Born on the Bayou: Exploring Louisiana in 18 Songs
The Lousiana Purchase of 1803 brought nearly a million acres of new land to the United States of America, spreading as far afield as Montana. Working out to about three cents an acre, the purchase continues to pay outrageous dividends, not least in the form of the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the state of Louisiana, which became the 18th state of the Union in 1812. The birthplace of jazz, the state has also given us Cajun and zydeco music and its own brands of blues, country, funk and hip hop, and the place can even make a strong case as the original home of rock & roll. Here are 18 songs that have helped define the rapturous music of the 18th state
“Wild Man,” Galactic feat. Big Chief Bo Dollis
The past is never far removed in New Orleans. Case in point: this inspired pairing of new-breed funk fanatics Galactic with Big Chief Bo Dollis, who has been helping keep the Mardi Gras Indian tradition alive with the Wild Magnolias since the Sixties.
“Little Liza Jane,” Huey “Piano” Smith & His Clowns
After recording for Little Richard, Lloyd Price and others, Huey “Piano” Smith became a bandleader himself, scoring hits including “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” “Little Liza Jane” is the Clowns’ raucous version of one of the original standards of the New Orleans brass band tradition.
“Mr. Big Stuff,” Jean Knight
Inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007, New Orleans native Jean Knight is best known for her 1971 Stax single “Mr. Big Stuff,” which spent five weeks atop the R&B chart and hit Number Two on the pop chart. Before the song hit, she was baking bread at Loyola University for a living.
“Diggy Liggy Lo,” Doug and Rusty Kershaw
The brothers’ biggest hit, “Louisiana Man,” was broadcast from the Apollo 12 moon mission. Their second-biggest, “Diggy Liggy Lo,” was a direct product of the family’s upbringing on a houseboat in Cajun country: the couple in the song “fell in love at the fais do-do.”
“Tipitina,” Professor Longhair
Yes, the howling, rhumba-rhythm piano-pounder known as ‘Fess wrote the song that gave one of New Orleans’ most beloved nightclubs its name. Henry Roeland Byrd was a one-man synthesis of New Orleans music, from Congo Square to Harry Connick, Jr.
“Time Is on My Side,” Irma Thomas
Soul queen Irma Thomas has had several notable hits in her career – “It’s Raining,” “Ruler of My Heart” – but her signature song was, oddly, originally a B-side. Her version of Jerry Ragovoy’s “Time Is on My Side” came out less than a year before the Rolling Stones‘, and it’s still Irma’s song.
“Shake Your Hips,” Slim Harpo
Another Louisiana classic covered by the Stones (as “Hip Shake”), the sly “Shake Your Hips” was written and first recorded by Baton Rouge native Slim Harpo, who maintained his own trucking business until his premature death in 1970.
“Be My Guest,” Fats Domino
The Fat Man was at least as instrumental in establishing rock & roll as Elvis was; with the tugging rhythm of “Be My Guest,” he almost singlehandedly invented ska, as a generation of elder Jamaicans will attest.
“Buttercup,” Lucinda Williams
Once named “America’s Best Songwriter” by Time magazine, Lake Charles’ Lucinda Williams is the daughter of the poet Miller Williams. The world-wise “Buttercup” kicked off her most recent album, 2011’s Blessed.
“Look-Ka Py Py,” Meters
Leo Nocentelli’s chicken-scratch guitar on the Meters’ classic soul instrumentals practically defined the sound of Southern funk. The band was a complete package of talent, with bassist George Porter Jr. and strummer Zigaboo Modeliste locked in syncopation while leader Art Neville held court on the keys.
“Bon Ton Roulet,” Clifton Chenier
The “King of Zydeco,” who died in 1987, played the accordion, but he was also credited with designing the frottoir, the percussive washboard worn over the shoulders. Crossing Cajun dance music with R&B, Chenier effectively invented zydeco itself, much as James Brown “invented” funk. “Bon Ton Roulet” is Chenier’s 1967 version of the original song by Clarence Garlow, with whom he toured as the “Two Crazy Frenchmen.”
“I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” Dr. John
Though he moved to Los Angeles to become an in-demand session musician at age 23, Mac Rebennack is New Orleans Third Ward through and through. Before he hit the charts with 1973’s “Right Place Wrong Time,” before he reintroduced himself with this year’s Locked Down (produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach), the Night Tripper epitomized his voodoo-priest vibe on his classic “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.”
“Yellow Moon,” Neville Brothers
If the Marsalis family is the first family of New Orleans music, the Nevilles are a very close second. After solo hits like Aaron’s “Tell It Like It Is” and group efforts including Art’s work with the Meters, the family banded together, recording more than a dozen albums, including the definitive Yellow Moon in 1989 with longtime Crescent City producing fixture Daniel Lanois.
“Suzie Q,” Dale Hawkins
Without Dale Hawkins, the pride of Gold Mine, Louisiana, John Fogerty might never have imagined being “born on the bayou.” A creator of the swamp-rock sound, Hawkins’ “Susie Q” combined rockabilly, R&B and a little hoodoo for one of rock’s most enduring classics.
“Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” Lee Dorsey
“Everything I do is funky like Lee Dorsey,” rapped the Beastie Boys. The late New Orleans soul singer had a Number Seven pop hit (Number One R&B) with 1961’s “Ya Ya.” Though this protégé of Allen Toussaint never again reached that height, he left behind a string a excellent nuggets, including “Yes We Can,” “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.”
“Do Whatcha Wanna,” Rebirth Brass Band
Now celebrating 30 years together, the aptly named Rebirth Brass Band helped reinvigorate the great New Orleans second line tradition by infusing it with funk. Their 1991 signature song “Do Whatcha Wanna” might as well be a rallying cry for their wonderfully eccentric hometown.
“A Milli,” Lil Wayne
Over the past couple of decades Louisiana has put its own unique stamp on hip hop, from Master P’s fiercely independent No Limit label to the second line-style chants of bounce. Lil Wayne’s rise to superstardom has been marked by innovative, wickedly risque raps like the one-of-a-kind “A Milli.”
“Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” Louis Armstrong
Anyone who’s visited and fallen in love with the place knows just what songwriters Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter were getting at when they wrote this perennial local favorite. First sung by Billie Holiday in the 1947 movie New Orleans, the song was a careerlong staple of her co-star, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, one of the greatest ambassadors the state of Louisiana has ever produced.