Distinctive landmark celebrates St. Landry musical history
Tuesday, August 28, 2018
When the St. Landry Parish community of Sunset unveiled a giant rubboard May 22, it celebrated a distinctive form of music that was born in south Louisiana and an instrument described as “one of only four true musical instruments that are original to the United States.”
But the wearable frottoir, as the rubboard is called in Louisiana French, might never have been created except for a chance encounter in 1946 between Clifton Chenier, the Creole musician who became known as the king of zydeco, and Willie Landry, a Cajun master metal fabricator who was then working at the Texaco oil refinery in Port Arthur.
Neither Chenier nor Landry came up with the idea of using a washboard as a musical instrument. In the days before washing machines — and in some households even later — wood-framed, metal scrubboards were used across south Louisiana (and elsewhere) to wash clothes. They were durable, loud, and right there at hand — a natural percussion instrument to be used when musicians gathered on back porches on the south Louisiana prairies to play the old “la-la” music that evolved into today’s zydeco.
Clifton Chenier and his brother Cleveland, who were reared near Port Barre, were also working in the Port Arthur refinery when they formed The Hot Sizzling Band (later to become the Red Hot Louisiana Band). Clifton played the accordion, as had his dad Joseph, and Cleveland used metal bottle openers to bang out the beat on a regular old washboard straight from the hardware store.
When they first began playing music together as youngsters, Cleveland sat with his mother’s rubboard across his knees and played it like a drum, but that didn’t work for The Hot Sizzling Band; Cleveland needed to be on his feet and move with the music.
His solution was to tie a rope to the wood frame and hang the washboard around his neck. Aside from the rope burns, the board tended to flop around as he moved. He needed something better. And that’s why the Chenier brothers’ encounter with Willie Landry made history.
Clifton and Willie collaborated on an all metal rubboard, no wood frame, with a rounded top that fit over the shoulders and that could be worn like a breastplate. That was the beginning, and Willie’s son Tee-Don Landry still makes custom, hand-crafted rubboards in a shop in Sunset. His boards are used by performers around the world and several of them are housed in museums, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
That’s the legacy that prompted the Louisiana Legislature to proclaim Sunset as the Rubboard Capital of the World in 2014, and that designation prompted the creation by welder Pat Miller of the four-by-six-foot rubboard that now rests near I-49, at the corner of Duffy and Napoleon avenues.
The idea of the designation “started in a light-hearted conversation between [Sunset citizens] Tony Davoren and Dori Janise, only to later be jokingly dismissed,” according to Sunset mayor Charles James.
“After giving more thought to the idea, Dori decided that it was something that should be done, thinking that everyone else had some designation or another. She brought the idea to me and I agreed that it was a great idea. She called then-Senator Elbert Guillory to see if he could help with getting the designation. Much to our pleasure, Guillory, with help from then-Representative Ledricka Thierry, with Dori’s constant prodding, got it done for us in 2014,” the mayor said.
Folklorist Barry Ancelet has noted that Amédé Ardoin, the first black Creole musician to record in the late 1920s, figured prominently in the development of the music that became known as zydeco, because “his highly syncopated accordion style and inspired improvisational singing helped to define the early style.” But, Ancelet adds, “The dominant figure in the formation of contemporary zydeco was Clifton Chenier. His genius for combining older black Creole French traditions with rock and rhythm & blues is at the very heart of contemporary zydeco.”
A statue honoring Amédé Ardoin was unveiled just several months ago at the St. Landry tourism center near Washington, only a 15-minute drive on I-49 from Sunset’s first public art piece honoring Clifton Chenier and Willie Landry.
Three things to know about this story:
- A giant rubboard unveiled in Sunset celebrates a distinctive form of music that was born in south Louisiana.
- The Louisiana Legislature to proclaimed Sunset as the Rubboard Capital of the World in 2014.
- That designation prompted the creation by welder Pat Miller of the four-by-six-foot rubboard that now rests near I-49, at the corner of Duffy and Napoleon avenues.