Photo by Misty Leigh McElroy
In the foreground (left to right), Mickey Thomas of Jefferson Starship, Tab Benoit, and Elvin Bishop on stage at the 2012 Voice of the Wetlands Festival.
[Note: Originally published in Oct. 2013] For three days in October, Southdown Museum Grounds in Houma comes alive with some of Louisiana’s best musicians, mouthwatering food, and thousands of people gathering together to form a collective voice for saving Louisiana’s wetlands.
“It’s an open forum—one weekend a year where we can talk freely and have a good time,” said Tab Benoit, Grammy-nominated musician and winner of last year’s Blues Music Awards “Entertainer of the Year.” A Houma native, Benoit is the founder of the Voice of the Wetlands Festival and has dedicated the last decade of his career to advancing wetlands awareness.
Embarking on its tenth year, the festival beckons people from around the country and the world, traveling from as far as Washington, Maine, and Sweden for this free event supported by a nearly total volunteer base. This year’s event takes place October 11—13 and features music, Cajun cuisine, environmental booths, and a 5K-10K Race for the Wetlands.
“It’s a great feeling event, like a backyard barbecue,” said Benoit. “It’s all volunteer, and we all do it together. There’s a certain feeling you get when everybody is doing something for a cause—that’s why it works, why it makes a difference.”
The festival has grown exponentially in size from its first year, when around eight hundred people perched under a tent near Houma’s Courthouse, protected from the remnants of Tropical Storm Matthew. Today the open space next to Southdown Plantation is bursting at the seams, with nearly ten thousand people coming to hear some of the best music in the state while supporting the fight to save Louisiana’s disappearing ecosystem.
“Some nights there is a sea of heads and you can’t count anymore. They believe in us and believe in the cause,” said Reuben Williams, Voice of the Wetlands board member and music producer, who has been with the festival since its inception. “Just having the festival is a seed where it starts conversation. People come and they fall in love with the area. I see chemical plants when I cross the Mississippi River, but I don’t know if they see that. They see beauty in everything.”
Benoit and Williams share a deep passion for the land they call home and a firm commitment to help save it for future generations.
“We’ve hunted and fished in it all our life, and we saw it vanishing before our eyes,” said Williams. “We used Tab’s platform to start the discussion. We formed a grassroots campaign for people to take notice. Katrina pushed the mission along, popularized our position. Yet the BP spill increased what we were up against. Not many people are talking about wetlands now. People are getting richer, and workers have to stay here to work; but soon they will have to move their homes. The waters are rising. The festival brings awareness.”
Speaking from a boat in the middle of a pristine cypress swamp, Benoit couldn’t help but reflect on the environment around him, “Is it worth losing, worth throwing away? Let’s make sure. We keep trying, keep asking questions. We come together to be a voice for the place—a voice more powerful than money. We’re putting people together to make noise.”
“In a struggling economy, it’s not easy to bring up the wetlands, but we have to talk about it. We don’t have time to wait,” Benoit added. “If we move ourselves, we move infrastructure, we move big things. This is a national issue.”
And Benoit has raised it to the national level, speaking to Congress on the urgency of restoring Louisiana’s wetlands and bringing more than fifty New Orleans musicians to perform at the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
Meanwhile, The Voice of the Wetlands All Stars serve as Wetlands Ambassadors, featuring Tab Benoit playing his way across the country alongside Grammy award-winning Cyril Neville, bassist Corey Duplechin, drummer Johnny Vidacovich, New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians’ Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, 2012 Blues Music Award winner Johnny Sansone, and fiddler Waylon Thibodeaux.
It all comes full circle to the annual festival though, which Williams calls a “grounding point” for the group.
“It’s had a big impact,” said Benoit, speaking about the festival. “It’s hard to explain the problems to people who don’t understand how our coast works. They come feel it, smell it, see it for themselves; and they go back and tell their congressmen. Those kinds of things make a difference, if you get people in government to understand.”
While the festival serves as a discussion stage for Louisiana’s growing coastal problems, the music itself is what captures the heart of the people, drawing them in year after year.
“It’s a very unique festival, where music and activism combine,” said Williams. “That’s why we’re able to bring together Tommy Castro, Mitch Woods, Jim Dandy, Dash Riprock—because of the relationship with musicians and the cause.”
Williams stacks the lineup for the festival, mixing musicians and sounds to create an experience rarely found elsewhere. Kicking off with the good-natured “Friday Night Guitar Fights,” he then fills the weekend with nearly thirty musicians, from Tommy Malone to Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band to Christian Serpas Honky Tonk Summit with Gal Holiday and Bill Davis, Jim Dandy, and Waylon Thibodeaux.
This year, a second stage called the Red Dog Saloon will include demonstrations and live interviews with musicians such as Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil, Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie, Devon Allman, and Mike Zito.
Plus, as with any Louisiana festival, there is always the food—from shrimp étouffée and alligator sauce piquant to jambalaya, gumbo, and Cajun roast pork. In addition to providing a feast for festival-goers, the fare serves the dual purpose of funding the otherwise free festival.
”We decided this festival is not something we should charge for because we want people to dig the music and leave with a message,” explained Williams. “If we don’t make enough money, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about the money. There’s no rush, no incentive to buy; just relax and feel the message.”
Of course, a festival of this magnitude wouldn’t be possible without the volunteer staff who pledge their weekend to support the cause. The count is around one hundred twenty volunteers, and they are always looking for more.
For more information about the Voice of the Wetlands Festival, facts and resources about wetlands loss, or to sign up to volunteer, visit voiceofthewetlands.org.
Details. Details. Details.
Voice of the Wetlands Festival Southdowns Museum 1208 Museum Drive Houma, La. voiceofthewetlands.org