Baton Rouge Traditions

Jazz, Zydeco, Cajun and Country: Roots-Music Diversity in the Greater Baton Rouge Area

By Ben Sandmel


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These interviews demonstrate the passion that these diverse individuals all have for their music. While such enthusiasm does not guarantee that their traditional art forms will endure, there are hopeful signs suggesting that Louisiana's music will remain vibrant and eclectic for the foreseeable future.

For example, while jazz man Joe Lamendola and zydeco artist Melvin Chavis are not actively involved in passing on their legacies, younger Louisianans are currently embracing these genres, making them far less endangered than they were fifty years ago. At that point, extinction seemed imminent. At the same time musicians such Ann Vidrine are clearly determined to stand as a culture bearers and ambassadors—in Vidrine's case, for Cajun music.

Country music is at a cultural crossroads as contemporary styles supplant traditions that have dominated the genre circa 1950-1970. Nevertheless, Stonewall Broussard has actively taught his son to embrace traditional country, and, in turn, the elder admires his son's eclectic taste both in both country and other genres, such as rock, that sound quite different.

Folkloric field research captures fleeting moments in time: young interviewees grow up, and elderly interviewees pass away. In the case of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey, however, many of the communities involved—including the City of Baton Rouge, and almost all of Livingston Parish—have undergone sudden and drastic change due to the catastrophic damage caused by the flooding of mid-August 2016.

In these affected areas, the transmission of traditional culture will be a low priority while people recover from devastating losses. More specifically, employment opportunities for musicians are apt to dwindle if not disappear, for a long time, in the affected areas. Many venues are gone, and few people have any discretionary funds for entertainment. From a long-term perspective, however, the greater Baton Rouge region remains a fertile area for further folk research.


1 In this essay, "Creole" refers to the members of southwestern Louisiana's black community who speak French or have ancestors who did. This definition of "Creole" is one subjective usage among many other interpretations. Such differing perceptions often spark strong disagreement in Louisiana.

2 In business continuously since 1934, the Famous Door nightclub is said to be the oldest operating music venue in New Orleans and is known for Dixieland jazz. The term Dixieland, which is not widely used at this writing, is synonymous with traditional jazz, and the traditional New Orleans repertoire in particular.

3 Bernard "Buddy" Rich (1917-1987) was a world-renowned big-band jazz drummer. Andy Williams (1927-2005) was a highly successful pop-music crooner and television host whose hits included "Moon River." Burt Bacharach (b. 1928) is a prominent composer and writer of popular songs, primarily in collaboration with lyricist Hal David; their hits include "Always Something There To Remind Me." Bob Hope (1903-2003) was a comedian, vaudevillian, and world-renowned film star, also famed for his performances for American soldiers on the battle front. Tony Bennett (b. Anthony Benedetto, 1926) is an acclaimed singer of pop-music standards, jazz, and more. whose signature hits include "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." At this writing (November, 2016) Bennett remains active, in peak form.

4 In 1971, Capone was a co-winner of a Grammy award for the Best Engineered Recording, non-classical, for his work on the theme song for the movie Shaft, written and performed by Isaac Hayes. The song was recorded at Memphis' renowned Stax Records studio.

5 During the 1930s and '40s, trombonist and arranger Glenn Miller was a leading proponent of the jazz style known as big-band swing. His acclaimed colleague, clarinetist Benny Goodman—nicknamed "The King of Swing"—was also respected as a pioneer in leading racially integrated jazz bands, then considered socially and politically radical.

6 "The Rat Pack" was a loose aggregation of singers, entertainers, and movie stars whose leading figures were Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), Dean Martin (1917-1995), Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-1990), Peter Lawford (1923-1984), and Joey Bishop (1918 - 2007). Their heyday was the late 1950s through the mid-'60s. The Crosby Brothers—sons of the famed crooner Bing Crosby—were a popular vocal quartet that was active in the 1950s and '60s. Gary, Dennis, Philip and Linsday Cosby are all deceased. Richard Conte (1910 - 1975) was an actor who appeared in Ocean's 11; Sheree North (1932-2005) was an actress of that era who was not in the film. Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) and Eddie Fisher (1928-2010) were major movie stars from the mid-20th century into the new millennium. Neither appeared Ocean's 11.

7 The jazz guitarist, banjo player and singer Danny Barker (1909-1994) was also an acclaimed raconteur and memoirist whose books include A Life In Jazz.

8 Coco, whose musical friends also included Pete Fountain, chronicled his life in the book Blessed Be Jazz: The Story of My Life As a Clarinet-Playing Jesuit Priest in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

9 The statue was eventually moved to Armstrong Park.

10 Unfazed by socio-political criticism that the lyrics to "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" perpetuated racist stereotypes, Armstrong recorded the song nearly one-hundred times throughout his career, creating a revenue stream of composer's royalties for Leon René and the other co-writers.

11 WLAC could be heard widely around the American South and Midwest, and its influence in disseminating blues is cited by many musicians, from a variety of genres, who came of age in the 1960s.

12 Another name for the vinyl "single," with one song on each side, the 45 was so named for its play speed of 45 rotations per minute (rpm).

13 Many Cajuns and Creoles shunned their ethnicity from the early 20th century into the 1960s. There was considerable pressure to do so, as exemplified by a 1916 state law that forbade the speaking of French dialects in Louisiana's public schools.

14 A scholar of mythology and comparative religion, Joseph Campbell offered this mantra in his books.

15 See Campion 2014 for a discussion about Mardi Gras symbolism.

16 Today Ernest Tubb, aka The Texas Troubadour (1914-84) is not particularly well-known today outside of traditional country circles, but from the 1940s to the 1970s, he was a major country star thanks to such hits as "Waltz Across Texas."

17 Auto-tune electronically alters the pitch of a voice or musical instrument to conform to conventional standards or other technical benchmarks. The computer program Pro Tools allows for sound to be edited, deleted, and reworked, indefinitely, until the desired results are achieved. Such technologies have replaced the laborious process of physically cutting and splicing audio tape, which left little margin for error or multiple attempts.

18 Swamp-pop is a south Louisiana hybrid of 1950s-60s rock, pop, blues, and R&B, along with elements of Cajun music and zydeco. Many swamp-pop songs are structurally identical to mainstream American hits; the somewhat intangible trait that distinguishes it is an especially plaintive style of singing.

19 Pianist, singer, and songwriter Antoine "Fats" Domino (b. 1928), and trumpeter, singer, songwriter, and producer/arranger Dave Bartholomew (b. 1920) are major architects of classic New Orleans rhythm & blues. Their co-written mega-hits for Domino include "I'm Walking" (1956); Bartholomew's own signature recordings include "The Monkey Speaks His Mind" (1957).

20 Now known as Chris Thomas King (b. 1962), he achieved fame for his roles in the popular movies O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) and Ray (2004.)

21 These songs were major hits for Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Garth Brooks, respectively.

22 Patsy Montana (née Ruby Blevins, 1908-1996) is famed for "I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart," a 1935 release which became the first country hit by a female singer (Bufwack 1998).

23 Raymond LeRoy Clark (1917-2000)—known professionally as Yodeling Slim—hailed from Massachusetts but moved to Maine in his thirties. He was inducted into the Yodeler's Hall of Fame in 2000 and, posthumously, the Cowboy Hall of Fame (Fritz 2009).

24 The instrument takes its name from the custom-made steel bar that players hold in their right hand to make chords while picking the strings with their left hand. Steel guitarists also create various effects with foot pedals and knee levers.

25 This popular song was written by the 1960s Canadian folk-revival duo Ian and Sylvia.

26 As Clifford Murphy documents in Yankee Twang (2014), country music, despite its association with Southern culture, has long been popular in New England, especially its rural reaches.

27 During his six-decade career, Ray Price (1926-2013) successfully embraced a wide variety of country subgenres, including honky-tonk, western swing, and the pop-oriented "Nashville sound."

28 Jackson (b. 1937) is a pioneering first-generation rockabilly singer known for such songs as "Fujiyama Mama." Brenda Lee (b. 1944) is a major pop, country, and rockabilly star of the 1960s whose hits included "I'm Sorry." Crystal Gale (b. 1951) is a country singer best known for the 1977 country-pop crossover hit "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue." Dick Curless (1932-1995), whose signature hit was "A Tombstone Every Mile," was the leading country artist to emerge from Maine (Gilbert 1998).

29 Milsap (b. 1943) is a versatile country-pop-soul singer popular in the 1980s. Sonny (b. 1937) and Bobby (b. 1931) Osborne are an influential bluegrass duo whose heyday was the 1960s-'70s. Connie Smith (b. 1941) is best known for the 1964 hit "Once A Day."

30 Buck Owens (1929-2006) typified the country sound of Bakersfield, CA, as heard on such hits as "I've Got A Tiger By The Tail."

31 Sleepy LaBeef (b. 1935) is renowned for his vast repertoire of rockabilly, country, blues, R&B, and more (Cooper 1988).

32 Founded in 1969, the International Festival of Country Music, at the Wembley Arena, was a milestone event in popularizing country music in Britain (McPherson 2012).

33 Petty's studio is where, in 1957, the first-generation rock artist Buddy Holly recorded such classics as "That'll Be The Day."

34 Clay Walker (b. 1969) recorded such 1990s hits as "Dreaming With My Eyes Open." Tim McGraw (b. 1967) is a major country star known for numerous hits including "Live Like You Were Dying." Mark Chestnutt (b. 1963) recorded such 1990s hits as "Too Cold At Home." George Strait (b. 1952) is a major country star known for numerous hits including "All My Exes Live In Texas." Strait's work reflects, in part, the strong influence of Bob Wills (1905-1975); in the 1930s Wills was a major contributor to the country style known as western swing, which combined big-band jazz and country.

35 Brooks (b. 1962), who has sold more records than any solo artist, in any genre, in the history of the music industry, combines elements of traditional country with mainstream pop and rock theatrics. His hits include "I've Got Friends In Low Places." Tritt (b. 1963) cites country, Southern rock, and folk as his influences, as heard on such hits as "Country Club."

36 Skoal is a brand of smokeless tobacco sold in a round container which can leaves a circular mark on fabric, especially the back pockets of denim jeans.

37 A type of electric guitar manufactured by the Gibson Guitar Corporation, the Les Paul was named for guitar virtuoso born Lester Polsfuss (1915-2009). Les Paul-model guitars remain popular and collectible today. Marshall brand amplifiers are associated with rock guitarists playing at extreme volume, especially when several are stacked and used together.

38 Fender refers to guitars manufactured by the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, among which the Telecaster is a popular model. Compression is an audio-engineering practice that, generally refers to taking the loud edge off of a sound by, for quick reference, adjusting its frequencies. Chicken-picking is a country guitar style characterized by single notes, rather than chords, played in rapid succession, with some similarity to the sounds of barnyard poultry.

39 "Mustang Sally" was a 1967 hit by the soul singer Wilson Pickett (1941-2006), which remains very popular today. "Play That Funky Music White Boy" was a 1976 hit by rock-soul band Wild Cherry,(active throughout the '70s, the group still makes occasional reunion performances).

40 Formed in the 1970s and still extant, the hard rock band KISS is best known for performing in make-up reminiscent of comic-book characters.

41 Bro country is an at-times pejorative term describing music that is formulaic, diluted by other styles, and not reflective of hard-earned life lessons that often characterize country lyrics. (Smith 2015).

42 Joe Diffie was a popular country singer during the 1990s. His hits, known for their sly humor, included "If The Devil Danced In Empty Pockets, He'd Have A Ball In Mine."

43 The former lead singer of the bluegrass band The Steeldrivers, Stapleton is a soulful vocalist who, in 2015, won three awards at the 2015 Country Music Awards: Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and New Artist of the Year.

44 Required knowledge for musicians playing country professionally, this system is based on numbers rather than standard musical notation; if a song is in the key of C then C is notated as 1, and so on.


Brown, Clifton. 2016. Interview by Ben Sandmel in Denham Springs. April 5.

Broussard, Stonewall and Luke Broussard. 2016. Interview by Ben Sandmel in Denham Springs. April 5.

Broussard, Stonewall. 2016. Facebook post, May 29, 2016.

Bufwack, Mary A. 1998. Patsy Montana. The Encyclopedia of Country Music, compiled by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN. New York, Oxford (U.K.): Oxford University Press.

Campion, Msgr. Owen F. 2014. Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. Our Sunday Visitor, on-line magazine, February 3.

Chavis, Boozoo. 1991. Song Lyrics, "Forty One [sic] Days." Boozoo Chavis, Elektra Nonesuch 9 61146-2.

Chavis, Melvin. 2016. Interview by Ben Sandmel in Baton Rouge. January 18.

Chenier, Clifton. 1983. Interview with Ben Sandmel at Chenier's house in Lafayette, LA, March 18.

Cooper, Daniel. 1988. Sleepy LaBeef. The Encyclopedia of Country Music, compiled by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN. New York, Oxford (U.K.): Oxford University Press.

Fritz, Joseph. 2009. Yodelin' Slim Clark. Arcane Radio Trivia. December 2.

Gilbert, Calvin. 1998. Dick Curless. The Encyclopedia of Country Music, compiled by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN. New York, Oxford (U.K.): Oxford University Press.

Higgins, Harold (Hal). 2016. Interview by Ben Sandmel in Denham Springs. April 4.

Higgins, Harold (Hal). 2016. Personal Communications, July 19, 24 and 28, 2016.

Jackson, Joyce. 2011. Beyond Urban Borders: Unveiling New Discussions on the Rural Jazz Narrative in the River Road Region. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 21.

Keonig, Karl. 1996. Trinity of Early Jazz Leaders: John Robichaux, Toots Johnson, Claiborne Williams. Running Springs, CA: Basin Street Books.

Lamendola, Joseph (Joe). 2016. Interview by Ben Sandmel in Denham Springs. January 18.

Lamendola, Joseph (Joe). 2016. Personal Communications, July 26, July 27, August 3, August 5, August 16.

McPherson, Douglas. 2012. International Festival of Country Music, Wembley Arena: review. The Telegraph (U.K.). February 27.

Murphy, Clifford R. 2014. Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Olivier, Rick (photographs) and Sandmel, Ben (text). 1999. Zydeco! Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Orlean, Susan. 1990. Saturday Night. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Pittman, Nick. 1997. Review of the CD Maurice Berzas And The Mamou Playboys, Live At Snooks, Volumes 1 & 2 (Sterling Productions) in Offbeat magazine, September 1.

Sandmel, Ben. 2014. Cajun Music. Music Rising. April 17.

Seelinger, Terry A. 1989. "Don't Give up Your Day Job": Country Music. Folkife in The Florida Parishes, co-published by the Louisiana Folklife Program, Baton Rouge, LA, and the Center for Regional Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond, LA.

Smith, Grady. 2015. The burdens of bro-country, a music critic's term gone wild. The Guardian (U.K.), August 17.

Vidrine, Ann. 2016. Interview by Ben Sandmel in Baton Rouge. January 18.

Wirt, John. 2015. Saxophonist Buddy Boudreaux, leader of local jazz and dance bands since 1939, dies. The Advocate, Baton Rouge, LA, June 15.

Suggested Reading

Ancelet, Barry, and Morgan, Elemore Jr. 1999. Cajun and Creole Music Makers. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Barker, Danny. 2001. Buddy Bolden and the Last Days of Storyville. Bloomsbury Academic Press.

Buerkle, Jack V. and Danny Barker. 1973. A Life In Jazz, Bourbon Street Black: The Black New Orleans Jazzman. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brasseaux, Ryan. 2009. Cajun Breakdown: The Emergence of an American-made Music. New York: Oxford University Press. Source for interaction of early jazz and Cajun/Creole music.

Coco, Rev. Frank. 2009. Blessed Be Jazz. Lafayette, LA: Acadian House Publishing.

Curly O'Brien and the Top Hands. 2012. Some Local Loser.

Dewan, Shaila. 2011. Louisiana's Zydeco Trail. The New York Times, Travel section. April 22.

Hillbilly Music. No Date. Bruce Broussard and His Round-Up Boys. Hillbilly-Music dawt com.

Hoekstra, Dave. 2003. Remembering 'regal jesters' of the court of Las Vegas, The Chicago Sun-Times, November 16.

Levy, Shawn. 1999. Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey and the Last Great Show Biz Party. New York: Crown/Archetype.

Mouton, Todd. 2015. Way Down In Louisiana: Clifton Chenier, Cajun, Zydeco, and Swamp Pop. Lafayette, LA: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.

Raeburn, Bruce. 1991. Jazz and the Italian Connection. Jazz Archivist, newsletter of the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. Volume 6, Number 1, May.

Porterfield, Nolan. 1992. Jimmie Rodgers. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press (Music In American Life series).

Sandmel, Ben 1994/5. Floyd Soileau, Louisiana Life, Winter.

Savoy, Ann. 1997. Liner notes for Opelousas Waltz by Austin Pitre and his Evangeline Boys, Arhoolie Records CD # 452.

Shelton, Robert and Burt Goldblatt. 1971. The Country Music Story. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books.

Sir Mashalot: Mind-Blowing SIX Song Country Mashup. 2014. YouTube Video, Also see

Tisserand, Michael. 2016. The Kingdom of Zydeco. New York, Arcade. [first pub'd in 1998, reprinted/updated 2016]

Ben Sandmel is a folklorist, journalist, and drummer based in New Orleans. For 18 years he played with and produced the Cajun/western swing band, The Hackberry Ramblers. Sandmel is the author of the books Zydeco! (a collaboration with photographer Rick Olivier) and Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, This article was written in 2016 for the Baton Rouge Traditions Project. This article was prepared in 2016 as part of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey.