Cast-Iron Cajun Culture
Acadian Journeys and Jam Sessions
It’s one thing to value tradition, to applaud efforts to preserve regional ethnic customs, and to generally respect your cultural forbears. And it’s quite another to be in the midst of a swirling manifestation of Acadian folkways in south Louisiana and be utterly turned on.
This was how I felt one October night standing at the edge of the thumping, bouncing plywood dance floor in an open-air, barnlike pavilion on the outskirts of Lafayette. I was listening to the Red Stick Ramblers whale away on stage with singer Linzay Young crooning French lyrics I couldn’t begin to follow, and I was watching beautiful, smiling women in print dresses, pigtails, and cowboy boots dance close with lean young men under whipping ceiling fans. I’m not sure if my mouth was agape, but certainly my eyes were wide open.
Yes, it’s one thing to appreciate tradition and it’s another to feel it bumping through the tight points in your circulatory system, making you feel alive and eager to participate, which is just what these kinds of Cajun cultural close encounters always do to me.
I finished the beer I was clutching as one Ramblers song ended, and I found a dance partner as the next tune began, which was as easy as offering my palm to a stranger as if to shake hands. When the band’s two fiddles hit again, I was clumsily but enthusiastically shuffling my way around the dance floor, along with a few hundred people for whom such scenes are just another example of homegrown fun on a Saturday night.
This was the climax of the South Louisiana Black Pot Festival & Cookoff, a weekend of dancing, drinking, cooking, eating, camping, and jamming with a tight-knit group of Cajun, zydeco, and bluegrass musicians, along with their friends, their families, and a smattering of awestruck onlookers, like me. The setting was the Acadian Village, a menagerie of vintage Cajun cottages and barns arranged around a little white chapel and a meandering bayou. This model village is run as a folk life museum and tourist attraction, but during the Black Pot Festival no exhibit placards, no artifact guides, and no costumed reenactors were necessary to convey the region’s heritage. The modern rendition was plain to see on the stage, around the dance floor, and in the campsites later on in the night.
The whole event was the creation of a group of twenty-somethings from the local roots music scene, led by Linzay Young, fellow Red Stick Ramblers player Glenn Fields, and Jillian Johnson. The Red Stick Ramblers, a five-man outfit playing a mix of Cajun, gypsy jazz, and western swing, happens to be one of my favorite bands, while Jillian is the singer of her own band, the Figs, a charmingly cheeky all-girl group playing vintage string band sounds. This seems like promising DNA for a roots music festival to have at its conception, and they and their friends recruited a roster of like-minded bands and diverse performers from around the region to take part. What helps make the Black Pot stand out amongst so many other, much larger musical festivals, however, happens away from the stage.
The festival got started in 2006, and it was still quite small and intimate when I first found it in 2008, with about twenty-two hundred people attending over the course of two days and two nights. It seemed like most of them knew each other. But even for someone like me, rolling in without introduction, the festival had so many opportunities for interaction that it felt more like a big social gathering than a commercial enterprise or even a cultural showcase. Many musicians and festival attendees camped on the grounds for the duration, and together they created an after-hours party of impromptu jam sessions around their campfires long after the scheduled performances wrapped up. The next morning, some of these people became cook-off contestants and broke out their well-seasoned cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens—the festival’s namesake “black pots”—to start prepping an outrageously delicious catalogue of gumbos, stews, jambalayas and fricassees under tailgating tents. They spooned out samples for the cook-off judges, and then they shared generously with anyone who cared to try their entries. I cared very much.
Like most Louisiana festivals, the Black Pot is an all-ages affair, and I watched many young children, preteens, high school kids, and people who looked like their grandparents dancing and socializing there. What I found so distinguishing about Black Pot, though, was the youthful energy spiking the air here. If folk festivals sometimes have a nostalgic feel, or the purposeful solemnity of preservation, this one had the vigor and boy-meets-girl tension of a culture very much in active use. . .(NOTE: this is an excerpt from the full chapter)