Sep 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Louisiana Saturday Night

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Copy and Publicity Coordinator Jenny Keegan writes about Louisiana Saturday Night.

Louisiana Saturday Night

If you’re like me, your Saturday nights are spoken for from now until the end of football season (with the exception of our bye week before we crush Alabama at the start of November). But for the non-football fans out there — or those of you who have already started wondering how you’re going to fill the long empty Saturdays of the 2016 offseason — Alex Cook’s wonderful Louisiana Saturday Night is here to help you out.

An exuberant and experienced writer and traveler, Alex Cook is the perfect tour guide for the backwoods bars and dance halls of the state of Louisiana. He captures the atmosphere of each venue with enthusiasm and affection, from the decorations (Christmas lights strung across ceilings, concert posters from the 1970s) to the food (it’s enough to make your mouth water, especially if you’re reading it near lunchtime) to the type of crowd you’re likely to find (Cajun French speakers celebrating their shared heritage, uptight city folks who won’t even dance if there’s an accordion playing).

Louisiana is justly famous for its enthusiastic culture of music and booze, and Louisiana Saturday Night offers a guide to visitors and Louisianians alike who want to party like the locals.

Buy this book now for 20% off and get free shipping on all orders over $50; use code 0480FAV at checkout.

Oct 14

The stories behind the songs

Join us tonight, 30 October, from 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM, for a music-themed book festival to kick off the Louisiana Festival of Books. LSU Press authors Barbara Barnes Sims (author of The Next Elvis), John Wirt (author of Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues), and Alex Cook (author of Louisiana Saturday Night) will be at Lagniappe Records to sign their books. You’ll get to meet our authors and receive 20% off books and records! This event is free and open to the public.

In the run-up to the Lagniappe signing, our own Alex Cook put together a Spotify playlist for his book. Here it is–enjoy!

A lot of driving went into writing Louisiana Saturday Night, and driving always means music to me. Some of these selections like J. Paul Jr or Joe Falcon were about getting me in the mood for the music I was about to witness at some far-off location. Songs like “Whipping Post” just open up a time-tunnel that can get a weary driver down a lonely highway home in one piece. Most of these were happenstance: the CD my frequent traveling companion Clarke Gernon was into at the moment. One I was into. I’d just seen Calexico play at JazzFest and couldn’t get “Not Even Stevie Nicks…” out of my head for a month.

One selection holds a particular memory: I was on some St. Landry Parish backroad, totally lost, listening to K-BON out of Rayne, La. and the announcer was talking about the time he got to meet Charles Mann at some festival appearance. he brought his grandson up to meet him as well and the pride and admiration in that moment was palpable; it filled the dark car with light. You’d have thought he was talking about meeting Elvis or Muhammad Ali or something. I never really liked the original Dire Staits version of “Walk of Life’ but in Charles Mann’s flattened delivery over an accordion shuffle, “the song about the sweet lovin’ woman/the song about the knife” – the whole of that song came clear and I understood something profound about swamp pop and Louisiana music in general. It is important because it is peculiar in nature and bizarrely extant in the face of the monoculture, but it is special because the people of Louisiana make it special.

Jun 14

Discovering Louisiana: Mulatto Bend, resting place of Slim Harpo, John Allen, and Ophelia Jackson

My buddy Clarke and I turned down the wrong way on Mulatto Bend road, frantically scanning the side streets for a cemetery but hit the levee. There was a boarded up tavern at the corner with River Road: Brown’s Riverview Bar & Lounge. I hopped out to grab a picture of its yellowed plastic sign defying the ravages of business, a bubbly cartoon cocktail emblazoned on it staring down the levee wall. I was transfixed a little. I thought: This would be a more fitting place to wind up looking for Slim Harpo’s grave. Go to the places where he made his life, not to where his death makes him a monument.

Brown's Riverview Bar & Lounge

Photo courtesy of Alex V. Cook

I feel funny about graveyards. A person spends bodily an eternity in a place that he or she only hesitantly visited when alive, if ever. If you believe in such things, their spirit is elsewhere, everywhere maybe. So why a graveyard?

I was so swept up in life and death that I failed to notice an older man sitting under the mane of a willow as I was snapping photos. How long had he been there? I started to ask in my selfish rudeness if he knew where the graveyard was, but then noticed he was on the phone. “…and then he pulled a gun on him,” he said in calm tones to the other party, so I felt it best to leave him to his business.

Mulatto Bend stretches for a few blocks across US 190 (known as Ronald Reagan Highway to Google Maps and no one else) in the flats of West Baton Rouge Parish. At the terminus of the south section lies the Benevolent Society Cemetery. On this thin lane of graves wedged between two fields, the first thing I see is an angel statue in ecstatic prayer, sitting alone before a barbed wire fence and weeds beyond that. I’d just binge-watched the whole season of HBO’s True Detective. This little angel would have fit nicely into their artful opening montage.

Praying angel

Photo courtesy of Alex V. Cook

We walked the full stretch of the graveyard looking for Slim’s final rest. “It’s supposed to be covered with harmonicas,” Clarke said, but we couldn’t find it. What I did find was the grave of Ophelia Jackson. I know this because her name was hand painted in black paint against the gleaming white stone. I pictured whoever she was being the Ophelia in the song by the Band, and will now forever.

There was a woman with one pink grave sitting among a sea of white. That is how you honor a final request! I pictured buckets of pink paint in some man’s garage that he cracked open once a year to touch up his mama’s grave.

Photo courtesy of Alex V. Cook

Photo courtesy of Alex V. Cook

A lacquered wooden sign before a tidy, picket-fenced family plot reads in elegant handwriting:

John Allen
This section of the cemetery was restored in memory of John Allen. He was a straw boss on a plantation. Some of John’s sons lived in Mulatto Bend.

It was while contemplating this sign and what cut of man it takes to be a plantation straw boss, and listening to the irregular beat of hunting rifles in the woods not far away, that I saw a blue harmonica on a white grave by the fence.

Slim Harpo, his Christian name being James Moore, was a blues harmonica player, but much more than that. It was his spare stripped down songs recorded at J.D. Miller’s studio in Crowley, songs like “King Bee” and “Shake Your Hips,” that reverberate a half century later in the heads of all that hear them. The British Invasion artists — the Kinks, Them, the Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones — all felt that reverberation and included Slim Harpo songs in their catalogs.

Harmonicas circle the headstone like a train loaded up to trek across country, to blow that whistle that so many blues songs invoke. I thought I should have brought a harmonica, then thought, Where do I get off putting a harmonica on his grave?

Photo courtesy of Alex V. Cook

Photo courtesy of Alex V. Cook

Maybe this is why we visit graveyards. They put a thud beat in our song, one that shakes our sense of who we are and who we think other people were. Are we dust to dust, a name, a lifetime of mementos, a swath of pink paint or the dutiful swathing of that paint? Is it just that graves pose those kinds of questions, dropping pebbles in the still waters?

I said bye to Ophelia on my walk out, dragging it out like Levon Helm does in the song, and I waved at the sweet angel of the weeds, a benevolence vibrating in my heart.

Alex V. Cook is the author of Louisiana Saturday Night, an experiential guidebook to some of the Gumbo State’s most unique blues, Cajun, and zydeco clubs. You can follow Alex on Twitter (@cookalexv).

This summer, LSU Press is “Made in Louisiana”! Through July 4th, receive 35% off Louisiana Saturday Night and hundreds of other Louisiana titles at our website, using offer code 04LALOVE.