Chapter 15: “Cotton Club”
from “A Perfectly Logical Explanation” published & copyright by the Kalamazoo Gazette 2002
My father-in-law has put his hands to many chores in the past 76 years of his life.
He tells me when he was a young boy during the Great Depression he picked cotton by hand, in fields not far from where he lives today — in north central Louisiana. He and my wife’s mother work their subsistence farm of potatoes and peas and other vegetables not near any main roads with traffic lights, but out in the woods, really.
For most of his adult years Audrey worked for the federal government, marking trees so the timber companies would know whether th most of his adult years Audrey worked for the federal government, marking trees so the timber companies would know whether they legally could be cut.
Timber is still one of the few occupations here in Winn Parish, in some form or another. The Stone Container Company, the major employer, supplies shopping bags to the Wal-Mart in Winnfield and elsewhere in the region. You often can hear the eighteen-wheelers barreling along out on the road, carrying their cut trees to the paper mill.
Tonight my father-in-law, long retired from the tree-marking business, is putting his hands to another chore. Once a week for the past fifteen or so years or so he climbs into his pickup truck and drives over to the Backwoods Inn.
There he joins anywhere from four to eight other men and women from the community to provide entertainment — he plays the fiddle, many of the men play guitar, one woman sings, another man strums the steel guitar ....
The musicians perform free. Music ranges from Bob Wills and Hank Williams tunes to — once in a while — songs my Yankee ears recognize.
The Backwoods Inn has been under the same ownership since it was built in 1980, some nineteen years ago, by Sybil Womack, who tonight perches near a cash register that separates the dance floor from the dining area.
The inn is spare, a modest-sized room, with long tables in the restaurant section — featuring a salad buffet, cake and coffee — and a mix of chairs (and one well-used couch) more or less circling the dance floor. Admission price to the dance area seems to be whatever you can afford to pay.
This Saturday evening, nine male musicians and one female singer crowd the front area of the dance floor, and some two dozen hopeful dancers occupy chairs, waiting.
Many of the patrons are in their 70s and 80s — widder wimmin, as they are called, outnumber the men three-to-one. Except for one notably well-dressed couple — the man is wearing white cowboy boots and a bright red shirt with gold tips on his collars, the woman has matching gold shoes — customers at the inn tonight aren’t in couples.
A dance begins with one of the men crossing the dance floor, then stopping — as if to his own surprise — in front of one of the women. The man then does a sort of abbreviated hoedown kind of step, and the woman, face beaming, stands and does a reply hop step — it resembles a mating dance, and it is, in a way. The pair then links arms and movess out onto the floor.
The men rarely last more than one dance before they need to sit down, puffing and sweating heavily — the temperature this spring night is in the 80s, after all, and there is much talk of recent heart surgeries and farm accidents — and the women return to their chairs to wait to be chosen again.
Audrey takes a break — the other musicians are playing songs he says he doesn’t know that well — and chats with Sybil. My mother-in-law has been talking in the restaurant area all evening. They’ll be here for only a few hours, but it is the social event of the week. The well- dressed dancing couple left — together — about an hour ago. Everyone noticed.
When I tell people we’re going to Louisiana, most ask if we’ll be sampling any of that great Cajun food. They assume all Louisiana is New Orleans.
But Winn Parish is many hours and many miles from the laissez les bon temps rouler of the southern part of the state. This is a place of hard work and simpler pleasures, enjoyment the people who live here have to work for and harvest — just as they work the soil of their land.
It is not difficult to come to this conclusion. Just look at my father-in-law’s hands.