Tab Benoit grew up in the swamps of south Louisiana, writing songs among the dripping Spanish moss and alligators so prevalent in the area.
“I live in the heart of it. I grew up on 300 acres. We have less than 40 left. It’s not that somebody took the land. It’s not land anymore. The places I wrote my first songs are gone. The places I learned to play and camp and hunt and fish are gone. It’s open water now. It used to be cypress swamps and bayous and trees. That hits home when it happens so fast,” he says.
His home in Houma, Louisiana, is about an hour southwest of New Orleans in Terrebonne Parish. Water steadily encroaches in this part of the state, swallowing up land created several thousand years ago by a former channel of the Mississippi River. The river no longer builds land here. Following decades of channelizing and leveeing, the Mississippi’s sediment now washes out to sea. Residents of the area worry their unique culture washes away with it.
Benoit, a Grammy-nominated blues guitarist and vocalist, created the Voice of the Wetlands Foundation in 2003 to raise awareness of coastal erosion and salt water intrusion. Along with other musicians, activists, and local businessmen, Benoit organized a yearly Houma festival by the same name. It was created in 2004 and has steadily grown since. The event is slated this year for October 13-15 and in keeping with tradition, combines music and Cajun culture to raise awareness of coastal loss in southern Louisiana.
Benoit sometimes writes and performs at his jam camp just outside of Houma, a barebones structure that he built to replace a camp that washed away during a previous hurricane. (“I had to build something to keep my flood insurance,” he says.) Visitors to the camp typically launch out of Theriot, just south of Houma, and arrive after about a ten minute boat ride. “It’s not a camp if you can get there in your car,” says Benoit. “A shack becomes a palace when you get there in a boat … your little camp becomes the Taj Mahal,” he says, laughing.
His jam camp isn’t much more than a shack: four wooden walls, a wooden bar and stools and a shelf extending about a foot from the middle of the wall on which people sit their drinks. “I had a bunch of people out here on the Fourth of July, and we played for hours. People came up on their boats and listened from the water,” Benoit says. His parties are known to go all night. Benoit’s manager, Reuben Williams, recalled one epic jam session where he napped from 1-5 a.m. and woke to find Benoit still playing guitar.
Benoit’s music combines blues guitar and lyrical sentiments with a distinct sense of place: the swamp. Often referred to as the Cajun Bluesman, many songs combine multiple blues styles, but particularly Delta blues, along with lyrical references to the bayous and marshes where Benoit grew up. He began playing in the late 1980s in south Louisiana blues clubs, eventually traveling across the country to perform. He won the B.B. King Award in 2010, is a member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and has released more than a dozen albums. His 2006 record “Brother to the Blues” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album.
Fans recognize him for his scorching guitar licks and soulful, yet gritty voice reminiscent of classic Otis Redding. Some of his slower tunes evolve with a Ray Charles type tempo. But make no mistake, Benoit handles his guitar with precision on upbeat tunes, evoking the rhythms of ZZ Top or Stevie Ray Vaughan. He is versatile and original, and he is steadfast about his cause for ecology.
At Falgout Canal Marina, in Theriot, most customers and the staff greet Benoit, recognizing him immediately. He is dressed simply in jeans, a t-shirt and Ray Bans. A lit cigar in his mouth hints at a rock star persona, but his demeanor is relaxed and approachable. Benoit often takes members of the media on tours of Lake De Cade. No one seems surprised to see a journalist and photographer loading up onto his spacious pontoon boat. The area around the lake provides an opportunity to see last vestiges of living bayou as well as areas where small spits of land, less than a football field wide, stand as the only barrier between fresh water and the Gulf.
“When I would come out here 20 or 30 years ago you couldn’t see that open water,” Benoit says, gesturing behind his camp to a large expanse of choppy, gray water. “This was all marsh – marsh that protected us from hurricanes and that gave generations of people a way to make a living off the land.”
Benoit isn’t chatty, but he speaks at length and eloquently about the changes he has seen over the course of his lifetime spent in Terrebonne Parish, where pastures with hundreds of grazing cattle and live oaks have turned to water and trees have withered and died, stark and without leaves, as the salt water continues to encroach.
In addition to founding the VOW festival, Benoit has lobbied Congress directly and tours extensively with his group, Voice of the Wetlands All Stars, to raise awareness of coastal loss. Members of the super-group perform together yearly at the festival and aside from Benoit, include: Dr. John, George Porter Jr., Cyril Neville, Corey Duplechin, Johnny Vidacovich, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Johnny Sansone and Waylon Thibodeaux. In 2005, the ensemble recorded in New Orleans at Piety Street Studio in the months before Katrina, predicting the dangers of hurricanes in the region just prior to the levees’ failure.
Benoit is scheduled to perform every night at this year’s Voice of the Wetlands in various ensembles, as will most members of the All Stars. Other performers include The Fortifiers, Sam Price and the True Believers, The Heath Ledet Band, Honey Island Swamp Band, Don Rich, Margie Perez, Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band, John “Papa” Gros, Dash Rip Roch, and many others. Nights will conclude with late night jam sessions called Wetlands Rambles, similar to Benoit’s all-night guitar benders on the bayou. Festival attendees who camp on site for the weekend for a $150 fee take best advantage of these late night events.
Airplane tours of the marshes surrounding the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers serve as another way to raise awareness at the festival, an idea arising from Benoit’s experiences as a pilot flying above the wetlands. “You can see things better from the air,” he says. “I’ve seen little islands disappear in a matter of months. And leaking oil pipes that never get repaired, back when I used to do pipeline inspections for oil companies. No one’s out there, so no one sees it. It’s hard to understand the changes when you’re out here in open water, unless you know what it looked like before.”
Planes fly over the Mississippi delta first, south of New Orleans, where saltwater intrusion has reduced freshwater plant life, and sediment-rich fresh water ends up deep in the gulf. The Atchafalaya’s sediment settles closer to the coastline, building land and nourishing freshwater plant and animal life.
“The Atchafalaya was dammed up too, and still is in a lot of places, but the lower delta has access to fresh water,” says Benoit. “It’s not far from the Mississippi’s river delta; you can get there in 20 minutes or so from my camp, but the environment is so different. We need fresh water here, too.”
The Mississippi River’s sediment (and whatever pollutants and nutrient runoff travel with it) creates dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. The State of Louisiana’s coastal master plan hopes to return some of this sediment to the marshes using diversions – cuts in the levee to allow fresh water from the river to reach the delta while maintaining flood protection. No one is completely sure how much land the diversions will build. Everyone hopes it will be enough.
“I’m glad more people are paying attention, but we still aren’t doing enough,” says Benoit. “If we don’t act now, the place I grew up will be gone.”