s better-known name on the sheet music and record labels. Alas, no credit for Mullican.
This was typical of the handshake deals and fuzzy royalty arrangements common in those days. Mullican was a prolific, if not particularly well remembered, songwriter whose honkytonk piano style was said to be rambunctious enough to “knock the beer bottles off the bar.”
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image, hold on to your bottle, and give a listen to one of his honkytonk tunes.
Williams with another even more obscure songwriter, one Jimmy Rule, composed a sequel to our song from the female perspective–“I’m Yvonne (Of the Bayou).” This was recorded in 1953 by country singer Goldie Hill, but never became as popular as the earlier “Jambalaya.”
Tap or click on the triangle in the next image to listen to the “her side of the story” song.
So, here we have a good musical example of mid-20th century “cultural appropriation” that has given us a truly countrified, if not truly Cajun, musical classic—and a craving to savor some tasty Louisiana cuisine and, of course, moonshine in a jar!
So, stay safe, keep away from alligators, wear a mask to avoid swamp fever or whatever.
Have as much jambalaya and moonshine as you can find, and . . .
“SHTAY, hic, TWOONED!“