Mississippi: The River of Song and more...

Smithsonian Institution
Americans Old and New1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King


Related Links

Artists In This Region

Louisiana is a world unto itself, and music is a big part of what makes it unique. Or, more accurately, Louisiana is several worlds, each distinct from the others. North Louisiana is part of the deep South; New Orleans is part of the Caribbean; the Cajun country is a sort of Southern Quebec with bayous and a rich African-American heritage; as for the even more isolated pocket of Spanish-speaking Isleños at the Mississippi's mouth, it remains unknown to most Louisianans even today. Each of these regions has its own music and food, two things that tend to go together in Louisiana, and that are valued here as in no other part of the country.
       The northern part of the state shares the most with surrounding areas, bordered as it is by Mississippi on the east, Arkansas on the north, and Texas on the west. The northern river region nurtured Jerry Lee Lewis and his cousins, Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, performers whose country roots fused with a gospel-blues piano style and Pentecostal vocal fervor. Kenny Bill Stinson, a singer and songwriter who leads bands around the region, continues to blend blues and country in a Louisiana honky-tonk sound.
       Our journey briefly abandons the river, moving over to Shreveport to celebrate the birthday of Governor Jimmie Davis. The diversion was not planned; we were going to visit Davis in his Baton Rouge home, but the date turned out to be his birthday and the Louisiana Hayride band was holding a reunion in Shreveport to celebrate the occasion, with Merle Haggard joining in, so we headed west. After all, how many states have had a governor who is also a major figure in American music? Davis, who was elected to office in the 1940s and again in the 1960s, was a formative early country star, and-though politically he ran as a segregationist-he was one of the few country figures to record with African-American sidemen. Best known for "You Are My Sunshine," he started as a blues singer before recording a string of country classics, and he is still in good voice and spirits at age ninety-eight.
       We move south into Cajun-our north Louisiana interviewees insist on using the term "coon-ass"-country. This is not, strictly speaking, on the river, but by now the Mississippi is fanning out into a true delta and the swamp region can all be considered river-related. Anyway, the music is too good to resist. Throughout southern Louisiana, a music lover is constantly faced with an embarrassment of riches; every style has multiple great exponents, any of whom deserves a documentary all to himself or herself.
       The rural French population of south Louisiana has its roots in Acadia (now Nova Scotia), from which the French settlers were driven out by the English in the mid-eighteenth century. They mixed with earlier French Louisianans and new arrivals, and interacted with the black and Native American population. Catholic and francophone, they remain largely separate from their neighbors in the north of the state, and also distrustful of the big-city folks in New Orleans, maintaining a unique cultural belt.
       By the time Cajun music was first recorded, in the 1920s, it had developed its basic instrumental line-up, with guitar, fiddle and accordion. For many years, though, Cajun musicians kept pace with outside developments, adding elements of Texas swing and honky-tonk styles. D. L. Menard, "the Cajun Hank Williams," was the master singer and songwriter of the honky-tonk period, marked by the addition of steel guitar and a new songwriting style that matched what was happening at the time in Nashville. The recent Cajun revival has tended to concentrate on an earlier, "purer" style, but Menard remains one of the music's grand masters, loved by modernists and traditionalists Zydeco (named from a song, "Les Haricots [which sounds like 'zydeco'] Sont pas Salés," "The Stringbeans "The Stringbeans Aren't Salted"), the music of the region's black francophone population, developed its modern form around the same time as Menard's honky-tonk style. Earlier black and white French styles had overlapped, with Amadé Ardoin, a black accordionist, being considered one of the great early Cajun recording stars. In the 1950s, though, as white Cajuns fused country-western elements with their music, black Cajuns brought in a strong r&b and blues influence. The King of Zydeco was Clifton Chenier, who adopted the piano accordion in order to get the full r&b sound, as well as adding saxophone in place of the fiddle. Although Cajun music today is largely a revivalist, "folk" style, zydeco remains the popular music of black rural Louisiana, packing dance halls with young people following the latest trends. Geno Delafose is a special figure in the new scene, a player who has carefully stayed in touch with the tradition while assimilating new developments.
       While the Cajun culture formed in the countryside, New Orleans developed an equally distinct world. The major Gulf Coast port, with a history that comprises Spanish, French and American rulers, it is as much a part of the Caribbean as of the United States, and its music has the rolling, African-influenced rhythms of Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad rather than the sound of the inland South. This is what Jelly Roll Morton used to call the "Spanish tinge," and it continues to underly all the local music.
       New Orleans is, among other things, a tourist mecca, and the streets and bars of the French Quarter provide work for more musicians than any comparable stretch of real estate in the country. These range from jazz revival bands to blues groups, Cajun bands, contemporary brass bands, and-on the streets in particular-anyone else who wants to try their luck with the flocks of passersby. David and Roselyn have been making music on the streets of the Quarter for twenty-five years, playing a repertory of New Orleans standards mixed with their own quirky choices.
       The first New Orleans music to break out into the greater American consciousness was, of course, jazz. A mix of marching-band music, the sophisticated sounds of the "creole" society orchestras, and a drumming tradition that exists throughout the Caribbean, the early jazz sound is continued today in various forms. Among its most vital exponents is the Treme Brass Band, which maintains the funeral-band tradition, specializing in the old hymn tunes that have long accompanied burial services, played slow on the way to the graveyard and in joyous, danceable celebration on the way home.
       The Treme band has also kept up with the times, developing the sort of hot rhythm workouts that mark the recent brass-band revival. Started as a revival of the traditional form, the brass boom has taken on a life of its own, becoming the street sound of young, black New Orleans. The Soul Rebels exemplify the new wave, adding reggae and hip-hop to the classic brass-band sound. Regarded as troublemakers by some of the traditionalist element, the Rebels are proudly bringing their music into the twenty-first century, proving that New Orleans is more than the museum of a glorious past.
       Henry Butler is another forward-looking musician, though one who is much more acceptable to musical conservatives. Like other young Crescent City jazz men, including the Marsalis brothers and Nicholas Payton, the city's crown prince of the piano has immersed himself in the history of jazz. He traces the music's evolution from Jelly Roll Morton through modern jazz, but distinguishes himself from many of his compatriots by giving equal weight to parallel developments in blues and r&b. His concerts make vital connections between the concert and popular traditions, something that was common for the early jazzmen but has become rarer through the years. His deep knowledge of history and his uncanny ability to play every style he mentions make him a perfect guide to the history of New Orleans music, and when he teams up with Eddie Bo, one of the idiosyncratic geniuses of r&b, he proves that he can rock as hard as anyone in town.
       New Orleans saw a unique flowering in the r&b era. Although many of the local hits never broke nationally, enough did to make the whole world aware of the local talent. From Fats Domino and his peers in the early 1950s to the boom a decade later under the guidance of Allen Toussaint, to the rise of the Meters and the Neville Brothers, New Orleans's island-flavored sound was a vital part of the evolution of rock, soul, and funk. Eddie Bo, for example, a pianist in the classic mold of the legendary Professor Longhair and Huey "Piano" Smith, found his work copied by Little Richard, who came down from Georgia to record in the New Orleans studios. In the early 1960s, Irma Thomas emerged as the "Soul Queen of New Orleans" and racked up a string of hits, first with Toussaint and then with the New Orleans expatriates who became mainstays of the Los Angeles studio scene. New Orleans is pretty much the only city in America where artists of Thomas's and Bo's generation can still make a good living without adulterating their classic sound, and young and old alike know their music as part of the city's trademark sound.
       Part of the reason for Louisiana's richness of cultures is the unusual juxtaposition of its varied ethnic and national roots and the isolation provided by the swamps and bayous. Possibly the least familiar of all the state's isolated cultural groups is that of the Isleños, Spanish immigrants from the Canary Islands who settled some two hundred years ago on the islands at the mouth of the Mississippi. It is here our journey ends, on a fishing boat in the apparently endless, swampy, grass-and-water-lands where the Isleños have preserved a medieval Spanish ballad tradition, adapting it to whatever events happened in their lives. Thus, we come full circle from the Ojibwe of Lake Itasca, back to a culture that has traditionally lived largely on water and survived off the natural world around it.

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 x