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Great Drives: In Search Of Cajun Music


for Conde Nast Traveler Magazine
by Stephan Wilkinson

"GOD AND LEE Iacocca intended this truck for this road," my friend George chuckled. He was feeling the illicit pleasure of knowing he was supposed to be at his Washington office on a weekday morning but instead was rumbling down a Louisiana two-lane, sitting way up tall, humming to the beat of a big V8 on a warm, empty, sinuous road through swampy trees that all seemed to be coat racks for drooping airplants and vines.

The truck was my protective coloration: Conde Nast wanderer is indistinguishable from locals because he's driving a pickup. It didn't work. Not only was the truck redder than a highway patrol roof rack, it was a 1994 Dodge Ram 1500, the hottest thing to hit the pickup scene since CB radios, and it was the first one in Louisiana. Styled like no other pickup on the road, it couldn't be parked without attracting a crowd, couldn't be cruised without drawing a train that would follow me until I did park. I might as well have driven the length and breadth of Cajun Country in a Testarossa.

Day One, New Orleans to Grand Isle and back to Houma, 236 miles

George used to be a musician. I always wanted to be one. We both love Cajun music and were off to find us some. But first, there's the obligatory swamp tour.

Tiny Louisiana 307 into Kraemer winds through swampwater covered with luminous-green duckweed only inches lower than the road surface. A blue heron moseys across the tar as though he's never seen a truck--God knows he's never seen a '94 Ram--then shyly stilts into the gloomy depths of the swamp as I back up to peer at him.

Kraemer is the site of Zam's Swamp Tours, of the touristically popular I'm-a-dumb-Cajun variety: jokes and a boatride. "The shiny turtles, they the ones that use Turtle Wax," guide George Bergeron says. "We dumb, but we know how to cook beans, we count 'em, don't use no more than 239. So you don't get too farty."

Alligators are the big attraction, and the Zam's Tours yard is a charnelhouse of future pocketbooks, belts and shoes. "This our bidness," Bergeron says. "We don't make no money off the tourist." The season is only a month long, but the Zam's crew has harvested 3,000 gators out of the bayou, and they are presently being eviscerated, flayed, skinned, stuffed, even polyurethaned as gruesome bric-a-brac.

There is one large, live, captive alligator. "I bring my tourists up here, the only ones I have any trouble with are the Japanese," Bergeron laughs, miming a squatting, grinning, posing salaryman. "They want to get close to the mout'." What ever for? "Because they don't know no better. And they call the Cajun dumb, right?"

Grand Isle, Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island, is well down the road--all the way down the road, in fact. It is a narrow strip of low summer houses and shacks on pilings patiently waiting for the next hurricane. There's little reason to go to Grand Isle unless you're into end-of-the-road destinations, but the drive down Louisiana 1 along Bayou Lafourche to get there is fascinating.

The Bayou is a boulevard-wide ocean inlet busy with the widest variety of workboats you're ever likely to see--odd, special-purpose oil-exploration craft; bluff towboats shoving barges that seem to be the size of football fields through a space no wider than a couple of tennis courts; pudgy little oysterers; and malevolent-looking shrimpboats, with their low, squinty, forward-thrusting wheelhouses the destroyer escorts of the fishing business.

Dula and Edwin's Restaurant, outside Houma, is the only place with live music tonight, but what I'd hoped would be Cajun is largely that curse of the airwaves, country-and-western. The decor is faux-paneling Masonite, the cutlery comes in waxed-paper envelopes and the apparently homemade salad dressings are in plastic Kraft bottles with the labels partially peeled off. There are football photos and the legend "Geaux Saints" on one wall, and I'm too dumb to know whether that's a team from Geaux or French for "Go Saints."

Still, the oysters are cheap and fat and the dancing fun to watch. A bearlike, bearded man is cheek-to-cheek with a large middle-aged woman in enormous jeans, yet they're the most graceful couple on the floor, gliding rapidly around in the rhythmic swoop-and-dip of the Cajun waltz. You'd be happy here if you peeled off the mainstream about the time slam-dancing took over but still know how to two-step, waltz and jitterbug--the three moves you need in order to learn Cajun dancing.

Day Two, Houma to Crowley, 150 miles

At the tiny crossroads that is Gibson, I try what I hear is the best bayou tour in Louisiana: Atchafalaya Basin Backwater Adventure, at the other end of the spectrum from the dumb-Cajun act. You'll find Jon Faslund--"Yon"--sitting on his porch, stroking his enormous bib of a gray beard and reading a bird book or Louisiana-history monograph. His mood might seem characterized by his cap, this one bearing the legend, "Life Is a Bed of Roses, But Watch Out for the Pricks." But don't be fooled. Even his pit bulls don't bite if you're nice to them.

Other operators run big, back-and-forth pontoon boats, which approximate adventure travel on a floating porch. Faslund has a six-seat outboard and putts up creeks and bayous where you'll find yourself helping to chop a path through the water hyacinths and fending off spiderwebs.

"I used to teach survival skills, and I flunked more students because of their fear of spiders than anything else," he says. He's not a bit happy when a silver-dollar-size spider lights on him and scrambles toward his shoulderblades, however. "Get it, dammit," he says while trying to jig the bug off his shirt as I slap at it. "We have nine varieties of poisonous spiders, and I don't want to find out which ones they are."

Westbound from Lafayette toward Crowley on Interstate-paralleling--and thus empty--US 90, the bayous and sugarcane fields become rice country, with the road shimmering off into the mirage of infinity amid table-flat fields of yellowy-green rice plants. The truck, I discover, will do an indicated 110 mph before even its 5.2-liter, 220-hp V8 can't push through the wall of air. At Crowley, it's time to refuel the thirsty Dodge, which will notch 15.2 miles per gallon by the time our 1,200 mile trip is over.

"What are you doin' down here?" the young woman at the gas station asks. (What, you can tell I'm a New Yorker?)

"Looking for Cajun music."

"Well, you sure come to the right place," she says. "Cajun music went way, way down, but it come back real strong. My brother's a good accordianist, and he's got lots of young people following him around."

"Yeah, I guess people like Wayne Toups have done a lot to make it popular among a younger crowd," I say. If Cajun music has a rock star, it is young Toups, whose newest tape is at the moment rewinding in the Ram.

"That's my brother," Verlie Richard says. "Wayne Toups." I am briefly starstruck and consider going out to the truck to get the tape and have her autograph it. "I think he's doing a concert in Florida right now, but if he was here, he'd sure like to meet you." Gosh!

Day Three, Crowley to Lake Charles via the Creole Nature Trail, 243 miles

Jay Miller was once the David Geffen of Louisiana blues and Cajun music, although you wouldn't guess it from his Modern Music Center in Crowley. Out front, it's a small-town music shop, with cheap electric guitars hanging from wall racks and a hodge-podge of what undoubtedly are now collector LPs and 45s in flip-through boxes.

Mark Miller, Jay's son, is on the phone dickering over maybe several hundred dollars to master and press a Cajun CD he's just finished taping. It is, of course, a nanobite of the budget for a new Garth Brooks disk. Once I can pry him away from the red Ram, which he has spotted parked on the street, he takes me into the recording studio hidden behind the store to listen to some tracks by his discovery Lee Benoit, who, not surprisingly, sounds a lot like Toups. Benoit's CD should do well--at least as well as any Cajun musician's can amid the flood of suburban-and-Midwestern music that fills the ether.

"One reason Cajun music is getting more popular down here," Miller says, "is that the young people have nowhere else to go, other than country or rap music. The Cajun repertoire is still limited, because it's too easy to take an existing tune and put new words to it, but now we're getting some artists who are writing new stuff."

Miller is a record producer, not a traditionalist. "Goin' into the woods to eat some duck?" he asks a friend as we listen to a Benoit track. "What's that got to do with a Cherokee Waltz? Some of these lyrics, man, I don't know..." Nor can he fully follow the French, which isn't surprising. For years, to be Cajun was to be dumb, and French meant you weren't smart enough to speak English. At school, an overheard word in your parents' tongue would get you a rap with a ruler, and if you couldn't follow the lessons in English, tough darts. That was your problem. Many young Cajuns dropped out as early as the fourth grade, thus perpetuating their "dumbness."

Lake Charles is 50 miles from Crowley by Interstate, or five times that and a world away via Louisiana 82 and 27 down into the coastal depths of Vermilion and Cameron Parishes. It's country in which in the same front yard you'll see a satellite dish and horse-driven waterwell pump. And suddenly out of the harsh, sprawling flatland will appear a jewel of a town--Gueydan is one--with cast-iron streetlamps marching down the middle of a broad, oak-shaded boulevard.

Here, people farm and ranch rather than fishing, and the tiny roadhouses begin to have Western names: the OK Corral and the Cowboy's Hangout, the latter with a cockpit beside the bar where roosters commit apparently legal, pea-brained mayhem on Sunday afternoons.

Farther south, along the Gulf Coast, the land becomes a hot immensity of wetland, silent except for the hum of bugs in the reeds. Water hyacinths in bloom create vast carpets of lavender across the bayous, and egrets pose like stark, slim white vases here and there. Overhead, purposeful pelicans work their way west with the crank-winged look of latter-day pterodactyls. This--and virtually all of coastal Louisiana--is land unlike anything else you'll see in America.

Alligators are the only monster we haven't been able to sanitize. Bears are distant, noble; wolves mythical; even rattlesnakes safely deep in woods and deserts. But in the suburban South, Alligators dine on dogs and cats and would consider a baby splendid fare. At the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge nature walk, just off Louisiana 27 south of Lake Charles, a nine-footer transitioned from naptime to a flurrying pounce to gobble a nutria not two feet under where I stood on the rail-less boardwalk. A horrified Belgian tourist dashed for her toddler, who was trying to poke his fingers through the slats.

The outskirts of industrial Lake Charles, an inland seaport, should be on the must-visit list for anyone planning a baby girl they hope will grow up to be a lap-dancer. For here the strip bars list the hookers' names out front, on the kind of wheeled signs more typically used to advertise bingo games or hardware store specials. Misty, Harley, Paige, Krista, Tara, of all, "Britney."

There is no midweek music in Lake Charles, but there are crabs, particularly at the Crab Palace, on Enterprise Boulevard. The restaurant looks like a laundromat from outside--inside, too, in fact. The waitress, a thin black woman with one missing front tooth and a slab of gold in place of the second, awaits my order: a dozen crabs or half a dozen? "That's a lot, a dozen, isn't it?" I ask her. "That's 12," she says. Okay, I'll have half a 12.

"Here, let me show you how to open those things," a warmly sexy, middle-aged, freckled redhead at the next table says as I prod ineffectually at six saucer-size barbecued hardshells. Immediately she at my side finger-feeding me the soft white meat as though we're auditioning for Tom Jones. "Billy, y'all come over and let's sit with this man, he's more interesting than we are," she says to her companion, a quiet man in a traveling salesman's neat short-sleeve shirt.

There are enough musky overtones at the table to set me vibrating as well. Even though they've obviously been doing this for years, the two can't wait to finish dinner and get horizontal, and messy, saucy finger-food and beer seem the perfect prelude. When the woman briefly goes off to the john, Billy leans over and apologetically explains, "I don't know if you picked up on it, but I'm married. She's my girlfriend." Loud and clear, Billy.

Day Four, Lake Charles to Eunice, 174 miles

The bathrooms in the Eddy House--a bed-and-breakfast of obsessively detailed charm--are bigger than entire motel bedrooms. There is not only a television in each of the four sunny guest rooms but a VCR and a supply of film tapes. Breakfast is silver and linen napery perfection. And the price of what would be a $300 room in Connecticut is in fact $65 for the finest accommodations in the entire city of Lake Charles.

It's hard to leave, so I linger over breakfast with Susan Clark, the owner. "A man came in the other day," she admits, "and said, 'My wife made me come look, but it won't do any good. I'm not sleeping in a bed full of teddy bears.' I think that's what most men imagine when they see a B&B--teddy bears and dolls." Many travelers, unfortunately, are happier with the dark, familiar, slab 'o bed sameness and disinfectant reek of the Great American Motel.

Heading north toward DeQuincy, the countryside changes rapidly and radically. We truck across an invisible border between maritime wetlands and piedmont-like vegetation, pasturage, between stands of big-piney forest. The big Ram lopes along, the ride remarkably comfortable despite the fact that the bed is empty, a pickup's least flattering configuration. I remember my first truck and realize how far we've come. It was a 1966 Chevy half-ton four-wheel-drive, a snowplow, the suspension of a pogo stick and steering so stiff it could have been franchised as a breast developer. The big Ram even has a fold-down, between-the-seats "office console" with nooks for everything from tapes and CDs to a contractor's notebook computer.

Lafayette is supposedly the capital of Cajun music, largely because it is a city and has several prosperous, heavily touristed restaurants where Cajun fiddling is served up with the jambalaya and file gumbo. But for traditionalists, the small town of Eunice is the core. Basile, Opelusas, Lewisburg, Plaisance, Mamou and Ville Platte, all major Cajun-music towns, are all within 20 miles of Eunice.

Eunice itself has the Cajun Grand Old Opry--the every-Saturday-night Roundez Vous des Cajuns radio broadcast--and it has Marc and Ann Savoy's music shop. Ann Savoy, a girlish, wide-eyed beauty with a strong, sweet voice and a resonant guitar, is one of the few women singing Cajun music. Her husband Marc, fiddler, accordianist, accordian maker, preservationist and performer, is a prickly traditionalist who suffers fools not at all.

"So you tell me that you can't speak French even though you've lived in a French-speaking area all your life," reads part of his handwritten caution posted on a wall of the Savoy Music Center. "I'll tell you why you can't speak French. It's because as you were growing up, you were pursuing mundane trivia and making fun of those who did speak French....Now that Cajun culture attracts worldwide attention, you have decided to be Cajun also. That's fine, but don't make a second mistake and try to take credit away from the people who kept the torch lit when Cajun was a dirty word. I pledge myself not to let that happen."

"Sure, Wayne Toups has made Cajun music palatable to American tastes," Ann Savoy muses, "and he's gotten a lot of people into playing the accordian. But we don't think of it as show-business music, we think of it as music that people play. Pretty vocals don't go with Cajun music at all. It always sounds so funny to me when women singing Cajun music try to imitate the sound of country-and-Western female vocalists.

"The Cajun people have kind of discovered themselves recently," she admits. "I never cared for that aspect of a traditional culture, when people discover that it's marketable, but everybody is fighting to get on stage now--including some people who only recently would have been embarrassed to admit that they played Cajun music."

Tonight is zydeco night, at Slim's Y-Ki-Ki, just north of Opelusas. Nobody has ever been embarrassed to admit they played zydeco, perhaps because--aside from lovers of Paul Simon's Graceland album--few people north of Louisiana Highway 190 know what it is. ("That musician from New York, he had to come down here to record Rockin' Dopsie and his band for that album," one Cajun music-shop clerk told me. "You get them into a situation where there are more than three stoplights, they don't know what to do.")

If Cajun music is a fusion of French, Scots and German--the source of the essential diatonic accordian--zydeco takes it several steps further, mixing in black African, Caribbean and blues influences. Why zydeco hasn't driven a stake through the heart of rap is an inexplicable accident of marketing, for this music is way fine. Slim's is an unmarked shed of a roadhouse, and I'm led there by a group of Yankee-chanks--Cajun enthusiasts from up north. (Some condescendingly call Cajun music "chank-a-chank," because of the repetitive rhythm line, hence the name.)

"You don't clap for the band at a zydeco club," Margo, a musicologist from West Virginia, cautions me when I applaud John Delafose's legendary Eunice Playboys. "It's not cool." Hey, we're the only white faces for half a mile around. There's no way we're going to be mistaken for cool.

Day Five, Eunice to Lafayette via as much music as I can find, 205 miles

Breakfast is beer, at Fred's Lounge, a shack about the size of three house trailers, in Mamou. The place is packed at nine in the morning, a small oasis of music and dancing in a sea of parked pickups. It's time for the every-Saturday live broadcast of Cajun music, complete with the squeal of open-mike feedback and dancers tripping over power cords. The signal probably doesn't make it much farther than the horizon, so nobody takes it seriously. A crudely lettered sign on the wall warns patrons not to stand on the tables, cigarette machine, booths or jukebox. Or chairs, notes an addition at the bottom.

Then it's time to hustle the truck back to Eunice for the Savoy's traditional Saturday jam session, open to all. It's a different crowd than the locals at Fred's--perhaps three dozen folkies, Yankee-chanks, musicians, a few tourists, even a perfect brassy blonde Mary Travers lookalike.

Wait a minute, it is Mary Travers. Does Peter, Paul and Mary's vocalist come here often? "No, I'm from Connecticut," she laughs. "I've never been here before. We're just down visitng friends, but this reminds me so much of what we used to do in Greenwich Village in the late '50s--just get together at somebody's apartment, play and sing all day, one set of people would drift in and another would leave.... It was wonderful, and it's nice to see that there's a place where it still happens."

That afternoon, Margo takes me along to visit Shelton Manuel, an elderly, sightless Cajun fiddler who lives with his placid yellow hound outside Eunice. He is a courtly, kind, toothless old man who somehow manages to navigate a house and feedlot he hasn't seen for 30 years, after a hunting accident that blinded him totally. "I put my little transistor radio playin' on the porch when I go out to feed the pigs, in case I get turned around," he chuckles.

Manuel records Cajun music off the radio with a battered old Radio Shack tapedeck, and he plays some for us, riffing along with it and calling out chords and key changes, the sound of the phone occasionally ringing and his dog barking in the background of the tape. But what he particularly fancies is "classical music"--small-combo lounge tunes from the '60s, when he was a working musician playing such gigs. To him, Cajun music is an interesting, incidental, local craft, but the real music is "Malaguena" and "Spanish Eyes."

But on Saturday night in Eunice, the real music is Cajun, at the thriving Rendez Vous des Cajuns* radio show, which is easily the biggest $2 entertainment value in the country. It's worth several times that just to see the splendidly restored interior of the 800-seat Liberty Theater, a classic small-town vaudeville and film palace from the 1920s, but you also get two hours of live music--and dancing, if you're up for it--by some of the better Cajun and zydeco bands you're likely to hear.

Plenty of time left to hustle the big red Ram down the backroads to Breaux Bridge, outside Lafayette, to hear Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys at La Poussiere, one of the classic Cajun Saturday-night dancehalls. The night is young--just as it always seems to be in Cajun country.