In October of 2012, after a short visit in New Orleans, I drove two and a half hours up to Lafayette, Louisiana, to play at the annual BlackPot Festival. Each year, the South Louisiana BlackPot Festival & Cook-Off is held at Lafayette’s Acadian Village, a living history park. In addition to presenting many kinds of roots music, the festival holds a “cook off” (hence the name “Blackpot”) in which contestants serve their best versions of Louisiana gumbo, cracklins, and jambalaya. Visitors sample the wares (mmmmm!) and leave tickets at the booths of their favorite chefs. The cooks who get the most tickets from satisfied customers win cash prizes, but nobody seemed overly competitive at this friendly festival.
So why was I heading to BlackPot? Texas-Polish fiddler Brian Marshall and his band The Texas Slavic Playboys were performing, and they had invited me to play with them, an offer I couldn’t refuse. (Brian is interviewed in my documentary The Waltz to Westphalia, which tells the story of the Polish folk song Pytala Sie Pani becoming the Texas fiddle favorite The Westphalia Waltz.)
I met Brian and The Texas Slavic Playboys on the festival grounds, and as twilight began to creep over the assembled throng, the festival took on an historic aura. The smells were enchanting as the myriad recipes boiled away in black pots over small fires. Cooks and their helpers were reaching out to us with small paper bowls of steaming gumbo or jambalaya. “Hey, why don’t y’all give this a try? You’re gonna love this! Best gumbo at BlackPot!” Beer was plentiful, too.
The main stage sits at one end of a covered outdoor concrete dance floor. Favorite roots bands (Cajun, Conjunto, Bluegrass, Old Time, R&B, etc.) played short and intense sets of music while people stood and listened or sat and ate on the benches. Some watched transfixed and silent, others whooped and danced. A second stage is nearby, inside the old chapel at Acadian Village, and the stages operate at staggered times, so that the music is non-stop.
After Brian and the band and I said hello, grabbed beer and gumbo and exchanged stories and jokes, we tuned our instruments and wandered over to the chapel for our set. Although there were a few microphones on stage, they probably weren’t needed. Brian and the guys filled the room with their boisterous vocals, ringing out over the sounds of the combined instruments. We did mostly Polish traditional music that showed the Texas influences that these musicians share. Mark Rubin played a typical trade Polish bass – a cello, which was hanging from his neck by a strap, and bowed vigorously on the downbeats. Brian Wisnoski played the bęben (a hand drum, which looks a bit like a large Irish bodhran). Andrew Halbriecht played guitar, Frank Motley the accordion, and Mike Stinnett tenor sax, so the band was definitely playing the Texas Poles’ unique sound. Brian and I played twin fiddles on most of the tunes, including Helena Polka and Pytala Sie Pani (the original Westphalia Waltz). Most of the repertoire was Polish village music – polkas, waltzes, and obereks (a type of ¾ meter tune with accents on the downbeat). I looked twice and spotted Eric and Suzy Thompson, California roots musicians extraordinaire, sitting in the audience and grooving. They were there for the entire festival, and clearly enjoying the fun music and vibe. The rest of the audience was noisy, appreciative, and friendly.
Early the next morning, I drove back to New Orleans to catch my flight home to California. As I watched the sky slowly turn pink and blue over the bayous and farm fields of southern Louisiana, I reflected on what an incredibly satisfying trip it had been.
From the BlackPot website:
The South Louisiana Black Pot Festival & Cookoff is held annually at Lafayette’s Acadian Village. 2012 was its 5th year, with two days of great music, dancing, food, camping & jamming. The festival is a cooperative effort of south Louisiana musicians, artists and southern culture enthusiasts, creating an unprecedented gathering of south Louisiana’s hottest roots bands, as well as a number of groups from all over the country. Live performances range from Cajun & Zydeco to Creole, Swing, Hot Jazz, Blues, Bluegrass, Americana, Irish & Old-Time. BlackPot also features an old-fashioned black pot cook-off, accordion contest, called square dancing, and ample camping space for tents & RV’s.
Below are a few photos of the fun.
Joe Weed produces music and video at his Highland Studios near Los Gatos, California. He has released six albums of his own, produced many projects for independent artists and labels, and does sound tracks for film, TV and museums. Joe’s composition “Hymn to the Big Sky” can be heard in “The Dust Bowl,” a new film by Ken Burns, which premiered November 18 and 19, 2012 on PBS. Joe recently produced “Pa’s Fiddle,” a collection of 19th-century American music played by “Pa” Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series. Reach Joe by calling (408) 353-3353, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by visiting joeweed.com.