Johnny Rebel Speaks
The true-to-life story of how a South Louisiana man with a guitar and a belief became a forefather of white power music. Editor's Note: This article contains language that some readers may find objectionable. Readers are advised to use caution.
If you saw him on the street, C.J. Trahan probably wouldn't strike you as anyone other than your average South Louisiana native. And he probably would be ... if not for the fact that about 30 years ago he recorded what remains some of the most controversial music to ever hit wax.
In the late '60s, Trahan began to record and release music for Jay "J.D." Miller's Rebel Records in Crowley. At that time he was known only as Johnny Rebel. The name was just another handle used by Trahan, who had traveled, recorded and performed under a few previous monikers. He would soon follow up the release of "Lookin' For a Handout" and "Kajun Klu (sic) Klux Klan" with five more singles, each with one song on each side. Some of his other tracks went by the names of "Nigger, Nigger" and "In Coontown." The music, if you hadn't guessed, was vehemently anti-black, its pro-segregationist lyrics set to the twangs of the era's swampbilly craze.
Besides his stint as Johnny Rebel, Trahan has also enjoyed a lengthy musical career, gigging as a well-known country act in these parts for many years under a name he will not divulge. He retired from the music business in 1985 but occasionally plays a few songs at benefits under this name. He has also written hit songs that were later recorded by Warren Storm, Jimmy C. Newman and even Sammy Kershaw. In the following years, he would be lauded by and offered an honorary membership in the Ku Klux Klan, interviewed by Howard Stern, bootlegged and downloaded by many and hated by even more. He would also build a strong cult following, among both White Power supporters and people who think his music is humorous.
For years, Trahan masked his true identity with the facade that was Johnny Rebel. He says he doesn't regret anything he has ever said, sang or slurred, but chooses to keep his anonymity to protect his business and his family. Never has he willingly been photographed as Johnny Rebel, never did he perform in public as Rebel and never, even though he has been revealed against his will in a handful of resources, has he ever given an interview about Johnny Rebel as C.J. Trahan ... until now.
In April of this year, The Cajuns: The Americanization of a People by Shane K. Bernard will hit local bookshelves. In its pages, Bernard follows the Cajun people in post-World War II America and through the struggles of the last 60 years. In the chapter dealing with the civil rights movement, Trahan will be unmasked again, without his prior consent or knowledge. The book discusses his role in Acadiana in some of this young nation's most turbulent times. It tells of his music in times of civil unrest, felt even here in sleepy South Louisiana, but it does not tell of how a young Cajun man with a guitar went from singing safe songs like "Tag Along" to being the poster boy of White Power music for years to come.
From Boy to Man to Rebel
As far back as he can remember, music has always been a big part of Trahan's life. When he was a little boy, he could be found either on the baseball diamond or with his ears cupped to a blaring radio. Oddly enough, the man who would later croon about his distaste for African-Americans grew up listening to singers like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
When he was about 12 or 13, his mother, who made about $14 a week, paid $17 for a guitar at a jewelry store in Crowley. It wasn't much, but it allowed him to pick up a few chords. When he was a little older, he managed to afford a Gretsch guitar.
"I was hitting high cotton with that," says Trahan, laughing about the orange axe decked out with gold-plated keys. His playing would expand vastly with the Gretsch - not because it was a superior product, but because along that same time frame he and his mother purchased their first television set. The television and the Grand Ole Opry became his first and only guitar instructors. Trahan watched as Ernest Tubb strummed away on his guitar and mimicked his fingering, deciphering more and more chords.
When he graduated high school in 1956, he hung around Crowley playing here and there and hanging out at Miller's studio. Somehow, through their mothers, he and Miller - a South Louisiana hit machine - were kin, but had never really crossed paths until Miller heard Trahan singing and playing atop a float when he was 12 or 13. On the float, Trahan was struggling to get on key with his guitar, and the elder Miller could tell. During the next few years, Miller groomed Trahan and helped him eliminate this problem. Miller also helped him cultivate his song-writing skills. "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."
At this time, Miller's studio was churning out talent and smash records left and right. Some of the biggest names in blues, rhythm and blues, Cajun and rockabilly in these parts were laying down tracks for Miller and even going on to bigger stardom, thanks to a deal he had with Excello. It wasn't uncommon for talents like Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown and Carol Fran to be caught logging studio time at Miller's place. In fact, this was the studio where drumming ace Warren Storm recorded his first track, "Prisoner's Song," which sold a quarter of a million copies.
Miller tried to do the same for Trahan by cutting a few country tracks under the name Tommy Todd, but they never really went anywhere. However, with them in his catalogue, Miller was able to pique the interest of a new record company that had just started up called Todd Records. At first, the studio only wanted to give Trahan a half-cent contract, but Miller held out. When the label balked at his request for a one-cent contract, he threatened to sign the lad to Coral Records, which also had the likes of Buddy Holly. Todd soon caved and Trahan was heading for Nashville, Tenn.
Before venturing to Nashville, Trahan rode to New Orleans with Storm to play one of his shows. On the way, he stopped in Baton Rouge to acquire a union card, because Nashville was a closed shop and, "You just can't go over there and start plunking."
"I took a train to Nashville. (I was a) little, shy coonass in the middle of Nashville, Tenn., carrying a guitar around. You know I felt about like this," he says, squeezing the air between his thumb and index finger. Trahan hit Nashville and cut four sides for Todd Records. At the time, the label didn't have a name for him yet and was toying with one that Trahan wasn't exactly fond of.
After the initial recording sessions were done, Trahan was palling around with Murray Nash, who wrote songs for George Morgan - the father of country artist Lorrie Morgan. Nash was helping him around Nashville and showing him the ropes, when he invited him to his house for dinner. On the menu ... 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. I was nervous - I had never eaten a steak in my life. I was 20 years old; I had never been out of Crowley. I was a little, lost coonass," reminisces Trahan.
After dinner, the two went to what was known as the Friday Night Frolics. It was a big night for Trahan. On top of seeing a performance by Jimmy C. Newman, he met a few folks in the business, including Ferlin Husky - a legendary country music and film star who was the first country performer to get a star on the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard.
Nash asked Husky if he had any thoughts on what to name the young artist and told him that he had come up with something along the lines of "Carney Hall." Trahan says he hated the name but wasn't going to say anything because he says he thought it wasn't his place to doubt someone like Nash. Husky started laughing and said, "Don't call him that! Why don't you call him Jericho Jones or something?"
"I ended up Jericho Jones; I didn't end up Carney Hall ... I was sure glad," laughs Trahan. However, the good times had to come to an end.
From the beginning, Todd Records limped along. The man behind Todd had helped run Coral and thought his clout could make the label work. In 1958, its first year of operation, Todd released only one single. Its second year was by far its peak, with the label releasing 49 singles and two albums. These releases would constitute half of its eventual singles and two-thirds of its album releases. The next two years saw a downturn for the label, with only 15 singles trickling out of Todd. However, in 1961, there seemed to be a ray of hope cast on Todd in the form of a rhythm and blues artist named Joe Henderson. Henderson's career peaked when "Snap Your Fingers" hit No. 2 on the R&B charts and No. 8 on the pops. But, all of that came crashing to an end when Henderson died Nov. 7, 1964. Todd Records died with him.
When Trahan returned home from Nashville, he soon married and left Louisiana to work as a shipyard inspector in Mississippi. He wouldn't stay gone long, returning to check out the happenings at Miller's studio. Things had changed slightly at the studio, and Miller had begun experimenting with a new genre - segregationist music.
In 1966, Miller's studio gave birth to Rebel Records with a bang. Its first release - "Dear Mr. President," by Happy Fats - would be its second biggest, selling more than 200,000 copies. The song was a parody of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs. In the song, Happy Fats mocked LBJ's civil rights-minded reforms by complaining that his white coon dog wouldn't hunt with his black bird dog and asked, "Could I get an injunction to make them hunt together?" Happy Fats was actually Leroy Leblanc of The Rayne-Bo Ramblers. He later formed Happy, Doc & The Boys and hosted Mariné on KLFY. He mainly sang about civil rights, the Great Society and Vietnam but never really attacked black people.
The second Rebel Records release was its bestseller, again selling more than 200,000 copies. "Flight NAACP 105" was a spontaneous skit in the vein of Amos 'n Andy by Joe Norris, under the name "the Son of Mississippi." The skit paled in comparison to the tracks that Trahan would soon pen. When Trahan returned to Miller's studio, his musical mentor asked him to embark on a new quest and write like-minded tracks.
"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.'"
While in the studio, working on his music, Miller came up with the name Johnny Rebel for Trahan to use whenever he was singing these types of songs. Even though most of Miller's clientele were black, never did any African-American musicians perform on any Johnny Rebel side. At the time, Trahan claimed to have many black friends, especially around the studio, and that none took issue with his latest venture. He even says that some agreed with what he was saying.
And what he was saying was this: His music was on a tear about how lazy he thought the majority of African-Americans were, how blacks and whites were meant to be kept separate and how no one race deserves special treatment over another. He also expressed his disdain for black "instigators" and how he thought blacks were inferior to whites - slurring that blacks would lose a spelling bee to a donkey - and just general ridicule for the civil rights movement. His first release, a 45 rpm with "Lookin' For a Handout" on the A-side and "Kajun Klu (sic) Klux Klan" on the other, was the fifth for Rebel Records. He would follow it with five more 45s, each with a B-side, bringing the complete Johnny Rebel catalog to 12 songs.
Among them were songs with such names as "Who Likes a Nigger," "Nigger Hatin' Me," "Move Them Niggers North" - which was his only cover - "Still Lookin' For a Handout" and "Stay Away From Dixie."
Two of his songs, "Keep a' Working Big Jim" and "Federal Aid (The Money Belongs to Us)," were not about race relations, but about current issues facing the nation. The first was about the efforts of Jim Garrison, a Louisiana district attorney, to solve the Kennedy assassination. The other was about Trahan's disdain for the federal government sending aid to other countries.
By the time it was all said and done, Rebel Records had released 21 of the 45 rpms and one full-length album of its 10 bestselling songs, For Segregationists Only. The album's jacket said the tracks it included, four of which were Trahan's, were a must for those with a conservative viewpoint on integration and was "rib-tickling satire."
Strikingly enough, Trahan's was not the only voice raised in anger. At the time, America was in the throes of the civil rights movement, and Acadiana wasn't reacting exactly as well as some might like to remember.
After John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Johnson took office and began to push for reforms. Soon, civil rights acts, the voting rights act, the immigration act and the economic opportunity act had all been passed into law and became part of what was known as the Great Society. Although efforts were being made to level the racial playing field, America had become further split across racial lines. On one side of the color line, blacks saw the United States as a land filled with hate and inequality. On the other, whites felt that things were fair thanks to the recent programs.
However, even though it was in the South, Acadiana was more passive than the rest of the country. There were no major civil rights clashes in Acadiana, but there were problems just the same. The area's resentment could be seen in 1968, when segregationist George Wallace ran for president and received 50 percent of votes cast by Cajuns. The nation gave him 13 percent.
In the mid-1950s, South Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) had integrated several black students without incident. However, efforts to integrate minors in the area's elementary and high schools were met with 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. Lafayette fared no better, as the federal courthouse refused to lower its flag the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. A m*lée was narrowly avoided between blacks and whites when the courthouse removed the flag completely.
"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," says Trahan.
Asked about the dogma that fueled his recordings, Trahan says that his motivation was more along the lines of monetary compensation than spreading hate, stating that he did it all for the money. However, he admits he resents some blacks based on their attitude and not on the color of their skin.
"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," says Trahan. "Why should we pay reparations for things that happened 200 years ago? I didn't have a slave. I was run out of my country ... my ancestors were run out of Nova Scotia. I didn't come from Africa; I didn't come from France. I didn't come from the United States and go over there and buy blacks.
"I used to think I was prejudiced. I am not prejudiced," he continues. "If you are prejudiced, you don't like all races. Well, I don't have anything against all races ... They asked me to do it, hell, I did it. I would do anything to make a buck. Hell, I made a few bucks off of it."
In his opinion, there is nothing to his story. He recorded some songs, made some money and went on to other things. After the Johnny Rebel sessions, he never even performed as Johnny Rebel, save for one time in Kaplan when he was playing on the back of a flatbed truck as one of his other personae and someone in the crowd requested one of his Rebel songs. After a quick peek around to be sure there were no blacks in the crowd, he obliged. Trahan later went on to do other things, including a stint recording off-color material such as "The Garden Party" and "My Dingaling," as Filthy McNasty. He even later recorded a commercial for Volkswagen under the name Tommy Taylor. And, with his past behind him, he eventually forgot about those 12 songs under the name Johnny Rebel. And he thought the rest of the world would do the same.
Rebels Don't Die, They Just Get Bootlegged and Downloaded off the Internet
If it weren't for a fellow named Brad Herman taking somewhat of a pilgrimage to the place where the Johnny Rebel sides were recorded, some of the force of the Johnny Rebel legend might have subsided or even slipped into obscurity. About two and a half to three years ago, Herman wandered over from Texas to the address printed on the back of the old For Segregationists Only album. When he got to the studios where the records were stored - the original studio is now a historic building preserved because it used to be a Ford factory - he was able to buy the old 45s for a modest price from J.D. Miller's sons. Miller, now deceased, left them the studio when he became Crowley's housing director in the late '60s. On the 'Net, the records sell for upwards of $60. The studio even offered to put him in touch with Johnny Rebel himself for a few autographs.
When Trahan met him, Herman told him that his musical career was still alive, thanks to bootlegging and the Internet, despite the fact that Trahan had retired from performing in 1985. It turns out that although he had forgotten about the recordings, the world had not, especially those who held on to the ideals of White Power and segregation.
"I can't believe it! If I was getting money off of it, it probably wouldn't be bad. 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," rants Trahan.
Trahan hired Herman as his manager, and they devised a plan that would help them cut into the viable Johnny Rebel market. The pair released a CD of the old sides with additional excerpts from an interview with Johnny Rebel splitting up the tracks. According to Trahan, his old recordings are some of the most bootlegged music of all time. Herman told Chauncé Hayden on his Eyada.com radio show - Johnny Rebel's first interview in 30 years - that it was also high on the list of downloads on Napster. The Times, however, could not find information to support these claims.
Herman began selling the CD on an official Web site complete with his bio, song lyrics and complete discography. The site probably wouldn't have added much to the revitalization of the Johnny Rebel fan base if two hijacked planes would have not been flown into the World Trade Center towers. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Trahan recorded and released a song about the whipping America should lay on Osama bin Laden called "Infidel Anthem." Herman then booked Trahan on the Howard Stern Show, where they promoted both the new song and the compilation album and played a few of the old tracks.
However, Stern and Herman talked Trahan into cutting a dirty version of the song loaded with four-letter words. Trahan was displeased with its vulgarity and the backing track that was added to the original song after his vocal tracks were recorded in Lafayette. Trahan had no real say in the recording, because 16 days before it was done he had been in the hospital for open-heart surgery and couldn't make the trip to Houston where it was mixed.
After the Stern interview, Herman could barely keep up with the 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 Ellis, a disc jockey who features his music and interviews on his radio show. Ellis has also posted a new Web site to market Johnny Rebel. Oddly enough, the site features scores of Ku Klux Klan insignia and art, an organization that Trahan doesn't approve of, stating that they should stand up, take off their masks, forget about attacking the Catholic religion - which he is a member of - and try to improve life for their race.
The site also has rumblings of a new CD due out very soon, something that Trahan denies. He does however, admit to penning and recording a new song at his house that he would like to release with his personal version of "Infidel Anthem."
"I have one written about Saddam Hussein, but it's too late to put it out because before I even get that out, Bush is gonna jump on him and it's gonna be over," he says.
One of the sites selling a bootlegged Johnny Rebel CD called Klassic Klan Kompositions is whitepowerecords.com, a branch of Condor Legion Ordnance, a pro-white corporation dedicated to the survival of the white race and, apparently, selling records. The release has nothing to do with Rebel Records because the studio never put out a full-length album of Johnny Rebel's works. Also, the second volume contains songs recorded by other musicians not affiliated with Rebel. Trahan claims that whenever someone releases a song about segregation or blacks, his name is instantly associated with it. However, whether or not it is a legal copy or a bootleg is something that is up for debate.
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 copyright. He adds that in the days the Johnny Rebel songs were originally recorded, the recording industry was a lot less policed when it came to copyright infringement and trademarks. He also casts doubt as to whether or not Trahan is the real Johnny Rebel, stating that some songs sound different vocally from others and that many people have claimed to be and recorded as Johnny Rebel. The many voices of Johnny Rebel are probably the product of people slapping the name on everything to do with racist music. However, the original 12 records sound alike and are pitch perfect to Trahan's voice.
Gephard does admit that, "If he is really Johnny Rebel, he got a raw deal," explaining that if managed and properly represented by attorneys, the real Johnny Rebel would be worth millions. Gephard says that along the lines of his genre, Johnny Rebel is a huge star who has sold a heap of records. According to him, when it comes to White Power music, selling 1,000 is comparable to moving 1 million records in mainstream music.
When Herman contacted him via e-mail and ordered him to stop selling the album, Gephard laughed it off and asked for proof of his copyright. Herman delivered him a bill of sale, which Gephard says doesn't mean that he has the right to claim trademark of the recordings. When Herman claimed that he had re-recorded the music and that gave him the rights, Gephard explained that copyrights don't work in retrograde.
Gephard says that it is somewhat impossible to prove who has the rights to the old recordings, rationalizing that if there was some copyright conflict going on, Howard Stern's legal team would have never let the material be played on his show. He also states that the bootlegging problem that Trahan faces is not limited to Johnny Rebel. Gephard says that it is nearly impossible to buy an album by Skewdriver, another popular White Power band, that is not bootlegged.
Gephard got into the Johnny Rebel game while he was working for Resistance Records, a Web site that sells pro-White Power music and spreads its ideology. He had bought about 20 of the CDs for $7 apiece and began selling them on eBay. To his surprise, users gobbled them up 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 CD. 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 in fact the largest distributor of White Power records and pro-white country music in the world. And as far as Johnny Rebel goes, he is often high atop their best-seller list. However, Resistance adamantly claims that it owns the rights to everything that it sells, including the Johnny Rebel Klassic Klan Komposition album and video and all the Skewdriver records that it sells on the site.
When asked about the rights, David Pringle, a representative for Resistance, sounded quite confident that his company owned them and was quite perplexed by Trahan's claim to be Johnny Rebel. He vowed to contact his superior and get the official source of the record rights and provide them for The Times by the end of the day. After a week had passed without hearing from Pringle, a phone call to his office revealed that Resistance was now offering "no comment" on the issue.
The icing on the rights issue cake is that Gephard says that the research he conducted on the material while employed at Resistance indicates that they received the copyright for the CDs from Johnny Rebel's widow.
The rumor doesn't surprise Trahan, who also doesn't know who owns the rights, because he has heard many times over that he is a dead man.
"Look, there's been rumors circulating for years that I got shot in a goddamn war with the FBI. So much of this crap goes around, you know," says Trahan. "It's a bunch of lies out there, then there's some truth. I don't even know. They got pictures of me plastered on there (the Internet). I don't even know where those pictures came from. I don't have a clue where they come from."