The music on the road out of Louisiana

Wow so driving 4 and a half hours without stopping really breaks your ass. I am exhausted!

Yesterday was a long driving day with two very nice stop. Let’s first stop by Floyd’s Record Shop. Floyd’s is an independent record store that was founded in 1956, nestled deep in Cajun Louisiana (AKA Acadiana) in Ville Platte, Louisiana. It was founded by Floyd Soileau, whose grandfather and great grandfather were accomplished fiddle players, while he was still in high school. And while his town has its share of closed storefronts now, Floyd’s is still running and has an incredible selection of Cajun, zydeco, and swamp pop albums. You can also buy stereo equipment, record players, and other tech. Check out their website, and take some time and money to support local record stores!

Now many of my listeners may have no idea what I’m talking about with these music genres. So let me give you a real basic primer on these three genres and how they are different from each other.
Cajun– The oldest form of music here, which has roots going back centuries. Cajuns- originally known as Acadians- came to Louisiana in the late 1700s, escaping British persecution following the French and Indian War in the 1750s and constant harassment throughout the colonies. The earliest form of this music was dance music, based around two steps and waltzes and played on the fiddle. During the late 1800s, German immigrants in the area introduced the accordion to the music, which instantly became popular. This unique and uniquely local music (still sung in Cajun French to this day) was first recorded in 1927 when record label execs (hoping to find new music to release on the market) found Joe and Cleoma Breaux and recorded their tune, Allons a Lafayette (Let’s go to Lafayette). Lafayette is still the center and one of the largest cities in the Cajun portion of Louisiana.

Cajun music, traditions, and language have been preserved remarkably well thanks to the efforts of a handful of musicians such as Michael Doucet, the Savoy Family, and the Balfa brothers. The music has changed overtime, incorporating electric guitars and influences of jazz and country. Local organizations have worked hard to teach the Cajun language, even as it fades from day to day use. This is what Savoy was talking about yesterday when he talked about the “Melting Pot” syndrome. Many Cajun musicians have worked hard to keep from disappearing into American mass culture, and we thank them for it and for helping to maintain America’s rich cultural diversity. Cajun musicians have linked to the larger culture without disappearing into it.

Recs: I’ve already played the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band for you yesterday. Their 1997 live album, Live at the Dance, is my personal favorite. These days, BeauSoleil are the masters of the music, and they are the best place to start. Strangely enough, when I visited the Cajun Music Hall of Fame on Tuesday, Doucet and BeauSoleil had not yet been inducted. Not sure what the story is there, but I aim to look it up later.

 

Zydeco– These two musical forms are often confused, and they do communicate a lot with each other. Zydeco has a couple distinguishing features

  • Zydeco is a much younger music, finding its roots in the 1940s and ’50s.
  • It’s also much more urban. While Cajun music grew out of the swamps, bayous, and small farms of Central and Western Louisiana, zydeco grew out of its cities, particularly Lafayette and Opelousas.
  • Zydeco is rooted in black music, particularly blues and rhythm and blues. Cajun music has more links to folk and country music than zydeco. Some of the most famous zydeco musicians have made their mark by covering classic blues tunes, with the accordion as the main instrument instead of the guitar and often translated into Creole French. Speaking of which, Creoles have a different background and dialect of French than Cajuns. The definition of Creole has changed drastically through the years- and varies depending on what part of the world you’re studying- but has most commonly be described in New Orleans as French speaking people of color. And that’s who we’re talking when we talk about Creoles in Louisiana. (Though again, even that definition has been contested over and over again.) Such musicians had clear links to black music in New Orleans and, in turn, up through the United States. As a result, this music clearly differentiated itself from most Cajun music. Now again, there are clear links between the two, and both forms often rely on two steps and waltzes. Moreover, these days, musicians from both camps have come to rely on each other for support as th natural base of support for their music has gotten smaller over time.

Recs: The modern creator of zydeco is Clifton Chenier. He is the one who first became famous for combining traditional African music of Acadiana with the rhythm and blues of Chicago. There are tons of albums out there, and they are all good, though I’m a fan of Bon Ton Roulet. Recent musicians (most famously Chris Ardoin, who is the third generation of a distinguished family of accordion players) have fused zydeco with hip-hop in really unique ways.
He has a lot of great songs. Here’s one of my favorites:

Swamp Pop- After World War II, Cajun and Creole youths were more connected to the rest of the world than ever before. They could hear early rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues on the radio, sung in English, and they heard it in jukeboxes all over Louisiana. In particular, they heard the strong backbeat, rhythmic piano playing, and friendly vocals of Fats Domino out of New Orleans. His success showed that Louisiana musicians could hit the big time with this new type of music, and so musicians formed an offset of early rock ‘n’ roll that became known as swamp pop.

Of all these genres, swamp pop is the least Louisianian. You might have even heard some of it in a 50s diner in your area. But there are some uniquely Cajun and Creole features. Singers adapt the high pitched wail of Cajun music, and heartbreak is a favorite theme of the great songs of the genre. Many songs in the genre even feature the accordion, most famously in Johnny Adams’ twist on Chuck Berry’s Promised Land. There are still singers working in the area and keeping swamp pop alive, such as Warren Storm and Lil Band o Gold. Still, the music has none of the cache or rich family history with younger musicians in the way that traditional Cajun music and zydeco does.

There are all sorts of classics, but the one everyone agrees on is this one by the deliciously named Cookie and the Cupcakes, Mathilda. Go back to the ’50s for a moment.

On through to Lake Arthur and Austin

So that’s the music of Acadiana. From there, I decided I needed to get a look at the Louisiana bayous. I ended up at the Lacassine National Wildlife Preserve in Lake Arthur, Louisiana, an area miles from the nearest mapped road on my GPS and a few miles past a number of oil refineries. This was the oil country that many Cajuns moved west to for jobs beginning in the late 1800s and that mark is on the region as you drive to the preserve. The preserve is home to dozens of birds, which are supported by the lake, rich prairies, swamps, a 16000 acre pond (really guys? a pond?), and even farmland managed to insure that birds have a rich food supply. You can hike there anytime, but watch out for the heat and the blistering sun. I fought those forces in the mid-afternoon for an hour or so, and then made my way to Austin.

I pulled a number of terrific albums for this trip through Louisiana across all of the genres we’ve covered. A lot of this music was meant to get me pumped up for driving. I’ve said this before, but at a certain point, you don’t get much from this strategy, and you need cool down music. I call this music “sunset music,” the sort of stuff that fits the romance and beauty of a great sunset.

Sunset music to me has a few distinct qualities

– Great and complex lyrics, often but not always dealing with emotional conflict.

– Low-key instruments. Sub out the amps and horns you might have been using earlier in the day, and rely on acoustic guitars and strings.

– Great dramatic possibilities. All of this should be put together in such a way as to give you an emotional response. This should be music to make you feel something, not make you fall asleep. You’re driving, you don’t want that.

As I drove into this particular Texas sunset, I just knew I had to go with Astronautalis’s “The Mighty Ocean and Nine Dark Theaters.” Check out my post on the website One Week One Band for an explanation of just why I think this album is so amazing and listen to the tracks. I think you’ll agree with me that you would want to see day turn into night to this album.
That’s all for now. I leave with you with some pictures from Lake Arthur, Floyd’s Records, and the Cajun Music Hall of Fame. For those who got their ticket in time for The Dark Knight Rises at midnight tonight, enjoy!

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