It was a long, intense trip - six weeks and 9,000 km exploring the roots of American music across the Southeast states. By the end, it had been like following a serpentine music trail and we began to appreciate how the various musical genres were intertwined and cross-influenced. Craig's fingers got a workout on his guitar, as he jammed and played with the talented musicians from old-time to Zydeco to the Delta blues. We had the time of our lives.
CAJUN & ZYDECO
Music is baked into the Cajun culture of Louisiana. At times, Cajun and Zydeco music protected a culture under siege. The songs tell stories of work, love, life, kids and the all-pervasive hurtin' heart. We had our radio dial tuned to Bayou 106.7 out of Lafayette, "The Sound of Acadiana."
Best musical stops: Lafayette (home to Vermilionville, Prejean's and Randol's), Saturday mornings at Fred's Lounge, Savoy Music Center (especially the Saturday morning jam), Liberty Theater in Eunice, any dance hall anywhere
Backstory: The small communities across the bayou and prairie of southern Louisiana were largely isolated – both by harsh geography and language – and music was a way to stay close-knit, enjoy and let off steam. Louisiana is also the home of Creole, Cajun and Zydeco music, brought to the region by displaced French-speaking Acadians (or ‘Cajuns’). The traditions are alive and thriving in bars, dancehalls and dining establishments across the bayou waterways and the Cajun prairie north of Interstate 10.
New Orleans (NOLA) – at the mouth of the Mississippi and the entry point to North America for the Caribbean and South America – acted as a massive engine transforming and exporting music, people and culture in all directions. The city’s whorehouses gave birth to the first known publication of the word “jazz” in an advertisement for the Razzy Jazzy Spasm Band. All the music of the region is eventually drawn to the clubs and dance halls of New Orleans, and Cajun and Zydeco are no exception. But for the authentic Cajun experience, head out from The Big Easy and into the rural bayou and prairie.
Vermilionville – in Lafayette – features a large performance centre where we saw Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys burn through hours of Creole-inspired dance music. In the middle of a Saturday, these all-ages events are where the elders teach their grandchildren the finer points of waltzing and two stepping. Like Zydeco, Creole music puts the microphone on the inside of the piano accordion whereas Cajun features a mic on the outside of a button accordion. Creole has a lot of blues in it while Zydeco tends to be more uptempo and often in English. Traditional Cajun music is filled with French lyrics.
Next door to Vermilionville, the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park Acadian Cultural Center tells the story of the Acadian expulsion (Le Grand Dérangement) in the 1750s and 60s from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Maine and their resettlement in what became Louisiana. This ethnic cleansing was part of the long rivalry between the imperial British and French and the Cultural Center tells the sad story in detail. Make sure you tour the grounds and get a sense of the Acadians lived experience, talk to the interpreters and enjoy the interaction. We were able to sit down and spend time with an amazing fiddle player who was well into his 90s and still full of energy for his music.
On a Saturday morning at Fred’s Lounge in Mamou (the only day of the week they're open) the rules are clear: absolutely no standing on the cigarette machine. Fred's is the real deal. Get there by 9 am for the start of the broadcast on radio 1050AM and find a place to stand before the bleary-eyed crowd moves in and the energy-filled two stepping pushes you ever farther from the band, which is roped off in the middle of the room. Take a tour of the signage, all hand-drawn, have a Caesar or three, but don’t try to keep up with the regulars. The guy on the accordion might be the local chief of police. And don’t stand on the jukebox either.
Savoy Music Center in Eunice – overseen by instrument maker and archivist of Cajun culture, Marc Savoy – is a little sedate compared with Fred’s Lounge. Have a bite to eat or take a chair and indulge yourself in the spirit of sharing music. The Saturday morning jam – into its fifth decade – is a respectful gathering of young and old in which deference for the old timers is the expectation. Savoy himself is a product of the Cajun prairie, taught himself to play accordion as a child and has become one of the most sought-after instrument makers in the world (35-40 per year), when he’s not touring or recording with his family band. Study the collection of Marc's personal wisdom posted on almost every surface and wall of his workshop and store.
Lafayette – Paul Simon sang: “Well, I’m standing on the corner of Lafayette / State of Louisiana / Wondering where a city boy could go / To get a little conversation / Drink a little red wine / Catch a little bit of those Cajun girls / Dancing to Zydeco.”
Randol's and Prejean's – in Lafayette – are where you go to be amazed at the dedication to dancing among these people, some of whom are considerably older than they look on the dance floor. And some are dancing with children considerably younger than themselves. And some are dancing by themselves because – dammit! – they came to dance. One elderly couple we met had been coming to Randol's for 37 years – kibitzing with friends, dancing with strangers and generally soaking up the joie de vivre. We should all want to spend our golden years with such genuine smiles on our faces.
Liberty Theater/Rendez Vous des Cajuns (Eunice) – not far from the Savoy Music Center – is another venue from which a regular live radio broadcast is done every Saturday evening. The theatre was designed and built before the age of electronic sound reproduction so an ordinary voice from the stage can be heard anywhere in the room and the sightlines are great. People dance – of course they dance! – right up in front of the stage and below the band on the original hardwood floors. For a meager $5 – popcorn is extra – it’s a great way to pass a Saturday evening drinking in the local culture.
Classic artists and tunes:
Paper in My Shoe, Boozoo Chavis
Bon Ton Roula, Clarence Garlow
Les Haricots Sant Pas Salés, Clifton Chenier
It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo', Zydeco Skillet Lickers
Zodico Stomp, Clifton Chenier