Why Bon Temps Rouler?
Have you noticed? There is a fleet of new RTA buses around town. Look at their upper right side corner – there in full glory, written in bold script is a phrase which has been flummoxing me for years: “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”
That statement, which translates into “Let the good times roll” is one of those expressions that people who do not know better claim that New Orleanians say, but they really don’t. I have been living in New Orleans all my life and not once, never, have I heard it used as an honest conversational line. There have been many times when it has been spoken as a parody of what we are supposed to say, but that’s not real, that’s cartoonery. There have been several movies where the expression was spoken. In one, a family that had just overcome a cinematic adventure reaches the final scene over dinner where the conversation assures of “bons temps” ahead.
Nevertheless, now that the phrase has been sanctified by city buses, and now that global travelers will see us as people who rouler about bon temps, some investigation is needed.
Who, what, where did the phrase come from?
I began by contacting Warren Perrin who is so devoted to Louisiana French culture that he once sued the British government for deporting the Acadians from Novia Scotia. (No settlement but at least the British acknowledged that it happened.) He was also a founder of CODOFIL, the organization trying to save the French language in Louisiana. Perrin contacted some of the best minds on the subject including music historian Shane Bernard, French linguist David Cheramie, and Canadian-based historian/educator Jean Frigault.
To my gratitude, all responded and the verdict pointed in one direction—Louis Jordan. In 1946 Jordan and his band “The Tymphany Five” recorded a song written by New Orleans-born blues singer and songwriter Sam Theard, and co-credited to Jordan’s then wife, Fleecie Moore. Playing in a style called jump-blues, which Jordan pioneered, the lyrics were a celebration:
Hey everybody, let’s have some fun
You only live but once, and when you’re dead you’re done
So let the good times roll, let the good times roll
Don’t care if you’re young or old, get together let the good times roll
By 1947 the song was number two nationally on the Billboard R&B chart. The Blues Foundation would label it a “Classic of Blues Recording.”
Frigault pointed out that in the post war years of the late 40s and 50s English songs were sometime translated into French. Hence the Franco title. Cheramie added, “I would think the post-war years of the returning French-speaking Louisiana soldiers were a time for them to blow off steam as they say.”
Shane Bernard said, “While I’m skeptical of this being an ‘authentic’ Cajun expression, it’s certainly become a touristy cliché, the phrase can also be found in English.”
Perrin added that Clarence Garlow, a native of Welsh, Louisiana, released, in 1949, a zydeco infused song called “Bon Ton Roula.” The lyrics were different from Jordan’s version, but the spirit was the same – Louisiana celebrations adapted to French. Garlow’s version developed traction nationally and climbed to number seven on the Billboard Chart. The song would define Garlow who would adopt the nickname “Bon Ton.”
Through the years there would be several other versions of the song by different artists and with modified spellings, but it all traces back to Louis Jordan, who was born in Arkansas, lived most of his life in California, but seemed like he belonged to, and was no doubt influenced by, New Orleans. Jordan was a big star. In his prime he was one of the nation’s top-selling Black musicians and always had a strong cross-over appeal to white audiences.
Here’s what I think happened – by 1946 with the war recently ended, folks were looking for celebration, especially after nearly five years of suppression. Young men were coming back from overseas and they were ready to reclaim lost youth. Many local soldiers had been sent to France and then came back to a culture where French was already a secondary language, often associated with good times. It was natural to blend the joy with the language, to let the good times roll.
As Cheramie concedes about the statement. “I think it does nonetheless capture the essence of our famous ‘Joie de vivre’, which is an authentic expression.”
At first, I frowned at the message on the RTA buses, but now, after further review, I like it. There is a link: two blessing that should be kept rolling – good times and city buses.