Louisiana Melting Pot, An American Sound
By Emily J. Weitz
Over the last six years, the Sag Harbor American Music Festival has reached deep into the soul of American music, pulling out representatives from the church pulpit to the rock and roll stage, from the mosh pit to the hip hop mic. With the Hoo Doo Loungers as a constant since the beginning, New Orleans music has always been represented. This year, as the Lost Bayou Ramblers make their way north from their Louisiana home, the festival will have a strong Cajun contingent. And rightly so.
New Orleans and, more broadly, Louisiana have a distinct sound that has contributed to the identity of American music without ever being diluted. Somehow, through the changes of radio, pop music, the Internet, and YouTube, the sound of Cajun country has remained consistent. Joe Lauro, one of the founders of the Hoo Doo Loungers, attributes this to the way music is learned and appreciated in New Orleans.
“Music was always discovered locally,” said Lauro. “A guy learned from the guy down the block, who learned from the barber. When MTV started bringing homogenized stuff to the masses, somehow New Orleans maintained its local style.”
Perhaps that’s because, with festivals like Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and dozens more throughout the year, music is at the forefront of popular culture in New Orleans. Second lines pass through the streets of New Orleans every day, with tubas and trombones clearing a path for people to dance their way through town. Playing music, just like your daddy did, is cool.
“Young kids don’t look at their dad’s music as boring,” said Lauro.
The Lost Bayou Ramblers, who will play a concert at Marine Park on Sunday, October 2 after the Hoo Doo Loungers, are products of this kind of upbringing. From Lafayette, Louisiana, the fiddle player and lead singer Louis Michot and his brother, accordion player Andre, started the band in 1999.
“My brother and I were raised around our dad’s family band,” said Louis Michot. “We played in the band as teenagers.”
Music played a huge role in the whole region of southern Louisiana, particularly zydeco and Cajun music.
“There were a bunch of harvest festivals,” said Michot, “and there was always music. There was the sugar festival, the rice festival, the shrimp festival, and on and on, full of Cajun and Zydeco bands. It’s a part of how you grow up here.”
Michot sings in Cajun French, which connects him to a long lineage of language that traces its way all the way back to Nova Scotia. When he was younger, he went up to Nova Scotia to get in touch with that lineage and to learn the language. He hitchhiked around, and immersed himself in it.
“It’s the language I love,” he said, “and the language I’m teaching my children. Cajun French is a lyrical language. It’s more about the cadence of what you’re saying than what you’re saying.”
Michot believes that, even though he’s singing in a different language, the music his band plays is distinctly American. That’s why he feels it has earned a prominent place at a music festival devoted to American music.
“This is interesting music because it’s a result of a bunch of cultures that were put together in Louisiana,” he said. “We have African rhythms, Creole French language, Spanish guitar, and Native American words and rhythms. I bring in an Irish influence with the fiddle. And the rhythm carries the music. It’s a dancing rhythm.”
Because Louisiana has been such a melding of cultures, it can be looked at as a microcosm of America itself. Because its identity is so connected to music, the sound that comes out of Louisiana is a fusion of the whole world, and that, too, is an American concept (a concept that is currently under fire).
“We tend to look at Cajun music as isolated,” said Michot, “but really it has been influenced by and has influenced American music for the last 100 years. It’s nestled right between jazz and blues and western swing and country.”
He’s referring not only to the sound, with the soul of the blues and the twang of country, but also the geographic location, between the muddy Mississippi and the plains of Texas.
“The fact that you’re singing in French and playing with the fiddle and accordion,” said Michot, “that makes it all the more American. America is all about different cultures coming together to make a new culture.”
As Louisiana reels from yet another flood, we have the good fortune of celebrating their beautiful sound dockside in Sag Harbor. In an effort to help victims of the flood, the Lost Bayou Ramblers just released the Rue Vermilion Revival, which can be purchased at www.bandcamp.com or on their web site, www.lostbayouramblers.com. All proceeds from the album will go to helping victims of the flood.