Zydeco music: How I learned to love it

Louisiana is maybe one of the few places where the accordion is taken seriously, not merely as some kitsch novelty in a hipster band.

There was a comic from a while ago:

“Welcome to heaven,” an angel says to newly arrived souls. “Here’s your harp.” The panel below, “Welcome to hell, here’s your accordion.”

I really like the accordion, actually. It’s such a bizarre instrument. But like it or not, it’s hard to take seriously, unless you’re a big fan of traditional European polkas. It looks and sounds so goofy.

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Odds and Ends: My photos that didn’t quite make Instagram in 2016

I tried to do more photography than ever in 2016, and for the most part I think I succeeded.

I made a resolution to take more photographs of people that year. To be bolder. More in your face. To tell better stories with my photos. To be more concrete and less abstract.

Looking back I made good on that resolution. Many of my photos in 2016 are filled with people. Continue reading

Patriarchs and equestrians

IMG_2334This summer I had the opportunity to follow a trail ride in Louisiana. Being a native-born Washingtonian who’s only lived in the South for a little more than a year, the experience was one of the most uniquely Southern things I’ve ever done.

I pitched this story to the editor of Country Roads Magazine earlier this fall and had my piece published, alongside the images of a local photographer who has also been documenting the trail riders, Jeremiah Ariaz. 

There is so much to say about the trail riders, especially from my own personal perspective, but alas, there is only so much room to write in a magazine. My piece details the history and culture of the trail ride, how it has modernized over time, and how it is, at its core, a family tradition.

Traveling in the dead of July in South Louisiana (easily 110 fahrenheit or higher), I rode in between convoy of horses, golf carts and pickups, taking photos and chatting up some of the riders. The thing that got me about the event was how paternal the tradition was. As I saw fathers, young and old, riding alongside their sons, I was reminded me of going to “fish camp” with my dad back in Washington state.

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So this is what the crossroads looks like

The blues and writing about the genre; filling the hole in my life; my early musical ambitions; revelations in Louisiana; acceptance and understanding

A personal break through for me as a journalist (I think) came after recently speaking with blues musician Chris Thomas King, the Louisiana native and so-called King of New Orleans Blues.

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Chris Thomas King

I’ve known of King since he starred in “O Brother Where Art Thou” as Tommy Johnson, an early blues musician from the Mississippi Delta. His eerie and reflective rendition of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” always intrigued me as a kid. When I was learning how to play the guitar, and when I was acquainting myself with the blues, I often did my best to imitate King’s sound. I never thought that one day I’d speak to the man.
Then again, I never thought I’d live in Louisiana, the heartland of the blues.

My interview with King comes at an interesting point in my life: I am 26; trying to establish myself as a writer; managing a newspaper in West Baton Rouge, Louisiana; displaced from my home state (Washington); in a committed relationship with someone for the first time; and yet I am still somehow lacking in some aspect. What it is, I can’t say.

I have a good life, but the things I once found fulfilling – even just a few years ago – seem forgotten to me. My “lust for life” seems like a forlorn quest, or just another unremarkable path to self-acceptance. Perhaps that’s not such a terrible ending, but I have a hard time imaging how I will ever reach that ending happily and at peace.

As a kid, the answer to happiness – or at least self-respect – was an easy one: music.

Since taking up the guitar at 12, I took the phrase “play till your fingers bleed” to heart. Although I never actually cut my fingers on the strings I damn sure tried. I loved my guitar. It was actually my dad’s guitar that he owned since he was about 19; an ember-colored Applause, similar in design to the Ovation guitars. I wasn’t very sentimental at the time, but I enjoyed the fact that my father was passing down the skill to his son with the very guitar that he learned on.

The guitar was huge for my size, but it was a point of pride for me. My friends’ parents bought them nylon-stringed guitars and cheap-o electric ones, but not me. I was determined to learn the hard way. As my friends quit after just a few months of playing, I stuck with it and I got better.

Music, and certainly the blues, taught me so many things about myself when I was growing up. My guitar was my therapist, my friend, and – as corny as it sounds – my first love. I could consult it when I was angry, lonely, happy, etc. I was constantly pushing myself to experiment with it.

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Getting comfortable

Photo Jun 01, 3 59 46 PM
A fried fish po’ boy from Couyons in Port Allen, Louisiana. Can you say “heart failure?”

It was about 2 p.m. last Monday and I hadn’t eaten much. I went to Couyons, just down the road from our office in Port Allen, Louisiana. It’s a Southern-style eatery. Nothing fancy, but damn good food.

I bought a $12 fried seafood po’ boy with a side of mac and cheese. I wolfed it all down in about seven minutes and was so stuffed that I barely made it to work.

I got back in the car (somehow), drove back to work, pulled into our lot, parked, left the engine running, cranked the A/C, leaned the seat back and fell asleep for about 45 minutes.

I’ve lived in the Deep South for almost a year, and I’ll tell you, it is not easy. But I’m catching on.

Moving pains

The first time I had crawfish was in a restaurant in Lake Providence, Louisiana, called The Dock. It sat just above the lake with an outdoor patio (the actual “dock”) that went into the muddy water. You can walk onto the dock and see turtles sunning themselves on rocks or peering out of the lake’s surface. The patio is decorated in old buoys and strings of dirty Christmas lights. 

I had just moved to Baton Rouge and was on my way back when I passed The Dock for the second time. I had never had crawfish, and so I pulled in, against my girlfriend’s wishes.

The inside was exactly what I pictured rural Louisiana to look like. Creeky wood floors, a range of taxidermy on the walls, the New Orleans Saints were on the only TV. Baskets of clumpy fried food were on every occupied table, and man, did it smell good.

***

I’ve only lived in Louisiana now for more than a month. Nothing about my move from Washington has been easy. I lifted everything I had in the Northwest and shipped it via U.S. Postal Service to the Southeast.

On the surface things are nearly the same. Our cities have the same same retail outlets, country roads are bumpy, money is still green. But there is so much to get used to. On a map, Louisiana looks like any other state, aside from its peculiar boot shape. When you drive the roads and experience the countryside at eye-level, you realize the map is a lie. What looks like solid ground turns into swamp and an oceans of knee-deep mud. Roads turn to bridges. Eventually, the roads end and the swamps dissolve into the salt of the Gulf. Everything about travelling in Louisiana is inconsistent. The gas prices, the erratic drivers, the stop-and-go drivers, the colors of the pavement. Shortly after moving here I suffered frequent anxiety attacks while driving.

There are some more subtle differences about Louisiana that I’m not so fond of. Such as the lack of quality coffee. Luckily Baton Rouge is a college town, and espresso is in no short supply. But PJ’s Coffee doesn’t do it for me, and neither does CC’s Coffee. They’re both too bright and the baristas are too happy. Even the Starbucks here kinda sucks. At least Washington’s Starbucks give off the local vibe. I miss the dimly lit hole-in-the-wall coffee shops where the espresso is actually made, not squeezed from a box. I miss pretentious baristas. Where do I watch the rain fall? Where do I ruminate over my life choices on Saturday afternoons? I miss the conscientious nature of Washingtonians. The coffee culture.

It’s not all bad though. Lately, I’ve been writing local news stories for a weekly paper. When I tell people where I’m from, they usually answer in surprise. I recently wrote an article about a peace celebration in town. One of the religious leaders said, “You must be used to this sort of thing then.” She was right. Seattle has its fair share of peace-niks and I’ve definitely rubbed elbows with a lot of them. But even though Northwesterners have a rep for conscientiousness, the issues in the South are still very much the same, regardless of the side you’re on: Environmentalism (coastal erosion), equality, the local falvor, and ultimately progress. Baton Rouge isn’t as different as I expected, and neither is Louisiana. To be honest, I expected hostility, or at least indifference, to the way I talk and dress, but the opposite has been true.

I was lamenting some of these problems to a mutual friend who had also moved to the area recently. It’s not so much the location that makes Louisiana great, she said, it’s the people.