New Orleans gave the world jazz, but head to Acadiana, a 21/2-hour drive west of the Big Easy, to hear a traditional style of music that can be just as infectious, even if it doesn't enjoy anything like the same popularity. French settlers came with their fiddles to Louisiana's bayous after being expelled from Canada in the mid-18th century the Great Upheaval chronicled by Longfellow in his epic poem Evangeline. When German immigrants arrived with their accordions a little later, Cajun music was born: an addictive gumbo of rosined strings, reedy bellows and French lyrics that's as much about joie de vivre as it is about its instrumentation.
Cajun music may have dwindling appeal in an age of hip-hop and death metal, but it's played with a defiant vigor that must be experienced live. Gather with the warm-hearted, incongruous crowds (bikers, grannies, musicologists) to jitterbug and drink on Saturday mornings at tiny Fred's Lounge, tel: (1-337) 468 5411. Located in Mamou, pop. 3,566, Fred's gets going at the unlikely hour of 7:30 a.m. Manager Sue Vasseur, 77, who opened the place in 1946 with her husband the late, eponymous Fred invariably steps up to the mic between sets from featured bands, swigs from the chilled bottle of Hot Damn cinnamon schnapps she keeps in a natty gun holster and spouts house rules like "The only four-letter words I allow are love and beer."
In nearby Eunice, catch the weekly Rendezvous des Cajuns, Cajun music's Grand Old Opry, which is staged on Saturday evenings at the Liberty Theater, www.eunice-la.com/libertyschedule.html. This onetime silent-movie house lies just across the street from the Cajun Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Alternatively, you could listen to the radio broadcast of the show on your way to Breaux Bridge an hour's drive southeast on two-lane roads that zipper through golden soybean fields, rice paddies and crawfish ponds. Upon arrival, make your way to La Poussière Club, tel: (1-337) 332 1721, where you can waltz and two-step to the rhythms of legendary accordionist Walter Mouton. Mouton has held court on Saturday nights with the Scott Playboys for over three decades.
Just 20 minutes west of Breaux Bridge, Lafayette is the still beating heart of the Cajun music scene. At joints like the Blue Moon Saloon, www.bluemoonpresents.com, or the Grant Street Dancehall, www.grantstreetdancehall.com, you can hear Cajun music performed by younger musicians like Cedric Watson, the Pine Leaf Boys, the Figs, and Chris Stafford and Anna Laura Edmiston of the band Feufollet. The latter plays regular gigs in and around Lafayette, and Cow Island Hop, its latest album, astonishes with its mix of old-time standards and idiosyncratic, jazzy licks.
But while the infusion of new musical blood has gladdened older locals, there seems no doubt that it can only stave off inevitable decline. Even at its peak, Cajun's appeal was regional. And just as Louisiana continues to be battered by annual hurricanes, so the homogenization of American culture is eroding Cajun's home following, reducing the music to a cultural curiosity and subject for historical theses. "We're losing our culture as quick as we're losing our coastline," worries Toby Rodriguez, a visual artist and local bon vivant whose family has been in Cajun country for generations. That means there's no time to lose. Grab your dancing shoes and, as they say in these parts, laissez les bon temps rouler. Let the good times roll.