Musician and musicologist Ned Sublette talks to “blues growler” Coco Robicheaux, a true Louisiana spirit, survivor of Katrina and more.
Now when the time is right, on a night in June
All the hoodoos dance, underneath the moon
And what goes on, child, you better believe
Down in New Orleans on St. John’s Eve. . .
— Coco Robicheaux
It was a long way to St. John’s Eve. New Orleans wasn’t even close to being put back together in February 2006. But Coco Robicheaux was back, at his regular Saturday night gig at the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street.
There weren’t many tourists out that night on the three-block-long bohemian party strip, named in the early 19th century to commemorate the five French-speaking men executed by order of Spanish commander Alejandro O’Reilly in 1769. In that still-abandoned, post-cataclysmic New Orleans, the nightlife customers were largely Blackwater types, flown in to secure New Orleans against the threat allegedly posed by its own citizens. In that respect, the Apple Barrel may well have resembled a tavern in 18th century New Orleans, crowded with soldiers of fortune. Big, beefy men whose idea of fun was to punch each other in the chest, with a blow that would have flattened me, in a crowded bar. I politely asked the guys next to me to please not punch each other. They looked at me, not with irritation so much as incomprehension. But this is how we have fun, their eyes seemed to say. Some of them had acquired a curious species of girlfriend, the kind with blonde vinyl hair.
Coco sang on in his back-country sugarcane-parish dialect, pushed along by three other musicans in the smoke-filled room. He plays his gig sitting down, while much of the audience is standing, and there’s no stage in the Apple Barrel, so his face is mostly obscured beneath his broad-brimmed hat and the audience is mostly looking downward at him while he’s singing. You couldn’t make out his lyrics all that well, because the smelly little dive has never gotten around to installing a real P.A. for its star attraction. He wasn’t singing songs I knew from his records. He mostly performs his own tunes, and I’ve rarely heard him repeat. When the band took a break, I volunteered to go around with the tip jar, collecting for the band while Coco lit up a long cigar.
There’s a spot on “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” the track that put Dr. John on the map in 1967, where you can hear the young Dr. John call out very clearly, chanting in rhythm: Co-co Ro-bi-cheaux. I used to wonder if that “Coco Robicheaux” had been some legendary figure of New Orleans voodoo, like the original Dr. John, the Senegalese charm-maker described by Lafcadio Hearn from whom Mac Rebennack took his stage name. But no, that shouted-out Coco Robicheaux—born Curtis Arceneaux—was the same guy you can hear on Saturdays at the Apple Barrel. When Rebennack cut “Guilded Splinters,” Coco was 20, and already someone to conjure. He’s a blues growler to the bone, a real true voice of the Louisiana spirit, colloquially cosmopolitan in the way that denizens of the South’s great port city have historically been.
During the terrible days of September ’05 when New Orleans was underwater, I would walk out of my house in Manhattan and wonder how the tourists—one of them was Condoleezza Rice—could go on shopping as if nothing was happening. In the weeks and months that followed, I got it together in the morning by putting on “Walk With the Spirit,” the first cut of Coco’s masterpiece, the 1994 album Spiritland (Orleans Records). The song evokes Native American “spirit guides”—a practice that migrated over into the black church in New Orleans, where there is a cult guided by the spirit of the 1830s Fox and Sauk Indian resistance leader Black Hawk. I found the song becoming a kind of spirit guide to me during that time:
Now when the time is right, on a night in June
All the hoodoos dance, underneath the moon
And what goes on, child, you better believe
Down in New Orleans on St. John’s Eve. . .
— COCO ROBICHEAUX
Coco’s second to none as a barroom raconteur. But maybe that’s because he walks with the spirit. And like everyone else in New Orleans, he’s been to the edge and back. I got him to sit down with me and lay out some of his story during that weird February of 2006, while much of the city was still dark.
Coco Robicheaux I’m part Choctaw, part Cajun French, and I grew up in the country, far from town. Just cane fields as far as you could see, and the Mississippi River. In Ascension Parish. I lived on my great-granddaddy’s farm.
We used to make our own instruments. You know, bow-diddley kinda thangs. Just put a piece of wire on a nail, and stretch it, and pluck it. You put a nail in the tree or the shed or somethin’ like that, and you tie a wire. You get a nice piece of wire, and then you put a stick on there so you can grab it, pull it tight or loosen it up, and as you pluck it, you use a piece of willow or somethin’, it makes the sound. As you pull tight, the sound goes up, as you relax it, the sound goes down. You can play it with a stick, or with your finger.
And we made little fifes and flutes out of the willow. They used to bring people from the islands to harvest, all the canecutters, when the cane was ready. A lot of ‘em came from Cuba, Haiti, you know, the islands like that. The fields were so big that they had to live in the fields. And they would do their mystical things out there. They’d make a little camp or village there. And they always played the flutes and the drums. We learned how to make the flutes from them.
Ned Sublette So you grew up listening to Haitians play in Louisiana.
CR Oh, yeah, it was a common thing. When the cane was comin’ in, there was always these people around. And they would speak French.
NS You speak French?
CR I speak French. speaks some Cajun French We used to be punished for that [in school]. They wanted us to become Americans. We didn’t have to wear shoes or shirts to school ‘cus there was no air conditioner, no fans, and it would get really hot. But they would make you roll your pants up, and kneel on raw rice if you were caught speakin’ French. And maybe hold a couple of geography books. You’d be, like, crucified in front of the class. And when you’d get up you’d have little purple blood blisters all over your knee. That would teach you, you know?
NS What year were you born?
CR 1947—the year of the storm of ‘47, a big bad storm. I wound up livin’ in France for awhile. It wasn’t that long after the war; it was very fascinating to me.
NS How did you wind up living in France?
CR I went with my father, who was in the service. He was stationed over there. There was still tanks turned over, craters everywhere. Looked like the war was still goin’ on.
NS Where in France were you?
CR Chateauroux, in the middle of France. We traveled all around. I remember gettin’ to go to Stonehenge, and bein’ left there. I was out messin’ around, the bus took off. And I got to go into the Lascaux Caves not long after they were found. Bein’ a kid, I managed to go into the Sorceror’s Chamber. The opening is too small for scientists. The people living then were smaller. But I was a kid, my head fit in. Sittin’ there, the horses and buffalo and stuff, looked like they were movin’.
NS How long were you at Stonehenge before you got taken back out of there?
CR They came back and got me around midnight. The group left Lascaux without me too, but I wasn’t in there that long. They came back and I saw the guys go by and I came out and they were like, “Where were you?” I started cryin’, “I wuz lost!”
NS You were in Lascaux caves by yourself?
CR In the Sorceror’s Chamber. That was off-limits.
NS What was it like?
CR It had a little slanted kind of slit entrance. I don’t know what you’d call that form, geometrically, it was pinched at the top and the bottom. You could sit way at the back of it; it was almost hollowed out, where you felt like—really good. I had rebelled against that kind of stuff because my great-grandmother was a traiteur. She was a big woman. Her name was Filaman. She could heal you for a variety of things overnight. She was greatly feared and respected. My great-grandfather got kicked by a mule, and he was laid up for three days. His ankle was really big, and he didn’t like that about her. He would rather suffer. After three days, he said, “All right, make your damn crosses and let’s get on with it!” Next day he was back out in the field.
She would know if I went out in the woods. I could go miles back in the woods and smoke half a cigarette and then hide the other half for later. She’d say, “Why didn’t you smoke that whole cigarette? You put it in that little hollow part of the tree and you thought I wouldn’t know!” I knew she was too old to be followin’ me through the woods, but she would know. But I was her altar boy. I hated that. I had to hold her spit can in one hand and a candle in the other while she prayed. Cause she chewed [tobacco] and she always had to spit.
NS Did she do Catholic-type stuff or did she do . . .
CR Catholic . . . and hoodoo, which is Native American magic as well as African mixed in with it. She thought an automobile was evil, and she would only go on a mule. I used to have to drive a mule up into town with her. My friends from school would go by in a ‘57 Chevy and make fun of me. She thought it was evil for kids to have money, so she would pay me in eggs. My friends liked to come up and claps hands “What you got in the bag, man?” I’d be sittin’ there with my busted eggs.
NS What’s the difference to you between voodoo and hoodoo?
CR Well, voodoo is ancient. It’s over five thousand years old. Its similarity to hoodoo is that voodoo, rather than them being intimidated by other faiths, adopts parts of them. They take it right in, like, “Hey, I like that, thank you!” Hoodoo’s a mix of—well, it’s like the medical treaters like my great-grandmother. They had a lot of new plants and things that they’d never seen before in the old country. They had to rely on the Indians’ knowledge of those things, and they found that there was a lot of similarity in African and Native American practices. Like the sand paintings and the vévés. The honoring of the ancestors. And calling on the spirits of the ancestors to help ’em. Lot of things like that.
NS “Walk with the spirit,” that sounds like Native American spirituality to me.
CR I always embraced [it]. My grandfather—they were embarrassed to talk about it. To the people in town, like, if you weren’t completely white they would look down on you. They would admit to having Indian relatives, but they weren’t proud of it, but I was. I was fascinated with it, and when I wasn’t doing my work and chores I was out in the woods making spears, bows and arrows, and tomahawks. Course, you could still find all the artifacts back then. You could hardly go ten feet without finding something in certain places.
CR Arrowheads, a spear head. I had all that stuff. Boy, I loved it. That was why I got into scouting at the time. Now it’s more like preparing you for military service. At the time it was a big study of the Indian ways. I ate that up. Learned how to make things. My daddy’d teach me how to walk like an Indian if you were hunting. I don’t hunt any more, but when I was five years old, I was heavily armed! And whatever I would kill, we would eat. I’m not proud of that, but we were way out, you couldn’t just run to the store, so we had songbird jambalaya, you know? All these little robins. And my mama – she wasn’t from there, and she just loved the robins. She would cook ‘em, she’d be cleanin’ em with the tears runnin’ down her eyes, God bless her. If we went out crawfishin’, it was a family activity. Great-grandma, great-grandpa, grandpa and grandma, mama and dad, all my brothers and sisters and cousins. We’d go out in a big gang. You can’t recreate that kind of lifestyle any more.
When I first left home, I was restless, I couldn’t sleep. I was 17 and I wanted to break away and go to the big city. But I couldn’t sleep there, because I didn’t smell my kerosene lamp. So I went out to the hardware store and got me one, and then when I smelled that, I could go to sleep. I needed that familiar smell.
NS How did you get from the diddley bow to playin’ the music you’re playin’ now?
CR In church, we started. I used to play trombone in school. I hated that thing, man. I wanted to play sax or trumpet or drum like all the other boys. We didn’t have a lot of money—and they told my folks that they needed a trombone in the band, and that they would give me a trombone if I would play it. So I was disappointed. But then I remember back in the ‘50s, somethin’ had happened to Louis Armstrong. I loved Satchmo. The news had a picture of him layin’ in the hospital bed with that horn on his chest, like, “If I’m gonna go, I’m bringin’ my horn with me.” I attacked that trombone after that.
When the Beatles came out, all the musician jokes were about the trombone player tryin’ to get a gig. Over the years I’d played with a lotta great guitar players, and they tried to show me the guitar, but it kinda hurt my hand, and I couldn’t do what I wanted to do on it. One day I was walkin’ down Bourbon Street, and I saw the head of a guitar with all the tuners broke off, kinda jagged. “That’s kinda cool, you know?” Mother of pearl. I said, “I’m gonna hang that on the nail by my door.” And then I walked a little bit further and I found a neck with all the frets and everything on it. They were made out of silver. I kind of like jammed it back together. I said, “I’ll hang the whole thing on that nail.” I took a wrong turn, and right around the corner, which I wouldn’t have found, was the kicked-in, smashed body of the thing. I picked it up, and right there was the hardware store, so I went and got a bunch of screws and glue. I didn’t know where to get any strings, but you know, I love to fish, so I had all these different fishin’ lines. I just strung it up with fishin’ lines. I didn’t know how to tune it, so I just kept twistin’ it till it sounded all right to me. I wound up makin’ this unusual tuning which I still play in today. Nobody can figure out what the hell I’m doin’—"What kinda chord is that?" It’s pretty unique. I played like thousands of times with all these different musicians. “Man, that’s incredible, man! You just made that up?” Yeah. I had to teach myself, and just kept at it.
I was raisin’ kids, and workin’ heavy construction at the shipyard, and on the levee shovelin’ clay and workin’ on the I-10 goin’ through the swamp, and buildin’ houses. Heavy stuff. Doin’ electrical work. If you want to be an electrician they hand you a shovel. Go dig a big hole. But I would always play music.
Then I got hurt in construction. I broke my back. I was supposed to be paralyzed. They brought out my wheelchair. I couldn’t relate to it. I just kept on, kept on, and after a while I got to where I could move, and then it took me a couple of years to learn how to walk properly without stubbin’ my toe and trippin’ all the time. Everybody figured I was loaded, walkin’ down the street all wobbly like that. They told me, don’t you lift anything over 25 pounds, or you’ll be in that chair, but I went right back to working construction. They operated on me, but I think I undid some of their good work. I went back up to see my grandma on All Souls Day, a time to go to the tombs and kill the fire ants and pull the weeds and stuff. I was leanin’ over my great-grandpa’s and my great-grandma-the-hoodoo’s tombstone, and it started fallin’. I grabbed that tombstone, and all these stitches went pop-pop-pop-pop. I’m goin’ like, “Man, you idiot, what have you done now?” My daddy was like, “Drop that thang!” And it would have gone down, and I could see it breakin’ in half, great-grandpa on one side and great-grandma on the other, and I ain’t gon’ do it. By the time my daddy got there, I’d messed up all the doctor’s good work. I was in pain then. I was jackin’ some guy’s house up, I was gonna put some seal beams underneath, and I reached down and grabbed this bag of cement, and I fell down. And that was it. Back to square one.
NS So tell me about “Walk With the Spirit.”
CR I wrote it as a way for people to get in touch with their spirit. It’s a formula. Sometimes I walk, all by myself – it’s like meditation. Don’t wanna talk to no one else. Close my eyes and I feel my spirit rise. That’s the key to meditation. And sometimes I’m down and it comes to me / Lifts me up, gets me feelin’ free / It takes me by my hand / Till I finally understand — like, when you have your spirit within you, a lot of things that were mysterious become clear. And things that were problems, that were botherin’ you, are no longer a problem. That’s what I hoped to convey in that song. That everybody has it. I got the spirit, you got it too.
I’d just written the song. I’d signed a record contract, put on this big show, filmed something for German TV, and had a big pocketful of dough. Right after doing this good show, I was walkin’ home. Turned around, waved ‘bye to the people. And I look up and there was this car doin’ about 45 miles an hour and it hit me. Through the air! I hit this big granite curb and a fire hydrant. You could just hear them bones poppin’, man, sounded like guns goin’ off. And here come three girls from the concert, lockin’ arms, skippin’ down the street. I’m lookin’ up at ‘em and they’re goin’ sings “Walk with the spirit.” They see me, like all bowed both my arms, my hands was up by my elbows, and my leg . . . oh, man, a mess. And they start screamin’.
This friend of mine’s little son—I knew him since he was a little boy—he grew up to be a policeman. He would always tell me, “Man, you crazy to be walkin’ around the French Quarter with all that jewelry and rings. You gonna remember what I tole you, when some cat say give it up.” So I had on all these rings on, and I said to myself, “Man, I’m gonna lose my fingers.” I could hardly talk, I had the cotton mouth from bein’ in shock. I said to those girls, “You are gonna have to spit.” They said, “They won’t come off.” I said, “You gonna have to spit.” You know, a lotta girls don’t know how to spit. They were like, “Pt, pt.” I said, “No! Spit, goddamit!” So they started spittin’ and the rings started comin’ off, but here come my friend the police officer. He gets that freeze! He thinks I’m bein’ rolled by these three girls, they done busted me up and they be stealin’ my rings. So I explained to him what had happened, and they came and took me away to the hospital. They patched me up with a whole bunch of steel and all these plates and screws. But the next day they said, “You gotta go, we need the space.” ’Cause they were busy. They had put both of my arms on the outrigger, stickin’ straight out, so I couldn’t use a crutch, and I had a big cast on the one leg there. The worst thing was, they said, “You can’t take that robe.” They gave me my pants, which they had cut off of me. So I take a couple of steps and the wind would blow up and I didn’t have any underwear on. My butt would be showin’ in the back. It was terrible. And I had given the girls my money, cause money in hospitals sometimes has a way of disappearin’. And it was Halloween! It took me all day long to get back to this neck of the woods from over at the hospital. I was exhausted. My eyes was all puffed up. My face was all purple. I come up on this friend, and “Hey! Aw, man, you look great!" I said, “Naw, I got hit by a car, man!” “God damn! You gonna win the contest, man! That looks real!” “No, I’m serious!” “Aw, man, you crackin’ me up! You take the cake, man! That’s the best costume I’ve seen!” And then he whacks me on the back. I’m like, “Aaaah!” “See ya later, man!” I couldn’t find no sympathy.
So I went on home, and there’s all my stuff sittin’ on the sidewalk, and my little landlord came out. He had given me this shed that I was livin’ in. No electricity, no water. I was livin’ up in there and the deal was, he’d get half of any money I make. I would try to sneak away and go play on the street, make a little cash for me. I’d turn around and he’d be standin’ there. He would always find me. This guy was like a petty tyrant, I couldn’t get rid of him. He said, “Well, I heard about your bad luck. I hate to come down on you, but space is valuable, and I know you ain’t gonna be makin’ no money for a while.” People were tryin’ to go through my stuff. My friend came over and knocked over some shoppin’ cart. They had my guitar and all my songs. I was supposed to be in the studio the next day. That was the first song we were gonna cut, “Walk with the spirit.” And here I couldn’t even walk, you know.
I was just sittin’ there. It looked like it was gonna rain, on top of that. But here come all these kids, I guess they call ‘em the gutter punks. Big purple mohawk and piercin’s and tattoos. They laughin’ at me, you know? “Man, what are you doin’ there? You fixin’ to get wet!" “I guess so.” “What happened? The landlord threw you out?” “Yeah.” “Yeah, we gettin’ put out tomorrow, man. The landlord’s tired of us bein’ late. Said if we don’t have the whole money . . . so we went out panhandlin’, and we’re still fifty dollars shy, so I guess we’re gonna have to look for a new place tomorrow.” I said, “I got your fifty right here, man.” So they wound up takin’ me home with ‘em. Come back and moved all my stuff. I’d keep ‘em in beer. I was helpless. I couldn’t brush my teeth, couldn’t bathe, couldn’t get to the bathroom. It was like I was on a cross. I had to stay that way for a while. I don’t know where they got the damn thing, they showed up with a wheelchair and these girls would take me out. They took such good care of me. Finally by the time I was goin’ around on a stick, they took off followin’ some Oar concert or somethin’ like that, and I never saw ‘em again. By then I was able to get around and I went back into the studio and cut that song. But by then I had trained myself like four times to walk, countin’ when I was a baby.
NS What’s the story about Dr. John on “Guilded Splinters” shoutin’ out “Coco Robicheaux”?
CR We worked together since back in the early ‘60s. Many times I gone and played with him, all around the world, different places. Dr. John, he was very much interested in metaphysics. We had this little place on St. Philip Street. In voodoo they call the gilded splinters the points of a planet. Mystically they appear like little gilded splinters, like little gold, like fire that holds still. They’re different strengths at different times. I guess it ties in with astrology, and influence the energy. That’s what that’s about.
They recruited about half of New Orleans one time to go out [to Los Angeles] and do The Sonny and Cher Show. They were all out there doin’ that, and Sonny [Bono, who had been in the record business in New Orleans] was always after him [Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John], “Man, I got a state-of-the-art studio, it’s there for you any time you want it. Y’all just lay around here, why doncha go do somethin’?” There was a guy named Ronnie Barron that that persona [Dr. John] had originally been designed for. But Ronnie was like this good-lookin’ guy, liked to wear suits, he didn’t want to be no swamp thing. So they talked Mac into doin’ it. “You be Dr. John.” And everybody loved it.
NS What have you been doing since Katrina?
CR Mouth-breathin’. I knew it was a bad son of a gun. I was like the deer in the headlights, just started mouth-breathin’. Everybody saying, “Get out! Get out!” I left about five days afterwards, when the big levee started breakin’. I got all ready to go, I packed up my guitars and my amps and my songs and stuff like that. I was almost out of town, and I thought about my friends out there in the Ninth Ward. The little girl—I’d just been to her birthday party. So I drove out through the deep water, and had to pull my gun on this guy that wanted my truck. He come up with a big piece of steel. I said, “Look at this one!” “Whoop, be cool, be cool, man!” Went backin’ away in the water. I got out there and they wanted to stay. I said, “Man, the big levee’s just broke. It’s gonna be terrible here. You might want to go through it, but you don’t want to subject your little girl to this.” And I convinced him—said, “I’ll be right back.” I went and put all those guitars back, man. Made room for them. Came and got them. I believe we were the last one to drive out. After that the water was too high. There was some car behind us, they didn’t make it. I had the four-wheel drive. I looked more in my rear-view mirror goin’ out of here than ahead. Cause I kept tryin’ to see if somebody else had made it. But nobody was behind me.
We went out to Texas, stayed with some friends out in the woods. I was there in Marshall, Texas, that’s exactly where the eye of Hurricane Rita passed over, so I got evacuated again. Nowhere to go, I was just drivin’ around in the hills of Arkansas. Went to a national park and it was blowin’ my truck sideways. But I was all right.
I came back to New Orleans the day afterwards. I couldn’t stand it down here. Everything smelled like death and crap. You’d be tryin’ to talk to somebody and you’d have flies tryin’ to get in your mouth while you’re speakin’, or in your ear. Flies. Millions of ’em. And mosquitoes. All kinds of stuff. I stayed here for a while.
They finally got a little electricity on. I was sittin’ in this place when the lights came on in one little part of French Quarter. I was talkin’ to the owner, and I said, “What does this say?” He said, “We got some lights!” I said, “No, this says, we gonna have some music right now!” So I went and got my guitar, man, and oh, people was goin’ nuts. There were girls dancin’ on top of the bar, and gettin’ undressed and everything.
But then my telephone—even though it didn’t work, I couldn’t call anybody—kept makin’ a strange sound. This little teenage guy was, like, “You got text messages!” “What the hell is that?” He showed me. And they wanted me to go to New York. So I got up there, and I got evacuated three times in a couple of days—Hurricane Wilma. They had me in Connecticut, it flooded there, they brought me to Long Island, it flooded there, upstate New York, it flooded there. So I finally wound up in Manhattan. These people offered me a beautiful apartment there. All the New Yorkers, they goin’ like, “Man, that’s what I wanted my whole life! And they just givin’ it to you!” And I said, “Thank you anyhow, but I gotta get back home.” I played for the community of Woodstock for Halloween. It was just me, and enough stuff for the Rolling Stones to play through. All the retired rockers up there. They brought out this equipment. They had a crane put it up. And I left the next day.
I came back November 1. And I’ve been here since.
Coco Robicheaux’s website is www.spiritland.com.
Ned Sublette is the author of The World That Made New Orleans: from Spanish Silver to Congo Square (January 2008, Lawrence Hill Books), and Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press).
BOMB Video Bonus!
Watch Ned Sublette perform at BOMB’s 25th Anniversary Event at the Kitchen on June 14, 2006.