The Big Pow Wow

Cultural Olympiads, The Derailers

It seems there's one thing that all fine Americans and people everywhere around the world have in common: the need to have a title. The Derailers are no exception. Individually and collectively we've worn a lot of hats, but the title given to us for our participation in the 1996 Atlanta Centennial Olympic Games, was one I would have never dreamed of hanging on the rack. We were dubbed -- and I have the badge, commemorative pin, and certificate to prove it -- "Cultural Olympiads."

The ACOG committee didn't give us any specific guidelines as to what "Cultural Olympiads" were supposed to do other than play about eight 50-minute sets over the course of six days. One of our events was eating the deli tray from hell each day. Another was sneaking beer into an otherwise essentially arid Centennial Park. The only place you could legally get a beer or hold one in your hand was in Bud World, right next to Coca Cola Land, just up the way from Nike Planet. The problem was that Bud World was much too small for the millions of thirsty people on hand. The ACOG volunteers were very good at looking the other way when we would put our barley pops in the back stage coolers amongst the Cokes, Crystal Springs Water, and the Powerade, the last of which I've become addicted to.

The whole Southern Crossroads experience was a great one. The folks from ACOG, The Smithsonian Institute, the Texas Folklife Resourcers -- everybody involved -- treated us royally and set everything up in a relaxed and efficient manner that allowed the artists to intermingle and learn from each other. Getting to and from our performances was clockwork. Hotel room, lobby, shuttle bus, golf cart, back stage, stage, and then reverse the process. I'm glad we were able to leave the driving to the professionals; traffic at times was pretty horrific. One of the shuttle drivers from New York put it best, "These are the most undrivingest people I've ever seen."

We arrived the night before the program was to start. We were wrung out from our very good yet tiring week in Nashville and we had arrived in Atlanta just in time to check in at the Hotel and make our gig at the Star Bar. When we returned to the hotel, I turned on CNN and was greeted by the tragic news of TWA Flight 800. Welcome. Forecast, grim.

JULY 18: The new day greeted me harshly. That all changed with a cup of coffee and hand shake. The hand belonged to legendary Cajun artist and maker of rocking chairs, the great D.L. Menard. He and the Louisiana Aces were going to be playing after our set. Leo Abshire is their fiddle player and Horace Trahan plays the accordion. D. L. right away said something that he and Leo would say time and again during that week: "If it ain't fun, we stay home." That's where our friendship started and we just took it from there. Meeting Mr. Menard was a Godsend.

After their show, we watched Scotty Moore play. That was a treat to hear him play those classic licks he played on those Elvis sides and to ride the shuttle back to the hotel with him. The night before The Pure Texas Band had jammed with him in the hotel bar into the wee hours. Scotty had to take off, so it was up to the rest of us to continue the jam session. That night after some hot wings and cheese sticks, the Louisiana Aces, The Derailers, Howard Kalish, and Philip Pajardo played music `till we couldn't keep our eyes open anymore.

JULY 19: There were so many acts of all kinds involved in the Southern Crossroads program that I can't name all of them. Bands from all over the world playing all different kinds of music. I wish I could have seen more of the performances. Fortunately, there were alternative means of at least getting a taste of the various flavors. We were riding a shuttle with The Freedom Singers and as we approached the drop off point they started to sing a spiritual in perfect four-point harmony. Their voices had the most amazing feel and they sang at almost a whisper and I tell you, I had chicken skin from head to toe.

JULY 20: At this point the gigs at the park had become a blur. Ride in a golf cart through a sea of people; too many of them saying "What's up Elvis" and "Can I have a ride?" After our last gig that night, the rest of the band -- Brian Holfeldt, Vic Gerard, and Terry XXXXXX -- went over to watch Brian Setzer. I went back to the hotel and started playing music. D.L. was protecting his voice so he only played guitar, despite our efforts to coax him into singing by playing his favorite Hank Williams songs. I would call Saturday night the peak jam night and maybe the most fun I've ever had playing music.

Just about everybody was there taking turns. The rest of the Derailers made it back and added their licks. Sarah Brown played some string bass Highlights were Leo and Howard playing "Faded Love," with everybody joining in to sing the chorus. Scott Walls stole the show singing "The Other Woman" and wrapping up the evening with a killer version of "Sleepwalk." Big smiles all around. I got the feeling that a lot of the musicians hadn't had the chance to just sit around and pick in quite a while. And I think it was the first time some of the onlookers had seen anything like it. That is what the music is all about. It begins and ends on the back porch.

JULY 21: The next night, I found myself in what became known as the pow wow corner. Eddie Swimmer is a hoop dancer. He, his drummer, and Ulali were singing 49's, which are more or less Indian party songs. They're Indian chants mixed with impromptu English lyrics and the subject matter is normally about being heartsick. Sometimes they get kind of bawdy. They would do a few songs and then Horace would do a song, then everybody would join in on the beer drinking country songs ala Jones, Haggard, Hank. We also sang Amazing Grace, which to me summarizes how this whole mix fit together so effortlessly. The Pow Wow went on until dawn.

JULY 22: D.L. and the Louisiana Aces left a few hours after the pow wow ended. Ol' Leo and Horace were there to the end. Those guys made a situation that could have been tiresome at best, or miserable at worst, the time of a lot people lives. Or at least a fond memory. If you want to have a boring, feel-sorry-for-yourself time, make sure you don't invite any traditional Cajun musicians, because I guarantee you, you're gonna have a good time.

I'm thankful I had the honor to meet D.L. and Leo. I feel it was the reason I was there. Hanging with those guys was a great lesson for me. They've been playing music a long time and they still love it. They have children and grandchildren and homes, and they're happy -- sparks in their eyes, spring in their steps.

JULY 23: One last jam session is under way as well as another pow wow. I was too tired to participate but I enjoyed hearing the sounds. The next batch of Cultural Olympiads were checking into the Ramada Inn Six Flags, our hotel. The same hotel that was home to prostitutes and crack dealers just weeks before we arrived. Oh well, time to go.

The only place you could legally get a beer was in Bud World, right next to Coca Cola Land, just up the way from Nike Planet.

If you want to have a boring, feel-sorry-for-yourself time, make sure you don't invite any traditional Cajun musicians, because I guarantee you, you're gonna have a good time.

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