America's greatest Cajun singer, D.L. Menard, died this month from heart failure that was probably caused by cancer. Twenty-five years ago, he suffered his first heart attack and 16 years ago, his wife died of a heart attack associated with her diabetes.
Menard was widely known as the "Cajun Hank Williams," and one folklorist said that his most famous song, "La Porte d'en Arriere" (The Back Door) should be recognized as "the Cajun national anthem." It's a song about a man who gets so drunk one night that he has to sneak home through the back door. Menard sang it from his wheelchair on the 55th anniversary of its release, just a few weeks before his death. He specifically requested that he did not want "La Porte d'en Arriere" sung at his funeral. He said that he was "planning to go into heaven happily through the pearly gates and not sneaking in through the back door."
Doris Leon Menard was born in 1932 in rural southern Louisiana, where the Acadians ("Cajuns") settled after being expelled from French Canada by the British more than 250 years ago. His father was a poor farmer who played the harmonica. D.L. said that he learned to sing by listening with his family to a battery-powered radio where he heard country songs by Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Ernest Tubb from a Texas radio station. When the radio batteries died, they had to wait for the next cotton crop harvest to be able to buy new batteries.
The Cajuns in Louisiana clung to their French language which gradually evolved into a distinctive Cajun dialect that was mostly French, but all the songs on the radio were sung in English. Later when he was famous, Menard told reporters that he wasn't allowed to speak Cajun French in school because the authorities were trying to Americanize the Cajun children. He said, "Sometimes you were paddled or whipped if you spoke French in school." When he was 16, he heard his first live Cajun music, fell in love with it, and learned to play the guitar. Within months, he was playing nights with a local dance band, but times were tough and he had to work at menial jobs during the day.
In 1951, he met his idol, Hank Williams, who gave him song-writing advice and told him to stick to his Cajun roots. In 1952, he married Lou Ella Abshire and over their 49 years of marriage they had seven children, 17 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren. In the early years he could not earn enough money from his music to support his family, so he kept a regular day job at a gas station.
The Back Door
In 1961, at age 29, between pumping gas and fixing flat tires, he wrote arguably the most famous Cajun song ever, "La Porte d'en Arriere" (The Back Door). He said that he based it on Hank Williams's "Honky Tonk Blues" and wrote it in an hour. He sang the song in the Cajun French dialect, but he had to write the words in English because the schools had forbidden the Cajun children to learn how to write in their own language.
He had to come up with a very dear $175 to pay for his recording session of the song. The fee included 300 records of the song that he could sell to people who came to listen to him play. "La Porte d'en Arriere" came out on a Wednesday, and by Saturday he had his $175 back with extra money to split among the guys in the band. That night at the podium of the Jolly Roger club, he had to play the song seven times during the same performance. The song got him and his band a lot of bookings, and eventually fans bought more than a million copies of "The Back Door."
From Gas Pumps to Rocking Chairs
For the next ten years he and his band played throughout southern Louisiana, and in 1973, they began touring outside his home state. He went on to perform in State Department tours that went to more than 40 countries in South America, the Middle East and Asia, and his Cajun music recordings sold all over the world. He became so busy with his music that he had to give up working in a gas station because it required that he work fixed hours each day.
He had learned to make rocking chairs from the local ash lumber and sold them from a store next to his house. His ever-supportive wife wove the chair seats and backs. Even after he became a famous Cajun musician, he continued to support his family at least in part by making and selling his chairs. In the 1990s, at age 60, his one-man, next-to-his-house workshop burned to the ground. At that point he was earning enough just by giving concerts and selling records, but he rebuilt the chair shop anyway and continued making his chairs. He told reporters, "It was about half my living, and I like turning ash wood from the Louisiana swamps and forests into rockers and kitchen chairs." He said that his chairs were special, well-sanded and his own creation. He also said that he could create new songs by humming to himself while he worked on his chairs.
• In 1993, his album "Le Trio Cadien" was nominated for a Grammy Award.
• In 1994, he received the National Heritage Fellowship award.
• In 2009 he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Cajun Hall of Fame.
• In 2010, his "Happy Go Lucky," album was nominated for a Grammy Award.
His song "La Porte d'en Arriere" has been covered by virtually every Cajun and Zydeco band and many other artists, and has been called the "most played and recorded Cajun song ever."
Cause of Death
Menard had his first heart attack in 1992. That means that a part of his heart was deprived of oxygen, died, and was replaced by scar tissue that does not pump blood. He probably had additional episodes and health problems over the next 24 years that caused further damage. The heart eventually becomes too weak to pump blood or starts to beat irregularly.
Most heart attacks and many cancers appear to be environmental diseases brought on by what you do and what you eat. It is common for a wife to suffer a heart attack several years after her husband does because she often eats the same foods and does the same things that he does. A wife may be protected temporarily by her estrogen from some of the factors that cause heart attacks. In this case, Menard's lovely wife Lou Ella developed diabetes, suffered a heart attack and died in 2001.
I could find no public records of what type of cancer he had. However, as cancers spread through the body, they are so debilitating that people lie in bed much of the time and do not move. The longer a person is inactive or lies in bed, the weaker his heart becomes until eventually it becomes too weak to pump blood to the brain and the person stops breathing and dies. When Menard did get out of bed, he had to use a wheel chair for several years before his death. He continued to perform from his wheelchair and gave his last concert on July 2, 2017, just a few weeks before his death.
The Back Door (lyrics)
Moi et ma belle on avait été au bal
…Me and my girl went to the dance
On a passé dans tout les honky tonks
…We went to every single bar
S'en a revenu lendemain matin
…Came back next morning
Le jour était apres s'casser
…Daylight about to break
J'ai passé dedans la porte d'en arrière.
… I entered through the back door
L'apres midi mois j'étais au village
…That afternoon I was in the village
Et j'm'ai saoulé que j'pouvais plus marcher
…I got so drunk that I couldn't walk anymore
Ils m'ont ramené à la maison
…They brought me back to my house
Il y avait de la compagnie, c'était du monde étranger
…We had company, they were strange people
J'ai passé dedans la porte d'en arrière.
… I entered through the back door
Mon vieux père un soir quand j'arrivais
…My old father one night when I arrived
Il a essayé dechanger mon idée
…tried to persuade me
J'ai pas écouté, moi j'avais trop la tête dur
…I didn't listen, I was too stubborn
"Un jour à venir, mon neg', tu va avoir du regret
…"One of these days, you will be sorry
T'as passé dedans la porte d'en arrière."
…to have entered through the back door."
J'ai eu un tas d'amis quand j'avais de l'argent
…I had a lot of friends when I had money
Asteur j'ai plus d'argent, mais ils voulont plus me voir
…Now that I have no money, they no longer want to see me
J'etais dans le village, et moi j'mai mis dans tracas
…I was in the village, and I got myself into trouble
La loi m'a ramassé, moi j'suis parti dans la prison,
…The law picked me up and I went to prison
On va passé dedans la porte d'en arrière.
…We will enter through the back door
April 14, 1932 – July 27, 2017