Great Music Trails: Louisiana’s Prairie
The singular voice of Cajun music is the button accordion: an import from the old world that found a new – and much cherished – home on Louisiana’s prairie
By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones
Marc Savoy is the antithesis of cool. The 73-year-old button accordion player/maker has epitomized anti-cool since he first heard music drifting across the catalpa groves here in the Cajun Prairie north of Interstate 10, a wide and lonely stretch of Louisiana’s Acadiana region. Seven generations of Savoys have lived along the rice fields between two major rivers – a stretch of about 100 miles between the Calcasieu and the Mississippi – where his dad scratched out a modest living as a farmer.
Where there were rivers there was industry. And where there were no rivers there was isolation. The prairie plays a part in the isolation and the evolution of this place: people had to make their own entertainment and the instruments with which to entertain themselves. Marc taught himself to play a music that spoke to something primal in him at a time when being Cajun – that is, being who you are – was stigmatized and officially frowned upon. Savoy, a natural contrarian, saw his Cajun heritage differently.
“The tradition is driven by love,” he says as we do a walk-through of the workshop, his home base for half-a-century. “What was interesting to me was the people who lived in my area. I fell in love with the people first, then the music.” Today, as defender of the faith and patriarch of the Savoy Music Center just outside Eunice, Marc speaks of Cajun music with reverence as “the glue that holds the culture together.”
Up the road in Mamou (population 3,500), they laissez les bon temp rouler on Saturday mornings at the iconic Fred’s Lounge. The drinks flow at 8 am, the band fires up at 9 – it’s part of a live radio broadcast – and plays steadily for the next 150 minutes. By 9:30, the cramped space is filling up. Bloody Marys and beer are flowing (damn the early hour, some traditions are sacred). Conversation is bubbling vigorously. An elderly woman in cowboy boots is two stepping around the dance floor – in the middle of which is the band, roped off on one side – with her husband, and soon there is no space that is not dance floor.
Fred’s Lounge – décor circa 1954 – is papered with hand-lettered signs imploring patrons not to “stand on the tables, chairs, cigarette machine, booths and jukebox.” Another sign warns that the management will not be held responsible for injuries. None of this deters. The band, lead by the chief of police on button accordion, cranks out two-step after waltz, breaking only for the radio announcer to update listeners on the weekend tag sales, fundraisers and festivals.
Everyone knows or is related to everyone else, or so it seems, and even the bikers fit in with the seniors – some of who have been coming here every Saturday morning for 40 years. I ask a woman standing near the bandstand, “Are you the bass player’s wife?” She dryly eyeballs me; “Fifty-one years.”
The tunes roll out; the fiddle player is 30 years younger than anyone else in the band. The tunes follow a standard format: the accordion sets things in motion, the drums and bass lay a foundation for the fiddle, accordion and vocals to tell these old and familiar stories. And the dance floor? Well, it’s time to start thinking about standing on the jukebox.
Steamboat Warehouse Restaurant in Washington seems an unlikely location for haut cuisine, but prepare to be surprised. If you like beef you’ll love the Steak Lafitte. The Warehouse is the only remaining of seven original 19th-century steamboat warehouses on the banks of Bayou Courtableau.
Palace Café (Opelousas, “Yam Capital of the World”) is a frozen-in-time diner overseen by a third generation owner. Order a soda fountain milk shake and onion rings made from scratch, the authentic way.
Liberty Theater in Eunice is famous for the Saturday evening Rendez-vous des Cajuns live radio broadcast of Cajun bands.
Prairie Acadian Cultural Centre sits next to the Liberty Theater and is an excellent introduction to Cajun prairie culture and history.