Seven musicians and folk artists were inducted into the Louisiana Folklife Center’s Hall of Master Folk Artists held at Northwestern State University on Saturday July 21 as part of the 39th Annual Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival. Inductees included Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and former Elvis Presley guitarist, James Burton, who also served as Honorary Festival Chair, Burton’s fellow band mate in Elvis Presley’s band, Estelle Brown of the Sweet Inspirations, Elvis Presley’s original drummer, D.J. Fontana, Natchitoches musician/promoter/philanthropist Rodney Harrington, folk artist Clementine Hunter, musician and craftsman Hilton Lytle, and rockabilly musician Jim Oertling.
Dr. Tommy Ike Hailey, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Cultural Resource Office at NSU, accepted on behalf of Oertling who was unable to attend. Phyllis Liberto accepted on behalf of her uncle, D.J. Fontana, who was inducted posthumously, and Stephanie Sewell, accepted on behalf of her great grandmother, Clementine Hunter, also inducted posthumously. Hunter’s granddaughter, Deloris Sewell, and Hunter’s great granddaughter, Diane Brown, were also in attendance.
Dr. Shane Rasmussen, director of the Louisiana Folklife Center at NSU, took part in the induction ceremony. Dignitaries included Natchitoches City Council members Sylvia Morrow and Dale Nielsen, Kelvin Porter from the office of State Rep. Kenny Cox, and Jerrie Ledoux from the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson.
Honorary Festival Chair James Burton was born in Dubberly, but he grew up in Shreveport. At 14, James went professional and at 15 cut the famous record “Suzie Q.” This soon led to a regular gig on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, which, in turn, led to Burton’s joining the band of Bob Luman, a rockabilly and country singer. From there, Burton went on to play with Ricky Nelson, which solidified Burton’s place in the Hollywood rock ‘n’ roll universe, and he started getting calls for recording sessions. Burton also found time to record with artists like Dean Martin, Bobby Darin and The Everly Brothers, and become a key figure in the group of session musicians referred to as ‘The Wrecking Crew.’
In 1969, Burton got a call from Elvis Presley to form him a band. Burton acted as band leader and would remain with Elvis until The King’s untimely death in 1977. After Elvis’ passing, Burton went on to tour with numerous artists, including Emmylou Harris, John Denver, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Rogers, Elvis Costello and Johnny Cash.
Burton has been inducted into many honorable institutions such as The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, The Musicians Hall of Fame, The Country Music Hall of Fame, The Rockabilly Hall of Fame, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (inducted by Keith Richards) and is also a Grammy winner.
Burton heads the James Burton Foundation which is dedicated to providing musical instruments to children in schools, hospitals, civic programs, and to veterans. Burton received his first guitar at a young age and he believes in giving to help a new generation of players. He still tours the world every year playing his guitar and is honored to be an ambassador for the great state of Louisiana.
Fifty years ago Brown and some friends formed the Sweet Inspirations, an all-girl vocal group, and the girls quickly became the “go to” backing group for the top Atlantic Records artists including Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Dusty Springfield, Dion Warwick, and Jimi Hendrix. Brown and the Sweets’ distinctive harmonies can be heard on some of the most iconic songs in music history, including “Chain of Fools,” “Natural Woman,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Do You Know the Way to San José,” to name but a few. The group also toured and performed their own music, including the hit song, “Sweet Inspiration.”
In 1969, Elvis Presley invited the Sweet Inspirations to be a part of his band and they toured with him until his death in 1977, performing more than 1,000 shows with the King. Brown moved to Louisiana several years ago and has immersed herself in the area’s music and culture performing with her old Elvis Presley band mate, James Burton and Johnny Earthquake and The Moondogs. She helps raise money for music related charities, and appears on television and in schools sharing the history of rock & roll and rhythm & blues which she was such an integral part of and telling about of her life and times performing with the King of Rock & Roll and the Queen of Soul.
Harrington has been intimately involved in Louisiana music for over 30 years. As a performer, he has been the front man for Johnny Earthquake and The Moondogs since the band’s inception nearly 25 years ago. The band has recorded extensively touring throughout the South, spreading the word about Natchitoches and Louisiana music wherever they play. The Moondogs have been referred to by music critics as “Quite simply, Louisiana’s best show band.”
As a songwriter, Harrington has written and recorded several original songs about the area, its music and culture, including “Cane River Blues,” “Reflections on the Cane” and “This Is Our Town,” an ode to his hometown of Natchitoches.
As a philanthropist, Harrington has served and continues to serve on the board of several music related charities and has worked tirelessly to raise funds to further music-related causes, such as buying musical instruments for school children.
As a promoter/producer, Harrington has promoted and produced many major concerts and musical events, including the Natchitoches Jazz/R&B Festival, for which he has served on the board for 22 years and as chairman for the past several years.
As a radio host, Harrington has hosted the syndicated radio program “Jammin’ with Johnny – The Johnny Earthquake Show” for nearly 20 years. The program is the only one in north Louisiana which features live local and area musicians on a regular basis.
Christened in March 1887 on a plantation in Marco, Hunter’s family moved to Melrose Plantation around the turn of the last century to work as sharecroppers. Until her death on January 1, 1988, her life had been the environs of Melrose Plantation on Cane River below Natchitoches.
Hunter’s first paintings were documented in December 1939. Self-taught with the encouragement and inspiration of Francois Mignon, her styles evolved from paintings on paper to eventually works the size of The African House Murals, which in dramatic style tells the story of life at Melrose Plantation in the 1950s.
Although she never learned to read or write, Hunter’s art has left a legacy of life on a Louisiana plantation from the perspective of an insider. Despite her lack of formal training, Hunter was able to depict with her paint brushes work in the cotton fields and pecan orchards, Monday wash days with a big open kettle boiling the clothes, the experience of Saturday Night at the honky tonk and the spiritual power of religion. Her paintings will forever document life on a southern plantation for future generations to know the hard work, happiness, and community of life.
A respected instrument builder, Lytle grew up in Jena, where he learned the names of all the area’s trees. This knowledge of wood led to his crafting toys and eventually musical instruments. After serving overseas in World War II, he attended Texas A&M, where he majored in industrial education, completed a master’s degree and pursued his doctorate. He returned to Louisiana and worked as a vocational counselor. His last position was with the vocational technical school for over 20 years in Monroe, where he retired. With the help of his late wife, Nancy, he began to build musical instruments.
As a child, Lytle built his first cigar box fiddle with strings from a screen door, and in 1970 he built his first violin by consulting Foxfire books. He learned more instrument-building techniques from Doc Savage of Monroe. His specialty is producing violins with exceptionally beautiful tones using a special “tap-toning” technique that he developed. He has completed more than 900 instruments, including guitars, Dobros, mandolins, banjos, violas, cellos and violins. His skills led to participation as a featured artist at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, where he demonstrated instrument building as a master craftsman, taught apprentices, and helped establish the Music Roots Program to which he has donated more than 400 instruments. He frequently participated in stage shows there, performing his own “Geriatric Blues” with his harmonica and wash tub bass.
Lytle continues his craft, having built 764 violins, most of which he has given to young musicians who could not afford to purchase them. He knows where every single one of his violins has ended up. He’s intent on passing down what he’s learned to a new generation of luthiers and has helped many build their own fiddles. Fiddles made Lytle were given away to two contestants of this year’s Louisiana State Fiddle Championship, also part of the Festival. Owen Meche of Alexandria was the beneficiary of a ¾ fiddle donated by Lytle. Cameron Fontenot of Eunice was also the recipient of a handmade Lytle fiddle, donated by Carl and Joyce Parker of Downsville. Rasmussen remarked that Lytle has helped revitalize fiddle playing throughout Louisiana. “We are indebted to his tireless efforts and kindness to so many. His fiddles are works of art.” 2018 Grand Fiddle Champion Clancey Stewart, who has known Hilton Lytle for several years, remarked that “Hil is one of the sweetest older men you will ever meet, and he has a huge heart for younger people. He brings new experiences into people’s lives.”
Louisiana-born Jim Oertling never landed that fish he battled in his epic 1963 swamp rocker “Old Moss Back,” but that rollicking single and a clutch of other classics landed him in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 1997. The Louisiana native spent his formative years in San Antonio, but immersed himself in swamp culture during long summer vacations at his grandfather’s house in Bayou Lacombe, where he conceived the idea for “Old Moss Back.” Oertling was a student at Louisiana State University in 1963 when he entered Cosimo Matassa’s famed New Orleans recording studio to cut his twangy fish tale and biggest song. It was during this time that he wrote and recorded the rockabilly classics “Old Mossback,” “Louisiana Gambler,” and “Back Forty Blues,” among others. After decades spent as “a bull rider, cattle ranch foreman, combat infantry officer, commercial banker, and always an outdoorsman,” Oertling was back on the music scene in 2013 with the release of “Mossback Revisited,” a mix of rockabilly, ballads, Tex-Mex, and more. Oertling’s performance at the 2015 Ponderosa Stomp marked his first major appearance since meandering into nonmusical pursuits. Oertling’s fans came from all over the world to hear him at the Rock ‘N’ Bowl. He still takes every opportunity he can to perform his songs in front of appreciative audiences.
Fontana was born on March 15, 1931 in Shreveport, and began his incredible career as a staff drummer on the Louisiana Hayride in 1953. It was while working on the Hayride in 1954 that Elvis Presley invited Fontana to sit in with his guitar and bass player, Scotty Moore and Bill Black. Elvis loved Fontana’s playing, invited him to go on the road with him, and the first Rock & Roll rhythm section in history, sometimes called The Blue Moon Boys, was formed.
Fontana, Elvis, and the Boys traveled all over the South playing for anyone who would pay them for a couple of years. They would all cram into a big Buick belonging to Scotty’s wife, tie Bill Black’s stand-up bass to the roof, and head to the next gig. After the group began recording hit records and Elvis exploded on to the national scene in the late 50’s, the group’s mode of transportation and the venues they played improved dramatically.
Fontana played behind Elvis on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show, the Milton Berle Show, the Steve Allen Show, the Frank Sinatra Show, Elvis’ 1968 Comeback TV Special and, most famously, the Ed Sullivan Show. Fontana was also a guest on the Conan O’Brien Show and the Elvis Tribute TV Show in 1994. Fontana played on approximately four hundred and sixteen RCA tracks with Elvis, which resulted in millions of record sales and countless #1, gold and platinum discs. Along the way, Fontana performed for and with such great artists as Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dolly Parton, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Porter Waggoner, Cheap Trick, Waylon Jennings and many others.
Fontana received many awards, including a Grammy nomination, the Nashville Music Award for Best Independent Album of the Year in 1998, placement on the Beale Street Walk of Fame in Memphis in 1999, and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
There are now 110 members in the Hall of Master Folk Artists, which was started in 1981. This year’s festival theme was “Celebrating Louisiana’s Folk Roots” which celebrated the many tradition bearers in Louisiana. The Festival is held annually in air-conditioned Prather Coliseum on the Northwestern State University campus. Next year’s Festival will be held on July 26-27, 2019. The 2019 theme “Vive la Louisiane!” will celebrate the many young people keeping tradition alive in Louisiana, and will include performers such as the Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band, Tab Benoit, the Cajun Tradition Band, the Rayo Brothers, Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue, Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys, Hardrick Rivers and the Rivers Revue Band, Ed Huey, a Cajun accordion workshop and the annual Louisiana State Fiddle Championship. For more information, call the Louisiana Folklife Center at (318) 357-4332, email firstname.lastname@example.org or online at louisianafolklife.nsula.edu.
Support for the Fiddle Championship and the Festival was provided by grants from the Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc., the Louisiana Division of the Arts Decentralized Arts Fund Program, the Louisiana Office of Tourism, the Natchitoches Historic District Development Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation, and the Shreveport Regional Arts Council.
Additional support also came from generous sponsorships from Acme Refrigeration of Baton Rouge, Dr. James Arceneaux, Bank of Montgomery, Louie Bernard, City Bank, the City of Natchitoches, Cleco, John Conine; Corkern, Crews, Johnson & Guillet; CP-Tel, Delta Car Wash, Dan and Desirée Dyess, Georgia’s Gift Shop, La Capitol FCU, the Harrington Law Firm, Billy Joe Harrington, Jeanne’s Country Garden, Maglieaux’s Riverfront Restaurant, the Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, Natchitoches Wood Preserving, Inc., NSU Men’s Basketball, Page Builders, LLC, Sabine State Bank, R.V. Byles Enterprises, UniFirst, Dr. Michael Vienne, David and Shirley Walker, Waste Connections and Young Estate LLC.