louisiana blues

Art Neville

Blues historians and musicologists like to point out that the Blues originated in cotton fields along the Mississippi River in the latter part of the 19th century. Many fail to explain that another river, the Brazos in Texas, also played a leading role in the development of the Blues. How many Blues aficionados realize that Blues singers and groups such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top were (and are) from Texas?

We also cannot leave out the great state of Louisiana in this analysis without lamenting the recent passing of such wonderful New Orleans-based musicians as Lonnie Brooks (2017), Dr. John (2018) and Art Neville (2019), the latter who helped form the Neville Brothers group.

“Everybody in the industry digs us,” Neville told Rolling Stone in 1987. “Every other band, bands I love, bands I look up to, they looking at us the same way. Huey Lewis — those cats was onstage watching us every night. The Stones was watching us.” But, he added, “I wanna go to the bank. For once in my life, I’d like to be able to do something for my family.”

Long before making that statement, Art had recorded a song while still a teenager. In fact, it was one of Neville’s greatest songs, “Mardi Gras Mambo,” a track he recorded with the Hawketts when he was just 16-years-old. The song is still played during New Orleans’ famous Mardi Gras Fat Tuesday celebrations, which blast across the Crescent City every February and March.

Using the term “Louisiana Blues,” can be tricky, however, because the jazz-influenced New Orleans Blues is based on the musical traditions of that city, but the slower tempo Swamp Blues incorporates influences from zydeco and Cajun music from the Baton Rouge area. The former genre features artists such as Professor Longhair and Guitar Slim while the latter spotlights such players as Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim. 

Not all experts on the subject agree, however. Laura Martone is one.

“Blues music has its origins upriver a bit from New Orleans, about 300 miles north in the fruitful delta farming regions of northwestern Mississippi, especially the towns near Clarkdale. It’s said that blues derives from the field hollers of cane and cotton workers in these parts. Eventually, the soulful vocals were joined with guitars, drums, and horns to become the modern form of blues celebrated today all through the South and especially in Louisiana,” explains Martone, author of Moon New Orleans.

Martone goes on to suggest that the Blues, along with New Orleans jazz, melded together in the 1950s to influence a new genre: rhythm and blues, or R&B. “It is a distinctly commercial genre that was begun with the express intent of getting airplay on the radio and acclaim for its stars through record sales, and to that end, it has always incorporated the catchiest and most accessible elements of the genres from which it borrows.”

Analyzing “Louisiana Blues” becomes even murkier when one considers performers born in Louisiana, but were displaced elsewhere later in their lives. One such musician was Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (1888-1949), who wrote such classics as “Good Night, Irene” and “Midnight Special.” There are various theories as to how he got his nickname: shot in the stomach with buckshot, he could drink moonshine better than most, but nobody knows for sure.

Lead Belly grew up in Shreveport, in the northwestern corner of the state, but was later interned in the Imperial Farm Prison in Sugar Land, Texas for killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. He was “discovered” there by field music researcher Alan Lomax, who was instrumental in getting Lead Belly released early (to become his driver). Ledbetter is sometimes credited as the “father” of Blues music and the “King of the 12-string Guitar.”

In his Nobel Prize Lecture, Bob Dylan said: “Somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Lead Belly record with the song “Cotton Fields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.”

For any Blues lover, a trip to Louisiana would be incomplete without visiting the House of Blues in the New Orlean’s epicenter. Dozens of other Blues joints dot the landscape of the Crescent City, more famous for being the birthplace of Jazz music. Great Blues, Jazz and sumptuous Cajun cooking are the hallmarks of one of America’s oldest, and most interesting, cities.  

Professor Longhair “Crawfish Fiesta”

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