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Louisiana Blues Boogie Weekend

It wasn’t quite noon but already we were up and dancing, boogeying to the electrifying beat of drum and guitar, and organ music played by a minister This was a Sunday after all. Our house of worship? An upper pew at the funky House of Blues in New Orleans to take in their famous Gospel Brunch —a necessary stop on our musical Louisiana journey.

Down below, two glamourous divas in pastel chiffon were warming up the crowd with such classics as “My Eyes have seen the Glory.” And after bountiful refills of champagne and orange juice, and plates of plump shrimp and smoked salmon, roast beef and lemon sauce bread pudding, my husband, son and I were more than ready to join in the hand-clapping, swinging and swaying, the “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” and “Praise the Lords” that were echoing around the rafters.

Finally, when Marva White, the fabulous Queen of the Blues, raised her hands to the roof and began to clap out “Oh When the Saints Come Marching In,” the audience unanimously rose up from their benches and, waving their napkins in the air like surrender flags, formed a conga line. This was the traditional second line dance performed at every New Orleans, be it celebration or funeral, and the crowd shimmied and shook its way around the restaurant. One man, his arms and legs gyrating like a pull toy, seemed ready to break into cartwheels à la John Belushi. It was like a scene out of The Blues Brothers and an unusually exuberant way to greet a Sunday.

It’s only fitting that the state of Louisiana is shaped like a boot, because you don’t have to travel very far before you encounter toe-tapping, foot stomping, soul-stirring music. Music is a way of life in this southern stage where kids learn to two-step and chant from the moment they can toddle and talk. Twice in its history, blues singers have become governors. The eccentric Huey Long even wrote his own campaign song “Every Man a King.” From the city of Shreveport in the northwest, where Elvis first performed That’s Alright Mama! to a country crowd, to the Blues-influenced capital of Baton Rouge, from southwestern Cajun country where the zydeco accordian rules to the jazzed up port of New Orleans, Louisiana exudes the sounds of a thousand instruments and voices. Yes, the tourists wander up and down Bourbon Street and through the French Quarter to hear trumpet and sax, ragtime and soul. But by getting out into Louisiana country, you can experience zydeco and washboard, cool blues guitar and gospel hymns at their very source, and way up north near the Texas border, the twang of a steel string guitar.

We began our musical quest in Shreveport, inspiration for Jelly Roll Morton’s Shreveport Stomp. There, at the fabulous art deco Municipal Auditorium, we walked out onto the large stage—X marked the spot where Elvis, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and others sang for the Louisiana Hayride, the live radio program whose concerts rivalled Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. We wandered into the small Elvis museum celebrating his 1954 debut. The applause was so tentative for the 19-year-old rocker’s first performance of That’s Alright Mama!, they had to turn up the microphone to make it sound on the radio. Elvis fans can have their photos taken on Elvis Presley Avenue while blues aficionados can pose by the statue of legendary blues guitarist Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, a former resident who once got himself out of jail by writing a song.

But Shreveport isn’t all history. At James Burton’s Rock ‘n Roll Café (he and his psychedelic purple fender caster guitar have toured with everyone from Roy Orbison to Emmy Lou Harris), there’s live music on some nights. But we were into the blues, so we hunted out Tommy’s Place, a local bar near the tracks where “every blues player who’s ever passed through town” has joined the impromptu Monday night jam sessions. Tonight’s guests included the chicken picken man himself, James Burton, and guitarist Joe Nadeau. Although a sign warned “No Mustang Sally,” the band roused the patrons with a get-up-and-rock-it version of you guessed it, Mustang Sally.

As a blues alternative, hunt out a Sunday morning gospel service, or as one church-goer described it, “spirituality meets the blues.” At the Stonewall Missionary Baptist Church, the singing and hand-clapping caused even the distinguished reverend to shout out, “Shake it up, shake it up.” No problem. With such soulful and joyful music, we just couldn’t help it.

Traveling south, we stopped in Lafayette where the Festival Internationale was in full swing. You’ll hear French spoken here, proudly, and the 13-year-old festival reflected this trend as musicians from Quebec, Senegal, France and other French-speaking parts of the world converged on the city for a three-day feast of music and Cajun cooking. Travelling from stage to stage to hear zydeco music, the boisterous offshoot of African-American tribal dance, rocker Allen Toussaint, and surprise, a Celtic trio from Prince Edward Island, we stopped for refreshment—At any other time of year, you’ll find both music and good eating at Mulate’s dance hall restaurant. Every night, all ages dance to the happy sounds of accordions, fiddles and guitars under a ceiling adorned with the business cards from a thousand customers, a kind of leafy calling card forest. Patron Goldie Comeaux’s fried catfish is reason enough to leave your own .

It was and detour to Lake Charles for some Cajun flavour with a Canadian connection. The simple songs and the two-step waltz, accompanied by fiddle music and accordian, were brought to Louisiana some two hundred years ago by Acadian settlers expelled from New Brunswick. In Lake Charles, just west, you can examine a zydeco up close at the studio of local musician Mark Savoy, who has custom-crafted more than 700 accordion-like instruments which he sends around the world. After lovingly stroking the instrument’s black walnut burled wood inset with pearly abalone, he puts it down on the floor and stands on it. “Can you imagine doing this to a violin?” he asks. “It’s like a Volkswagon-size body with a tremendously huge engine. They are virtually indestructible.” There are happy jam sessions too at his shop each Saturday and Cajun musical evenings at Eunice’s.

By the time we arrived in the Baton Rouge capital we weren’t busted flat but the blues rules here nonetheless, We stopped to tour the White-House like Governor’s Mansion where Long once rode his horse up the stairs to show him where he worked. But our musical mission was Tabby’s Blues Box whose “Have Guitar will Travel” sign fits owner Tabby Thomas, “King of the Swamp Blues.” Every Thursday night at this rustic club, Hoodoo Drinks on the House made with rum, amaretto, pineapple and cranberry and the white-suited Tabby moving up and down the ivories.

By the time we reached New Orleans, we were used to gumbo, catfish, and a stew of combined musical sounds like rockabilly, zydeco and washboard with an African beat, and the mix of new and old Jazz. The young trumpeter Nicolas Payton, reputedly the greatest trumpet player since Louis Armstrong, was playing at Snug Harbour, the city’s greatest jazz club for up-and-comers and we fought with the crowds for tickets.





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