American Routes Shortcuts: Doug Kershaw and Steve Riley
Cajun musician Doug Kershaw was born in Tiel Ridge, Louisiana, 1936. He started playing fiddle at age five and gigged with his mom at a bar called the Bucket of Blood, near their coastal home. By his late teens, Doug Kershaw joined with brother Rusty on guitar to play a mix of country and Cajun music. The duo joined the cast of the Louisiana Hayride and later the Grand Ole Opry. By 1961, Rusty and Doug had a huge hit on “Diggy Liggy Lo.” Doug Kershaw’s best-known song, released in the same year, was the million-seller, “Louisiana Man.” Now in his 80s, Doug recently recorded an album of traditional French music with the noted Cajun accordionist, Steve Riley. Steve joined Doug at the 2018 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where Nick Spitzer interviewed them onstage, starting off in Cajun French.
Nick Spitzer: (in Cajun French) The people are everywhere here, sir. Ok if we do the interview in French?
Doug Kershaw: Yes, I’m like my mama, I talk three languages.
NS: Oh yeah?
DK: French, English, and cuss.
NS: How many languages can you cuss in?
DK: Just one. That’s all I need.
NS: Doug, you know, one of the great things that you did in Cajun music, it seems to me, is you did a narrative song called “Louisiana Man,” which talks about your childhood and growing up. Could you just a say a little bit about that childhood? Who was at home, where did you live, the parish and those kinds of things?
DK: Well I was born in Cameron Parish, on a houseboat, I mean way back. Now my dad died when I was seven, and we moved to Lake Arthur. Hell, I’ve been doing this since nine years old, and I’m 40 already. I lie a lot now. But anyway I was in the army in ’58 and 9, and this is how I wrote “Louisiana Man.” I was sitting on the stairs in the barracks, fixing to leave the next day, and I was thinking to myself, “If I could have anything in the world, what would it be?” First thing comes to my mind is not to be ashamed of being a Cajun. And I wrote “Louisiana Man,” and I never looked back.
NS: You were ahead of your time in that because there were a lot of Cajuns that felt bad-
DK: Well they took my language. I never told anybody I could play music. I didn’t want them to take that. People wanted to know why I played: because I was hungry.
NS: And you played with your mom.
DK: Oh she played guitar and one-finger fiddle. She’d play “Jole Blon” on one finger. The Broussard side of my family, everybody played. House dances as far back as I can trace it.
NS: So let me ask Steve, what’s your first memory of hearing Doug and hearing about Doug? You grew up in Mamou?
Steve Riley: I did, and I grew up playing with Dewey Balfa, but as long as I can remember I knew the name Doug Kershaw. He’s done so much for our music, he was one of the first guys to really take it around the country and national TV shows, the Johnny Cash show and you know the first one with a big hit in Nashville from Louisiana, and he was well-known. He always stayed true to his roots and close to his family and the people back home, and he played with so many people, Bob Dylan, I mean he’s played with everyone.
DK: No they played with me!
NS: There you go!
SR: That’s what I meant, that’s what I meant.
NS: But how did you keep your, you know some people that leave French Louisiana don’t remember French or don’t come home, I mean how were you able to keep the connections for yourself?
DK: I wanted to, you know, I grew up singing French music, and I never wanted to lose it. They took my reading and writing of it, but they didn’t take my language away. Think about “Louisiana Man,” if you took the lyrics and sang it in French, it’s a Cajun song. By the way, that’s the first song ever broadcasted from the moon and transmitted back to Earth.
NS: That’s right, Apollo 12. Now how did that get worked out?
DK: Hell, I don’t know!
NS: I was thinking one of the astronauts was from Louisiana.
SR: Doug was actually the first man on the moon.
NS: Oh yeah, right, there you go.
DK: Heck I missed it, I was too damn high. Oh wait a minute, no, never mind, somehow I can’t say that.
NS: Would you be able to do “Louisiana Man” for us?
DK: I don’t know, what are the words?
(Plays “Louisiana Man”)
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