Reviewed: Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana’s Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls by Alex V. Cook
(Louisiana State University Press, March 2012)
Nearly each of the sixty-odd entries in Alex V. Cook’s Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana’s Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls follows the same rough mini-narrative: Cook arrives at a music venue, often after some difficulty finding it; he orders a beer and sometimes a po-boy, gumbo, or catfish plate; he watches a band; he leaves happy. He couches this refrain within descriptions of the venues, their patrons, the music, and—for statelier establishments like Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Atchafalaya Club in Henderson and Tabby’s Blues Box in Baton Rouge—historical notes describing prior iterations, locations, and owners of the clubs.
Louisiana Saturday Night is more travelogue than tour guide, and most of its value is in its information—simply, these places exist, and this is where they are and what goes on. The smartest move Cook made in compiling the book, which consists largely of columns he originally wrote for Country Roads magazine, was to keep the cultural theorizing and esoteric music nerd-dom to a minimum. For the most part, he merely offers straightforward accounts of the times he’s had prowling around Louisiana’s back roads in search of prime zydeco performers and ancient bluesmen who shake the dust off their sleeves with guttural riffs. Cook has spent years documenting South Louisiana culture. He often finds it thriving, much to his delight and sometimes to his surprise—such as when he comes across a gaggle of teenage girls in Gonzales who profess to love traditional swamp pop.
The book is not completely without comment on the state and nature of culture in the region. One cannot write long about Louisiana and not run into the issue of race, which Cook addresses from an acknowledged position of privilege. He begins an account of searching for a blues club called Emma’s outside Baton Rouge, where in 1949 Ornette Coleman was allegedly beaten by a mob for injecting bebop into the band’s dance material: “In South Louisiana, it has been my experience that as far as nightclubs catering to traditional music go, the black and white worlds are separate ones, acknowledged by each other but rarely ventured into. I’ve never experienced any racial confrontation directed at me (though as a white male, I am generally not the target of such tensions), nor have I seen any pointed antagonism between the black and white worlds, but I have experienced an ignorance one of the other.”
The issue to which Cook turns most frequently, though, affects all the region’s ethnicities—the tension between maintaining a living tradition and treating culture like a museum piece, to protect and coddle while it becomes obsolete. The music Cook seeks—Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop, blues—has been played in the same basic manner for many decades and is attached to sets of customs much older. As the modern age and its homogenizing tendencies encroach, however, a distinct regional culture survives only by evolving and acclimating in the larger cultural context. Cook points to musicians he comes across who give him hope, like postmodern zydeco master Keith Frank, an elder statesman of the genre who incorporates everything from surf rock to dub into his songs, and the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a young Cajun group out of Lafayette who, in the book’s entry on the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House, play what has become a legendary set with the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano. Even so, Cook often sounds worried about how long the gig will last. “Louisiana’s nightclubs are not the places where we carve out our future but where we play out our present, often in the shadow of the past,” he writes.
The New Orleans section of the regionally partitioned book is the weakest—many of the city’s entries are already dated, such as the Circle Bar’s, which includes mention of a giant iconic clock that has since been smashed and discarded during a renovation. The entry about the Hi-Ho Lounge has become irrelevant since the Stooges Brass Band bought managerial rights to the former old-timey venue, establishing a staunch black outpost on a corridor of downtown New Orleans being rocked by gentrification. But New Orleans is a city in immense flux, and it’s hard to pin down what will last. Hopefully, the book’s information about venues in the slower-moving parts of the state will remain accurate longer.
Traveler’s guides, more so than other texts that attempt to describe places and the things people do in them, depend on criteria and frames to determine their content—traditionally, these tend to be set to appeal to the broadest audience. With the information glut the internet affords, travelers increasingly search for bound guides that present more potent, specialized information—who needs a book to find a Motel 6 or a Waffle House?
Guidebooks to more secret or exclusive corners of the world have become abundant as a result, but the travelogue aspect of Louisiana Saturday Night takes this tendency a step further. By constructing a guide out of narratives from his personal, subjective perspective, Cook provides both information and inspiration without the corny hyperbole or predictability one finds, for instance, in periodicals’ travel sections (Inside: Our Top Ten Beach Getaways!). He offers the reader an example to follow—his tales of travel do not depict difficult feats, and his palpable sense of excitement, discovery, and respect encourages readers to follow. The thoughtful ones will do so with care, since the last thing a unique culture trying to stay alive and relevant needs is a bunch of hokey tourists poking around.