During the 1960s, Thierry’s maternal grandparents, Lena and Houston Pitre, moved from tiny Soileau, La., to Richmond, Calif., just north of Berkeley. They were following a well-worn trail of Louisiana Creoles seeking a better life.
The Creoles are a French-speaking people of African ancestry mixed with various other heritages — blended “like jambalaya or gumbo,” says Warren Semien, a retired public-transit employee who came to San Francisco in 1966. Spread throughout South Louisiana (and into East Texas), they’ve traditionally made a living growing rice, sugarcane and other crops that thrive in the steamy subtropics. Farm work there was never-ending. “They had a word for it: You go to work from can’t to can’t,” says Wilbert Lewis, an 85-year-old frottoir player who lives in San Francisco. (In his gentle Louisiana accent, he pronounces the phrase “cain’t to cain’t.”) “You can’t see when you go in. You can’t see when you come out. That was some hard days, I tell you. And I was in it since I was about 12 years old.”
Lewis’ more famous sister is the zydeco accordionist Queen Ida Guillory, a Grammy winner and National Heritage Fellow. She, too, remembers working “morning to night” during harvest season. “My dad being a rice farmer, he even had me on a tractor at one point,” she says, “because the men were being called to go to war, to serve the country. We worked very hard on the farm. However, weekends, we would go to the zydeco dance.”
As Saturday approached, men on horseback, and later in cars, would travel along Louisiana’s rural roads announcing the next dance. Most of the events took place in houses, their living rooms cleared of furniture. The babies would be laid down in a bedroom, and the dancing would sometimes last till dawn. “Somebody will cook a big pot of duck gumbo or goose gumbo,” says 62-year-old R.C. Carrier, who has played frottoir for both Thierry and the band Motordude Zydeco. “People from miles around would come, and we all would dance and party and eat. Different musicians would switch off. Mamma and Pop would beat on a pot or a board or a washboard. And anybody who could play something would jump in, beat on something, make some noise.”
For all the joy, those were tough times. Basics like electricity were slow to reach South Louisiana, and standards of living were meager. “Every time the rain came, it was raining inside: clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack,” says Lena Pitre. “In the middle of the night, the wind would start and it was raining on our forehead. We just put the blanket on top of the head, and that’s the way it was.” What’s more, Creoles were subject to Louisiana’s Jim Crow laws, along with racial violence and the many other indignities of a segregated society.
Starting around World War II, Creoles began looking for a way out. Jobs abounded in the Bay Area’s shipyards and defense industry, particularly after President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring defense contractors to end discriminatory hiring practices. Packing their belongings into pickup trucks or taking trains like the Sunset Limited, they headed west in search of prosperity and freedom.