In 1942, a Greyhound bus re-united me with my family in New Orleans. I had stayed behind to complete seventh grade. I enrolled at Samuel J. Peters High School, re-named Israel Augustine Middle School.
Names were changed in the 1950’s during the civil rights movement. I agree that schools in an African-American-majority city should not be used to display names of slave owners and confederate generals. They should be used for their intended purposes: (1.) to feed kids lunch; (2.) Play sports, and … oh yes, (3.) get educated. Well two out of three ain’t bad.
In the city my Cajun accent got me nicknamed “Country”. When I came back home, I had lost the Cajun and acquired the “who dat” accent so naturally my new nickname became “City”. What goes around comes around.
After a year at Peters High I foolishly ran for student government president. I wrote my first campaign song … for myself. I remember these lyrics: “Let’s vote for Country Martin, we all know that he’s smart in, evidently, student Gov-ern-ment. So at the poll we’ll gather, and we’ll all get together, and help elect him “o u r” Pre-si-dent.”
Not even Edgar Allen Poe was clever enough to rhyme “Martin” with “smart in” or to emphasize all three syllables of the words “government” and “president” and make two syllables of the word “our” to keep every line in meter. That takes deep thinking. (Actually it took deep stupidity. I was young and had a lot of that.)
A kind teacher mimeographed *(ask Grand Pa*) 50 copies which I passed out on “Campaign Speech Day” and asked my fellow students to sing alone with me. When only one did, I should have sensed trouble, but I bravely sang on, off key and flat, and the result was: I was laughed and booed off the stage and slaughtered in the election, coming in 8th out of nine, beating only the much hated school bully.
Later, my accent became an asset.
Ms. Gadner was our drama teacher and she produced a play called “Mr. South America”. Her qualification for her job was that years earlier she had one line in a silent Greta Garbo movie. Years later I watched it on Turner Classic Movies. I saw a maid who looked somewhat as she might have in 1925. As she moved her lips, the card read: “Coffee or tea, sir?” I’ll never be sure.
It was the third year of World War II, and America was trying to cement relations with our southern hemisphere.
The play was pure propaganda written in Hollywood for the war department and distributed to schools. Many years later I found the script, another casualty of Hurricane Hilda. The writers meant nothing to me then, but today one does … F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby”.
Writers, movie stars and directors were doing their bit for the war effort.
Probably because of him, the play was quiet good. Ms. Gadner had picked me for the lead role of “Mr. South America” because of my accent.
“But Mrs. Gadner,” I argued, “my accent is Cajun, not Latin.”
“Hush,” she admonished me. “An accent is an accent. They won’t know the difference.”
They didn’t and I was a hit. I didn’t shave yet, but every performance she came with a crayon and painted me a black mustache.
The world turned, the years passed and in 1952 I started to write campaign songs again at the request of my friend Dick Guidry. I wrote “Insurance Checks” to the tune of “Shrimp Boats” for Senator Clyde Caillouet. He won.
Wrote one for Assessor Hubert Robichaux and Clerk of Court Ambroise Landry. They won and I got a job out of that one.
Two for State Representative and Congressional candidate Richard “Dick “Guidry. He won one and lost one. I batted 500 with him.
I wrote two for Francis Dugas for District Attorney, one in French by Vin Bruce and an English one by me.
There’s more. Next week I’ll tell the how, why, where or when I did all that. Tune in.
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Posted on Tue, June 30, 2015
by Leroy Martin, Contributing Writer