[Guest post on California-based blog Midlife Mixtape (“For the years between being hip and breaking one”), March 4, 2014.]
Still in Rotation is a feature that lets talented writers tell Midlife Mixtape readers about an album they discovered years ago that’s still in heavy rotation, and why it has such staying power.
Ron Thibodeaux has been one of Midlife Mixtape’s most steady and dependable readers, and at some point in our back and forth in the comments field, we uncovered a shared appreciation of New Orleans music. Bit of an understatement on his part; turns out Ron is actually the associate editor of Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine and a former newspaper journalist who has profiled musical greats. I was thrilled when he accepted my request to write us a special Mardi Gras edition of Still in Rotation, and even more thrilled to see what he picked. Because it gave me an excuse to rewatch 1986-era Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy.
The Big Easy Soundtrack (1986)
Happy Mardi Gras, everybody! Today is the biggest holiday of the year here in New Orleans, and you know what that means: Drunken excess! Debauchery! Cajuns gone wild!
Well, not exactly. As it turns out, most of what you think you know about New Orleans is wrong. Consider:
For starters, the city is pronounced New ORlins. Not N’AWlins. Not N’ORlins. And never, never New OrLEENS – unless you’re singing along with Louis Armstrong or Harry Connick Jr. to “Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)?”
Mardi Gras gives New Orleans much of its cachet as one of the most exotic, interesting and fun-loving cities in America, and decadence has always attached as part of that mystique. Nonetheless, Mardi Gras is an overwhelmingly family-oriented event, with the Carnival season lasting for weeks. That whole flash-for-beads thing? It’s largely a function of drunken young tourists getting crazy along a few blocks of Bourbon Street, not the hundreds of thousands of locals who crowd the six-mile-long parade routes night after night. We don’t do that. We don’t have to. We trundle home from each parade with bags full of beads without having done anything more than wave our hands and yell, “Throw me somethin’, mister.”
We love a good party, but New Orleans also has a substantial religious influence, owing to its Catholic roots. Exhibit A: our football team is named the Saints. The revelry of Fat Tuesday ends abruptly at midnight, with the arrival of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. While the city has become a Halloween destination for younger visitors in recent years, the next day, All Saints Day, has always been observed as a holiday hereabouts. And the most recognizable image of the city, like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, is not the Superdome but St. Louis Cathedral in the heart of the French Quarter.
New Orleans is not Cajun; Louisiana’s let-the-good-times-roll Cajun country is a predominantly rural region of bayous and swamps, farmland and small towns west of New Orleans, extending across much of south Louisiana to the Texas border. New Orleans isn’t even Southern, in the traditional sense. Fronting the Mississippi River near the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans grew up as a port city, absorbing French, Spanish, German, Italian, Caribbean and Latin American influences and reflecting little of the Anglo-Protestant pedigree rooted elsewhere across the Bible Belt South. Consequently, the local dialect isn’t the stereotypical Southern drawl but something akin to a Brooklyn accent. The traditional greeting among New Orleanians is not “How ya doing?” but “Where y’at?” Ergo, natives are sometimes referred to as Yats.
Which brings us to The Big Easy. The steamy crime drama, released in 1987, was a box office hit and a critical success. It elevated Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin to major stardom. All these years later, Quaid’s rascal of a cop Remy McSwain can still get the ladies swooning. (Am I right, Nancy?) [Ed. note: So very right, Ron.] Here in New Orleans, though, the movie is a joke. It’s rife with stereotypes. It’s marred by laughable errors in history and geography. Quaid’s butchering of the Cajun accent (which is out of place in New Orleans anyway, remember) will never be forgotten, or forgiven.
The movie does have a saving grace, though.
New Orleans and Louisiana are blessed with – in some ways, defined by – magnificent musical traditions. It’s the birthplace of jazz, and incubator of rhythm and blues. Only Memphis made more meaningful contributions than New Orleans to the development of rock ‘n’ roll. Cajun music derived from the fiddle-based folk tunes of French-speaking Acadian exiles, whose descendants adapted the diatonic button accordion of their German neighbors on the southwestern Louisiana prairie. The region’s black Creoles gave that music another quarter-turn of syncopation and funk and created zydeco. All that, and more, turn up in The Big Easy, seamlessly stitching together street scenes, crime scenes, and love scenes in this strange and wonderful place, twenty years before the producers of the HBO series Treme would take that formula to the bank. The Big Easy soundtrack is a masterwork.
For the uninitiated, there are two familiar touchstones from the mid-1960s: the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” and Aaron Neville’s stunning “Tell It Like It Is,” heard here in a live performance with his siblings Art, Charles and Cyril, known collectively as the Neville Brothers. The Nevilles also turn up on “Hey Hey (Indians Comin’),” a track taken from “The Wild Tchoupitoulas,” one of the most influential albums of Mardi Gras music ever to emerge from New Orleans. Recorded in 1976 with their uncle and fellow members of his “tribe” of Mardi Gras Indians, as well as Art’s funk band the Meters, the Nevilles were prodded to perform together as a group by their experience of making that recording, leading to international acclaim and decades of success as musical ambassadors of New Orleans. “Tipitina” by piano master Professor Longhair is the other quintessentially New Orleans tune on the soundtrack. Don’t bother trying to make sense of the lyrics, and don’t even try to sit still. The groove is utterly infectious; just go with it.
What carries the album, though, are the French-infused songs of the zydeco and Cajun musicians it chooses to showcase. Their appearance in the movie was a brilliant stroke at a critical moment, coming on the heels of the nationwide Cajun cooking craze instigated by Chef Paul Prudhomme’s successful foray into the New York restaurant scene in 1985. Cajun was suddenly cool, and the exposure afforded Cajun and zydeco musicians by the success of The Big Easy provided an enormous boost to the national and international profiles of both genres.
You might have seen Buckwheat Zydeco rocking out with Jimmy Fallon on late-night TV a few weeks ago. In The Big Easy, Buckwheat (real name: Stanley Dural Jr.) helped introduce the rest of America to genuine Louisiana party music. When it comes to zydeco, “Ma ‘Tit Fille” (“My Little Girl”) is as good as it gets. Upbeat, with his powerful piano-key accordion seconded by a metal rub-board (known in Louisiana as a frottoir), this is what zydeco is all about.
Fiddler Dewey Balfa appears in a pivotal dance scene in the movie, and the soundtrack includes a snippet of his rendition of “Pine Grove Blues.” After a bravura performance before 17,000 people at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Balfa helped lead a revival of traditional Cajun music and became a tireless champion of Louisiana’s Cajun culture at a time when it was being subsumed by mainstream America. More than 20 years after his death, Balfa remains fondly remembered in Louisiana not only for his musicianship but also for his role as a cultural leader.
BeauSoleil, the first Cajun band to win a Grammy (1997, Best Traditional Folk Album), makes a jaunty appearance with “Zydeco Gris Gris.” Zachary Richard, who actually has been more popular as a pop star in France and Quebec than at home in Louisiana, adds an unexpected reggae vibe to the Cajun standard “Colinda.” It totally works. What’s more, the unconventional approach to one of the most familiar songs in the Cajun repertoire bears out what Dewey Balfa once said about tradition and innovation after Cajun and zydeco music became internationally famous, thanks in part to the success of The Big Easy: “A culture is like a whole tree. You have to water the roots to keep the tree alive, but at the same time, you can’t go cutting off the branches every time it tries to grow.”
Sorry you can’t be down here today to join us for Mardi Gras, but The Big Easy soundtrack can transport you here in spirit if you give it a listen. Allons danser!
BONUS VIDEO: Siskel and Ebert (R.I.P./R.I.P.) review The Big Easy
Ron Thibodeaux is an associate editor of Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine and the KnowLA encyclopedia of Louisiana history and culture (www.KnowLA.org) at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. His book, Hell or High Water: How Cajun Fortitude Withstood Hurricanes Rita and Ike, won the Indie Book Awards 2013 national grand prize for regional nonfiction and the Independent Publishers 2013 silver award for Southern regional nonfiction. In his former life as an editor and writer for the daily newspaper in New Orleans, he interviewed James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Smokey Robinson, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins & Jim Messina, and the Spinners, who tried to teach him one of their signature dance moves backstage between sets and wouldn’t give up until he got it right. It took awhile.