Tab Benoit brings his swampy blues to Three Stages Theater in Folsom on May 25. The Cajun bluesman was literally born on the bayou, or pretty close at least, in Houma, La., an hour’s drive southwest of New Orleans on I-90. He’s become Louisiana’s de-facto spokesman for the preservation of its wetlands.
“This is my home,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s where I grew up and learned to play music. But increasingly, it’s dead and gone. We’re losing a unique culture, heritage and territory at a rate of an acre an hour.”
Benoit’s story is compelling, especially in light of the fact that his environmental activism predates the August, 2005 landfall of Hurricane Katrina.
As a teenager he and his father flew small airplanes .He later flew pipeline patrols over the delta, and saw it changing week to week. “A patche of marsh would become a bay,” he said. “A little island would get smaller and six months later it was gone.”
He told his friends and coworkers what he saw. “Everyone said coastal erosion wasn’t something we’d need to worry about in our lifetime,” he said.
Music called him, and he became a respected member of the Louisiana music community and a designated “rising star” of blues music by 1990.
Despite all the touring and accolades, he couldn’t get what he’d seen from the air out of his mind.
Frustrated that locals dismissed the issue, and that the outside world seemed unaware of it, Benoit decided to use his growing celebrity and his relationships with much larger names in the music business to effect change.
“I felt backed into a corner, and that’s when I really started pushing to get Dr. John and The Neville Brothers and the Meters involved,” he said. “I told them New Orleans was in trouble and we had to let people know what kind of trouble we’re in.”
A year before the storm Benoit created “Voice of the Wetlands,” a coalition of local artists, musicians and business leaders dedicated to saving their homes and the culture of southern Louisiana.
They recorded the first “Voice of the Wetlands” album six months before Katrina. Ironically, the first song was titled “Don’t let the water wash us away.”
Adding to the irony, the album’s release was immanent when Katrina blew in. The storm pushed the release date back a couple of months, but created a receptive audience.
In the storm’s aftermath, the troupe grew and toured behind the message, raising awareness of the threat to the wetlands and the harsh realities of what it will take to save them.
Annual Voice of the Wetlands music festivals followed, as did high-profile interviews with Dan Rather and Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau. Benoit starred in the iMax documentary “Hurricane on the Bayou.”
In those documentaries Benoit points to the Atchafalaya Basin, an hour west of his hometown, as a prime example of how to keep a delta ecosystem healthy: leave it alone. With the Mississippi River handling the container ships, the much smaller Atchafalaya River to the west has been left largely unaltered. It has a growing delta system with nearly stable wetlands, according to the federal Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act’s website.
In testimony before Congress in 2008 Benoit explained that the river has been squeezed into a navigation channel, denying the wetlands vital fresh water that the native plant life requires.
“This place is thirsty and it’s begging for water,” said Benoit in one of several videos on the Voice of the Wetlands website. “It’s been eating salty food, and it needs some fresh water.”
Seawater is now encroaching farther inland, turning islands into marshes and marshes into open water, killing the wetlands that used to filter the river water before it got to the Gulf.
The unfiltered water now gushes straight out the mouth of the shipping channel, and has created a massive dead zone in the Gulf.
“This is the third largest river in the planet,” he continues. “You have to learn to live with it rather than expect to control everything about it.”
For more information go to the Voice of the Wetlands website at voiceofthewetlands.org.