It all started with The Big Easy. Back in my Jumbo Video, VHS-tape-renting days, I rented this 1987 film about police corruption in New Orleans and it was the movie that made me a Dennis Quaid fan; he’s still on a short list of actors I love particularly for the films they made in the late-’80’s-early-’90’s that includes Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Alec Baldwin.
It also made me a fan of all things N’Awlins. I became enamoured with the culture of the Crescent City, particularly with it’s musical heritage. The Big Easy does actually serve as a perfect introduction to New Orleans as it was filmed on location and many geographical places are mentioned and/or represented such as Lake Pontchartrain, the Piazza d’Italia (“Here’s Freddy, dead as Kelsey’s nuts…”), Antoine’s Restaurant, Tipitina’s night club and many locations in the French Quarter including the Sho Bar night club and later strip club. It contains a lot of local colour and the actors – including Marc Lawrence in one of his last roles – pull off their characterizations (and accents) well.
The soundtrack to the film I took out of the public library on cassette; I will take it back someday. It is loaded with much of the music that New Orleans is known for, predominantly zydeco and Cajun music. Both styles are native to Louisiana and originated in the early 1900’s. Zydeco is party music, a blend of the waltzes and two-steps indigenous to the area combined with elements of blues and rock ‘n’ roll and usually played on accordion and a wash board worn on the chest and stroked with spoons or thimbles on the fingers.
Kin to zydeco is the Cajun music of the French Acadians that arrived in Louisiana in the 19th century from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Usually delivered in French with an almost wailing tone of voice, Cajun relies heavily on fiddles and accordions. Played at social gatherings like zydeco, true Cajun music is perhaps less frenetic and less “rock ‘n’ roll” and possessed of a real front-porch-rocking-chair vibe. To say it is the authentic sound of the bayou is an understatement. As mariachi transports you to a dusty Mexican hacienda, so Cajun music sends you to the swamps of Louisiana.
As I said it is the whole culture of New Orleans I’m drawn to and I soon discovered Mardi Gras. Also referred to as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday, Mardi Gras can be traced back to the Magi bringing gifts to the Christ child giving rise to the feast of Epiphany, celebrating Jesus having come for more than just the Jews. Early Christians celebrated up until the start of the Lenten season, when they believed they should generally deprive themselves – particularly of enjoyable foods – so that they might better understand the sufferings of Christ. Therefore, the day before Ash Wednesday became the culmination of feasting; the last day to indulge before Lent. Eventually, “Fat Tuesday” became a worldwide celebration that bore many names and took many forms.
For me, then, this fluctuating time of year became a time when I would dial in to my brothers and sisters in Louisiana and New Orleans in particular, and immerse myself in the culture. I began to collect and to study the music and, come Shrove Tuesday, I would take the day off work (if need be) and my family and I would have a fun pancake dinner.
More recently, I’ve enjoyed watching live footage from traffic cameras New Orleans has set up at various locations in the French Quarter. Come Mardi Gras, these cameras become “parade cams” and you can view the parades – with live commentary – on the internet. There’s also the silent camera that hangs in the French Quarter and I often will put it on while I’m at work and just watch the celebrants cutting loose and having a good time. Sometimes you’ll catch some interesting people and goings-on.
My wife had many years ago been a nurse in Baton Rouge, LA and so she had been a participant in life in the Bayou State. To this day, she has friends there and, on a trip to New Orleans when our kids were little, we stopped in for a visit. My wife still has Mardi Gras beads from her time down there and come the season I put them on and act the fool, parading around the house, often tuning in WWOZ in N’Awlins for some local colour.
Buckwheat Zydeco was a Louisiana band lead by the late Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural who sang and excelled on the accordion and organ. Through The Big Easy, I fell hard for Buckwheat Zydeco and, thirty years later, I am still buying their albums. Dural nails the whole party vibe of zydeco and often covers well known songs with artists from other genres. You can hear Buckwheat Zydeco essay Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin'” featuring Dwight Yoakam and perform an absolutely killer version of Derek and the Dominos’ “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” accompanied by some blistering guitar from the song’s composer Eric Clapton. Also check out Buck’s excellent cover of “When the Levee Breaks”.
Buck’s “Ma ‘Tit Fille” from The Big Easy was a revelation for my young ears. Dominated by accordion and washboard, the energetic tune is emblematic of all that is great about zydeco. “Make a Change” and “Maybe I Will” are great examples of Buckwheat’s ability to craft a polished tune, the soulful instrumental latter tune being a perfect “closing credits” song. Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural, Jr. died of lung cancer in 2016.
Professor Longhair was a legendary piano player based in New Orleans who had a distinctive rolling playing style. His “Tipitina” is a New Orleans standard and was added to the U.S. National Recording Registry due to it’s cultural significance. The aforementioned night club was named after this delightful piano work-out that is a highlight of the soundtrack of The Big Easy, other highlights of which include BeauSoleil’s rocking “Zydeco Gris-Gris” and two more mellow tunes, “Colinda” by Zachary Richard and “Closer to You”, sung by the movie’s star, Dennis Quaid.
Normally, though, I kick my season off with Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time”. Now, there is another singer named Al Johnson and so the Johnson from New Orleans has long gone by Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. Our Al recorded his legendary tune – a song that is one of the most played and requested of all Mardi Gras songs – at the equally legendary New Orleans studios of Cosimo Matassa in 1960. As of this writing, Al is still alive and living in Musician’s Village in NoLa, a community built by native sons Harry Connick and Branford Marsalis in cooperation with Habitat for Humanity for musicians who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina.
Another great opener would be “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, made up of – you guessed it – 12 guys that play horns. WWOZ broke the band in the early ’80’s and they are legends of the city’s music scene. Beau Jocque was a big fella with a big voice with a band – the Zydeco Hi-Rollers – that had a big sound. Beau dropped dead of a heart attack at the height of his career. He was only 45. “Give Him Cornbread” is one of the most wonderful things you’d ever want to hear. And if ever I’m within ten feet or a Cracker Barrel table of cornbread, you can bet I’ll be singing “give ‘im cornbread!”
Whenever I think of musicians from New Orleans, I think of Louis Armstrong. But right after him, I think of my main man, Harry Connick, Jr. Harry is about as “N’Awlins” as they come. Born and raised in the Big Easy, his late mother was a lawyer and a judge and his father – Joseph Harry Fowler Connick, Sr. – was the district attorney of the city from 1973 to 2003. Connick the Elder took over the post from Jim Garrison, best known for his investigations into the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Garrison was portrayed by Kevin Costner in JFK and plays himself as a judge in The Big Easy.
Anyways, Harry, Jr. has spent his career making music steeped in the New Orleans tradition. He has released many straight jazz albums and three extraordinary albums of New Orleans funk. Maybe the greatest album he ever made was one of these three, 1994’s She, that featured “Here Comes the Big Parade”, an ode to Fat Tuesday and the parades that roll – Connick himself has his own “krewe”, Orpheus, that has a parade each Mardi Gras. Just about every parade float that goes by will throw trinkets to the crowd. This practice is celebrated in this tune by Connick; “throw me somethin’, mister!”
Johnny Adams and Irma Thomas are prime examples of New Orleans-based jazz singers. The Baton Rouge-born Adams had a minor pop hit in 1969 with “Reconsider Me” but his albums on Rounder Records from the ’80’s are NoLa jazz essentials. Irma is basically the female Johnny Adams. The two of them have a wonderful sound, a sound that you can imagine has graced clubs in New Orleans for decades. They belong on this playlist not just for their great music but also out of respect.
The Meters are a legendary NoLa funk band that features front man Art Neville. The band recorded the classic “Cissy Strut”, a major R&B hit in 1969 and they have played with Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and the Neville Brothers. Well, I can’t put it off anymore. It’s time to try to describe to you “You Got Me Worried” by Walter “Wolfman” Washington, a blues guitarist who has played with Lee Dorsey and Johnny Adams. But really the majesty, the balls-out power of this tune I just can’t put into words. It is magnificent. You’ll have to listen to it.
Good, old fashioned Cajun music I could listen to all day. The Balfa Brothers, out of Bayou Grand Louis in rural Louisiana, were five brothers lead by Dewey Balfa, a true legend of the genre. The music of the Balfa Brothers is the finest and purest example of the Cajun tradition. The sounds of the fiddle and accordion are the sounds of history in many parts of Louisiana and “La Danse de Mardi Gras” is the sound of tradition and hearkens back to the very origins of the state. It is summer twilight, the smell of gumbo or jambalaya wafts through the house, neighbours amble up and ask how the day was. They sit and you both heave a sigh. The Balfas play…
An album I can highly recommend is Rounder Records’ 1987 compilation Louisiana Scrapbook. I bought it many years ago and was at first disappointed that it didn’t contain more zydeco. But as the years have gone by, I can better appreciate the various artists and genres represented on the record. It encapsulates all that is good about the rich musical history of the Pelican State.
Laissez les bon temps roulez! When it’s time for Fat Tuesday and you – like me – are thousands of miles away from New Orleans, here is a playlist that will take you to the Mardi Gras!!
Carnival Time — Al Johnson
Mardi Gras in New Orleans — the Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Ma ‘Tit Fille — Buckwheat Zydeco
Give Him Cornbread — Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers
Tipitina — Professor Longhair
Here Comes the Big Parade — Harry Connick, Jr.
She Said the Same Things to Me — Johnny Adams
The New Rules — Irma Thomas
Hey Pocky Way — the Meters
Zydeco Gris-Gris — BeauSoleil
Oh, My Nola — Harry Connick, Jr.
Make a Change — Buckwheat Zydeco
Colinda — Zachary Richard
Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans? — Harry Connick, Jr.
You Got Me Worried — Walter “Wolfman” Washington
Comin’ In — Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers
Closer to You — Dennis Quaid
City Beneath the Sea — Harry Connick, Jr.
La Danse de Mardi Gras — the Balfa Brothers
Maybe I Will — Buckwheat Zydeco