For this series, we’ll be following Paste’s own Curmudgeon, Geoffrey Himes, as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. Seventh stop: Eunice, LA.
In Louisiana, Mardi Gras is not a day; it’s a season. It technically begins on Twelfth Night (January 6), and the celebrations increase in number and intensity as Mardi Gras Day itself approaches. The week before and especially the weekend before the actual day are filled with parades, dances and parties. The excitement reaches such a pitch that the day before Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is now called Lundi Gras (Fat Monday).
On Lundi Gras this year, the superb Cajun band the Pine Leaf Boys took the stage in the central square of Eunice, part of the free music that the Louisiana prairie town offers each Mardi Gras weekend. As soon as Courtney Granger played the fiddle introduction to “La Danse de Mardi Gras,” the bodies crammed into the town center began wriggling with excitement. The minor-key, modal melody, with likely roots in medieval France, is set to the clip-clop rhythm of horses carrying their costumed riders from farm to farm, begging for contributions to the holiday gumbo. It’s both a description of and an anthem for Cajun Mardi Gras.
Button accordionist Wilson Savoy, guitarist Jon Bertrand, bassist Thomas David and drummer Drew Simon bolstered that spooky processional music, but so did the crowd with its stomping feet and loud cries of “Capitaine, Capitaine voyage ton flag,” joining Savoy’s lead vocal. “Captain, Captain, wave your flag,” they cried. “Take us to the next farm to gather more donations, because everyone’s coming for the gumbo tonight.” There was a close linkage between musicians and audience found only in the most vital music scenes.
Wilson Savoy and Jon Bertrand of the Pine Leaf Boys
You don’t preserve a traditional, regional music by having folklorists document its history or by having out-of-town music nerds (like this writer) support it. You do it by convincing the local residents that the music is crucial to their ongoing lives, that it’s good for dancing on Saturday night and for celebrating holiday rituals.
That’s what has happened in Southwest Louisiana, in the region from Abbeville to Ville Platte and west to Lake Charles. That’s why Cajun music, despite a dwindling of its national profile in recent years, is thriving at home with some of the best bands in its history operating at this very moment. It’s a golden age of the music, whether anyone outside Louisiana notices or not.
The proof could be heard later that night at the Lakeview Park, a campground just north of Eunice. In the park’s big barn, where spherical white-paper lanterns hang from the high rafters, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, another excellent Cajun ensemble, were playing a dance for campers, townspeople and out-of-towners alike. Like the Pine Leaf Boys, the Mamou Playboys boasted three strong lead singers and three fine soloists over a rock-solid bass-drums foundation. Both quintets are exceptionally well balanced with every aspect of the music—lead vocals, harmonies, fiddle solos, accordion and guitar solos, and dance rhythms—strongly presented.
Riley’s group kept the dance floor filled all night, but there was an extra jolt of excitement when the musicians struck up “La Danse de Mardi Gras.” Just as with the Pine Leaf Boys earlier, the dancers kicked up the energy a bit as soon as they heard the fiddle intro and began singing along in French. Something similar happened on Riley’s biggest local hit, “Bon Reve,” whose infectious oh-oh-oh refrain was sung by guitarist Sam Broussard and echoed by the crowd as Riley and Kevin Wimmer played twin fiddles over the syncopated thump of bassist Brazos Huval, drummer Kevin Dugas and the emphatic dancers.
On Tuesday morning, all over the area, locals joined in the annual Mardi Gras ritual of going from farm to farm in costume to request chickens and pigs for the gumbo pot, just as the lyrics to “La Danse de Mardi Gras’ describe. My friends and I joined the most traditional of those, not far from Eunice. You had to be in full costume and be willing to walk 10 miles to participate, and we were.
Almost all the costumes were homemade, and they constituted a giant art project of impressive ingenuity that transformed cheap materials into surprising creations, sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful, sometimes both. It was visual art at its most democratic.
The music was just as democratic. There were three pick-up-pulled flatbed wagons for musicians to sit on and provide the soundtrack as the Courir de Mardi Gras moved from farm to farm. Different musicians took turns at different times. They could be as famous as of the Pine Leaf Boys’ Wilson Savoy and Jon Bertrand, the Revelers’ Chas Justus or singer-accordionist Jesse Lege. They could be teenagers learning the fiddle, enthusiasts from the Midwest or local virtuosos who never got out of the local barrooms.
But whenever a wagon stopped, dancers costumed in strips of colored cloth would couple up and start twirling on the asphalt and mud. And sooner or later, every band would play “La Danse de Mardi Gras,” and the crowd would sing along.
The term “Mardi Gras” refers not only to the holiday but also to the revelers who take part in the Courir de Mardi Gras. When the long line approached a new farm, the Mardi Gras Captain, with the traditional gold-satin cape, would approach the farmer on horseback and ask if the “Mardi Gras” could come onto the property. The farmer would agree.
The Captain would ask if the farmer had any contribution for the gumbo pot. The farmer would say yes, but you have to catch it. With that he would fling a rooster or a guinea hen into the air, and the younger Mardi Gras would go tear-assing after the terrified bird to catch it. As the paved road turned to gravel and then to nothing more than tractor tracks across a grassy field, we reached a remote farm where the chicken was caged at the top of a greasy pole that defeated the climbers for a long time before one reached the top.
The final stop on this Courir was the rural cemetery where Cajun pioneer Dennis McGee is buried. As the costumed revelers squatted down between the gravestones, the parade marshal in the Napoleon hat and rope whip got serious for once. Mardi Gras, he reminded us, is about more than wearing costumes, chasing chickens, wrestling in the mud and remembering history. It’s the Cajun expression, he said, of the old admonition, “Love thy neighbor.” It’s the glue that holds the community together. To seal that notion, half a dozen fiddlers from half a dozen different bands stood side-by-side and played a medley of McGee’s wonderful tunes.
Eventually, the Courir circled back to the farmhouse where it began. Chunky bowls of gumbo (cooked earlier in the day, not from the caught chickens) were handed out to one and all. Skinny dippers rinsed the mud from their wrestling escapades in an adjacent pond. Leroy Thomas and the Zydeco Runners played beneath a white canvas tent in the backyard as visitors such as Rhiannon Giddens and her producer Dirk Powell danced on the bumpy grass floor. Inevitably, Thomas’s band struck up “La Danse de Mardi Gras.” It’s a song I never get tired of hearing.