4. Allons
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Four Allons à Lafayette Let’s go to Lafayette. That was the proposition of a young man to his sweetheart in “Allons à Lafayette”—the first Cajun song ever recorded , back in 1928. I’d made exactly the same pitch to Steve and he was happy to follow along. So now we found ourselves driving west on Interstate 10 toward the largest city in Acadiana, the capital of Cajun country. Much as I loved the color and excitement of New Orleans, I wanted a more authentic experience of Cajun music and culture. I hoped to find it in Lafayette, a setting I dreamed would look as exotic as the French Quarter—but with everyone speaking French, restaurants serving nothing but gumbo and jambalaya, and Cajun musicians at every turn. The closer we got to Lafayette, the more I wondered why I had pulled Steve and the boys into this excursion. Signs and billboards lined the four-lane highway,passing in a blur on either side.Fast-food restaurants and chain motels. Video stores and lottery tickets. Discount stores and insurance brokers. Clear signs of civilization, and I could see nothing picturesque—or especially French—about them, unless you counted the Cajun motifs sprinkled liberally in the advertisements . Steve and I had taken advantage of spring break to make our third visit to New Orleans, the second with the boys—who were starting to regard the city as our family’s offbeat version of Disneyland. We spent the first part of the week in an old Creole mansion just off Bourbon Street—the Biscuit Palace, named after the fading old advertisement for Uneeda Biscuits painted high on one of the exterior walls. Our guesthouse provided a fine base for exploring the French Quarter, along with side trips to the leafy Garden District and the Audubon Zoo. Although we didn’t spend much time there, our antique-filled suite looked sunny and charming by day. But at night, 37 38 Beginnings we heard strange noises, and then we began to notice lights turning on unexpectedly and cabinet doors swinging open by themselves. “Do you think it might be haunted?” we asked each other, savoring the tantalizing story not even the boys quite believed. When we set out for the two-hour drive to Lafayette, I had visions in my head, a distillation of all those hours of listening to Cajun music. I thought of Joe and Cléoma Falcon, whose recording of “Allons à Lafayette” on the Columbia label had become a regional hit. I had no trouble picturing the young couple, because their photo adorned the cover of Ann Savoy’s book, my indispensable guide to Cajun music. Joe, serious and unsmiling, is a dapper young man dressed in a suit, with an accordion on his knees. Cléoma, posed with her guitar, has the sultry look of a Cajun Mata Hari. She is a small round woman with wavy dark hair, eyes like two plums, bowed lips—decked out in pearls, high heels, and a filmy sleeveless dress that just covers her knees. She was the only woman who ventured into the rowdy bars and public dance halls to sing and play Cajun music. “Allons à Lafayette” was one of those tunes everyone knew. Judging from the words, a trip to Lafayette meant freedom and opportunity—a place to get married or perhaps to have other escapades with a sweetheart, depending on how you interpret those playful opening lines: “Allons à Lafayette, c’est pour changer ton nom. On va t’appeller Madame, Madame ‘Canaille’ Comeaux.” Let’s go to Lafayette.We’ll call you Missus, Missus”Sly” Comeaux. When we reached Lafayette, my first reaction was disappointment , because the place looked so ordinary—and American. One of the city’s main motel strips lined a highway named after Evangeline , Longfellow’s Acadian heroine. As soon as we checked into our room at one of the big national chains, I began to long for our picturesque guesthouse back in the French Quarter. Lafayette reminded me of another small southern city—Durham, North Carolina, where Steve and I had lived in the mid-seventies. Both were regional hubs and university towns, and both had depressed economies. Durham was a fading tobacco town, and Lafayette had been a thriving oil center, until the petroleum indus- Allons à Lafayette 39 try collapsed in the eighties. Downtown Lafayette looked weary, as though it still carried the scars of the “boom and bust” years. But as we drove through the city...