When Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes arrived in New Orleans almost 20 years ago, he felt an uncanny recognition when he heard people speaking Creole French.
“I picked it up right away,” Barnes said. “When I was a kid I used to have all these dreams in Creole. I didn’t know what it was, I just knew it was some kind of different language. When I moved to Louisiana, I knew.”
Barnes has always been attuned to dreams. He was born in Benton in 1963 under a prophet sign, according to his grandmother, a Louisiana-born “fix-it lady” who did traditional healings and read stars for people in their community. “She told me I would have dreams and visions, and she taught me how to interpret them,” Barnes said. Laughing, he added, “and she told me not everyone would believe me, or understand.”
Whatever the cause, it’s hard to deny that Barnes has found his path. Nowadays the boy who used to dream in Creole in Benton sings in Creole in New Orleans as one of the most prominent musicians in zydeco, a traditional music form originating in southwest Louisiana. Barnes — a multi-instrumentalist who plays accordion, harmonica, rub board, piano, talking drum and more — fronts Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots. Though Sunpie is a popular mainstay on the zydeco circuit, Barnes’ music isn’t contained by a single genre — he mixes in Delta blues, gospel, boogie woogie, R&B, and West African and Caribbean influences. He calls it “Afro-Louisiana.”
Barnes, in addition to being a musician and composer, is a naturalist, a full-time National Park ranger, a black-and-white portrait photographer, a television and film actor and a former professional football player with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I’m not interested in being restricted,” Barnes said. “I’m interested in life.”
Bruce Barnes, 51, grew up in Benton’s Gravel Hill community, the 10th of 11 children. His family traces their roots across southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. His parents were sharecroppers who worked various farms in southern Arkansas and the Delta before escaping from a plantation in the middle of the night to take work at an aluminum plant in Bauxite, working open-pit aluminum ore mines. They initially lived in tarpaper shacks along with Hispanic migrant workers in what was known as Mexico Camp, but later settled in Gravel Hill, along with others who had escaped sharecropping plantations. Barnes’ parents often helped other sharecroppers escape, in what amounted to a post-bellum underground railroad.
“They created a whole community by stealing people off the plantation,” Barnes said. “Gravel Hill was our little community. Pretty much the all-black section, south of the tracks, you know how it is in Arkansas.”
Barnes spent a lot of time hunting and fishing, or just playing all day in the woods. “We used to always fantasize about being out in the world on some kind of adventure,” Barnes said. As a kid, he would climb out the window at 1 or 2 in the morning and take walks in the woods for miles. “I’d just sit down and listen and see all the animals that were moving and coming through,” he said. “I just felt like I needed to be out in the world. That was a driving force for me for whatever reason, to devise a plan to get out in the world.”
Barnes’ father, Willie Barnes Sr., was a blues harmonica player. “He was raised around people like Roosevelt Sykes and Bill Broonzy — they lived and worked in the same plantations he did,” Barnes said. “That’s what he was exposed to and that’s what he loved to play.”
Bruce Barnes loved it, too. “I had a very firm idea in my head even when I was 4 or 5 years old that I was going to make music,” Barnes said. “I thought music was magic. I’d see my father play, he used to play this old song called ‘The Coon and the Hound’ on the harmonica, he was barking like a dog and all that. He played a lot of old country blues. I was like, man, I can’t wait to get old enough to make some magic. That’s what really got me hooked on it, just sitting on his knee and listening to him play that tune.”
Barnes begged for piano lessons, but his father was skeptical. He had paid for piano lessons for Bruce’s older siblings. “You’d go to piano lessons across the tracks in Benton over there and you would learn to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” the “Leftbridge Overture,” something like that. Back home, he wanted some blues coming out of it.” None of his older siblings had stuck with the instrument, so by the time Bruce showed interest, “He decided he wasn’t wasting no more money on piano lessons.”
Bruce started teaching himself at home, partly inspired by his uncle, who would come up from Bastrop, La., and play blues piano. Half Blackfoot Indian, this uncle went by the name Sunpie. He had lost the top half of his fingers in a sawmill accident, but that didn’t stop him on the piano.
“He’d be working these nubs, wearing the piano out,” Barnes said. “His face was completely shaved clean. No eyebrows, eyelashes, nothing. He was an interesting character. I thought he was fascinating.”
Barnes followed him around so much that his aunt started calling him “little Sunpie.” The name stuck: “When I got older, I kept the Sunpie, just not the little,” Barnes said.
In junior high, Barnes started working night jobs at an ice plant to save up money for a trombone so he could play in the band. Barnes discovered he had an ear for music, and by high school he made first chair. He was also a track and football star. At football games, Barnes never got a rest: He played offense, defense and special teams — then at halftime he would take off his shoulder pads and helmet and march with the band.
Toward the end of high school, Barnes approached his father, then almost 80 years old, wanting to learn blues harmonica.
“He thought I was crazy,” he said. “The only place he knew about blues being played was in juke joints, in pretty dangerous places. He said, ‘I’m not going to teach you how to play no blues so you can go out and get yourself killed.’ Eventually I convinced him, and he found out I could play a little bit.”
His father was crazy about Sonny Boy Williamson, the legendary blues singer and harmonica player who had lived in the Arkansas Delta not too far away. The younger Barnes got hooked on Sonny Boy, too — Williamson remains one of his strongest musical influences. Barnes began to develop his chops as a blues harmonica player, and a knowledge and love of Delta blues music that stays with him today, even as he has added musical elements a long way from the Delta to his eclectic style. “My father gave me the passion and the fire for it, for sure,” he said. For Barnes, it’s a connection that runs deep, rooted in generations before him. His father’s father — born in 1847 in Oak Grove, La. — played violin, accordion and pipe organ. “My people have been playing music for years and years,” he said. “I knew I would play music for the rest of my life.”
After graduating high school, Barnes went to Henderson State on a football scholarship. He was a star on the field — an NAIA All-American as a defensive end — and also formed a blues band, playing for tips in Arkadelphia and Little Rock. Meanwhile, he studied biology, with a focus on ichthyology (the study of fishes), doing fieldwork in lakes, rivers and streams across the state, including the Saline River, where he used to fish as a boy.
Like music, Barnes’ lifelong passion for nature sprung from his years growing up in Gravel Hill. He loved to set traps in the woods and hunt for birds. To make money, he would dig up a particular pink ribbon clay that black and Indian women in his community would eat as a kind of natural supplement. He also caught poisonous snakes to sell them — $20 a snake — to venom hospitals.
“Being from Arkansas, it’s all in the back yard,” Barnes said. “In Saline County, we had all these unique geological formations together. Gulf coastal plain, Mississippi Delta, Ouachita Mountains, Ozark Mountains. We’d find strange things out in the field. A giant clam shell or conch shell — we didn’t know why they were there. We used to dig up crystals all the time. For me, I became somebody who was inquisitive and wanted to investigate that kind of thing.”
“I loved catching fish, but I wasn’t only catching them to eat. I had to know what fish it was, where the fish lived, what its habitat was, the whole nine yards. Later, when I got to university, I didn’t realize how much I knew. I found out when I took my first zoology course, I knew a lot of these animals.”
While in college, he got his first job with the National Park Service, working three seasons on the Buffalo River, stationed out of Buffalo Point. He was doing canoe tours when word came that the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League offered him a contract. The team was a bit taken aback when he didn’t immediately head up to sign. “I said, man, just send it to me in the mail — I’ll sign the thing and send it back,” Barnes said. “I can’t come up there because I got a canoe tour on Saturday. So they sent it to the ranger station at Buffalo Point.”
Barnes lasted a season with the Chiefs (during which time he continued playing the blues, picking up gigs in Kansas City). The following year, his agent said he had lined up a spot for him in the Canadian Football League.
“He said, ‘You can go to Saskatchewan or Winnipeg, take your pick,” Barnes said. “I looked at it, thought about it — I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to go back to canoeing.’
“I decided right there that football wasn’t really my dream. I had dreamed about playing music. And my dream was to work in nature.”
To be precise, his first big dream, since he was in second grade, was to work with Jacques Cousteau. “I was going to be the first brother on the Calypso. I had studied fish in school, took a 21-month course in scuba diving, night diving, open-water diving, you name it. I’d done it all. I either wanted to work for Jacques Cousteau or Marlon Perkins [the zoologist and host of “Wild Kingdom”]. The one faulty part of my plan — by the time I was done with university, those dudes were in their 80s.”
With Cousteau and Perkins no longer hiring, Barnes turned back to the National Park Service. He wanted to land somewhere where he could play music. Barnes blindfolded himself and threw a dart at a map of the United States three times. Two out of three hit New Orleans, right on the dot. When a job offer came to work at Jean Lafitte National Park, working as a park ranger and naturalist in the Barataria Preserve just outside of New Orleans, he took the gig.
Barnes arrived in the city in 1987, on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. “I had no clue of anything about what Mardi Gras was, what Carnival was. There were parades everywhere, people all over town. I was like, damn, I don’t know if I can handle this town.”
Barnes settled in to a new routine: During the day he’d put on his hip waders and get in his canoe, doing tours and educational programming over 23,000 acres of wetlands.
At night, he went out in search of music and soon became as enamored with zydeco and New Orleans R&B as he was with the blues. “I would take a lot of adventures,” he said. “You could go to Clifton’s [as in Chenier — the “King of Zydeco”] house, you could go to Boozoo’s [as in Chavis — another zydeco legend] house — these people would just open their door up for you. If you were really interested in the music, they would show you.”
“I loved to dance and I was in heaven,” Barnes said. “I would go listen to Fats Domino play Sunday night at the Grease or you name it — Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill, Johnny Adams. They all would play these little bars on Basin Street. It was free and the food was free. They would have a huge buffet with everything — gumbo, yaka mein, turkey necks, meat loaf. All that was free, beer was 50 cents and mixed drinks a dollar fifty. That fit my poor humble park service budget.”
At the time, there weren’t many harmonica players in New Orleans, so local musicians took a shine to the new guy in town from Arkansas.
“I became good friends with Fats Domino and all those folks because I was playing straight-up blues,” Barnes said. “It was all I knew, and they loved that. There were just very few harmonica players around or people who had that Delta sound.”
Barnes started playing rub board and harmonica in some zydeco bands but at that time he didn’t know the first thing about the instrument he’s probably most known for today: the accordion. He had been in New Orleans for two years when he started having a dream that he was playing an accordion, the same dream five nights in a row. One day, he wandered into a music store to buy a new harmonica. On the wall was the very same accordion he had seen in his dreams. He had $200 to his name at the time, but he knew he had to have it and bought the $1,500 instrument on a finance plan, with an interest rate liable to make him broke.
That night he started fiddling with it; the keyboard came naturally, but he wasn’t sure what to do with all the little buttons. A buddy called to tell him about a Sprite television commercial to audition for the next day. When Barnes mentioned his new accordion, his buddy said, “Oh, bring it, they love those.” Barnes stayed up all night teaching himself a song. He got the part, which came with a $2,000 check that allowed him to pay off the accordion right away. That one led to another job for Barnes later that same week, a McDonald’s commercial looking for an accordion player.
“That one paid another $2,000,” Barnes said. “All of a sudden, my poor broke self — I was like damn, I couldn’t believe it. I gotta go and learn how to play this thing!”
Barnes is mostly self-taught, but he went to Cajun country in Lafayette Parish to get some lessons from Clayton Sampy, the legendary French Creole accordion player.
“At first, he kept looking at me sideways,” Barnes said. “He said, ‘Man, I can’t show you nothing — you got it upside down!’ “
Sunpie, left-handed, had been playing the accordion upside down and backwards for several months before Sampy set him straight; he had to train himself to play right-handed (accordions are only built one way).
Barnes found that he had a knack for accordion, and, perhaps remembering the dreams of his childhood, singing in Creole French came easily to him. By 1991, he formed Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots, one of the only zydeco bands based in New Orleans at the time. Even as he moved more toward zydeco, Barnes stayed anchored in the music that his father had taught him back in Arkansas.
“I never put the blues down because what I realized is that zydeco had all this blues in it,” Barnes said. “That’s what I loved about Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis, John Delafose. Everybody was playing blues and a lot of it, they just do it the Creole way.”
“My music is still based off of the blues. That’s what it’s rooted in. It’s a combination of music from the Delta, music from the city of New Orleans, and the rural Creole sound. I do them all.”
The result is a music as rich and diverse and adventurous as Sunpie’s life. Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots have become a fixture at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival. They’ve put out six albums and played in more than 30 countries, from Europe to Africa to Central America. Recently, Sunpie was asked to accompany Paul Simon and Sting on a two-month tour (when Simon called him to ask him to come, Barnes initially thought it must be someone playing a prank).
“Bruce is without doubt the best-known zydeco bandleader who calls New Orleans home,” said Scott Aiges, director of programs, marketing and communications for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. “He travels the world playing both blues and zydeco — sometimes in the same set … and he’s one of the more popular musicians in New Orleans.”
Barnes still works as a park ranger by day (the National Park Service was nice enough to grant him a sabbatical for the tour with Paul Simon and Sting). After more than 12 years on the Barataria Preserve, in 1999 he moved to the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park in the heart of the French Quarter, where he does education and programming related to the music and cultural history of his adopted home. He developed a program to teach young people traditional New Orleans jazz and brass band music; his latest project is a forthcoming book with conversations between the students and their mentors about how to have a life in traditional music (and features photographs by Barnes of both students and mentors, taken wherever they started playing music).
If Barnes has a passion for preserving traditions — whether it’s the endangered language of Creole French or the etiquette and rules of playing a jazz funeral — it is clear from his music that he means to stake a claim for new traditions of his own.
“The thing I try to do is, I love to try to take the traditional sound and move it in different ways,” Barnes said. “I want to keep it alive and pass it on, but my main thing is to bring something to the table that will have some staying power and that will last. That’s what all my elders taught me. My daddy and my Uncle Sunpie, my mama, grandma, grandpa. To create something that is simply yours.”
That attitude — preserving cultural traditions but insisting on making them funky and singular — makes a pretty good manifesto for New Orleans. Those darts Barnes threw at the map years ago seem to have landed in the right spot. His dreams seem to be pointing him in the right direction. “I think I’m at home now,” Barnes said. “This is a good place for me.”