Zydeco Blues

Are these the final days of the Continental, zydeco's original Houston home?

As for McClendon, "I miss the way it used to be," she sighs. She misses old-time zydeco itself, when a band would "have three pieces: a drum, a washboard and an accordion." Now bands have at least five pieces, and the top ones eight and ten. McClendon's nostalgia contains a measure of hardheaded practicality, of course. A three-piece band wouldn't need as much money.

"Zydeco got too big," she says, "too changed." Sometimes they have bands "who don't stay on the zydeco side," and she has to tell them to stop playing accordion blues. "I tell people this is a zydeco house. People came here to dance," she says, and for her dancing means doing that hopped-up, highly syncopated Louisiana shuffle.

McClendon continues, as if trying to win her own argument against changing times. "Zydeco is happy music," she says. "It doesn't give you time to think. The blues slows you down."

Age slows you down too, and for a long time the audience at the Continental has been getting older and older. The generation that moved from Louisiana to the Fifth Ward's Frenchtown in the '40s to work in the petrochemical plants, and that brought its culture with it, were the core of the Continental's crowd. Now, they're of an age when they don't dance much. Either that, or they've passed.

While there's unquestionably a new generation of zydeco players that's emerged in Houston, and a new generation of zydeco followers, the Continental hasn't been able to take much advantage of that. Cost of the bands is an issue, of course, but it may also be that the very thing that draws an adult crowd to the Continental -- the clearly country roots of the zydeco it presents -- is the same thing that keeps the younger zydeco crowd away.

A few days later, Doris McClendon is still feeling a little gloomy, though she's not giving up hope. She seems stronger than she did just a few months ago, right after Ray's death. After all, she says, another generation has pitched in. Her two daughters, both in their 30s, help her work in the club and are even willing to spend their own money to help keep the Continental open. But that's out of respect for family. "They don't care nothing about zydeco."

Too, McClendon has begun to wonder if her woes might be, in part, a seasonal thing. For reasons she can't explain -- zydeco is summer music, she insists, since "zydeco is for sweating. In Louisiana, the more folks sweat the better they like it" -- business at the Continental has often been better around January. To keep the lounge open until that time, some zydeco luminaries have banded together to hold a few fundraisers, one of which was held in mid-August, with another scheduled for September 10. Mary Thomas, sister of Clifton Chenier and co-host of a KPFT/90.1 FM zydeco and blues program, is just one who's been involved. When asked about McClendon's financial problems, and her talk about maybe closing the Continental, Thomas says simply, "We're not going to let her do that."

McClendon figures that with her daughters' help, and if the fundraisers garner an unspecified, but not impossibly high, amount of money ("You tell people I need too much," she laughs, "they'll think I'm pitiful."), she'll be okay. As she walks toward the Continental's door, backlit by the summer sun, the old, red jalapeno Christmas lights shine overhead. Whether they'll still be shining when the season's right for them, though, is hard to say.

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