Today's Paper Latest Coronavirus The Article Core Values Story ideas iPad Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive

OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The ballad of Johnny Rebel

by Philip Martin | April 25, 2021 at 8:46 a.m.

On Monday, while a Minneapolis jury deliberated the fate of Derek Chauvin, a retired lawyer in northeast Arkansas with whom I have no personal relationship but once was a classmate of mine formulated a hot take on liberal fascination with George Floyd. I guess he was proud of it because he emailed it to me.

I was going to say the email was unsolicited, but that's not quite right. I was the first writer at this newspaper to publish my email address with my column--it was 1993 and the address ended in someone who gets paid for giving opinions ought to be accessible to anyone who wants to take the time to send a note. I want people to write.

And upwards of 90 percent of the email from readers is appreciated. My only regret is that sometimes the volume of mail, combined with a fairly aggressive spam filter and a tendency to prioritize whatever it is I'm doing in the other window of this laptop means I am slow in responding to correspondents, or don't respond at all.

I probably shouldn't have responded to this particular email, but felt the need to critique his material. So I sent him back a terse response, telling him the sentiment he expressed was unoriginal and racist. I told him he was better than that--because I hope he is--and that he might want to rethink his position.

He volleyed back an indignant answer, which included a remarkable line: "And unless you've never said the n-word ... well."

I replied, saying I never had. And that I was surprised he apparently had.

He followed up with this email:

Never said the N-word huh?

In college in La?

What about racist names like cracker and redneck?

You sir are either a saint or a liar.

I don't think anyone would mistake me for a candidate for canonization. But I've never used the word as an epithet, as an obliterating pejorative, as a means to shock, or even as a transgressive term of endearment.

I was brought up to understand the word was a third rail I dare not touch. It was used only by the ignorant and mean, by people who had so little to be proud of that they clung to the idea the color of their skin somehow made them better than others. I haven't always been a profile in courage; I have heard the word used casually and pretended not to hear it while quietly resolving not to do business with these people.

I'm not an eradicationist; censoring works like "Huckberry Finn" is wrong-headed. Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg and others have employed the word in ways I would not bowdlerize. I have made journalistic use of it in quotes and used it to discuss the way the word is used (the daintiness of euphemistic constructions like "the n-word" is troubling) but can fairly claim to have never said it in a casual context.

Not even in college, in Lousiana, where some of the juke joints we visited had on their jukeboxes sides by a singer called Johnny Rebel who liberally sprinkled the word throughout his noxious oeuvre. Even then, in the late '70s and '80s, the songs (recorded in the '60s) were widely considered kitsch and relics of a blighted age. Some frat boys made a point of playing them and singing loudly along, more to demonstrate their refusal to bow to the altar of what we now call political correctness (but back then was just common courtesy) than genuine racial animus.

Or at least that's what they'd tell you.

Johnny Rebel's songs bothered me, though I wasn't naive enough to be surprised that country music tailored to white supremacist tastes existed. Somebody told me "Johnny Rebel" was actually a pseudonymous David Allan Coe, and while I believed that for a time (apologies to DAC; his voice was strong and the songs were crafty), he was actually a Cajun musician from Calcasieu Parish named Clifford "Pee Wee" Trahan.

Trahan tried to make a go of it in the music business as a rockabilly artist, then as a Nashville country singer, but nothing clicked for him and he came back home to Louisiana, where he worked in a shipyard and performed and recorded under his name and a few others. He had some success as a songwriter, writing Jimmy C. Newman's "Lache Pas la Patate" ("The Potato Song") which was a hit in Canada, and, according to his obituary, "the championship song for Notre Dame High School and also for Crowley High School."

The "Johnny Rebel" sides were a brief interlude; he wrote and recorded them for J.D. Miller in Miller's studio in Crowley where years later Paul Simon would record "That Was Your Mother" with Good Rockin' Dopsie and the Twisters.

The Rebel songs weren't suitable for radio airplay, but ended up on jukeboxes in Louisiana and Mississippi where they survived for decades. Sometimes the bar owners would have a few copies on hand to sell. Trahan made a little money off them. He never played a show as Johnny Rebel, though once at a dance in Kaplan, he played one of the songs at the audience's request, but only after making sure there were no Black people in attendance.

After a while, Trahan forgot about Johnny Rebel, though the advent of the Internet gave his music new life. After 9/11, he recorded a comeback album of sorts. When a writer for The Advocate in Baton Rouge tracked him down in 2003, Trahan said he had no problem with Black people; he was good enough friends with blues singer Lightnin' Slim to borrow the man's Cadillac to go on a date.

No, Trahan never had a problem with Black people. Those Johnny Rebel records were strictly business ventures. He said he didn't regret them, but they weren't mentioned in his obit.

I believe him. I think a lot of hatefulness gets disseminated cynically and casually, by people who rationalize it as heretical humor, ruthless honesty or good business.

It doesn't make me a saint, but I never sang along with Johnny Rebel.



Sponsor Content