Sunday, 18 November 2012

Laissez les bon temps rouler - how I got to know and love Cajun music

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys

Gosh, that's good - it does that thing common to a lot of American music with its roots in Old World folk of using minor chords in uptempo songs: the effect of this, as in British folk music, is rather disconcerting - but in a pleasurable way. For some odd reason, violins and accordions heighten the effect:

"Beau's Mardi Gras" by Beau Jocque

I can't remember when I first became aware of Cajun music - probably reading Rolling Stone some time in the early '70s, I expect. But I only became conscious of it as a distinct musical form with the purchase of Charlie Gillett's wonderful Louisiana sampler, Another Saturday Night, in 1974, which featured a lot of tracks that would probably be more accurately described as Swamp Pop. But Belton Richards' take on Merle Haggard's "I Am a Lonesome Fugitive" sounds pretty authentic, despite the lack of an accordion (if it's there somewhere in the mix, I can't hear it):

Eclectic roots band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen did a version of "Diggy Liggy Lo" on their splendid 1974 Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas LP, and that lead me to Rusty and Doug Kershaw's original, and to another Cajun music anthem,  "Lousiana Man":

Mind you, judging by this promotional photograph of the Kershaw Brothers, I have to admit that coming across them deep in bayou might have given one a bit of a turn:

Rusty & Doug Kershaw - yikes!

They rather remind me of this scene from the movie Southern Comfort, where the surviving members of a group of Louisiana National Guardsmen who've been hunted down and murdered by some seriously pissed off Cajuns while on manoeuvres in the bayou (the background music's authentic and good):

1983 saw the release of Promised Land, an album by the "Swamp Fox", Johnnie Allan, which, apart from the astonishingly great title track, contained two stonking versions of songs which had featured on Dave Edmunds' classic 1977 Git It LP - "I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll" and the the wonderful "Ju Ju Man" (which isn't echt Cajun, but features an accordion and rocks like a m... - well, you know what I mean):

Mary Chapin Carpenter's 1991 collaboration with Beausoleil, "Down at the Twist and Shout" did weird things to me: 

During a trip to the States the following year, my wife and I got to visit the legendary Cajun restaurant and live music venue, Mulate's in Breaux Bridge (she has never forgiven me for being too wet to get up and dance while we were there - if we ever return, I promise I will!). Before heading home, I loaded up on Cajun compilations and - at last - got to know what old style kosher Cajun music (performed here by the legendary Balfa Brothers) actually sounded like:

To be honest, I listened to so much of the stuff for the next year that, for fifteen years or so, I felt vaguely queasy whenever I heard any genuine Cajun music. Well, I'm over that now, and will leave you with something which I heard for the first time yesterday - Aldus Rogers and the Lafayette Playboys performing "Grand Texas", the traditional Cajun song which provided the melody for... well, it's so bleeding obvious, I refuse to tell you!

And before I'm accused of racism for ignoring Zydeco - I'm saving that for another post.


  1. I've never really been able to put my arms around it. I think it's the accordians.

    I spend a lot of time in south Louisiana...hardcore Cajun radio stations down there.

    Maybe its being in New Orleans all the time where there's this constant...inoutinoutinout of accordian coming from every open door.

    Or maybe it's just too French...I don't know.

    I love the food but, the music...damn accordians.

  2. Johnnie Allan's version of "Promised Land" converted me to accordions - it's as effective on that solo as any guitar would be, and, to British ears, sounds really exotic.

    I thought of you last night when I found myself watching a BBC travelogue/documentary presented by one of our top TV chefs, Rick Stein, who owns a bunch of restaurants in Padstow, the Cornish town where we were married, Anyway, Rick was travelling around Mississippi celebrating the local food (the mouth-watering stuff you feature on your blog) and the Blues: he's evidently crazy about both. Two reflections: first, you're probably a regular visitor to every eaterie featured in the programme; second, I wonder if your state doesn't have a greater hold on the imagination of Brits than it does on the rest of the US. Anyway, Stein was having a great time - but, boy, was he sweating! You might be gratified to hear that Stein said he'd never experienced greater hospitality.

    You probably can't access "A Taste of the Blues" where you are - and you obviously won't learn anything - but, in case you can, it's here:

  3. I used to go to England on regular basis when I was stationed in Germany. I say England...mostly I went to London but, I was always treated pretty well once I opened my mouth.

    I don't know that there is a hotter place on the planet than the Mississippi Delta at the end of August/beginning of September. There may be higher temps but, I don't know that it gets any hotter.

  4. "always treated pretty well once I opened my mouth."

    Which, I should point out, is exactly the opposite reaction I get north of the ohio river over here.