Modern Folk Wisdom in Music: Horace Trahan, Keep Walking

By Daniel Garrett

Horace Trahan, Keep Walking
Produced by Ivan Klisanin and Horace Trahan
BMI/The Redemptive Process, 2010

“I want to make you feel it.  That’s the only way you gonna believe it,” declares the long-fingered accordionist Horace Trahan in the song “Funny Things Change,” a song about the changing and conflicting attitudes in a relationship, on the album Keep Walking; and the music of Horace Trahan—a sturdy man with a sensitive heart—and his band, The Ossun Express, is folksy and harmonic but also as swinging as any music being made.  The Ossun Express includes bass guitarist James Prejean, and guitarists Paul Washington and Daniel Sanda, saxophonist (multi-instrumentalist) Doug Garb, drummer Gerard Delafose, and Rodney Bernard on the scrub-board.  “Like a prodigal son, I didn’t want to come home,” sings the south Louisiana musician Horace Trahan, whose music—Cajun, and Creole zydeco—is rooted in the culture of a particular region, though he has been influenced by different kinds of music, including the work of Clifton Chenier, Bob Dylan, George Jones, Bob Marley, and Hank Williams.  The demands of tradition and the demands of creative invention and how they can paralyze or drive a career, or trouble a man’s soul, are things that Horace Trahan knows well.

“Horace Trahan is a seeker.  An enigma.  A prairieland prophet.  And maybe even a country mystic of sorts,” wrote the writer-musician Dege Legg in a profile of Trahan that appeared in The Independent Weekly (Section 2, October 27, 2010).  Legg documented Trahan’s career—his first recording was released in 1996—and the temptations of sex and the travails of race as it affected the Cajun musician (one popular Trahan song celebrated the female form and inspired audience displays; and some people have been uncomfortable with his interracial band).  The bonds and conflicts between spirit and flesh are things many southern Catholic boys know about; and they may be part of the southerners’ particular shyness and swagger.  Horace Trahan, like the singers Marc Broussard and Dege Legg, sounds like a soul forcing its fire through a body and out of a mouth.  Trahan, who name-checks the Beastie Boys and Duran Duran and Judas Priest, wanted his traditional music to bear some relation to the contemporary world (“I love all kinds of music.”).  Yet the controversy of his ambitions produced a personal crisis, one that he seems to have emerged from with his confidence and creativity intact.

“La Reunion” is a reeling, spirited French-language song, an old-time two-step dance song on Keep Walking; and “It’s All Right,” a promise of devotion, mixes sophisticated sultriness with a basic sincerity, and features Doug Garb’s saxophone: “You’re my lady, and I’m your man, and we’re going to work with what we got, and do the best we can,” Trahan sings.  However, pleasures pursued without caution lead to dire results, whether those pleasures involve sex or drugs, in “Sad But True,” and an emphasis is put on personal discernment.  The composition “Sad But True” is plain-spoken, honest, and felt, and it even reveals the genuine impulses beneath clichés, and has an insistent, strong rhythm.

“When we look down on each other, we ain’t nothing but some hypocrites,” sings Horace Trahan in “Keep Walking,” a song of determination, which has a Caribbean rhythm with a soulful groove.  The saxophone and bass guitar help to move the song beyond genre, but so does the criticality of its thought: how can we claim to love an unseen god, but despise people we see every day?  The fast-paced “Mr. Bernard” is a French-language song; and “The Whole World’s Waltz,” plaintive and ruminative, featuring Doug Garb’s flute, focuses on feeling adrift in an anarchic world.  The wildness of the world frightens some into the welcoming arms of religion, and a deterministic religious view condemns in “Guilty Till Proven Innocent.”  There is a more genuine balm in “When Love Takes Over.”

Channel-surfing, a firm beat, humming, rapping, and a harmonica begin the funky “HDTV,” which states, “HDTV don’t mean that much to me ’cause I got higher definition in my reality” the perspective of a narrator resigned to being thought crazy.  (The song reminds me of YaKaMay, the eclectic and experimental album by the well-regarded New Orleans band Galactic, featuring Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, The Rebirth Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, John Boutte, Walter Washington, and Cheeky Blakk.)  There is a resumption of Horace Trahan’s encouragement of self-reflection and compassion in the English and French “Same Knife Cut the Sheep Cut the Goat,” in which he asks, “What you gonna do when the knife’s at your throat?”   Certainly, whatever wisdom exists in Trahan’s songs seems more instinctive than intellectual, a result of experience and observation—though Trahan has spoken of his spiritual studies, which include the Bhagavad-Gita and Gnostic teachings: the first, the “Song of the Blessed One,” is a poetic excerpt from the Mahabharata about duty and spiritual devotion, and the second—gnosis is knowledge—draws from various intellectual and religious sources and influenced early Christianity, and both emphasize personal salvation.

In “You’ll Never Make It If You Never Try,” which evokes the 1950s for me, Trahan uses both French and English, as do many of the Cajun and Creole people of south Louisiana.  The fact that the French, English, African, Spanish, and Native American and others have been part of Louisiana’s history gives the place a genuine and rooted multiculturalism (if not conscious tolerance).  Countries around the world are called out to relax and party, to get down, in “Ossun Get Down,” a piece with a traditional fiddle rhythm and classic folk dance pattern.  Downbeat is the French “Merci et Bonsoir.”  In “King of Sand,” which advocates awareness and understanding and is produced by Edwin and Horace Trahan, there seems an affirmation of spiritual belief balanced by the knowledge that “a self-made king is a man” and a warning that “word takes form.”  The album’s concluding song—“High School Breakdown,” recorded live—is full of humor, shout-outs, and musical interplay.  Horace Trahan is one very good example of south Louisiana’s great and diverse musical culture.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth