Dancing the Blues Away

Philip Gould
by Pableaux Johnson - Louisiana - Aug/Sept 2009

Why the people of Mamou, Louisiana, wake up ready to boogie

It's 9:00 on a sultry Saturday morning, and Fred’s Lounge in tiny Mamou, Louisiana, is as crowded and smoky as a big-city bar at midnight. You’d never know that outside this low-slung brick and cinder-block barroom things are all quiet and peaceful (after all, a fair amount of Mamou’s population of just four thousand are inside, and the rest of them are sleeping).

The weekly ritual of local Cajun dance aficionados trekking to Fred’s is anything but sleepy. The locals call it “dancin’ on the radio.” This morning, in the center of the room, a seven-piece Cajun band plows its way through an up-tempo two-step, broadcast on Ville Platte’s KVPI 1050 AM radio, as about a hundred people crowd the dance floor. A lanky accordion player blasts staccato melodies against the gliding fiddle lines while guitar and drums provide a rhythmic chop and bounce. The crowd nods along at the cadence of a horseback trot to the trademark “chank-a-chank” pulse of traditional Cajun music.

Then, the bar’s manager, Tante Sue (that’s Louisiana for Aunt Sue) Vasseur, passes around the guest book, showing endorsements from fans of the Saturday-morning Mamou pilgrimage. She’s got first-timers from Paris, Seoul, and San Francisco written in right next to regulars like Calvin and Nonnie Daigle of Labadieville, Louisiana, who make the trip every other week and are always the first couple dancing, warming up the floor for the crowds that follow.

In between tunes, the band catches its breath, and Tante Sue takes the microphone to welcome everybody to Mamou and read the house rules: (1) no kissing; (2) no dancing on the tables, jukebox, or cigarette machine; (3) visit your loved ones in the nursing home. Then, in another Mamou tradition, she takes a swig from a tiny bottle of cinnamon schnapps and leads the band in her trademark tune, a waltz called “Drunkard’s Dream.” If there’s a better way to spend a Saturday morning, you’d better not tell Tante Sue.