The soulful, determinedly eccentric New Orleans r&b crooner Ernie K-Doe’s contributions to the American Songbook might be considered marginal by most musicologists, but the man who referred to himself as the “emperor of the universe” took a more generous view of his own musical legacy. “There aren’t but three songs that will last for eternity,” he often told audiences. “One is ‘Amazing Grace.’ Another is ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ And the third is ‘Mother-in-Law,’ because as long as there are people on this earth, there will always be mother-in-laws.” K-Doe was not just an egocentric one-hit wonder; he shared superlatives with the city that shaped his career. “I’m not positive,” he said, “but I think all music came from New Orleans.” This is perhaps the one time K-Doe could be accused of understatement. I would take his proposition one step further: I’m almost positive that all music, at least all American music, comes from Louisiana, and unlike K-Doe I am willing to offer more than three songs in support of the theory.
Everyone knows the story of jazz, what some folks like to call the one, true, original American art form, born in the streets and bordellos of New Orleans. It’s a limited viewpoint, put forth by elites and aesthetes, purists who seem blind to evidence that New Orleans is also the birthplace of rap. (Not coincidentally, New Orleans is also the home of Lil Wayne, one of the most successful rap artists of our time.) The musical antecedents of rap arose from the fields of injustice in the South, descending from a musical form that crossed the Atlantic on slave ships, and became the central activity of slaves who were permitted to gather together in Congo Square in New Orleans on Sunday afternoons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The product of these musical unions featured percussive overdrive, repetitious beats, and unambiguous vocal affirmation of male self-worth, strength, and virility.
People say the blues came from Mississippi, and we’ve all heard a story about a certain Mr. Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads. To ascribe the creation of such musical richness, such visceral, meaty compositions to the supernatural is to dismiss and disregard the flesh-and-blood human pioneers, to withhold from them their due. And the blues is nothing if not man arguing for his due. The hardscrabble honky tonks of Baton Rouge produced some of the giants of the blues, men who would craft and mold the genre as their own: Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim, Tabby Thomas. In a nearby cell at the Angola prison farm, Leadbelly crafted his versions of the American classics “Midnight Special” and “Goodnight, Irene.” The Texas journeyman troubadour Jerry Jeff Walker was in the Orleans Parish jail when he shared a cell with the man he would immortalize in American song, “Mr. Bojangles.” Jailhouse rock was made in Louisiana.
So rich was the Baton Rouge talent pool that its migration was inevitable. Buddy Guy carried the trade up north, where he established himself as one of the central figures in the creation of a sound now known the world over as the Chicago blues. That it came from Louisiana is the Windy City’s dirty little secret. Ever-generous with her bountiful tradition of song, Louisiana has staked no legal claim. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan are just a few of the artists who claimed Guy as their influence. They made rock & roll, which was also panned in its infancy as the devil’s music. But rock & roll did not rise up from the infernal depths. It was born in Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio on Rampart Street, on the edge of the French Quarter. Though some folks point to Bill Haley’s 1955 classic, “Rock Around the Clock,” as the first “true” rock & roll record, Matassa laid down Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” in 1947 and Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” two years later. If these were not rock & roll recordings, then they are compositions in search of a genre.
Matassa is a long-overdue inductee to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and he created and helped popularize the new musical revolution long before anyone laced up a pair of blue suede shoes. In the spring of 1964, The Beatles began their domination of the charts with the U.S. single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Their consecutive records held Billboard’s No. 1 spot for fourteen straight weeks, until May, when “Can’t Buy Me Love” was finally bested by Louis Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly.” New Orleans staved off the British Invasion.
Music is Louisiana’s sensual nature unbound; the fountain from which the lyrical, melodic, whimsical, contemplative, celebratory, defiant, mournful, and exotic lifestyles of her people pour forth. Perhaps no music conjures the richness of life’s emotional and literal journeys as that of the Acadians, who settled the southwestern bayous and prairies of Louisiana after their grand displacement from Nova Scotia in the eighteenth century. It wasn’t long before the African Americans of the region adopted the Cajuns’ accordion and French language as their own, added driving washboard syncopation, and created zydeco. Together, Cajun and zydeco have become two of America’s most revered and popular indigenous styles, now featured in festivals and on homespun radio programs throughout the country.
Cajun music’s acoustic traditions and reliance on the fiddle lend it a country and western flair, but it was up in Shreveport that the Louisiana Hayride, the Grand Ole Opry’s wild-eyed cousin, put an indelible stamp on outlaw country, rockabilly, and rock & roll. Hank Williams launched his career from Shreveport; Hank Jr. was born there. The Louisiana Hayride is where Elvis Presley first appeared on television and where the most famous phrase in rock & roll history—“Elvis has left the building”—was announced to a stunned audience. Rockabilly pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis debuted his blistering piano style and ferocious vocalizations at the Hayride. His cousin, Mickey Gilley, was also a performer, but of an admittedly tamer inclination. Gilley reached the top of the charts by injecting popular balladry into mainstream country music and, for good or ill, became one of the pioneers of “crossover” country. He later opened a concert hall outside Houston; the urban cowboy craze that swept across America in the late 1970s was started by a man from Ferriday, Louisiana.
There have probably been more songs written about the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana than any competing locality. So rich in musical heritage is Louisiana that we have not one, not two, not three, but four official state songs. The most identifiable of those is “You Are My Sunshine,” that peppy ode to pleasant weather and love lost and found. “Sunshine” was not merely a soundtrack for the gubernatorial campaigns of the country singer Jimmie Davis, it was his actual campaign platform, and that was enough to sweep him into office on two separate occasions, two decades apart. This song, the one most identified with the state of Louisiana, is not even about Louisiana. And it was written by a man from Georgia. But that doesn’t matter. We liked it. We made it our own.
Music has always been the glue, the shared heritage, the defining gesture and common language of this exotic Bible-thumping/Afro-Caribbean/Euro-redneck/Cajun-Creole mix known as Louisiana, the place where all music comes from.
Library of Congress