Before the Civil War in New Orleans, slaves congregated weekly at Congo Square to play and sing the native music of Africa and the islands. Less than a century later, Fats Domino and Little Richard recorded some of the earliest rock ’n’ roll records at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studio not far from that same square. A few blocks in the other direction, jazz had evolved in the brothels of Storyville and the music halls of South Rampart Street, where Louis Armstrong had listened eagerly as a child. Outside of New Orleans, that same rock n’roll and R&B merged with traditional Cajun French music to become swamp pop, and with black Creole la-la music to invent zydeco. From Shreveport, beginning in 1948, the Louisiana Hayride radio broadcast brought Louisiana’s music to the nation and became a necessary destination for country and rockabilly artists who wanted to hit the big time. The entire state of Louisiana is famous for its music, and deservedly so. But maybe it should be musics – because the native sounds of Louisiana, from zydeco to Isleno ballads, are as rich and varied as its landscape, and as the people who make it.
No city in the world can lay claim to birthing and nurturing as many forms of music as New Orleans. Since the port city was founded, it’s been a melting pot for rhythms from all over the world and it’s made each one its own. Today, new music – both in the traditional idiom and in fresh ways –continues to thrive on the streets of New Orleans, with more bands and venues than it’s possible to hear or check out in one visit. Traditional jazz and brass is on the menu nightly at the rollicking Donna’s Bar & Grill and Palm Court Jazz Cafe Inc. and underground local rock plus national touring acts play nightly at One Eyed Jacks. At the Howlin’ Wolf, you might catch brass bands playing alongside hip-hop artists or emcees who rap in New Orleans’ unique, second-line influenced bounce style. DJ Jubilee, a founder of the style, still gigs weekly at the Cricket Club on St. Charles Avenue.
Locals flock to Frenchmen Street, known as the alternative to Bourbon Street – a laid-back, funky strip of clubs and bars that buzzes nightly with music. Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, the city’s top spot for major touring jazz, anchors one end; jazz educator and patriarch Ellis Marsalis plays a monthly gig there. On the other end, there’s the hip and eclectic Dragon’s Den, which books everything from local rap to experimental jazz. And in between, there’s d.b.a., where the nightly show could be anyone from old-school bluesman Little Freddie King to the angelic jazz vocalist John Boutte. And any tourist with an interest in music will want to hit Tipitina’s uptown and Preservation Hall downtown: two venerable independent clubs started by groups of music-loving friends who simply wanted a place to hear their favorite sounds. Pay your respects under Tip’s famous mural of Professor Longhair (the pianist who inspired the club’s founders to open the place in 1977) and in Preservation Hall’s gorgeous French Quarter courtyard, where traditional jazz has thrived since 1961.
Also Check Out
Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge
A Treme juke joint founded by legendary R&B wild man, Ernie K-Doe, who called himself the “Emperor of the Universe” and named the venue after his 1961 hit song. He and his wife Antoinette, who turned the club into a museum of sorts (including a life-sized mannequin of Ernie) are gone now, but the bar remains open with live music playing almost nightly. Stop by to see their funky collection of Ernie K-Doe memorabilia and find out who’s on the schedule.
The Los Islenos Society Festival
St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans was in part founded by Islenos when Canary Islanders of Spanish heritage migrated here in the 18th and 19th centuries. This annual festival celebrates their disappearing culture, which includes traditional ballads known as “decimas,” only performed by very few artists now, who work to keep the tradition alive.
The New Orleans Bingo! Show
The Bingo! show is a multimedia musical circus that must be seen to be believed; it includes short original films, actual bingo games, costumed clowns and heartbreakingly gorgeous songs from Preservation Hall vocalist Clint Maedgen, whose rock-ballad compositions fall somewhere between Fats Domino, Tom Waits and Prince.
Lafayette and Opelousas
Fifty and sixty years ago, Lafayette was a major hub for zydeco and bayou-style soul music performed by artists like Clifton Chenier and Li’l Buck Sinegal. Today, zydeco is still hot – some performers even mix it up with hip-hop – and the college crowd that populates the city’s many schools also ensures a lively downtown rock and dance club scene. El Sido's in Lafayette and Slim's Y-KI-KI in Opelousas are the genuine article for zydeco. Yes, they may be a little funky and way off the beaten path, but the music is the real deal. Prejean’s Restaurant and dance hall offers live music most nights and on any given evening, you might catch acts like guitarist C.C. Adcock gigging with “Godfather of Swamp Pop” Warren Storm in the all-star swamp pop revue Lil Band O’Gold, or the wild young Cajun band, the Red Stick Ramblers. And finally, begun as a group of child prodigies, Feufollet’s members (who are still barely old enough to order cocktails in the clubs they play) put fiery energy into their traditional Cajun sets, making them one of the most exciting new bands in the state.
Also Check Out
The Zydeco Hall of Fame
Opened last year on the site of the historic Richard’s Club, created in 1947, the Hall of Fame sheds light on zydeco’s origins and pays tribute to founders like Clifton Chenier.
The Blue Moon Guest House & Saloon
A college-student favorite for its eclectic programming – everything from alt-country to reggae – the Blue Moon is likely the number-one rock n’roll hangout spot in Lafayette. Bonus: it’s also a guest house, so no drinking and driving necessary.
Eunice, Crowley and Baton Rouge
In the 50’s and 60’s, Crowley was home to J.D. Miller’s famous recording studio where artists from the area recorded their unique, drawling style of Louisiana swamp blues and swamp pop--an indigenous Louisiana style of music born of a marriage between traditional Cajun and the urban R&B from the 50’s. Today, Baton Rouge clubs hop with all kinds of sounds, including lots of contemporary rock. Nearby, Eunice keeps the old-school Cajun flame burning. One don’t-miss stop is the weekly show from Eunice’s Cajun Opry. Should you be lucky enough to be there, Rendez-Vous Des Cajuns Live Radio and TV Show is both a live radio broadcast and a two-stepping dance party. Another dependable stop is the Saturday morning Savoy Music Jam Session at the Savoy Music Center, run by Marc Savoy of the Savoy Family Cajun Band (Marc’s wife Ann and son Wilson have their own Cajun groups as well, and Ann was recently nominated for a Grammy for her collaboration with Linda Ronstadt). The jam session starts at 9 a.m., and the music is a better eye-opener than the espresso. And watch for appearances in the Baton Rouge area by swamp pop and rockabilly guitarist Jay Chevalier, the official state troubadour of Louisiana (declared so by the state legislature in 2006.) Interested in politics for over half a century, some of Chevalier’s most memorable songs are political in subject and include Castro Rock and the Ballad of Earl K. Long, a tribute to the controversial governor who was also his longtime friend.
Also Check Out
Cajun Music Hall of Fame & Museum
Learn about the founders of mournful French-language ballads and rollicking reels of Cajun music, from the late fiddle player Amede Ardoin to Cajun rocker D.L. Menard, who still gigs at Jazz Fest each year.
Floyd’s Record Shop
Floyd Soileau opened Floyd’s Record Shop in Ville Platte in 1957 and soon began recording and producing Cajun and blues records on his Swallow and Vee Pee record labels to meet the demand for product. The store’s still there today, and so is Floyd.
One of the most significant Louisiana contributions to American music came from neither the cosmopolitan port of New Orleans nor the state capital Baton Rouge. Instead, it was Shreveport and The Louisiana Hayride radio program that helped stamp Louisiana on the music map. The Hayride was broadcast weekly from the city’s Municipal Auditorium on the 50,000-watt KWKH station from 1948 to 1960, becoming a necessary stop for any country or rockabilly artist who wanted to make the big time. Known as the “Cradle of the Stars,” the show reached listeners in twenty-eight states and played a large role in the meteoric rise of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
The Hayride show and the actual auditorium from which it aired are now the subjects of a revitalization effort by Maggie Warwick, a singer who debuted on the show in 1957. But while you wait for its return, the Shreveport/Bossier area is still a hot spot for music at the city’s opera and symphony; concerts at the Riverview Theater and park are always a draw and multiple casinos bring major touring acts to the area.
Let’s also not forget, native son of Shreveport, James Burton, who went down in history for writing the famous guitar riff on the classic Oh! Suzy-Q and can still sling a guitar today. In August, Burton hosts an annual guitar festival for charity in his hometown. Shreveport is also famed for its early spring festivals. May offers a major Cinco de Mayo fiesta; the free River City Fest on the banks of the Mississippi and also the annual explosion of gospel and classical music at the People’s Concert are all good bets for travelers to this part of the state.
Also Check Out
Leadbelly Blues Festival
A tribute to Louisiana-born blues pioneer Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, who penned Goodnight Irene. Major contemporary and veteran blues acts like Bobby Rush, Kenny Neal and Ruthie Foster convene in Shreveport paid their respects in mid-May.
Mudbug Madness Festival
A whomping, reeling accordion-and-fiddle throwdown that celebrates North Louisiana’s Cajun culture; the Mudbug Madness Festival fills four days at the end of May with crawfish and music. Almost every big name in Cajun and zydeco music shows up to play, from Grammy winner Terrence Simien to Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters.