The abundance of music in Louisiana has been aptly described as an embarrassment of riches.  Louisiana generated several seminal musical styles and contributed to the development of many others.  From Angie to Zwolle, Shreveport to Grand Isle, Sulphur to Sondheimer, Louisiana has influenced popular music far beyond its borders.  New Orleans' unique blend of cultures nurtured some of the most significant developments in the emergence of jazz.  Rhythm & blues also made great strides in New Orleans, where it continues to evolve. In recent years, the city has also served as an important center for rap, bounce, and hip-hop, modern styles with distinct folk roots.  Many nationally-renowned blues artists honed their craft in Baton Rouge. The southwestern part of the state is home to Cajun music and zydeco, while northern Louisiana has played an important role in the histories of country music, rockabilly, and the blues.  Gospel music is a significant tradition throughout the entire state, in black and white communities alike.

 

Music in New Orleans

The music most commonly associated with New Orleans Jazz, though the belief that jazz was born, literally and exclusively, in the Big Easy is overly simplistic.  While the evolution of any genre is a complex and lengthy socio-cultural process, New Orleans undoubtedly has played an important role in the evolution of jazz.  Nineteenth-century New Orleans provided a uniquely fertile climate for the interaction of African aesthetics and technique with European instrumentation and concepts of musical standardization. This synthesis, combined with Afro-Caribbean rhythmic patterns brought by immigrants from Cuba and Haiti, forms the core of early jazz and supports the contention that Louisiana is the northern frontier of Caribbean culture.

The first renowned New Orleans jazz musician was cornetist Charles "Buddy" Bolden, who began performing publicly around 1895.  Second-generation artist such as cornetist/trumpeter Louis Armstrong, clarinetist/saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and pianist Jelly Roll Morton rose to prominence a quarter-century later and helped define the classic New Orleans jazz sound. While many early jazz musicians were African American, there was also considerable input from New Orleans' Italian-American community.  A whole spectrum of jazz--traditional, contemporary, avant-garde, and brass band--continues to evolve in New Orleans.

Rhythm & blues, commonly known as R&B, synthesizes traditional African American blues with various mainstream, commercial sources.  The period between the late 1940s and the early 1960s is often called the golden age of New Orleans R&B, thanks to path-breaking records by Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, Professor Longhair, Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Frankie Ford, and other talented artists. Many of their songs became national and/or global hits, while some were primarily popular on the Gulf Coast.  In the 1970s, artists such as Dr. John and the Neville Brothers took R&B in new directions.  Today pianist and singer Davell Crawford, among other artists, carries the torch.  New Orleans rap star Lil’ Wayne also maintains a link to this legacy. 

In addition, the huge success of Fats Domino inspired many major record companies based in New York or Los Angeles to bring their top artists to New Orleans studios.  Their theory was that accompaniment by the city's talented studio musicians would increase the chance of scoring a hit, and such thinking often proved right. Perhaps the most notable example is Little Richard’s "Tutti Frutti" recorded in 1955.

 

Southern Louisiana

A center of both blues and rock activity, Baton Rouge provided the setting for seminal records such as Slim Harpo’s “Baby, Scratch My Back” and “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred and the Playboys.  To the west lies the home of Cajun music and zydeco, the exuberant dance music genres of southwestern Louisiana's French-speaking people, white and black respectively.  Cajuns are the descendents of French Acadians deported from the area now known as Nova Scotia in the mid-eighteenth century, many of whom them settled in southwestern Louisiana.  The word zydeco comes from the Creole French phrase les haricots sont pas salés, which literally means, "the snap-beans are not salty."  The phrase is a metaphor for hard times when people could not afford salt pork to season their food.  In the early 1950s, this adage provided the name for the dance music played by black, French-speaking Creoles. (“Creole” has many definitions in Louisiana.  Its usage here denotes members of southwestern Louisiana’s black community who speak French or have ancestors who did.)

As performed by definitive stylists like Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis, and Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural, zydeco has interacted with blues and R&B, funk, and soul.  More recently, younger artists such as Chris Ardoin have incorporated the influence of rap and hip-hop.  Cajun music, in addition to its Acadian legacy of fiddle tunes and a capella ballads, has shaped and been influenced by country music.  Leading Cajun musicians, historic and contemporary, include Dennis McGee, Dewey Balfa, Nathan Abshire, and Michael Doucet.  Cajun and zydeco also contributed to swamp pop, a hybrid of French Louisiana music synthesizing pop, rock, and R&B.

 

Northern Louisiana

Shreveport, in Louisiana's northwestern corner, is a vitally important city in the history of Louisiana music. The great blues guitarist Huddie Ledbetter, also known as Leadbelly, honed his performance skills in Shreveport's blues clubs and street corners during the early twentieth century.  First recorded by Library of Congress folklorists Alan and John Lomax, Leadbelly became a popular and influential entertainer, introducing rural blues and other genresto urban audiences around the nation.  Leadbelly’s repertoire overlapped considerably with country music, which has many manifestations around Louisiana.  

In its earliest forms, country was a new-world expression of the folk music traditions brought to America by British emigrants.  When the recording industry emerged in the early twentieth century, modern commercial country music blended British folk roots with African American influences blues, and the sentimental compositions and popular, published songs sometimes known as parlor music.  The country styles known respectively as western swing and bluegrass, for instance, absorbed jazz rhythms and the concept of instrumental improvisation.  Beginning in the 1930s, western swing also interacted with Cajun music through bands such as The Hackberry Ramblers.

Shreveport played a particularly pivotal role in country music. From 1948 until the 1960s, a live radio program known as Louisiana Hayride was broadcast on Saturday nights from Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium. Louisiana Hayride reached a broad national audience and hosted talents like Kitty Wells, Jim Reeves, Webb Pierce, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash.   In addition, the show helped nurture a new, multi-cultural style known as rockabilly by hiring a then-obscure young singer named Elvis Presley to perform between 1954 and 1956. 

Rockabilly combined elements of country music with African American blues and rhythm and blues, and the gospel fervor of both cultures.  One of the most important originators of rockabilly was a wild pianist and singer named Jerry Lee Lewis, from Ferriday in Concordia Parish. Lewis emerged in the mid-1950s with such passionate recordings as "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."  Lewis remains active in the genre, as does the great Shreveport guitarist James Burton, whose career also began on the Louisiana Hayride.

 

Other Louisiana Musical Genres

Louisiana's gospel traditions encompass a range of styles. Solo singers such as the late Mahalia Jackson inspired listeners with their religious fervor and pure vocal power. Jackson used many time-honored African-American musical techniques--including call-and-response, syncopation, bent and slurred notes, growls, and screams--all of which are also heard in blues. The classic gospel quartet sound combines these effects with exquisite use of four-part harmonies, sung in different registers to maximize the effect of the contrasting voices. The quartet sound also influenced secular R&B. Many gospel quartets perform a cappella while others use bass and drums, electric guitar, and keyboards. This same instrumentation also accompanies gospel choirs, which may include dozens of singers.

In northern Louisiana, one of the most striking manifestations of African American gospel music is Easter Rock—a traditional ceremony involving music and dance. This ritual, which originated in the antebellum era, is relatively unknown outside the Louisiana delta. In the Original True Light Baptist Church in Franklin Parish, for example, the Easter Rock service has been performed on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday for generations. As the congregation sings hymns, participants take rhythmic, reverberating steps from side-to-side while circling a table filled with food. At the end of the “rock” ritual, the food is served to the congregation. In the past, the Easter Rock service traditionally lasted until midnight, but today it often ends earlier since members attend a sunrise church service on Easter morning.

Another striking tradition in Louisiana gospel music, black and white, is shape-note singing. This a cappella style, found in some Protestant congregations, is based on a simplified system of musical notation. Instead of reading musical notes on a staff, shape-note singers sound out the tune by reading the shapes of the notes. There are two systems of shaped notation. The older Sacred Harp system, named after a book by that title, uses only four syllables (fa, sol, la, and mi) in the musical scale; each syllable has its own shape and gets repeated when moving up the scale. The newer seven-note system (using do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) is more commonly used in northern Louisiana today.

In addition to the dominant regional music traditions of Louisiana, immigrants from a wide variety of nations added their musical traditions to Louisiana’s distinctive cultural blend. Early French colonists brought the traditions of western classical music with them.  Similarly, Isleños, who immigrated from the Canary Islands, brought ballads known as décimas, which are sung in a seventeenth-century Spanish dialect, to the area around of St. Bernard Parish.  Hungarians, Czechs, Irish, Italians, German, Croatians, Jews, and Filipinos, among others, also imported their musical traditions.  Italian music intersected with jazz and R&B, while salsa, merengué, and other styles from Central America, the Caribbean, Vietnam, and Laos are more recent additions. After Hurricane Katrina, immigrants from Mexico added yet another dimension to the state’s musical heritage.  While some documentation of these communities exists, much remains to be done.

 

By Ben Sandmel, Independent Scholar