Okay, so we missed Mother’s Day by a few weeks. But like Christmas, IMO, it’s probably something that should be observed every day anyway. So in honor of that – and in honor of a genuinely heartfelt song written and sung by a guy who obviously missed his home and his mom – let’s take a look at Clifton Chenier’s “I’m Coming Home.”
Before he died in 1987 Chenier was known as the “King of Zydeco,” the Southern musical art form that made a mark on American culture but certainly didn’t make its performers rock-star rich. Combining influences of Cajun, blues, country and R&B into a Louisiana-birthed sound, Chenier rose to fame while singing and exhibiting his instrumental prowess on an unlikely instrument – the accordion, the large, piano-key chromatic type. He was able to raise the roof with rollicking party music, to front a dance event playing two-steps and waltzes, and to touch a nerve lyrically with “I’m Coming Home,” released on his 1970 album King of the Bayous.
“I’m Coming Home” was Chenier’s musical letter to his mother to let her know how homesick he was and how much he missed her, probably from years of living the nomadic musician’s life. There’s nothing particularly complicated about “I’m Coming Home,” but that’s the beauty of it. It sounds like a song that probably poured out in a few minutes during an emotional period of one man’s melancholia. Those are often the best songs as opposed to the ones written by committee or tweaked for a year. Check out the first verse: I’m, I’m coming home/’Cause I feel, you know I feel oh so all alone/I’m coming back home and meet my dear old mother/’Cause that’s where I belong. If it was really more calculated than that, then Chenier was a good actor.
More or less written to the same chord progression as Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home,” “I’m Coming Home” is also listed in various places as “I Am Coming Home” and “I’m Coming Home (To See My Mother).” According to Michael Tisserand’s book The Kingdom of Zydeco, Chenier had wanted to record it not just for himself, but also for the mothers of his band members. He recorded it as a cut for King of the Bayous, but his mother died before it was released, apparently never having heard it.
During a nearly five-decade career that saw him signed with Chess, Arhoolie, Alligator and other labels, Chenier’s career was up and down in the early days, but he began to make a name for himself in the 1970s with “I’m Coming Home,” among others. He was the first Grammy winner on Alligator Records for his 1982 album I’m Here! He became increasingly ill but went out as close to the top of his game as he could get, leaving as the undisputed “King of Zydeco.”
Chenier was the subject of filmmaker Les Blank’s 1973 documentary Hot Pepper, which features him performing “I’m Coming Home” live against footage of life in the bayou (see video below). The zydeco torch these days is carried by Chenier’s son, saxophonist-turned-accordionist C. J. Chenier, who has recorded “I’m Coming Home” and performs the song in his live show with the group named for his father’s ensemble, the Red Hot Louisiana Band.