Out of the trinity of things that make Louisiana famous -- food, music and colorful politics -- two are embodied in the career of longtime Louisiana rockabilly player Jay Chevalier. His song "Come Back To Louisiana," penned in 1963, was recently immortalized in the annals of Louisiana law when on June 2, Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed HB 796 (Act 200) making the tune the official hurricane-recovery song for the state of Louisiana, and Chevalier himself the official state troubadour.
Chevalier has a long and storied relationship with politics in Louisiana, starting with his 1959 topical tune "The Ballad of Earl K. Long," which was released in the wake of the scandal that wound up defining Long's career: the publicizing of his affair with Bourbon Street exotic dancer Blaze Starr and his subsequent incoherent and bizarre public outbursts, which led to his being committed to a mental institution. Later on, Chevalier would work for Long.
"I was his personal aide-de-camp and bodyguard for the last thirteen months of his life, and I fed him his last meal four hours before he died at the Bentley Hotel in Alexandria, Louisiana," says the former Marine. In honor of Uncle Earl, Chevalier renamed his band the Louisiana Long Shots, and still performs often with a band of that name.
"Just for a little background on me, I wrote that song in 1963, when I was very lonesome on the road with the Louisiana Long Shots," says Chevalier via cell phone, as he was driving from Kenner to Baton Rouge. "Now, Danny Martiny (Rep. Daniel Martiny, R-Metairie, who authored the bill) is a friend. I sang that song for Danny, and he said, 'Man, that's a hell of a song.' I said it would make a nice recovery song, and he said, 'Do you want me to introduce it as a bill?'" The bill was pre-filed on March 17 and was signed into law on June 2, after Chevalier performed it a cappella on the Senate floor. He also performed it at political analyst Charlie Cook's recent induction into the Louisiana Political Museum's Hall of Fame.
"Charlie Cook released two minutes of his time for me to sing it, and that was when we realized how intimate and how strong the song was for Louisiana people. Kathleen (Blanco) had tears in her eyes. I was touched to see how it affected people from up there, not from southern Louisiana. I didn't get a standing ovation at the Senate, but if I'd milked it a little, I could have," Chevalier says, and laughs. "Then Danny asked me to come back to the state legislature and sing it there, and you could have heard a pin drop. There was applause, and a standing ovation, and I said, 'Darn.' So I recorded an a cappella version." The lyrics of "Come Back To Louisiana" in its capacity as the state hurricane-recovery song have been slightly changed to reference the events of last fall: instead of the traditional version, in which the lyrics are "I ain't lyin, I ain't fakin' / It's my heart you're breakin' / Come back, come back to Louisiana," the new recovery version substitutes the words, "Katrina and Rita caused this aching / it's my heart you're breaking." The a cappella version will be available on Chevalier's upcoming CD with the Louisiana Long Shots, coming out at the end of July. Chevalier says he'll do official performances of the song in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans at that time. The local traditional country band Mike Hurtt and the Haunted Hearts, which backed Chevalier at both the Ponderosa Stomp and at a performance outside the Cabildo in Jackson Square in May, recently recorded his original version on its first album, Come Back to Louisiana (Allons Records 2006) which comes out next month.
Topical rock isn't a one- or two-shot deal for Chevalier, whose half-century-long career is still going strong. He's making plans to play an American music festival in England, but when he returns, he says he'll start discussions about adapting his book, Earl K. Long and Jay Chevalier: When the Music Stopped, into a feature film.
"The Ballad of Earl K. Long" was preceded by the song "Big Cloud," a rockabilly tune dealing, daringly, with integration in the South. In 1960, Chevalier released the cult hit "Castro Rock," and in 1961 he wrote "Billy Cannon," lauding the Heisman Trophy-winning LSU football star. As late as 1995, Chevalier was penning paeans to local political figures, including "The Ballad of Sheriff Harry Lee."
Politics and rockabilly -- could the case be made that Chevalier was the precursor to the flood of name-naming political songs that the '60s unleashed?
"It just happened that way," says Louisiana's state troubadour. "I guess I'm star-crossed."
- Jay Chevalier wrote the official state hurricane-recovery song.