Mississippi: The River of Song and more...

Smithsonian Institution
Louisiana Where Music is King1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King


North Louisiana
by Maida Owens

The rest of Louisiana is populated primarily by English speaking British Americans and African Americans. This includes the Florida Parishes north of Lake Pontchartrain (in the "toe of the boot" as locals say) and parishes north of the French triangle. Within what is commonly called "North Louisiana," there are two primary subcultures: the Upland South hill culture and the Lowland South plantation culture along the river bottoms. Both are primarily Protestant, but there are significant differences. The Upland South region was primarily populated by Scotch Irish who migrated from Georgia and Alabama. The majority of these immigrants were Baptist or Methodist small farmers with a strong Protestant work ethic. Few had slaves in large numbers. The Lowland South region in Louisiana was populated by the descendants of Englishmen and Scots from other Southern states and New England. This group established plantations, especially cotton, along the bottoms of the Mississippi, Red, and Ouachita rivers. More often, these settlers were Methodists, Presbyterians, or Episcopalians. Their plantations depended on a large slave population, a fact reflected in the high concentration of rural blacks who inhabit the region today (Cash 1941, Frantom 1993, Roach Lankford 1985).
        Culturally, north Louisiana is akin to a patchwork quilt, as described by H.F. Gregory (1981). Each piece has remained intact, co existing with the others. But just as south Louisiana is not a uniform French/African culture, north Louisiana is not a uniform British/African culture. Variations and subtleties exist through the region. Distinctive traits differentiate the communities of the northeast, northwest, and central regions. In the Mississippi River delta in northeast Louisiana, the land is low and has few large towns. On the high bluffs of the Mississippi side of the river, larger towns, including Vicksburg and Natchez, were founded. They also served the lowland Louisiana side. The Mississippi River left natural levees, creating backswamp areas dividing the region into what was called "front lands" and "back lands." The front lands were the flat, higher, siltier levees near the active Mississippi River where the plantation economy flourished. As the artificial levees expanded, these lands were extensively cleared and planted. The back lands remained swamps until drained in the 1970s.
       This area, the Louisiana Delta from the Red River to the Arkansas border was home to a folk culture based on open range hogs managed by Catahoula curs, a dog breed developed in the area. While this method of raising hogs was not unique to this area, it predominated this region more than others. From the late 1800s until the mid 1900s, settlers raised free ranging hogs for pork and lard to be sold in New Orleans (LeBon 1970). Today, Catahoula curs are still valued. A few people still raise free ranging hogs, and pork remains a staple of the diet. Between the lowlands of the Mississippi River and the Boeuf River/Ouachita River basins is Ma on Ridge, high land settled by Upland South farmers. Along the Mississippi River and to the south on Catahoula Lake and other lakes, British American fishing communities are found. Here, commercial fishermen and their families maintain the occupational traditions of boatbuilding, trapmaking, and netmaking. The twin cities of Monroe and West Monroe on the Ouachita River illustrate the juxtaposition of north Louisiana's two dominant cultures: Lowland and Upland South. Monroe on the east bank with rich Delta soil was settled first by Lowland South planters who were more likely to have larger tracts of land and to allow alcohol and dancing in social settings. A second wave of small farmers of Upland South heritage settled on the west bank with higher land and piney woods. This area, known as West Monroe, is less likely to have alcohol at community and social events.
       Shreveport, Natchitoches, and Alexandria are Lowland South cities along the Red River. Each was tied economically to the large plantations in this rich river delta. In Northwest Louisiana, Shreveport, the largest city in north Louisiana, is home to a culturally diverse mix of British Americans (especially Scots Irish), African Americans, Italians, Lebanese, Germans, Greeks, Chinese, and Jews. At one time, downtown Shreveport had a significant small city merchant community of Italian grocers, Chinese restaurants, Jewish merchants, and a German bakery. While few downtown merchants remain, Shreveport is still home to their descendants. Nearby, German socialists started a colony at Minden which broke up in 1871.
       Founded in 1713, Natchitoches, the earliest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, was settled by the French, creating a unique cultural pocket in north Louisiana. Current evidence of the Creole French influence is seen in the foodways (Natchitoches meat pies and Cane River cakes) and the architecture, which is more related to New Orleans than to its surrounding communities. On nearby Cane River, a rural community of Creoles of color exists, descended from a freed slave woman who established what is now known as Melrose Plantation. This French African Creole community was isolated until World War II, after which many members moved away to Houston, Chicago, and southern California for economic reasons. Yet, the community remains tight knit with most returning annually just after the cotton harvest for the St. Augustine Catholic Church fair (Mills 1977; Breaux 1993).
       To the west along the Texas Louisiana border, one finds the remains of "No Man's Land," otherwise known as the Neutral Strip, which was formerly a refuge for outlaws and others not wanting to be bothered with the trappings of "civilized" society. This area has not been extensively documented but is home to a diverse group, including colonial Spanish to the west of Natchitoches in Sabine Parish. The colonial town of Los Adais near Robeline was once a capital of Texas. In Los Adais, colonial Spanish influence is evident in the Catholicism and the food traditions of tamales and chilies. Elders speak a unique, archaic Spanish filled with Nahuatl Indian and French loanwords (Armistead and Gregory 1986). These Spanish and Indian groups work at cattle raising and lumbering. Farther south around Beauregard Parish, a group emerged in the mid nineteenth century when a Native American community absorbed British American settlers and other populations. These people became known as Redbones, from the West Indian term red ibo which meant any racial mixture (Kniffen, Gregory & Stokes 1987).
       Most of the Florida Parishes are Protestant and rural, and dominated by Upland South culture. Here small farms and towns thrive among the piney woods that were at one time part of the colonial Spanish state of Florida. Exceptions are St. Francisville and West Feliciana, which are part of the Lowland South plantation culture, and the capital Baton Rouge, a British American town in spite of its French name, that is home to a multicultural community of Italians, Cajuns, African Americans, Lebanese, Asians (particularly Vietnamese), and others.
       As in French Louisiana, pockets of ethnic groups remain intact among the Upland and Lowland South cultures. Hungarians in Tangipahoa Parish continue their dance, music, food, and costume traditions, and the Hungarian language is taught in the elementary school in an effort to save it (Romero 1987). Czechs in Rapides Parish east of Alexandria have revitalized their dance, song, food, and costume traditions.
       North Louisiana craft traditions include many that reflect the skills used on farms and plantations relying upon available resources. Some crafts, such as whipmaking, knifemaking, saddlery, trapmaking, split oak basketmaking, and quilting are still vital and practiced by many. Others, including whittling toys, blacksmithing, tatting, carving walking sticks, soapmaking, and fashioning gourd birdhouses, are relatively rare and maintained by only a few individuals.
       Food traditions include a vast array of relishes and chow chow (to enhance field peas and cornbread); jellies, jams, and preserves; vegetable crops (corn, sweet potatoes, greens, beans, peas); hogs; and cattle. Many still relish wild game (venison, squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, and quail) and fish (both farm raised catfish and gamefish such as crappie and bream). All of these may be fried. Sunday dinners at noon, fish fries, and barbecues are common occasions.
       Ritual traditions reflect the Protestant heritage. All day singing and dinner on the grounds still take place after church services in many rural communities, frequently on the fifth Sunday in a month. Both black and white rural churches have gatherings such as Homecoming which serve to bring together the extended family. Memorial Day, which commemorates the deceased and not only military veterans, also provides an opportunity for extended families to visit graveyards, decorate graves with silk flowers, and tell stories. North Louisiana graveyards are relatively unadorned when compared to those in south Louisiana. Some rural church congregations still conduct baptisms in the same river or lake as has been done for generations. Many church families, especially among the African Americans, continue to make the special baptismal robes and headgear.
       The music of north Louisiana reflects its cultural roots. Gospel music is probably the strongest traditional form of music among both blacks and whites. Quartets and choirs are heard in churches, on the radio, and at festivals throughout the region. Shaped note singing, a musical notation system using seven shapes to represent the musical scale, is still practiced in north Louisiana, and singing conventions are held annually. Quartet singing remains strong, and a strong emphasis on harmony is seen in family performing groups. Most churches have large choirs, and many still learn to sing by ear rather by musical notation. Church services featuring gospel performances are broadcast on radio and television.
       Other music traditions shared by British Americans include old time country and bluegrass. Weekly country music shows such as the Dixie Jamboree in Ruston and the former Louisiana Hayride radio show in Shreveport reflect this heritage. Country music is also performed at benefits to raise funds to help families cover the costs of such emergencies as catastrophic illness or rebuilding fire damaged houses. Benefits often include an auction of donated goods. Bluegrass festivals, which usually forbid alcohol, have been popular since the introduction of bluegrass in the 1940s. The region is also the home of a relatively new form of music that grew out of Ferriday in Concordia Parish -- rockabilly. This regional, early form of rock and roll blending country music with Mississippi Delta blues, was made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis and others (Tucker 1989:1029).
       African Americans made their mark with traditional Delta blues and more recently rhythm and blues, both of which has become popular with many of the state's cultural groups. Country blues, derived from the field hollers and slave songs of the past, more often feature a single musician who accompanies himself and uses much improvisation. City blues is usually more structured and is more often accompanied by a band. Both forms abound in north Louisiana. Juke joints dot the rural and small town landscape and urban centers such as Baton Rouge and Shreveport feature blues clubs (Beyers 1980).
       Cowboy culture is one trait shared by both north and south Louisiana. Cowboys in Louisiana may be British American, African American, Cajun, or Creole. Rodeos, trail rides, and the making of braided whips, horsehair ropes, and leather saddles flourish from Monroe to Cameron Parish, from Shreveport to Hammond. Since Louisiana's landscape does not include the vast rangelands of the American West, adaptations were needed in both north and south Louisiana. The marsh cowboys have made extra long reins to allow cowboys to stay out of the way of horses lunging through the mud. They learned how to put spurs on rubber boots and herd cattle by boat. Creole ponies successfully survived the heat and mosquitos and could cope with the marsh with their small hooves. Cattle are wintered in the marshes but moved to higher ground during the summer to avoid mosquitos in the marsh. Cattle drives continue, but eighteen wheel trucks have taken the place of the horseback cowboy. North Louisiana, with its piney woods and thickets, also required special adaptations of cowboy lifestyle. Largely untended woods cattle required hardy cowboys that could round them up in thickets and swamps using Catahoula curs (Spitzer 1991). The commonality of the ranch and rodeo culture persists throughout Louisiana. Performance genres found in cowboy culture include the reciting of cowboy poetry, auctioneering in French or English, and singing cowboy ballads in a club or at a festival.

Home | The River of Song Project | The Artists | Music Along the River | Calendar | Teacher's Guide | Press Room | The Store
© 1998 The Filmmakers Collaborative and The Smithsonian Institution, all right reserved
River of Song HOME the River of Song project the artists music along the river calendar teacher's guide pressroom store