Saturday, September 18, 2021

What happened on Highway 61: Part III: On Highway 90

By A Tyke Dahnsarf
To read Part 2 of this blog series, please go HERE

"Laissez les bons temps rouler"

What does the Bayou have to do with the Blues Trail?

I am fortunate to live in both the UK and Southwest France, in Occitanie. A region deriving it's name from the language which, until the aftermath of the First World War, was widely spoken. My adopted Gallic home, a wild, mountainous land, was once a separate fiefdom, subsumed into France at sword point. It still enjoys a distinctiveness of it's own. There are other regions of France, remote from Paris, often historically turbulent, where cultures differ. When opportunity across the Atlantic presented itself, the more intrepid or desperate, disparate people settled in this "Acadie," in hope of better lives led of their own choosing.

It is this background, curiosity, love of music, and a recommendation, that led me to the Cajuns of Louisiana's swamps. A persecuted diaspora often holds dear it's culture, faith and especially, music, when an Acadien promise proves to be yet more "les haricots ne sont pas salés." An old French idiom (unsalted beans) meaning hard times, possibly corrupted to "Zydeco" - song of lament and Blues by any other name?

So, with friends, we set out from New Orleans to Lafayette and beyond, turning right across the flat lands to Eunice, where our accommodation awaited. Eunice is home to American manufactured accordions what Nazareth is to Martin guitars and as equally venerated for their tonal quality. And, a squeeze-box made by Savoy Music is the ultimate Acadian instrument, due as much to it's beautiful construction and portability as to it's sound and thus, to Eunice's claim of being at the heart of Cajun music. This boast may or not, be true but it is Mamou and Fred's Lounge, which is it's beat and the ultimate destination in our quest for the real deal.

As many readers of this blog series may know, Fred's is an institution in the region, which broadcasts weekly, live Cajun and Zydeco music at it's very best.

Remaining with Eunice and people of the South in general, for a moment. I am still amazed at the welcome we received during our visit which paradoxically, belies much of their reputed intolerance of difference. Our accommodation would merit number 11 on the scale, if such a rating existed. On our arrival, our hostess, Sandra provided a Gumbo only someone with French blood could conjure and a mighty breakfast to boot. All with a smile as wide as Lake Pontchartrain. So it was, with great difficulty in fastening seat belts, we set off very early to secure a ring-side seat at Fred's Lounge.

A hostelry with "lounge" in the title envisions, at least, an expectation of a degree of comfort and ambience conducive with relaxation. Fred's is devoid of even a hint that it may have been anything other than a spit 'n sawdust male refuge, designed squarely for copious consumption of alcohol. Despite paucity of amenities and furnishings, it makes no false claims. For lounge you can - either on the rustic bar or few benches, chairs and tables scattered in corners. Hence the advice to arrive early. At the center of the room, on the barest timber floor, is a space reserve for performance. Stage, lighting, and obvious sound system are absent, only a priest hole of a place provided in which, to squeeze the show's compere.

From our commandeered seating, we observed the arriving minstrels, identifiable by instruments they carried, haphazardly depositing these and themselves on their amplifiers. When all finally assembled, a rudimentary sound check ensued and without any preliminary rehearsal, the band was ready to rock. A BBC broadcast this was not! And, it would have caused the boffins charged with the sonic fidelity of that corporation's entertainment output, to suffer collective tachycardia at the spectacle. At precisely 9 O'clock with the announcement, "Welcome to Fred's Lounge..." began the most fantastic euphony and looking around, I saw the place was packed by a moved-by-the-groove throng. They and me amongst them, were totally transported by the joyous immediacy of this musical genre.

The highlight of the stay was followed by visits to shrines to all things Cajun. A Folk Museum, Gumbo cooking lesson, a demonstration of fiddle and accordion syncopation in the diatonic scale. Time restraints fortunately, prevented a visit to an Alligator Farm, the wild ones converted into saucisson long ago. Those few still free to roam now apparently, protected from this fate. Our sojourn culminated in a visit to a Roadhouse involving further Cajun delicacies including dismembered parts of hopefully, incarcerated Gators and not their wild cousins. And, yet more death by Gumbo! The House Band's entertainment fare, like the comestibles, could have been better cooked. Not exactly Fred's Lounge but nevertheless, made enjoyable by the company.

We were loath to leave these proud folk and their caring, close knit world - for our lives were made better by the experience. Also saddened to observe a lifestyle, that in some of the few places we visited, like the banks of the Bayou, seemed fragile. Admittedly, a view formed in our very limited immersion in the culture. However, the music seems alive and as vibrant as ever but think that we'd all be the poorer for an entirely Anglicized Cajun songbook. With the will and the positive State intervention in place, take up of French language may yet increase?

Just as the Occitans are no less French, so it is that Cajuns are no less American. Spice is for life, as well as the food - vive la differénce!

Next, the river road plantations, cradle of slavery in America and the smokestack lightnin' route to emancipation.

To be continued...

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