restricted access 1. Swamp Tour
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One Swamp Tour Papa Joe didn’t have what you’d consider a pretty voice. It sounded too life-roughened—whether from late nights, cigarettes, whiskey, or simply the passage of time, I couldn’t say. And as a tour guide, he had more skill in steering a pontoon boat through the Louisiana swamp than navigating his way around a melody. But once he was moved to sing, he didn’t appear concerned about his audience—or the road ahead. He turned up the tape in the white Dodge van, threw back his head, half closed his eyes, and joined in on the rousing chorus, trying to sing through the grin that remained on his face until the song ended. I struggled to make out the words. Not an easy task, since this was a tale told in French. I did understand one line that kept recurring : “On a trouvé un paradis dedans le sud de la Louisiane.” We found a paradise in south Louisiana. I didn’t need to know much more. I could see the pride that surged through Papa Joe as he sang along with the recording, more effective than any lecture he could have given us. His words were in Cajun French, but the message came through clearly. “Listen to me. This is who we are.” The French language drew me in, but the rhythm held me there: loping and easy, but propulsive, all at the same time. Rising and falling, in and out, round and round, with that moment of hesitation in between. A lopsided carousel, an egg-shaped wheel, rising up against the pull of gravity, then falling forward, descending in a rush. I felt off balance, teetering, chasing my tail. It was an orderly sound, up to a point. But the wildness threatened to rise up, from just below the surface. I could hear it in the alternating call of fiddle and accordion, the steady roll of guitar chords, the crashing drums and ringing triangle—and in the French voices straddling the ledge between song and shout, melody and wail. 3 4 Beginnings A blow to the head, a blow to the heart—something strikes you, and afterward you are never quite the same. That’s how I fell in love with Cajun music: suddenly, unexpectedly, and completely. “Tout d’un coup,” as the French would say. It happened on my first trip to Louisiana, just before my fortieth birthday. The world was cold and gray back in Chicago, but New Orleans in January felt like spring. Love at first sight, I’ve always called it. But that’s not entirely true. It began more quietly, like a spark landing in the dry underbrush, smoldering out of sight, until the forest catches fire. Or maybe this: a seed blows into your backyard, carried by the wind from some far off place. It takes root in your garden without your even knowing. One day, you notice a strange little shoot. The next time you turn around, your orderly garden has been overrun by a riot of fast-growing tropical vegetation, blooming flowers twining around the squash and carrots, making a mockery of the neat rows, pushing at your borders. The music came to me at an unlikely moment: in a van, returning from a swamp tour, an hour outside of New Orleans. It was a prepackaged side trip with some recorded Cajun music, topped off by our guide’s lusty singing. That was my improbable awakening, the point of contact, the beginning. We had ended up in New Orleans almost by accident. Steve wanted to take me somewhere warm and exotic for my fortieth birthday. Even though he was a year younger, he figured this marked our joint entry into middle age, and he wanted us to do it in style, leaving no room for bad jokes about being “over the hill.” Originally, Steve had pictured a tropical island in the Caribbean. But the travel agent convinced him three nights wasn’t enough time and suggested New Orleans instead. I wasn’t overly concerned about our destination—I felt happy enough to be getting away by ourselves . Nate and Alec, our sons, were five and eight. We had never spent this much time apart from them. “Lucky thing Dad didn’t take you to Milwaukee for your birthday ,” our older son pointed out, years later. “You might be playing polkas.” I had the usual stereotypes of New Orleans: Mardi Gras and Swamp Tour 5...


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