(by Mary Gauthier and Catie Curtis) Mama said she don’t give a damn what those people say Cane smoke can’t be good for you day after day Every year at harvest time when the black smoke filled the sky She’d pick me up and take me home and make me stay inside
From Thibodaux to Raceland there’s fire in the fields All the way up the bayou from Lafourche to Iberville Dirty air dirty laundry dirty money dirty rain A dirty dark at daybreak burning the sugar cane
Christmas on the bayou, midnight come and gone Driving past the sugar mill and all the lights are on The parking lot is full of trucks I can see the furnace glow Everybody’s working overtime, it’s a good job, even though
From Thibodaux to Raceland there’s fire in the fields All the way up the bayou from Lafourche to Iberville Dirty air, dirty laundry, dirty money, dirty rain A dirty dark at daybreak burning the sugar cane
First came the sugar cane then came Thibodaux Cane sugar built this town cane sugar paved these roads They burn the leaves to harvest cash, money for the company Money makes the world go round money money money
From Thibodaux to Raceland there’s fire in the fields All the way up the bayou from Lafourche to Iberville Dirty air, dirty laundry, dirty money, dirty rain A dirty dark at daybreak burning, burning
The soot and ash are falling like a dark and deadly snow The air is full of poison to the Gulf of Mexico Dirty air, dirty laundry dirty money dirty rain A dirty deal with the devil, burning the sugar cane
I am a Louisiana kid.
Born in New Orleans, raised in Baton Rouge, and lived for a few years in a little Cajun town of 15,000 souls called Thibodaux. Thibodaux sits next to bayou Lafourche, and it is a hot, humid and slow moving little place. People have a unique accent down there, a Cajun French accent, with plenty French slang thrown in. I went to a couple years of High School there, before I decided High School was not for me.
Down in Thibodaux, sugar cane is a big cash crop, and it’s been that way for a long, long time. 16% of the sugar grown in the U.S. comes from the cane fields of Louisiana. I grew up around the sugar cane fields because both of my parents are from there, and the fields always seemed a little haunted to me. Spooky. Turns out, in Thibodaux, they ARE haunted.
There was a violent labor dispute and racial attack of whites against black workers in Thibodaux, Louisiana in November 1887. The fight was about the money paid to the workers of the cane fields. I'd never been told the story of the Thibodaux massacre, and when I lived there I had no idea that this occurred in my little town, but I felt it in my bones somehow. Something in me knew there was blood in those fields. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I guess the ghosts of the Thibodaux Massacre still linger in the humid air, though no one ever talks about it. There’s a conspiracy of silence around things like this in the South. It's not pleasant to talk about unpleasantness, and so for the most part, people don't.
Though the true number of casualties is unknown, at least 35 and as many as three hundred workers were killed, making it one of the most violent labor disputes in American history. All of the victims were African American. I learned about the history of the sugar industry in Thibodaux through reading books, years after I’d left Louisiana. Like I said, no one talks about this stuff down there.
The sugar game was, and is, about power and money. It always has been. Sugar is an addiction, and addiction always makes for big, big business.
Sugar cane is harvested by burning the field, and then cutting down the cane stalks after the burn. It’s a messy, ancient way of gathering sugar, but it requires less manual labor than any other way of harvesting, and for people living down there the smoke and soot and ash are just part of a way of life. The sugar industry jobs are good jobs, and people need the work.
Sugar cane is harvested around Christmas time in Louisiana, and a lot of folks associate the smell of the burning cane fields with the holidays. In other words, people think it smells good. But the soot and ash get so thick sometimes you can’t hang laundry outside. When I was a kid my mama used to make me and my brother and sister stay inside when the cane smoke filled the air, and I grew up thinking every kid lived like this. My mother used to get all worked up when they burned the fields, she used to say, “The poison in the air is going to kill all of us! No wonder they call it cancer alley down here in South Louisiana!” Most people thought she was dramatic, and a little off. They didn’t think the smoke was a big deal. They thought the sugar jobs were more important than the mess the smoke caused. It was unpleasant to talk about it.
When my grandmother was dying of lung cancer, I remember looking out of her hospital room in the Thibodaux General Hospital, and all I could see for miles around was cane fields. The enormity of that hit me, even though I was just 16 years old. She lived in Thibodaux her whole life, and died in that room, right there in the middle of the cane fields, her lungs giving out. Like I said, cane is a way of life. And Death.
They tell me they’ve found a cheaper way to harvest cane these days—a way that involves less burning, less pollution. I hope that’s true. It would mean a better way of life for the people down on the bayou, and in other places where the annual burns fill the air with smoke and soot and ash. I wrote this song hoping that one day the practice would change.
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