SPOTLIGHT: Durand Jones on the Legacy of a Promised Land
Durand Jones (photo by Rahim Fortune)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Durand Jones is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for May 2023. Learn more about Jones and his new album, Wait Til I Get Over, in our interview, and watch a video of him performing the song “Sadie” from the album here.
Wait Til I Get Over
Yes I’m Glory Bound
Wait Til I Get Over
Yes, I’ll receive my crown
Over 500 enslaved. 10,000 acres of sugarcane. 3 sugar mills.
This is where the roots of my music begin. On the banks of the Mississippi River, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans; a sugar plantation — in the center of the wealthiest region in Louisiana at the time. This place dates back to 1774, an institution already established before America was a country. Built upon land that was taken from the Houma tribe, this plantation ironically is called the Houmas House. The Houmas House plantation was surrounded by the like. Plantations wielding rice, indigo, sugarcane, cotton, and above all money lining the Mississippi River — side by side, each with some overly stated Greek revival sentiment. Yearning for regality. Grand symbols of capitalism.
The Houmas House stands to this day, pristine. It is open to the public with a little museum and gift shop. There is even a film you can watch detailing some history of the plantation, and lavish gardens to walk through. For the right price you can have a party or a wedding there. Ultimately becoming in many ways a caricature of itself. Wiped clean of its conflicted past, the farther away you are the cleaner it looks. But as you get closer the imperfections show. Of all the history and research of this place, the emphasis is heavily laid upon the planters’ lives, and their wives and sons and daughters. Even the architecture and evolution of the house, but little of the people that labored it. What about the people that held this place up? Who are they? What is their story? What is their song?
Of the multitude of enslaved people inhabiting, working, and tilling the land, only eight would be granted reparations, but it would take the effort of many to create a community. Of those eight men, a minister by the name of Hillary Rice would be deemed leader. They would name their parcel of land Hillaryville. An unincorporated town to this day, these men, along with other folks from Houmas House and neighboring plantations, would build a small schoolhouse, general store, motel, juke joint, and humble restaurants, among other businesses. The church had to be very important for Hillary Rice and the community too. And of all of the things the church in Hillaryville stood for, its platform for music would be my legacy.
They were longshoremen on the river and farmers on the land, but on Sunday they were bona fide stars. Dressed neatly and carefully in their best. Ironed and creased suits, white stockings neat without tear and holes, shoes shined to immaculate perfection. These folks would come to church to sing all of the pain from the week out. Singing with abandon. Singing fearlessly about true freedom, a promised land.
These songs and traditions played a huge role in my artistic expression. Some of my earliest memories in church would be the most important. Seeing the mother of the church, dressed in all white, stand. The congregation would stand, all of us behind her. She would open up and lead us into song, “Guide me over great Jehovah pilgrim through this barren land” and we would follow suit and respond. There was no meter to hold onto, and most folks, while singing the melody, had their own embellishments. Someone in the back of the church would let out a holler, and a conscious push would begin in the song. A cowboy named Troop with large dark hands would begin to clap and with a voice so big and boisterous would call out to everyone, “Work hard! Work hard!” Stomps and claps began to emerge, moving and grabbing rhythm the way a locomotive could. It all culminates into a massive build up, a climax of sorts. There is something triumphant and electric about this feeling. It brings a celebration through tears and hugs and shouts of “glory” and “yes Lord.”
To be a witness of it all. Even then, as a child, it shook the core of me. Pulling tears from me too sometimes. This experience and passage of legacy would be the crux of my ethos in art, though I did not know it then.
Wait Til I Get Over
Over there somehow
Cross the river
Watch my burdens float on down
Across the river, on the west side of the bank opposite Hillaryville, lies another little village. This place, Aben, Louisiana, is small and unassuming, quaint, like Hillaryville, though its ties to American music are so much more important. The date is heavily disputed, but ranges between 1881 and 1886 when Aben would become the birthplace of a young man by the name of Joe Oliver. His roots in blues, jazz, vaudeville, and the secular world would shape American music. The rhythmic nature and nuanced sounds from his muted cornet garnered him the title “King Oliver,” but the most endearing of his titles, “Papa Joe,” is what his protege Louis Armstrong would call him. The legacy King Joe Oliver created in giving Louis Armstrong a path to his own artistic expression allowed us to see brilliant innovation in American music. Armstrong would credit his career to a man from the deep rural South of Louisiana. A man from deep within the sugarcane.
There are others too: “Kid” Ory from Iberville Parish, and Worthia “Showboy” Thomas from Napoleonville, Claiborne Williams of Donaldsonville, “Fats” Domino, born in Vacherie, and many others. They laid the groundwork and path for me to be who I am today. They are the roots that have shaped and created my artistic being.
I’ll see my mother over there
I’ll see my father over there
Wait Til I Get Over
I’ll hitch on my wings and then I’ll try the air
These small rural towns all throughout the rural South are not everlasting. Dying are the traditions and customs, stories and legends. Once where there were never-ending fields of sugarcane are now tightly packed subdivisions. Moving and inching closer and closer to Hillaryville and other towns like it. It seems these places and their special and unique histories will disappear if we let them. Hillaryville has already begun the process. It is nothing like what I remember it to be, nor what my father, and even so my grandmother. But I refuse to let it die while I am here on this earth. And in some crazy way I think telling this story through art is the best way I can do this.
My solo debut record, Wait Til I Get Over, is an homage to the deep rural South of Louisiana, and it’s been an immense privilege to be a featured artist with No Depression magazine. I’m proud to be an ambassador of Hillaryville, and through sound and words, share its contradictions, its past, and its future. I feel in so many ways that this is a part of my duty and purpose. And as long as I can sing and make art, I will continue to be a part of the legacy of the rural South.