Unfolding the Map
Trying to find Cajun music at night in rural Louisiana, we end up with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) in a bar listening to chanky chank, watching a guy play the bones, talking with a Minnesotan, and finally finishing the night with some beer and gumbo. Not a bad day, if you ask me. Where does this take place? Near Lafayette (pronounced Laugh-yet), Louisiana. Click on the map thumbnail to locate Lafayette, and listen to some good Cajun music while you read - I've included a link to a Cajun internet station down below.
"Then a red glow like a campfire. A beer sign. Hearty music rolled out the open door of a small tavern, and a scent of simmering hot peppers steamed from the stovepipe chimney. I'd found Tee's. Inside, under dim halos of yellow bug lights, an accordion (the heart of a Cajun band), a fiddle, guitar, and ting-a-ling (triangle) cranked out chanky-chank. The accordionist introduced the numbers as songs of amour or joie and the patrons cheered; but when he announced un chanson de marriage, they booed him. Many times he cried out the Cajun motto, Laissez les bons temps rouler!"
Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 10
I am cheating a little bit on this post. I'm really combining two stops that LHM made near Lafayette into one. If I were to map it most correctly, I would probably first highlight his first stop at a bar in Lafayette where he has a Dixie Beer and asks where he can hear some "chanky-chank," or Cajun music. His second stop was then a rural bar named Tee's where he finds the music he is looking for.
However, I am not going to do this in two separate stops because I cannot find Tee's - perhaps the bar has closed down in the intervening 30 years. There is a Tee's Lounge in Sunset, Louisiana about halfway between Opelousas and Lafayette, but that would have involved LHM going back in the same direction, and its location doesn't really make sense because it is right off the freeway, and LHM clearly is following a bartender's vague directions , trying to find Tee's in the dark on rural roads. So, since I don't really know, I'm not going to speculate and be wrong.
"I wound about, crossing three identical bridges or crossing one bridge three times. I gave up and tried to find my way back to town and couldn't do that either."
Having lived both in Texas and Louisiana, I often found that the best places for live music often lay in rural, out of the way places. I can remember trying to find a dancehall in Texas once. We drove and drove through the dark rural roads and, like LHM, accidentally stumbled upon the place when it seemed like the best thing to do would be to just give up. But once we got there, it was an amazing experience. Cheap but good beer, and a wonderful time dancing to great music. These places just seem to materialize out of thin air - like Brigadoon, Avalon, or any otherworldly place - just when you need them to be there. And, almost as if they belong to another dimension, if you don't pay attention to how you got there, you may never find your way back again. They seem to exist at the end of time, where pleasant people and fine music mix in a heady ambience so much so that you lose track of time and place, and like the mythical drug of the Lotus Eaters, you may never want to come back.
And the music you will find in these types of backwater dance halls is amazing, about as authentic as any you'll find anywhere. In Louisiana, you can look for Cajun and Zydeco bands like Beausoleil, Bruce Daigrepont, Buckwheat Zydeco, Wayne Toups and Zydecajun, Dwayne Dopsie, Feufollet...you name it. These are bands that will make you dance, literally, because you won't be able to stop from moving your feet. If you are a woman, you will often be politely steered around the room by a Cajun guy in a fast Cajun two-step or waltz, and chances are you won't get to sit down all night.
And if you are lucky, you get a little of what Louisianans call "lagniappe." Lagniappe is just a little something extra added onto whatever you already have. For instance, if you went to a bakery to get a dozen donuts, and the baker decided to throw in a thirteenth free, that extra donut is lagniappe. LHM describes his experience of lagniappe, though he doesn't label it as such probably because nobody used the term around him:
"....Everybody went home. The barmaid watched us wearily. "Okay," she said, "come on back for some hot stuff.
"Is this where we find out why they call themselves 'Coonasses'?" I said, and we laughed again, holding on to each other.
"All right, boys. Settle down." She led us not to a bedroom but to a large concrete-floor kitchen with an old picnic table under a yellow flourescent tube. We sat and a young Cajun named Michael passed a long loaf of French bread. The woman put two bowls in the oil cloth and ladled up gumbo. Now, I've eaten my share of gumbo, but never had I tasted anything like that gumbo: the oysters were fresh and fat, the shrimp succulent, the spiced sausage meaty, okra sweet, rice soft, and the roux - the essence - the roux was right. We could almost stand our spoons on end in it."
Such stories, to me, are the essence of Louisiana and the graciousness and generosity of the people I found there. In New Orleans, especially around Mardi Gras, you can walk down the street and complete strangers will invite you into their house to a party or to share in their meal. It isn't just "letting the good times roll." That in itself would be special enough. No, the extra specialness that I found in Louisiana consisted of that lagniappe that appeared unexpectedly, without warning. The memories of those that, on a whim, invite you to participate in something extra and magical - those are the memories that we carry with us. LHM finishes that passage with this wonderful tableau about eating gumbo after hours in Tee's:
"The woman disappeared, so we ate gumbo and dipped bread and no one talked. A gray cat hopped on the bench between Seipel and me to watch eat bite of both bowls we ate. Across the room, a fat, buffy mouse moved over the stove top and browsed for drippings from the big pot. The cat eyed it every so often but made no move away from our bowls. Seipel said, "I've enjoyed the hell out of tonight," and he laid out a small shrimp for the cat. Nothing more got spoken. We all went at the gumbo, each of us, Minnesotan, Cajun, cat, mouse, Missourian."
All quotes in this entry from Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 10
If you want to know more about Lafayette
The Advertiser (newspaper)
Lafayette Conventions and Visitors Bureau
Lafayette Independent Weekly (alternative newspaper)
Road Food America list of Lafayette restaurants
University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Next up: Breaux Bridge, Louisiana