Natchez, Mississippi to Delacroix Island
In Natchez, a local fair is going on, highlighted by a balloon race. As the balloons rise in the background, we talk with Kenny Bill Stinson, a young white guitarist from across the river in East Monroe, Louisiana. Stinson is part of the new wave of local artists, blending blues and country with modern folk and rock influences. On the patio of a local restaurant in historic Natchez-under-the-Hill, he turns in a set that ranges from Robert Johnson and Hank Williams to his own high-powered tunes.
In Baton Rouge, the governor's mansion was for two terms the home of Gov. Jimmie Davis, the singer most famous for "You Are My Sunshine." We join Gov. Davis's 98th birthday party, where he sings his hit with Merle Haggard and the Louisiana Hayride band. Haggard and Hayride veterans talk about Davis's legacy as the "Singing Governor."
Moving on down the river into Cajun country, we wander past the docks where the Cajuns' shrimp boats tie up, and we wind up in the back yard of D.L. Menard, "The Cajun Hank Williams." Menard is a famous singer, guitarist, and wildly bizarre raconteur, author of some of the century's top Cajun hits, and he is holding a backyard barbecue with a mix of old friends and young musicians, including Christine Balfa, a modern bandleader whose father Dewey Balfa was the leading artist in the Cajun revival. The dancing goes on all afternoon, as D.L. talks about the fusion of country and Cajun in his music.
We next visit Geno Delafose, one of the hottest young accordionists and singers in zydeco, the African-American equivalent of Cajun, with its potent admixture of blues and r&b. Delafose is from one of the foremost zydeco families, and we see him fronting his band amid a crowd of dancers at Slim's Y-ki-ki, a longtime zydeco dance hall, and being interviewed in French on a zydeco radio show. At home, on his horse ranch in Eunice, Delafose talks about his music and Louisiana's black cowboy tradition.
Driving through the swampy bayous, we arrive in New Orleans. The streets of the French Quarter reveal a rich variety of performers. David and Roselyn have been playing their music on Royal St. for over 20 years. A striking couple, they play a half-dozen instruments and sing songs flavored with the city's second-line rhythms. A young tap-dancer does his stuff in a doorway, and a banjo player cuts up in Jackson Square, where a scruffy group of kids forms a ragtag brass band. In Louis Armstrong Park, we find the Tremé Brass Band, a traditional marching band that has continued to evolve with the years, blending the talents of older musicians like drummers Uncle Lionel Batiste and Benny Jones with those of younger players like trumpeter James Alexander.
In a club in the Treme neighborhood, The Soul Rebels provide a look at the modern evolution of the brass band sound. The Rebels, all in their 20s, use the standard brass band line-up of trombones, trumpets, clarinet, tuba, snare and bass drum, but play a fiery modern style that goes heavy on the rhythm and draws on everything from the classic New Orleans songs to reggae and rap. In an interview on some nearby steps, three of the Rebels discuss their position as spokesmen for the next generation of local artists.
Back in the French Quarter, we come upon the legendary r&b singer Eddie Bo, playing his nightly gig at Margaritaville. Ebullient, dancing in front of the piano, Bo embodies the New Orleans beat, than attempts to explain its "mystical" origins. He demonstrates a heavy bass beat on the piano in a new tune called "Fingers" and tells us of the proud tradition of New Orleans piano players, including Professor Longhair and Tuts Washington.
In a bar across from Armstrong Park, we find Henry Butler, the dean of contemporary piano players. Butler plays everything from Crescent City r&b to contemporary jazz, and sometimes sings in a gruff, soulful voice. He sits at the piano and traces the evolution of the New Orleans sound from Caribbean rhythms to Jelly Roll Morton to the present. Then, on a festival stage, he runs through a startling range of music, from solo piano explorations of standards like "Basin St. Blues" to uptown r&b. He is joined by Eddie Bo in a romping finale.
Soul Queen Irma Thomas concludes our tour of New Orleans music. The city's best-known female vocalist, Irma is a soul shouter who has often been compared to Aretha Franklin. At an intimate performance at her club, the Lion's Den, she leads her band through a hot set of hits--including "Time is on My Side"-- and talks about her forty years in music.
Driving on down the river, we come to the islands that dot the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and meet Irvan Perez. Perez grew up on Delacroix Island, fishing and trapping muskrat. He is one of the leaders of the Isleño community, immigrants from Spain's Canary Islands who have kept their culture intact for more than two hundred years. Sitting in the prow of his fishing boat, he sings a haunting Spanish ballad, as we drift out of the river and into the open waters of the Gulf.
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