The blues, like Lloyd “Teddy” Johnson, was born in the modest front rooms of rural shacks and shotguns where Black folks gave life to and nurtured a sound that was part music, part heart and part experience.
While COVID-19 has dealt a near-fatal blow to rural blues tradition, supporters and collaborators hope a three-day festival will serve as a shot in the arm to what ails legendary venue Teddy's Juke Joint in Zachary.
Organizer Dixie Taylor expects 25 bands and solo artists to take the stage from Friday to Sunday for Teddy Fest: Save Teddy’s Juke Joint. It's a musical benefit and a way for generations of gig musicians to say thank you.
“We're kind of a different breed and not everybody’s going to get that, but Teddy and Nancy do,” Taylor said. “This is a musician-friendly venue. They care for the individual, so it becomes a place of healing.”
Johnson and wife Nancy hold together one of the last remaining juke joints in the South that formed the legendary Swamp Blues Trail. In the 1950s, when Johnson was a young boy, Baton Rouge became the melting pot for Louisiana-centric tunes. Swamp blues took blues tempo and mixed in Cajun, zydeco and home brews.
In 1979, Johnson converted the home where he was born into a bar and grill with a stage for live music. While just a spot on the road leading to town, Teddy’s Juke Joint gained international fame as the birthplace of careers and one of the few places left in the country where one could be immersed in the authentic swamp blues experience.
Four decades of music tradition hit a wall when the pandemic “upset” Johnson and his juke joint.
“It broke me, and I had to shut down for eight to 12 months,” he said. “The pandemic reduced us to just bare bones, but I still had to be here every day to keep people from breaking in and stealing everything. I would just sit out there on the front porch; a few people might come by that I knew and they had nothing to do, so we sit outside, talk and play checkers and stuff like that.”
Johnson said he is still in business because he owns the venue.
“If I didn't own the building, I would have been gone,” he said. “It is trying to pick up, but it hasn't picked up yet, and what people don't realize is that the prices of everything over the last past years has gone up and I haven't been able to get no kind of help from the government — no kind of way. I’m still having a dilemma from the pandemic because I don't know which way things are going.”
Johnson didn’t see a way out, but credits friends and associates who answered the call from Taylor, who has run the acoustical open mic gathering on Wednesday nights at the club.
“Dixie has done everything to set all this up,” he said. “She got all the bands set up and I had nothing to do with booking none of those; she did the whole thing.”
Taylor appreciates the thanks, but tells another story of the music and production community jumping at the chance to show love and support to the Johnsons and Teddy’s Juke Joint.
“Let me clarify something: All I did was call the people and ask them,” Taylor said. “Over and over again, what I heard was ‘Yeah, what can I do to help? Teddy and Nancy have been so good to me, Teddy and Nancy have done this.’ Teddy and Nancy have given so much for so long to so many people, that all I did was open the door and say, 'Can you help?'”
Writer and musician Alex Cook answered the call and he and his band, The Rakers, will perform Friday night.
“We've been together for nine years now and we did our album release for our first record, 'Regina,' there," he recalled. “Teddy and his wife Nancy treated us like rock stars.”
Cook said his earliest memory of Teddy's was going there in the mid-2000s to write a magazine story.
“It was Teddy's birthday party and I was holding a plate with some turkey necks and greens and was ordering a Crown and Coke setup — they bring you a pint bottle, can of Coke, bowl of ice and a couple glasses,” he recalled. “Teddy waltzed up in a red suit, red cowboy hat and a red cape. You can't dream up scenes like this.”
The performances, sound systems and film production for Teddy Fest will all be donated, said Taylor, who's also a musician and will take the stage about 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Bands will perform from 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. to midnight Sunday. Entry is $20 each day, and food and drinks will be sold.