My Great American Songbook: ‘Jumbalaya and a crawfish pie’ Lafayette and New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

10 May

Jackson, Mississippi to Lafayette, Louisiana is a pleasant, green drive. Had our rental car been behaving we would have enjoyed it more. Some of the petrol we pumped must have been dodgy as the acceleration became jerky and unreliable en route. Rather disconcerting on a 70mph highway with trucks flying by. It sorted itself out but we had some anxious moments.

I chose Lafayette as it seemed representative of deep fried southern soul. I was looking for gators and gumbo and as much music as we could stumble on. Another Hank Williams’ favourite of Dad’s already reverberating in my head.

‘Goodbye Joe me gotta go me oh my oh,
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou,
My Yvonne the sweetest one me oh my oh,
Son of a gun we’ll have big fun on the bayou,
Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and file gumbo,
Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma cher ami oh,
Pick guitar fill fruit jar and be gay-oh,
Son of a gun we’ll have big fun on the bayou’

According to the oracle, Wikipedia, the original melody of ‘Jumbalaya’ comes from a Cajun French song, ‘Grand Texas’. A staple of Cajun culture before Williams picked it up, he changed the lyrics a little. After Williams released his version in 1952 Cajuns re-recorded the song using Cajun instruments and the Williams’ lyrics translated back into Cajun French. How’s that for fusion?

Our timing proved impeccable. We hit the first night of the Festival International de Louisiane (emphaasis on the last syllaable of the first two words if you want to sound like a local), an annual free, five-day French music and food fest in six public spaces in downtown Lafayette. Opening night at the Scene Lafayette General Fai Do Do stage was huge. The Lost Bayou Ramblers cajun band had everyone dancing with catchy, fast fiddling.

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The lead singer was in perpetual motion, his left leg never stomped stomping, and the band that followed, Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band, kept us bopping.

The mosh pit was elbow to elbow with slick partner dancing by folks of all ages and colours. Nice. Locals brought their folding chairs and set in for the evening. We went over to the Blue Moon Saloon for more beer and Zydeco.

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Before we left Lafayette next day we walked through Vermilionville, the founding site of present day Lafayette. It’s now a cultural heritage site with examples of the types of cajun (white French Canadian immigrants who settled in Louisiana), local Indigenous people, and Creole (Black African slaves and other non-white immigrants) dwellings and a schoolhouse and church. Mr D’jalma in the one room school room gave us an instant history lesson in the difference between cajun and creole music.

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Forty minutes from Lafayette we stopped in New Iberia, where Spanish colonisation adds another flavour (chillies) to the French and British melange. We toured the Weeks family riverside Antebellum home, Shadows on the Teche and lunched at Clementine’s.

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Clementine’s bar-restaurant

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A short time later we were on highway 10 and ‘Busted flat in Baton Rouge’ (one of the best Janice Joplin singalong songs ever!) driving over an enormous steel bridge before hanging a right to get down to the river road to view more grand plantation style homes. From Laplace to New Orleans the highway is constructed over water, kilometre upon kilometre of concrete pylons supporting the road.

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After moving every day or two days we now had the luxury of four nights in New Orleans. I’d bought a day pass online for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that’s held on two consecutive long weekends. The weather report was fine for the Friday of the first weekend so it was time to step up to serious music fest mode.

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Pit stop for weary travellers and despite the sign charming service and a good cup of tea.

We warmed up with a stroll down Bourbon Street the night we arrived. Gypsy Elise and the Royal Blues at Bar 635 plays two tamborines at once and taps her bare toes. Cool. Across the street Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers at Krazy Korner revved the crowd up with frenetic washboard ryhthms. Bourbon Street is a zoo, much more sex on sale than I recall from Mardi Gras 26 years ago. Happily a block or two away from Bourbon there’s great music and a calmer ambience.

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Gypsy Elise et al.

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Dinner at Mr B’s Bistro (B for Brennan) was entertaining. Smart waiters zipped by carrying a constant stream of steaming food and empty plates.

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For readers who haven’t been to the Jazz Fest and hope to go it’s worth noting a couple of idiosynchracies. Much of the parking is on neighbouring houses property. They make good money charging for parking outside their homes. We were content to have a sweet woman take care of our car in her front yard for 20 bucks. The Festival program in the showground starts at 11am and ends at 7pm and is huge – so many venues to choose from. The early finish works because there’s plenty more music downtown in the evening if you want it. Groups and families stake out their patch of lawn or dirt or mud with deck chairs and run a flag or pennant up their individual pole so people can find them. They bring their own drinks and food and settle in for the duration.

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Two please and make it snappy!

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Stuart and I were happy to wander and split up for half the day to follow our own interests. I loved the R ‘n B set by The Divas with the backing of the Brian Quezergue Band, especially Wanda Rouzan and her ‘Take me as I am’ and Jean Knight’s ‘I’ll take you there’. Sexy seniors! The Dixie Cups, yes, the real Dixie Cups, finished the session with four of their hits including their three part harmony classic ‘Going to the Chapel’.

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Wanda Rouzan

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Jean Knight

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Dixie Cups in motion.
Other memorable early sessions included the New Orleans Suspects, Henry Gray, John Mooney and Bluesiana, Fredy Omar con su Banda, and Leroy Jones and his quintet. Later we caught George Benson, John Mayer and Band of Horses. In between I checked out the American Indian drumming and brightly feathered Semolian Warriors Mardi Gras Indians. The odd thing about the Warriors was the small casually dressed man who stands behind them and leads the singing while they shake their feathers in front. You can just see him in the video.

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Henry Gray

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Semolian Warriors

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Salsa caliente!

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George Benson’s voice may be a little older but his guitar licks are as fine as ever.

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The crowd for John Mayer was ridiculous.

We watched Cory Ledet’s awesome Zydeco band too, but as Buckwheat Zydeco was the first ever zydeco band I ever heard I give you instead the stars of the 2007 New Orleans Jazz Fest, Buckwheat Zydeco.

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Happy Jazz Festers!

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And our car well cared for.

Other memorable NOLA music experiences include the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Germaine Bazzle (backed by Paul, Peter and Simon) at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Both experiences came courtesy of our host, the very talented Australian Belinda Moody. Belinda casually dropped the information that she’d be playing a gig on Friday night into the conversation. I’d noticed on her airbnb.com profile that she studied at the Victorian College of Arts but had no idea what an accomplished, international composer/arranger/performer Belinda is until I saw her play and googled her afterwards. Nor did I know of the venerable jazz institution that is Preservation Hall, so two times lucky. The third stroke of luck was that during Germaine’s first set Irvin appeared in Tshirt and tracksuit pants holding his trumpet and stepped up on stage to play with her. On a roll!

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Very sensibly there is a total ban on mobile phones and cameras during Preservation Hall shows.

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Jazz queen Germaine Bazzle.

Germaine is a class act. Early on a group at the bar were getting a little noisy. Germaine paused in her patter, smiled, and requested that ‘people use their inside voices’. Had the desired effect.

Beyond the music I must mention our neighbourhood. Belinda completed the renovation of a large Lower Ninth Ward house on a large corner block. The Lower Ninth was one of the low income, black neighbourhoods most affected by Hurricane Katrina. It still sits six feet below the level of the Mississippi and can be flooded from three sides. As her ‘day job’ Belinda created an attractive, welcoming, comfortable environment for travellers and we were very happy in her ‘Blue Room ‘n Bathtub’.

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Belinda’s project.

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And her loyal companions.

On the second day of sunshine we ventured into Pirate Jean Lafitte country to take an airboat ride through the backwaters. You know what’s coming next, oh yeah…….Poke Salad Annie gator’s got your Grannie. I swear I tried to give you the Tony Joe White version but it’s copyright protected so I just had to go with Elvis.

We climbed on board at Lafitte with Captain Sam (doubt that’s his real name) for two hours of gator, bird and turtle spotting. Sam’s being doing this for 13 years so he’s a well rehearsed story teller and gator kisser. The alligators were just starting to emerge from their winter hibernation and their metabolism was still slow so he coaxed them closer with alligator crack – white marshmallows. That little bit of sugar burns up quickly, they love it and it’s harmless. Had he given them meat they would have disappeared for days.

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Oil extraction

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One canal we travelled down was excavated for small scale oil extraction. Seems odd to see an oil pump and flare with wildlife and bushy banks and Spanish moss covered trees all around but it works. Spotted five alligators in that inlet alone.

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Our last day in New Orleans was forecast to be wet, wet, wet so we opted to stay dry aboard the paddle steamer Natchez IX (the only steam paddle operational out of New Orleans) as she cruised down the Mississippi to Chalmette and back. The Steamboat Stompers played Ragtime and New Orleans jazz standards in the dining room as the rain came down at a 45 degree angle. Listening to ‘Let the rest of the world go by’ it was easy to relax and forget the cold and grey day outside.

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Final note on food. Again we took Belinda’s advice and ate locally most of the time, in Bywater and also Algiers, a free car ferry ride from Canal Street. Bacchanal (cool live jazz under fairy lights in the garden), Toute de Suite and Maurepas were the best. Bywater and Algiers are thriving, colourful neighbourhoods.

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Toute de Suite breakfasts were the best.

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Maurepas, packed on a Sunday night.

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Bywater homes.

This is the last instalment of my four-part American songbook. It’s time to quit hunting music and go looking for grizzlies in the Smoky Mountains. I bid you adieu with a sample of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and one of my favourite photos of NOLA. Thanks for sticking with us reader!

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