Rural Louisiana birthed three styles of original music, and dance fans -- local and far flung -- ensure that every beat goes on.
In the 200 square miles of prairieland just north of Lafayette, Louisiana, someday archaeologists will unearth the evidence: crawfish shells, broken fiddle strings, motorcycle license plates from Minnesota, a red polyester crown, and empty bottles of Hot Damn. This was the place!
Impossible as it seems, in and around the small towns of Eunice, Mamou, Ville Platte and Opelousas, three powerful and original musical styles sprang up in the twentieth century: Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop. It’s as if cultural lightning struck three times in the same spot – no “innovation incubators” required.
Equally astounding, no preservation society has been needed to keep this music alive. On any given weekend, zydeco dancers “eat the beat” at Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas, and Cajun musicians gather to jam at the Savoy Music Center between Eunice and Lawtell. There’s so much great live local music to catch, in fact, that weekend visitors will find themselves facing cruel decisions, especially if there’s competition from a festival in nearby Lafayette (And there was for us – Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, 2 ½ days of the best old and new Cajun and zydeco music, all FREE in Girard Park).
For reasons no one has satisfactorily explained, this stretch of prairie in St. Landry and Evangeline parishes came to possess the most musically rich treasure trove in all rural America. French speaking Acadians settled in this region as early as 1765, expelled from Nova Scotia for refusing to pledge their allegiance to England. The territory between the Atchafalaya River and the Sabine (which forms the Texas/Louisiana border) was Appaloosa Indian country. French Acadians, Indians, Spanish settlers, and later the English, African slaves, and accordion-bearing Germans moved into the area.
The “creole” culture they made is an anomaly. Somehow the prairie people of Acadia managed to integrate their many ethnic legacies yet keep tempos and flavors distinct. While today’s churning media whizz styles into auditory puree, these musics still possess an undogmatic integrity. Nobody would mistake zydeco rocker Beau Jocque for a Cajun singer, and Cory McCauley’s ballads are a far, straining cry from the slow-dance songs of Swamp Pop, yet they all originated right here. In other words, there’s something for everybody, and something OF everybody too.
Cajun music, with fiddle, button accordion, and percussive guitar, is mainly sung in Louisiana’s French dialect. The tunes are waltzes and two-steps (though the dance moves are clipped, less of a shuffle than our Texas two-stepping). Most songs are plaintive and jiggy at the same time; who says one has to choose between dancing and crying?
Zydeco, like Athena, seems to have sprung to life full grown but out of the head of Opelousas-native Clifton Chenier. Whereas most Cajun bands are white, most of zydeco’s early greats were African-American, and if you’re wondering who they are, a pantheon of zydeco royalty (they do like wearing crowns) has been painted on a mural in Opelousas. The music is drenched in blues, R&B, and funk, as well as Cajun sounds, led usually by a keyboard-style accordion and backed with drums, electrified guitar and bass. And the dancing – based on a Step-Pause-Step-Step measure – invites infinite embellishments: out-and-out lewd, knee wagging comical, spins that blur, and how-yo-ankle-do-dat? footplay. From looking at some of the dancers grooving to Chubby Carrier’s encore in Girard Park, it’s clear that if you’re loose and talented enough, zydeco can become a sublime vocation.
In the late 1950s, a crop of teenage musicians – both black and white — in rural Louisiana and East Texas heard rock and roll for the first time and conjured up their own style: what came to be known as Swamp Pop. Most of them anglicized their French names and swapped “country” sounding fiddles and accordions for saxophones, drums, and electric guitars. Not familiar with Swamp Pop? Of course you are. Think “Sea of Love” or “Matilda” by Cookie and the Cupcakes. As dance music, these are mainly midtempo swing tunes and smoochy slow numbers. Get out your rat tail comb.
We offer below an elementary guide to some of the bounty of Evangeline and St. Landry parishes, from a base in Eunice. The four towns roughly make a square, about 17 miles on each side. Long time Louisiana music fans and, of course, locals will know about much more. We welcome them to scoff at our suggestions and make better ones; actually we’re begging for that, because we’re heading back as soon as possible. (Thanks to John and Marlys Rivard, editors of Texas Polka News, for helping us set out.)
Dinner at D.I.’s Cajun Food and Music
Out in the country west of Eunice, D.I.’s is a classic Cajun restaurant, with gumbo of andouille sausage and chicken, big crabs, etouffeé and all the other SW Louisiana specialties served up at family-size tables around a dance floor. (Wimps can eat in booths in the front diningroom away from the music.) Try the Devils on Horseback appetizer (shrimp wrapped in bacon). Cajun bands Thursday-Saturday nights. We heard Mack Manuel and the Lake Charles Ramblers play waltzes, two-steps, the cotton-eyed Joe as well as some line dances we weren’t familiar with. All ages and multiple birthday parties happening.
Lodging and Breakfast: Le Village Guesthouse (guests only)/Eunice
Continental breakfast with an Acadian twist: Apricot bread with local fig preserves and marmelade, cornbread with pork (try it with a dab of Steen’s Cane Syrup). 121 Seale Ln., Eunice, 337-457-3573.
Fred’s Lounge/Mamou: Live radio broadcast of Cajun music. Doors open 7:30, bar starts selling at 8 a.m., broadcast begins at 9 a.m. on KVPI a.m. out of Ville Platte. Visitors from all over the world, including, on the day we were there, three women from Indianapolis, a family from Quebec, Canada, motorcyclists from Minnesota, and the two dudes from Florida who were drinking Hot Damn (cinnamon schnapps) at 8:30 a.m.. “If you’re going to drink all day, you gotta start in the morning.” Good point. Get there early to get a seat, or skip sitting (and drinking) and dance. 420 6th St.
Savoy Music Center/Between Eunice and Lawtell: jam session at Savoy Music Center. Marc and Ann Savoy and now two of their sons too have kept the Cajun music flowing for decades. Marc is an accordion maker as well as player. He and Ann give older local musicians pride of place at their Saturday get togethers in the front room, 9 a.m. to noon. No telling who’ll show up, but big shots better not act that way. Everybody pulling from the same songbag, at one point there were ten fiddlers, three guitar players, three accordionists, and a triangle player (limit one) jamming. See Ann Savoy’s remarkable anthology of Cajun songs; it and loads of CDs, as well as handmade accordions, are on sale. Open Tues-Fri: 9-5 but closed for lunch. 4412 U.S. 190 (3 miles E. of Eunice, look for cars) 337-457-9563
Cajun Smokehouse/Ville Platte
How about a catfish po’boy? All the regular suspects on the menu here. And if you make it in the evenings on weekends, there’s likely to be live music in back, maybe some local Swamp Pop. 205 W. Main St., 337-363-0800
Swamp Pop Museum/Ville Platte
In the old railroad depot, Janie Knighten lovingly curates this temple to Louisiana’s indigenous rock and roll in the old railroad depot. The museum highlights the many local musicians who made this signature sound c. 1958-1964. 205 Railroad St. 337-363-0900
Floyd’s Record Shop/Ville Platte
Louisiana’s oldest record store, specializing in, you guessed it, Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop. 434 E. Main St. 337-363-2185
Rendez-Vous des Cajuns, live music show 6-7:30 (with dancing), broadcast on KRVS 88.7 FM, usually features two fine bands. Recent performers have included the Pine Leaf Boys and Donny Broussard, admission $5. 200 Park Ave. 337-457-7389
Renowned music and dance club, since 1947, in the Zydeco Capital of the World. Live bands most Fridays and Saturdays but check ahead. Admission @ $7. Music from about 9:30 until 2 a.m. Pork sandwiches available. Highly recommended show coming up New Year’s Eve – powerhouse Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Boys. $25 advance, $30 at the door, includes complimentary gumbo and champagne at midnight. Nice proviso: “Ladies not prepared to dance close and get sweaty should pass this up.” Highway 182 North (Main St.) 337-942-6242 Here are directions.
Louisiana visitors may be tempted to have food dictate the trip. Don’t do it! Instead, let dance music be your guide; trust us, you’ll bump into more great boudin, gumbo and crabs along the way than you’ll be able to handle. And having danced for hours on end, you’ll be able to handle a helluva lot more than you thought possible.