The Music of the Pelican State Rises Up From Somewhere Deep

Musicians of all stripes tell tales of the unique pull of the accordion on Louisana and beyond.  


A week and a half before Mardi Gras — early February, in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans — a crowd gathered in the sanctuary of St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, on Esplanade. Though the season of Lent and repentance was just around the bend, they hadn’t come to pray or confess. About a hundred folks had paid the piper to dance to klezmer tunes as old as Hasidic weddings and jazz as local as a wiener sold from a cart shaped like a hot dog on Bourbon Street.

The Panorama Jazz Band was at the altar, and the faithful had come to have a ball. Announced Maryland native Ben Schenck, bandleader and clarinetist, “If you’d told me 35 years ago that I would someday play jazz in a New Orleans church for local New Orleanians, I never would have believed you.” 

This was not for tourists, not some clichéd derivative of Bourbon Street Dixieland. It had enough soul to satisfy both musician and audience. An older woman in a pew near the back, sounding as though she had discovered a fat and spicy shrimp in an otherwise inferior gumbo, yelled, “REAL MUSICIANS!” Indeed, present were banjo, drums, sax, trombone, tuba, and accordion, in addition to Schenck’s rollicking licorice stick. It was seven bucks to get in and seven bucks for a bowl of pasta with crawfish and shrimp. Volunteers sold beer and hard liquor, with plenty of cold water to cool the faithful down.

With each song — the Argentine milonga (a precursor to the tango) “Mozo Guapo”; “Fruit Punch,” by one-handed New Orleans piano player Edward Frank (1932–1997); and a rousing Yiddish encore, “Baym Rebn in Palestina” — more people climbed over one another to leave the pews and dance. A fervent altar call to the rhythm of a biguine coaxed Tamalyn Dallal — who has performed belly dance around the world — to cut loose. “If people don’t dance,” said Panorama banjo player Patrick Mackey, “it’s a failed gig.”


How saturated in music is the Pelican State? It’s a place where a kid can learn the accordion from a zydeco master who picks up the garbage in front of his house.


Panorama “has the energy of a klezmer band at a Jewish wedding, with eclectic variety,” observes New Orleans resident Julia Cass, who earlier in the week had taken part in the “’tit Rex shoebox” spectacle. (Inspired by local grade-school parades, in which children make shoebox versions of the famous floats, a group of artists and teachers decided in 2008 to go against the “bigger every year” evolution of Mardi Gras with a “micro-krewe,” to produce the “Chihuahua” of Mardi Gras parades.) “I didn’t get all the connections until I saw the album cover of Panoramaland,” Cass continues. Created by Panorama tenor horn player John Gerken, the CD cover shows “a map with Louisiana as central and New Orleans as the capital. To the south is Mexico, with Martinique and Manhattan off the coast and Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, and Ukraine around it. I don’t know any other band around here playing that kind of mix.”

All of this helps “bring live music back to Tremé with concerts in places other than bars,” says Darryl Durham, former executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts and now director of Anna’s Place, an afterschool program for Tremé-area youth within the church sanctuary. Durham adds that proceeds from gigs at St. Anna’s help college and workplace-bound high school students receive tutoring, internships, and visits to college campuses.

How saturated in music is the Pelican State? It’s a place where a kid can learn the accordion from a master of zydeco — the accordion and “scratchboard” driven dance music created by French immigrants in Louisiana — who picks up the garbage in front of his house.

“I learned from Clayton Sampy,” says Corey Arceneaux, of the Zydeco Hot Peppers, who grew up in a musical family in Carencro, just north of Lafayette. Before the Hot Peppers, Arceneaux played with his uncle Fernest Arceneaux, honored as the “New Prince of Accordion” before his death, in 2008. “I met Clayton one night after he played an outdoor gig in downtown Lafayette. I was about 12 years old,” says Arceneaux, a southwest Louisiana zydeco legend, before a Mardi Gras gig in Baltimore. “I had a hundred-dollar accordion from the Sears catalog and had been teaching myself for a few years when I met him. I’d asked a lot of people to help me, everybody said they would and I’d never hear from them. One day Clayton knocks on my door and asks if I’m ready to learn. I said, ‘How do you know where I live?’ And he said he used to pick up my trash.” 

Turns out, Sampy worked a sanitation truck to make ends meet between gigs. To do the same, Arceneaux sells insurance, and exports zydeco from Fairfax, Virginia, where he moved in 2020 after marrying a Cajun woman who’d landed a job there. They regularly bring back an ice chest of “boudin” — a highly spiced pork and rice sausage — and other delicacies after visiting friends and relatives near the rice fields of home.

Arceneaux grew up a mile or so down the road from the home of legendary accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco, born Stanley Dural Jr. in 1947, a Grammy-winning mainstream success who brought the music to the masses before his death, in 2016, at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Lafayette. It’s not unlikely in western Louisiana for anyone from the rice farmer to the high school principal to play the accordion. Cajun music originated with French-Canadian exiles in the mid-18th century, and zydeco is associated with their Black Creole neighbors. Earlier this month, accordion player Joe Hall, leader of the Louisiana Cane Cutters, was featured in an interview with KRVS, the public radio station in Lafayette. “When I was growing up,” he recalled, “there was an accordion player in every other house.”

That reminded me of something celebrated songwriter and Brooklyn native Otis Blackwell (1931–2002) told me in 1982. Composer of “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Return to Sender,” “All Shook Up,” and “Great Balls of Fire,” among other hits, Blackwell said, “Man, when I was growing up, everybody had an upright piano in the house. If you didn’t have a bed you had a piano.” 

I asked Panorama member Michael Ward-Bergeman — who, like Arceneaux, plays a “piano accordion,” with black and white keys in addition to buttons — which instrument was most closely identified with Louisiana: the squeezebox or the trumpet, synonymous with Louis Armstrong, New Orleans–born (1901–1971) and a founding father of jazz. After a pause, he replied, “In New Orleans, the trumpet is head and shoulders over the accordion. Everywhere else [in the state], the accordion might squeak by.”

For Yvette Landry, school teacher by day, it’s a five-string bass guitar.  It was on KRVS that I first heard Landry, while driving to dinner at Mo’ Crawfish in the farm town of Mowata, on Highway 13, population too small to be listed by the U.S. Census Bureau. Landry, a veteran teacher with a specialty in sign language and no musical experience for the first 40 years of her life, was coerced into performing by a colleague. It was for a school celebration of French culture, and they needed a bass player for the Zachary Richard tune “Travailler C’est Trop Dur” (“Working Is Too Hard”).

To which she replied, “Are you insane?”

It’s just two notes,  explained her colleague. So Landry borrowed a bass and practiced for a month; she found the experience healing during a rough personal time. Today, the 59-year-old from Breaux Bridge has her own band and plays concertina and six-string guitar along with bass; she has released several albums, including “No Man’s Land,” from 2014. Though she usually travels out-of-state for gigs during Mardi Gras, she stayed home this year, appearing at a few private parties — “It gets to be too much on top of regular work,” she admits.

Ben Schenck doesn’t have a day job, but says the work of making Mardi Gras happen for others is both exhausting and “a responsibility to create joy because people need it.” After Fat Tuesday had rolled into Ash Wednesday, he says, “I’ve played six parades in four days and it’s hard fucking work. You’re in front of thousands of people and you have to bring it.”

So just what is it about the bayous, prairies, and crawfish fields of Louisiana?

“The music and various spirits that generate it have a life of their own here,” says Schenck, who found his true self in New Orleans. “I remember watching the Lost Bayou Ramblers play several years ago, and feeling like the music was here before people were. It comes up from the Earth.”   ❖

Rafael Alvarez first heard jazz in New Orleans in 1976, as an 18-year-old deckhand on an American container ship that stopped there. His most recent book, Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery, was published last year by Cornell University Press.


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