Hard times with Jimmie Rodgers

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In the last years of the 1930’s, and the first two of the 1940’s, the quality of life in Cajun Louisiana remained stable but not prosperous since the Great Depression still had the nation in its grip. Bonds of friendship between neighbors and communities existed along with the fact that we were all in the same boat, so let’s sink or swim together. My Cajun Land was poor, but well fed.

Religious, hardworking and united with old traditions, the Cajuns fared better than others. To visualize the territory, take a Louisiana map and draw a line from Marksville in the north, to Lake Charles in the west, to Boothville in the east, and back to Marksville. Within the mostly rural areas of that triangle resided the Cajuns of Louisiana, ancestors of a people forcefully deported from their Acadian homeland generations ago. Thanks Canada! Although generally believed, President Roosevelt did not single handedly end the Great Depression. World War II did, and at a great cost to all .F.D.R., however, was a great leader and just who we needed in those dark times. He united the country in a common cause as never before or since. He probably saved democracy as we know it, and should be fondly remembered for this. There were three pictures hanging on almost all Cajun walls, including ours: Jesus, FDR and Huey P. Long

As for the Cajuns, most every family had a cow for milk and ice cream, chickens for eggs and Sunday dinner, a garden patch for vegetables, pigs for boucheries `and a horse to plow what little dry land they had, especially in the coastal Louisiana Parishes.

To illustrate the era, I quote from an old Jimmie Rodgers* blues song: “We got pigs at the trough, tators in the patch, corn in the crib and hens about to hatch. A bull and a cow and a mule and a plow, and there ain’t no hard times here.” He was singing about and to the Cajuns.

(*Jimmie Rodgers, known today as the “Father of Country Music” was the “Voice of the Great Depression” for the Cajuns and the Country. The “Elvis”of his times. His songs spoke for the masses. It was said that a typical store order at that time was “a sack of flour, a jug of wine and the latest Jimmie Rodgers record.”)

I read that quote in over a dozen books, so there had to be some truth to it. He was very popular, selling millions of records during hard times. He died of tuberculosis in 1933 at age 35 and I later became good friends with his widow … but that’s another story.

As for our quality of life, we had no electricity, phone, water, gas or auto repair bills because we read by kerosene lamps (we called it coal oil and it sold for 15 cents a gallon), cooked on a wood stove, communicated by rural free delivery, had 3 cent stamps, used our roof to collect water in our cistern (the mosquito larval were lagniappe), and who had a car?

The doctor would make house calls at $3.00 a visit and accepted eggs for payment. We had a 10 cent block of ice delivered daily for the icebox. Seafood was plentiful because everyone had at least one fisherman in the family, and we shared, not “Face Book” sharing either. Like the hit song of the times said, “who could ask for anything more?”

Some years ago while attending an Assessors’ forum in St. Louis, Missouri, an oil company representative asked me in casual conversation, “How did you Cajuns fare out during the Great Depression?”

“Not too good”, I answered. “Sometimes all we had to eat was fried or broiled jumbo shrimp, tenderloin trout, boiled crabs and crawfish, oysters on the half shell, jambalaya, gumbo, fried chicken, pork chops, boudin and ham steaks, all chased down with home brew, wine, aged two weeks, an after dinner sip from the nearest still, and …”

“Stop, enough!” he said. “I feel your pain and realize how you must have suffered.”

We had a good laugh and ordered another round. I don’t have any words of humor that would top that to end the column, so it’s just BYE NOW!

Leroy MartinHard times with Jimmie RodgersCOURTESY