Question of the Month
Q: I picked up an old record by Johnny Rebel. It is an extremely racist record. Can you give me some background on the artist?
-- Margaret Hightower, Dayton, Ohio
A: In the 1950s, C.J. Trahan (a.k.a. Johnny Rebel), was a young Cajun with a guitar. Now, in the world of hatecore and white power music, he's a living legend.
C.J. Trahan says there's nothing to his story. He just recorded some songs, made some money and went on to other things. Seeing him on the street in Crowley, 65-year-old Trahan doesn't appear out of the ordinary: short, balding, dressed in jeans and a short-sleeve, button-down shirt. He launched his career in music like many others do: starting as a young Cajun man with a guitar, singing covers of tunes such as Rocket Morgan's "Tag Along." After a less-than-successful trip to Nashville, he returned home to Louisiana.
Then, in the late 1960s, Trahan began to record and release music for the late Jay "J.D." Miller's Reb Rebel Records in Crowley. Trahan was now going by a new name: Johnny Rebel. His first songs were "Lookin' For a Handout" and "Kajun Klu [sic] Klux Klan." He followed with more singles, among them "Nigger, Nigger," "Some Niggers Never Die (They Just Smell That Way)," and "In Coontown." He set his lyrics to the twangs of the era's swampbilly craze, backed by a studio band.
Some of his songs became local jukebox favorites, but they didn't receive radio play. After releasing 12 sides, Johnny Rebel's career went on hold. Trahan continued to play country music under a name he'd rather not divulge. He wrote dozens of songs for other musicians, and is credited as a writer on Jimmy C. Newman's hit "Lache Pas la Patate" and as a co-writer on Johnnie Allan's "South to Louisiana." In 1985, he retired from the music business. For years, he showed up to play at occasional benefits, and that's all.
But Johnny Rebel's career is far from over. His legacy has been discussed in books ranging from John Broven's South to Louisiana to Shane K. Bernard's recent The Cajuns: The Americanization of a People. His work as Rebel has earned him the offer of an honorary membership in the Ku Klux Klan, an interview by Howard Stern, and the status as a cult figure among white power supporters. Fans around the world now consider Johnny Rebel a forefather of "hatecore" music. To them, Johnny Rebel is the stuff of legends.
Trahan says he doesn't regret anything he has ever said or sang. He keeps his anonymity, he says, to protect his business and his family. He refuses to be photographed or perform in public as Johnny Rebel, and he's never given an interview about Johnny Rebel as C.J. Trahan -- until now.
Trahan was born in Moss Bluff (La.) in 1938. After his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Crowley (La.). There, he could be found either on the baseball diamond or with his ears cupped to a radio, listening to singers such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
When he was about 12 years old, his mother -- who he recalls making about $14 a week -- went to a jewelry store and bought a guitar for $17. It wasn't much, but C.J. picked up a few chords. He was a little older before he could afford a Gretsch guitar. "I was hitting high cotton with that," says Trahan, laughing about the orange axe decked out with gold-plated keys. About the same time, his mother purchased their first television set. That television and the Grand Ole Opry became his only guitar teachers.
Trahan graduated high school in 1956 and started hanging around Miller's studio. At the time, some of the biggest names in blues, rhythm and blues, Cajun and rockabilly were laying down tracks for Miller and going on to bigger stardom, thanks to a deal Miller had with Excello Records. Talents such as Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown and Carol Fran all logged studio time at Miller's place. Drumming ace Warren Storm's "Prisoner's Song" sold a quarter of a million copies. Miller's biggest hit was the country weeper "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," recorded by Kitty Wells.
Through their mothers, Trahan and Miller were kin, but had never really crossed paths until Miller heard a young Trahan singing and playing atop a float. During the next few years, Miller groomed the boy and helped him with his music and songwriting. "I wrote songs, but they were rough," Trahan says. "[They] didn't have an idea to them, just didn't have that 'umph' to them."
Miller had Trahan cut a few country tracks under the name Tommy Todd, but they never went anywhere. But Miller was able to pique the interest of a new record company called Todd Records, and soon Trahan was heading for Nashville. "I took a train to Nashville," Trahan recalls. "[I was a] little, shy coonass in the middle of Nashville, Tennessee, carrying a guitar around. You know I felt about like this." He squeezes the air between his thumb and index finger.
Trahan recalls that he cut four sides for Todd Records and started palling around with Murray Nash, who wrote songs for George Morgan -- the father of country artist Lori Morgan. Nash was helping him around Nashville and showing him the ropes, when he invited him to his house for dinner. On the menu was steak. "I had never ate a steak in my life; I didn't know how to eat the son of a bitch, so what I done? I sat there and said, 'Oh, I am just not hungry.' I was starving."
Trahan recalls that he and Nash would go out and hear artists such as Jimmy C. Newman. Trahan says he also got to meet musician and film star Ferlin Husky. But from the beginning, Todd Records barely limped along. It died in 1964 -- and with it, Trahan's chances in Nashville were through. He married and got a job in Mississippi as a shipyard inspector.
He also returned home to check out the happenings at Miller's studio, where things were changing a bit. It was the mid-1960s, and his old mentor had begun experimenting with a new genre: segregationist music.
No historic clashes of the civil rights era occurred in southwest Louisiana, but tensions simmered just the same. In the mid-1950s, South Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) had integrated several black students without major incident. Efforts to integrate children in the area's elementary and high schools met with greater resistance. When the first day of school for the 1969-70 school year rolled around, St. Landry Parish parents protested by keeping more than 8,300 kids -- one-third of the school population -- out of school.
In Lafayette, the federal courthouse refused to lower its flag the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. To avoid violence between blacks and whites, the courthouse removed the flag completely. Later that year, segregationist George Wallace ran for president and received 50 percent of the Cajun vote, compared to 13 percent nationally.
In Crowley, Miller's studio had given birth to Reb Rebel Records with a bang. It was 1966, and Reb Rebel's first release, Happy Fats' "Dear Mr. President," reportedly sold more than 200,000 copies. The song mocked President Lyndon B. Johnson's civil rights programs, with Happy Fats complaining that his white coon dog won't hunt with his black bird dog, and finally asking, "Could I get an injunction to make them hunt together?" Happy Fats -- actually Leroy Leblanc of The Rayne-Bo Ramblers -- went on to cut a series of songs about civil rights, the Great Society and Vietnam. His lyrics stopped short of promoting violence against blacks.
Reb Rebel's second release was its biggest: an Amos'n'Andy-styled skit by Joe Norris, under the name "The Son of Mississippi." Titled "Flight NAACP 105," it also reportedly sold more than 200,000 copies.
When Trahan returned to the studio, Miller asked him to join him on his new venture. "I said, 'I don't know; I'll take it home and throw it around.' I did and then we got into recording it," says Trahan. "Never was it ever in my idea that I was going to write these types of songs, and I was just writing them off the feeling of the time.
"It wasn't like, 'I'm gonna jump up today and write about blacks.' In them days, that just seemed like the natural thing to do. Well, hell, we did it! I did it ... he didn't entice me in any way, and he didn't try to influence me in any way. All the songs I wrote were my complete ideas. My ideas, when I got them done, I brought them to him, and he said, 'Let's put them down."
Miller came up with the name Johnny Rebel in the studio. Later, Miller would tell writer John Broven that some of the African-American musicians that hung around his studio sat in on the Reb Rebel sessions, but Trahan says that his bands were all white. Johnny Rebel's first release was a 45 rpm with "Lookin' For a Handout" on the A-side and "Kajun Klu Klux Klan" on the other. Trahan followed with five more 45s, each with a B-side, bringing the complete Johnny Rebel catalog to 12 songs. His subjects: the laziness of blacks. How blacks and whites were meant to be kept separate. How a black would lose a spelling bee to a donkey.
Only two Johnny Rebel songs, "Keep a' Working Big Jim" and "Federal Aid (The Money Belongs to Us)," were not about race. The first was a tribute to New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's efforts to solve the Kennedy assassination. The other was critical of foreign aid.
Along with the 45s, Reb Rebel included four Johnny Rebel songs on a full-length compilation album titled For Segregationists Only. According to the album notes, the songs "express the feeling, anxiety, confusion and problems of many of our people during the political transformation of our way of life." If you had a taste for "subtle, rib-tickling satire," these songs were for you.
Accounts differ on how many people heard these songs. It's likely that most African Americans didn't hear them at all. When Je'Nelle Chargois, the current president of the Lafayette chapter of the NAACP, was growing up in Lafayette, she never heard Johnny Rebel's music. But she says she knows where it came from. "[It] is an example of a type of racism that is embedded in this community, and it is something that has to be dealt with," Chargois says.
Radio stations in southwest Louisiana didn't play Johnny Rebel's music, according to Floyd Soileau, a former disc jockey, record producer and owner of Ville Platte's Flat Town Music Co. "I don't think people wanted them that much, but I understand that in other states they sold pretty well," Soileau says. "I remember Miller telling me at one time that a lot of their sales came from certain juke joints that had them on the jukebox. The guy who owned the place would maybe carry a few copies to resell, because of the demand and that they couldn't find them just anywhere. They were sort of an underground trade."
For his part, Trahan says that he did it for the money. "They asked me to do it, hell, I did it," he says. "I would do anything to make a buck. Hell, I made a few bucks off of it."
Miller thought along the same lines, Trahan says. "In my opinion it was to make money. I don't know if he had a statement to make then, but at that time he was recording a lot of blacks. Most of his artists were blacks. I was big buddies with these guys. Lightning Slim, I even used his car one time to go on a date! That's how much blacks bothered me. As far as being friends, eating dinner with a guy, as long as he don't have a runny nose or something, I'll eat with him."
Trahan insists he didn't set out to spread hate or start trouble. "I don't care about black. Black don't rub off. There's not a black in this country that has to be black. There's not a white that has to be white. They just came here like that. They were born that way, but they didn't develop the damn attitude. Whites didn't develop that attitude. Blacks develop an attitude towards the whites, and they won't let it go. They won't let go of what happened.
"Why should we pay reparations for things that happened 200 years ago?" says Trahan. "I was run out of my country ... my ancestors were run out of Nova Scotia."
As Johnny Rebel, Trahan says, he was just singing what was on the minds of everyone he knew. "At that time, there was a lot of resentment -- whites toward blacks and blacks toward whites. So, everybody had their own feelings. Lots of people changed their feelings over the years. I basically changed my feelings over the years up to a point.
"Some Johnny Rebel songs, including "Kajun Klu Klux Klan" and "Nigger Hatin' Me," commend or suggest violence. Others are less direct. But that doesn't mean they aren't considered as dangerous.
"I think it obviously raises the temperature," says Mark Potok, a hate music expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "Typically, it causes a reaction. Sometimes a reaction is as ugly as the action. It seems to me, obviously, that the danger is that at some point it breaks out into violence.
"I shouldn't say that is the only danger ... words hurt. These are not pleasant things to be saying about people, and one has to remember it's not only the people who he saw as his enemies who hear these words but 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-year-old kids who are being kind of bombarded with personal hatred. I think that kind of stuff stays with people."
Potok says the most effective tool to recruit teens to white power groups is the appeal of members of the opposite sex. After that, he says, it's music. "I have heard from so many people who have come out and said that the music really did have an effect on them," he says. "A typical 17-year-old doesn't know why he is so unhappy with the world but is looking for something."
In the years since the Johnny Rebel sessions, his message has proliferated to groups throughout the world. "Since the 1960s, when racist country singer Johnny Rebel recorded songs such as "N-- Hatin' Me," more than 500 hate rock bands have formed worldwide," reports the Anti-Defamation League in its report Bigots Who Rock: An ADL List of Hate Music Groups. Most of these groups formed after the British band Skrewdriver turned to delivering hate-filled messages in 1982. In the United States, bands go by inconspicuous names like Red, White & Blue or venomous monikers like Jew Slaughter. An annual white power music festival usually takes place in Bremen, Ga. -- it was moved to an undisclosed location in the Jacksonville, Fla., area this year, the ADL reports.
Trahan says he never performed as Rebel -- except once. He was in the town of Kaplan, playing country music, when someone in the crowd requested a Rebel song. He looked out to make sure there weren't any blacks in the audience. Then he obliged.
In time, Trahan says, he largely forgot about Johnny Rebel and his 12 songs. J.D. Miller died in 1996, but his sons, Mark and Mike Miller, have taken up his operations. In the 1980s, the Crowley studio gained fame as the site where Paul Simon recorded a track for his album Graceland. Otherwise, things generally have quieted down.
Then, sometime around early 2001, a Johnny Rebel fan named Brad Herman noticed the studio address printed on the back of his old For Segregationists Only album, and he set out on a pilgrimage. At the studio, Trahan says, Herman bought the old 45s for a modest price. (Herman could not be located for this story. Mark and Mike Miller declined comment and asked this reporter to leave their Modern Music Center store in Crowley.) On the Internet, the Rebel 45s were selling for upwards of $60. The studio even offered to put Herman in touch with Johnny Rebel himself for a few autographs, Trahan says.
Trahan learned from Herman that Johnny Rebel's career was still alive, thanks to bootlegging and the Internet. "I can't believe it! If I was getting money off of it, it probably wouldn't be bad," Trahan says. "It knocks me out to know some of this stuff. Why is it so popular? And it's popular in Europe and all over the place."
Trahan hired Herman as his manager, and they devised a plan to cut into the viable Johnny Rebel market. They released a CD of the old sides, splitting up the tracks with excerpts from an interview with Johnny Rebel himself. Herman began selling the CD on an official Web site complete with Rebel's bio, song lyrics and complete discography. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Trahan recorded and released a new song titled "Infidel Anthem," describing the whipping America should lay on Osama bin Laden. Herman booked Trahan on the Howard Stern Show. Trahan promoted the new song and played a few of the old tracks from the compilation album.
Trahan says that Stern and Herman also talked him into cutting a new, expletive-laden version of "Infidel Anthem." Trahan says he regrets both the new version's vulgarity and a backing track that was added to the original song.
After the Stern interview, Trahan says, Herman could barely keep up with orders coming in for Johnny Rebel's music. Trahan has since broken ties with Herman, stating that he has been unable to reach him in five months and that Herman owes him money. He is now in league with Johnny Ells, a Greensburg, Penn.-based disc jockey who features his music and interviews on his online radio show. Ells has posted a new Web site to market Johnny Rebel. The site also features Ku Klux Klan insignia and art, despite the fact that Trahan, a Catholic, disapproves of the Klan.
Among the sites now selling bootlegged Johnny Rebel music is whitepowerrecords.com, which lists a CD titled Klassic Klan Kompositions. The site is a branch of Condor Legion Ordnance (CLO), a corporation avowedly dedicated to the survival of the white race. Victor Gephard, a lawyer who runs the CLO site, says that he has the right to sell the records because no one is clear who owns the copyrights to the material. He also says he doubts whether or not Trahan is the real Johnny Rebel, stating that some songs sound different vocally from others. "If he is really Johnny Rebel, he got a raw deal," Gephard says, adding that if managed and properly represented by attorneys, the real Johnny Rebel should be worth millions.
Gephard says that when Herman contacted him via email and ordered him to stop selling Klassic Klan Kompositions, Gephard laughed it off. They disputed the copyrights and the album remains listed on the site. Bootlegging is especially common among white power groups, Gephard says, adding that it is nearly impossible to buy an album by Skrewdriver that is not bootlegged.
Gephard says he got into the Johnny Rebel game while he was working for Resistance Records, a Web site that sells white power music and other merchandise. Gephard had purchased about 20 of the CDs for $7 apiece and began selling them on eBay for $20 each. Realizing the profit he could make, he bought scores more. The next day eBay banned him and the sale of the discs. Gephard tried to re-enter them as "horrible" music, but the site's administrators quickly caught on and banned him again. To move the discs, he set up his own shop and began offering the CDs. He says that he has moved most of the 200 to 300 discs he bought. The real mover of the recordings, he says, is Resistance Records.
Resistance is the largest distributor of white power music. National Alliance leader William Pierce (deceased) -- the author of the underground hate classic The Turner Diaries -- purchased the company in 1999 and has built up to an estimated annual sales of $1 million, says ADL. The Resistance Web site lists Johnny Rebel's Klassic Klan Kompositions as its no. 2 seller, right after the top-selling video game Ethnic Cleansing.
Resistance adamantly claims that it owns the rights to everything that it sells. When asked about Rebel, Resistance spokesperson David Pringle initially said he was perplexed by Trahan's claim to be the singer. He promised to obtain the official source of the record rights. After a week had passed without hearing from Pringle, a phone call to his office revealed that Resistance is now offering "no comment" on the issue.
Meanwhile, Gephard says that the research he conducted on the material while employed at Resistance indicates that the company received the copyright for the CDs from Johnny Rebel's widow. The rumor doesn't surprise Trahan. He's heard many times over that he is a dead man. He also says that whenever someone releases a song about segregation or blacks, his name is instantly associated with it.
"Look, there's been rumors circulating for years that I got shot in a goddamn war with the FBI," Trahan says. "So much of this crap goes around, you know. It's a bunch of lies out there, then there's some truth. I don't even know."
Among the lies that Trahan cites are rumors that he's still making music. But Ells' Web site has been promoting the release of a new Johnny Rebel CD. Titled It's the Attitude, Stupid!, the CD includes new songs such as "Send Them All Back to Africa."
Apparently, for both C.J. Trahan and Johnny Rebel, the last song has yet to be sung.
Dec. 2006 answer by Nick Pittman
Originally appeared in Gambit Weekly
© 2003, Gambit Communications, Inc. Used by Permission
Click on the Johnny Rebel icon to listen to a sampling of his "music."
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