Folk Hero

Pro Linebacker Resurrects The Legend Of A Runaway Slave

Sunpie Barnes has been a pro linebacker, a park ranger, and an accordion player backing Paul Simon. Now he’s singing the praises of San Maló, a legendary runaway slave.

Skip Bolen/Getty

NEW ORLEANS—In the early 1780s, Juan Maló escaped from a plantation fifty miles upriver from New Orleans. Spain had acquired the colony from France two decades earlier, and Spanish authorities designated Maló maroon, a fugitive slave. Eluding capture, he traveled about 100 miles south of the city into a sprawling marshland area—what is today St. Bernard Parish.

Little is known of his origins, but slaves idolized him as “San Maló”—St. Maló in official documents—after he established a maroon compound of about 60 people. “The runaways left in families, a substantial number of women and children among them,” writes Gwendolyn Midlo Hall in Africans in Colonial Louisiana. Sympathetic plantation slaves helped St. Maló’s people pilfer crops, livestock, tools, and weapons for the secluded free village.

Maroons threatened Spanish rule. In 1783, government troops traveled by pirogue into the swampy outback, but St. Maló’s forces beat them back in gun battles. In 1784, a battalion penetrated the area, shot St. Maló, and captured or killed most of his maroon army. In prison, as his wound turned to gangrene, he gave a confession, probably coerced, yet managed to secure a stay of execution for his pregnant wife. A huge crowd watched as he was hanged in the town plaza, today’s Jackson Square.

Generations later, after the Civil War, an elderly black woman dictated “Dirge to St. Maló” in Creole to a scholar, who shared it with the novelist George Washington Cable, whose translation ran in 1888 in Century Magazine.

Alas, men, come make lamentFor poor St. Maló in distress

They chased, they hunted him with dogs,They fired a rifle at him.They dragged him back from the cypress swamp…They charged that he had made a plot,To cut the throats of all the whites.They asked who his comrades were.Poor St. Maló said not a word!

The judge his sentence read to him,

And then they raised the gallows tree.They drew the horse—the cart moved offAnd left St. Maló hanging there!The sun was up an hour high.They left his body swinging thereFor carrion crows to feed upon.

As a century and several decades passed, the maroon leader faded from the cultural memory—until New Orleans zydeco bluesman Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes began performing a musical tribute at community venues here, while working on a CD about St. Maló and companion booklet in Louisiana Creole, with English translation.

Sunpie Barnes celebrated St. Maló on a recent Saturday at Bullet’s Sports Bar with a spiritualist altar in the rear of the club—candles, flags, a statuette honoring St. Maló, and a book for people’s comments. Sunpie played a throbbing anthem in the maroon rebel’s honor with his band, the Louisiana Sun Spots, as he sent up vocals in alternating verses, Creole and English.

Oh Saint Malo, wiri wawir-ohOh Saint Malo, wiri wawiri-oh! Saint Malo, you are hiding in the woods.Soldiers are looking for you.Saint Malo, you are very bad, But you are also tough.

Bullet’s is an oasis of soul in the Seventh Ward, a working class neighborhood that was sledgehammered in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina flood. The area is making a comeback, though hindered by drug violence.

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Sunpie Barnes, 54, a brawny six-foot-two as befits a single-season Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker from half a lifetime ago, rocked in place as his shoulders swayed to the accordion while the Sun Spots played on. In the last three years, Sunpie has done long stretches playing accordion, harmonica, and percussion and singing background vocals in the band for Paul Simon and Sting on an international concert tour.

The first San Malo altar was unveiled in October at the opening of Airlift’s Music Box Village in Bywater, a gentrifying neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter. The person who made the altar, Rachel Breunlin, is Barnes’s editor at UNO Press and his co-author on the illustrated 2014 oral history Talk That Music Talk: Passing on Brass Band Music in New Orleans.

Officials at the New Orleans Jazz Museum and Jazz National Historical Park then offered sponsorship of an exhibition at the Old Mint museum in the French Quarter. The event drew several thousand visitors. People left notes at the altar:

San Malo and all of the maroons remind me that there is always alternative paths to freedom than those presented by society and the state. San Malo’s legacy for me is a call to reinforce and defend our communities! To fight!

I’m from Sudan where people are oppressed and persecuted. I came to the US seeking freedom but now Trump has banned my people from coming here. Yes, I’ve found freedom but I wish more of my people will get to experience that too.

Jean Saint-Malo, pour la liberté et la justice!

“Bruce and I told the Park Service that we would like to bring the altar into more communities,” Breunlin told The Daily Beast. “We asked Bullet if he would host the first one because the Seventh Ward was a heart of the neighborhood where many people remember their grandparents speaking Creole.”

At Bullet’s, Sunpie sang a stanza in Creole, which only a sprinkling of the two hundred in the bar could speak, and people nodded to the lines when he turned to English.

Saint Malo, you are a real scoundrel,But you make good magicThe others are amazed, and for the whites,You are a very high price.

Barnes was raised in the ’60s in a sharecropping family in the Arkansas Delta, and absorbed the blues from his harmonica-playing father, Willie Barnes Sr. He had an uncle with Blackfoot Indian blood who played a mean blues piano and went by the nickname Sunpie, a stage name the boy took many years later.

Barnes graduated from Henderson State in Arkansas, where he played football and took a degree in ichthyology, the study of fish. With a deep love of waterways, wildlife, and music, he went back home after his short NFL stint and joined the National Park Service. In 1987 the Park Service sent him to New Orleans where he melded with musicians and the strands of his life began coming together.

Working as an interpretive park ranger, leading tour groups in Barataria, a wetlands area south of New Orleans, he began researching a more remote area in marshes to the southeast where the old St. Maló village still stood.

“The last remains of the village disappeared in the mid ’90s because of coastal erosion,” Sunpie told The Daily Beast. “The Gulf of Mexico swallowed it.”

“I got to know people in the upriver plantation country around Vacherie, close to where [San Maló] escaped, older people out there who talk about San Maló. And I met people from Lafitte (near Barataria) who lived in the old camp near St. Maló bayou.” Later in the afternoon, several of the older Mardi Gras Indian chiefs in New Orleans spoke of San Maló as a heroic rebel.

As sea rise in the Gulf erased the site where San Maló and his people once lived, the story of the maroon leader and his followers stirred curiosity in Park Ranger Barnes, whose responsibilities expanded in New Orleans at the National Jazz Historical Park, which programs lectures, concerts, and exhibitions to promote America’s indigenous art form. Meanwhile, on the weekends, Sunpie Barnes was learning accordion licks from zydeco veterans Fernest Arcenaux and the Thunders, and Clarence Etienne Jockey’s Creole Zydeco Farmers.

At Bullet’s Sports Bar, several white couples were dancing on the floor amid the African-American clientele, while other people filed into the back to spend a few minutes observing the altar to San Malo with its flickering candles. Sunpie was hitting high gear.

Oh Saint Malo, wiri wawir-ohOh Saint Malo, wiri wawiri-oh!Saint Malo made a big maroon villageto free all of the slaves over there,A lot of people came to save their lives.

Sunpie’s shoulders shift in rhythm with the accordion like a dude waltzing with his wife or favorite gal. The song is one of 12 in Louisiana Creole on a forthcoming CD, Le Kèr Creole, with a short book (UNO Press) a collaboration of the Neighborhood Story Project, jazz museum, and National Jazz Historical Park.

Paul Simon invited Sunpie to join the touring band after hearing his CD, Island Man. Barnes took a leave from the park service job for one tour, and after 25 years on the job finally retired to pursue his music and writing full time.

A man of many parts, Sunpie Barnes.

More people were dancing at Bullet’s Sports Bar. True to its name, a basketball game filled a big screen behind the bar, while on a parallel screen Bruce Willis was beating up someone in a movie. But the sound from the TVs was wiped out by the sweet palaver of the crowd that clapped and grooved to zydeco rhythms in their seats or on the feet, as Sunpie rocked on.

Saint Malo, you hid over there. Soldiers are searching for you. Saint Malo, you are bad,You are the most powerful spirit. Oh, Saint Malo, wii wawiri-oh!

Jason Berry’s books include Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II.