Louisiana Sky - Song Stories
Driving back from New Orleans to Wimberley along I-10 in July 2018, I started feeling a strange but inescapable pull. I'd never been interested in investigating the signs advertising "Plantation Tours" on the various Bayou exits in Louisiana. But on this July morning, something made me pull off at an exit, call my husband and say, "Can you look up an historic plantation with slave cabins that I can tour?" He had a look and recommended Evergreen Plantation in Wallace, which advertised twenty-two original slave cabins on its premises.
I called Evergreen and booked a spot in that morning's tour, driving under increasingly threatening skies across the Mississippi River on Veteran's Memorial Bridge, towards the plantation. The tour group at Evergreen was small, and our guide, looking up at the clouds and acknowledging the distant booms of thunder, asked, "Would y'all like to tour the slave cabins first? We will be getting some bad weather very soon." We all agreed, and walked away from the main house complex down a gravel lane lined with huge ancient live oaks, to where twenty-two cypress wood cabins faced each other on each side of the road.
Seeing these cabins was a sobering experience. Walking up their steps, I peered inside, touching the worn cypress walls and wondering how two families managed to live their entire lives sharing each small, primitive space, separated only by a brick fireplace. I wondered about the people who lived here - what did they think about their lives? How did they manage to carry on, knowing that the hopes and dreams that most folks have would not ever see the light of day?
There was a listing of some of the plantation's slaves in documentation outside the cabins, and it was telling that each slave was listed by only their first name, age and occupation. I'd encountered the same sort of dehumanizing descriptions when I’d read slave sale titles in a library archive at Tulane University. Moses and Martha were the names of two actual slaves purchased by Tobias Gibson - an ancestor of my husband's - for his plantation in Terre Bonne Parish during the 1800s. Tobias, despite declaring to his family that slavery was morally wrong, owned many slaves, buying and selling them over and over during his lifetime. This contradiction of slave owners who thought themselves civilized and morally correct has always perplexed me. I found no answers at Evergreen, but I did get an insight into how crushingly difficult life must have been for a slave on a sugar plantation in Louisiana. No hope of escape, no Underground Railroad, no Harriet Tubman, no chance of freedom - ever. Just bone crushing and spirit-sucking physical labor from sunup to past sundown. I felt a very heavy presence at these cabins, a darkness and sadness that seemed to permeate the grounds. There were stories here, and I felt frustrated to not be able to hear them first-hand.
Lost in thought, I was jolted back by some heavy claps of nearby thunder and lightning from the fast approaching storm. We were advised to leave the cabins immediately, and ran back towards the main house, getting soaked by a strong Bayou thunderstorm.
The rest of the tour was dull in contrast; I had little interest in admiring the beautiful house and grounds or hearing about its architectural and ownership history, knowing that its existence was predicated on the enslavement and misery of hundreds of men, women and children over several generations.
I drove back to Texas pondering all of this, knowing that somehow I would like to write about it. When I got home Sunday night, I realized I had to write a song for my weekly songwriting group, using that week's prompt "evil eye." Determined to include my plantation experience in my song, I started researching "slaves in Louisiana" and "evil eye," and was stopped short by this entry in a university paper, describing how blue beads were found in great numbers on former plantation sites:
"… blue beads on African-American sites have been interpreted to be indicative of the evil eye belief …. Blue beads are considered to be particularly effective in warding away the evil eye in many cultures…."
I started thinking about these people, whose names and faces I did not know, going about their endless daily toils, fingering blue beads in their pockets occasionally, to keep away the "evil eye" that might make their lives even worse. This practice harkened back to their African religions and beliefs, wiped out of memory by generations of slavery, but still a part of their lives. I also found out that slaves did use last names among themselves; it was only their masters who referred to them by first names only. These folks' lives included many more components than they ever shared with their white masters – beliefs and customs and little rituals that sustained them, giving them the strength to keep going in the face of an overwhelmingly difficult reality.
I decided to include the names of Moses and Martha in my song to acknowledge their existence as more than just names on titles of slaves sold to Tobias Gibson in 1831 and 1832. Yes, Moses and Martha toiled on a plantation forty miles south of Evergreen, but they were humans who lived singular, unique lives. Every time I sing their names, I feel like I am giving them their dignity and due as human beings; a simple honor that they were likely denied for much of their lives.
As a footnote to this, I was looking for an image to use on the cover of my EP, which I decided to title Louisiana Sky. I found the perfect photograph by a man named Kent Kanouse on his Flickr site, and wrote to ask him about purchasing the right to use it. We started a conversation about the song, and he told me how he had come to take the image. Not far from Thibodeaux, LA (which ironically, is not only my maiden name, but a city very close to the site of Tobias Gibson's plantation), Kent and his wife - a descendant of both slave owners and slaves - had been touring some plantations for reasons similar to my own, when a storm whipped up, complete with tornado warnings on their phones. He had snapped the photo in a hurry as they drove towards safe cover. Kent told me that he and his wife had also found the plantations to be both sad and fascinating remnants of a singular time in Southern history.
There were a lot of synchronistic events involved in the creation of this song and its EP. I've learned over the years to follow my instincts and listen to my intuition. I believe that the story of "Louisiana Sky" wanted to be told, and will continue to unfold, as I learn more about its history.
"Heard the past come a-calling, like a voice from up high, saying 'we all once lived here, under Louisiana Skies...' "
More to come, including: