As a former musician myself, I shake my head sadly at musicians who think they’re getting the folk zeitgeist of a given genre just by listening to records. You learn folk music by listening to the folk: hearing their idiomatic rhythms and style. It’s something sheet music and well-produced classic recordings could never reproduce.
This is true with American roots music: country, blues, zydeco, early rock ‘n’ roll, etc. If you really want to get under the skin of it, you have to go where it was nursed. You have to meet the standard bearer of the original styles, hear the riffs before A & R executives tone it down.
The place to do that? North Louisiana.
What to do
Do like so many musicians – Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Maria Muldaur, Bob Dylan – have done: head over to Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery, the gravesite of Huddy William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. He wrote songs that became iconic to all forms of American music, including "In the Pines" and "Good Night, Irene." You may just get lucky and spy an impromptu performance from one of Lead Belly’s many musician devotees.
Blues musician Buddy Flett plays at Lead Belly's grave
Blues harmonica player Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs hailed from North Louisiana. He recorded with such boldfaced-type names as Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles and Shel Silverstein. Now, Alexandria, Louisiana, holds a Little Walter Music Fest with free admission. Local musicians made good and bands perform in the style that he would have approved of. If you can find a shady spot to sit in, hold on to it for dear life!
Shreveport Municipal Auditorium is more than just the most stunning Art Deco building in Louisiana: it was where the famed Louisiana Hayride took place in the 1940s-1960s and just started up again this year. This early showcase of country music singers became known as “The Cradle of Stars” for giving debuts to Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, Johnny Cash and Elvis. The auditorium is still utilized today for music and even boxing.
Sound, along with lights, camera and action: they say the best party in the region is when the Louisiana Film Fest takes place, spotlighting filmmakers who film in the state.
Where to eat
You’ll want to eat the food people here have been eating for generations. There's a world of difference between mass-produced "Cajun" food and the authentic, slow-cooked, locavore flavors of real-deal Cajun.
Ralph & Kacoo's is a regional restaurant group that started in 1969. So, this is definitely 'gator country! I've eaten alligator a couple of times before, including as a judge at the Roadkill Cookoff. Often, it can be rubbery or even fishy tasting. I would definitely say that whether you've had 'gator before or never before, this is the place to order it. It’s spicy and crispy outside, tender inside.
When you name your big party towns, you've gotta list Shreveport right up there! With the Cajun food, music, festivals, they all add to a fun atmosphere. What takes it to the next level? Drive-through Cajun Daiquiri! Some of the names of the cocktails oughta get you carded, even above and beyond what the liquor requires! Some of the raunchy monikers include Come on Baby, Wild Screw, Dirty Mother, Freak-N-U, Motel Bound.
Where to stay
For a very different overnight experience, Loyd Hall Plantation definitely was around when the music was being created: it dates from 1820. Both the rooms in the main house and outside bed & breakfast cottages have been upgraded with luxe amenities like Jacuzzis and an outdoor pool.
This is still a working farm, so be prepared for goats outside, as well as tons of farm cats and other critters coming right to you on the porch at all hours.
(corrected 2/26, 12:15 p.m.)