This presentation is part of the Dance Halls, Juke Joints, and Honky Tonks Symposium, March 22-23, 2016. This symposium focuses on the issues associated with the preservation of dance halls and similar sites throughout the rural South. Some of the constant threats include relevancy, development pressures, deterioration, and financial viability. This symposium brings together experts and enthusiasts to discuss history, architecture, and culture associated with these buildings.
Bloody Buckets, Twice Drunk Beer, and Loser Gumbo: The Louisiana Dancehall Project by John Sharp
John Sharp: Hey everybody. As many of you already know, I am a man of the people, I will not address you from the high stage. I’m John Sharp, everybody mostly calls me Pud, if you already know me, that’s probably how you know me, what my name is. We’re going to talk about dance halls of Louisiana. Some of you here already know about this project, so please bear with me.
First, I want to say something about the Center for Louisiana Studies, which is my parent organization. It’s a three-part group, the UL Press, programming and special events, which is co-worker Jennifer, and research which is myself and our archivist, Chris Segura. We’re the archive of Cajun and Creole folklore, and we have over 20,000 hours of studio recordings, and a lot of my research is drawn from that.
Just to give you an idea how it all started, I’m from Alabama, so I don’t speak French. I do the slightest bit now. I have some comprehension, but working at the archive I was surrounded by the French language. There are many things I didn’t understand, but some of the things I could grasp a hold of were the occasional song title which was in English. Some of these were Hick’s Wagon Wheel Special, the B.O. Sparkle Waltz, the OST Special, the Chinaball Club Special, the Blue Goose Special. These are all Cajun standards, songs that many bands played that you would recognize if you live here, most likely, you would recognize the songs. You might not know the names.
I was asking my co-worker Christ what are these songs? Why the occasional English title. He said, “These are all dance hall songs. They’re named after dance halls.” I thought, Oh, that’s cool. Hick’s Wagon Wheel, where was that? Chris says, “I’m really not sure.” Chris is sort of an encyclopedia of Cajun music and knowledge. He’s a French immersion student, been playing in bands for 20 years, and he’s 30 years old. The B.O. Sparkle Waltz, I have no idea where that is, what that is. I started to realize there’s a huge hole here.
I got on the Internet, I tried to find pictures and information about these places. I could not do it. I started to ask people, I’m lucky in that I have people that wander into my office on a regular basis and one of whom is Professor Barry Ancelet. He’s a renowned folklore and well-known local, and I asked Barry, “Where can I find pictures of this stuff?” He said, “There’s no pictures of most of those places. There’s none of that.” I thought, that’s got to be out there, it’s crazy. I kept complaining too people that none of this stuff was out there in the world, and no information was there. You find a little bit here and a little bit there. Finally, someone said, “Hey, bid dummy, you should do that. Stuff is out there, little bits of it, little pieces, but you, if you’re interested, you should check it out. You should put the pieces together.” That’s what I started to do.
One of the first things that happened, and we’ve already, many of us, have had these discussions that were here yesterday, about what do you consider a dance hall? Even the title of this symposium draws a distinction between dance halls, juke joints, and honky tonks. I think that we all know that there are these distinctions, but for my purposes, I’ve been a little worried that no one is going to come behind and, say find out all the information on honky-tonks or find out the information on juke joints, or even holes in the wall that have bands play.
For the purposes of this, I’ve decided that I would rather err on the too much information side. As far as a dance hall, for my purposes, it has a designated dance floor, primarily live music as the entertainment, it’s okay if there’s a jukebox, it would be better if it’s kind of in the corner and not the main focus. Very quickly, as I started to do research, I realized that I needed to really start at the beginning and find out what the roots of this culture were. Dance hall culture really came from the culture of house dances.
These were community events that happened on weekend nights. They were often advertised by, in the early days, by someone riding on horseback going from the surrounding country and saying, “Hey, we’re having a dance tonight.” The community was invited, but it wasn’t just open to anyone. It was only if you were friends, acquaintances, if you really should be there. For these dances, furniture is removed from the house, or sometimes hung on the wall. Chairs hung on the wall. Many of these dance had a fais-do-do room where a bedroom was converted into a room where children could be put to sleep while their parents dance. Typically, a band would be set up in the corner. In the early days, it was a fiddle and an accordion. The band needed to be in the corner because sound would direct out better that way, and also there needed to be room for people to dance. Many of these houses were small, as you can imagine. The floor plan of an older house is not huge.
These were very important in the dating and courting rituals. Many times, this is the only place other than church that people would meet … Young couples. A small number of dancers would be in these places at one time. I heard in an interview in the archive with Dennis McGee, who said that typically there would be three rounds of types of songs. There would be a waltz, there would be a two-step, which is a higher pace, and then there would often be a one step or a Mazurka that they would play. Then they would kick all those people off the floor, probably three or four couples, push them off the floor, then let the next group come in and dance. If you were lucky, you got to dance two or three times in one night. Sometimes the owners of these places served food and drink. Sometimes it was free, sometimes it was for sale.
In learning about house dances, one of the main kinds of stories that I came across were these epic pranks that occurred. Most of these people were between people who already knew each other. They were the kind of thing that would happen when there was a long-standing kind of disagreement between people. Maybe you would go to the dance and get really drunk, someone would get your horse, cut all of the hair of its mane so that you would go out and be unable to find your horse, because That’s not my horse, my horse has a beautiful mane. Also, people would do things like steal each other’s horses and take them home. Imagine that you came up to a house in the middle of the country that you rode your horse to, no lights, in the middle of a field. You walk out into the night and you have no transportation. It was the kind of thing that friends would do to each other, but also enemies.
Another thing, there were a lot of really mean-spirited things that happened, too. Pranks that we would think are too far. One of the things that happened, and I heard two different occasions of this, that people caught a stray cat and they got a corn shuck, and they rubbed its butt raw with the corn shuck, so it would be so mad. They would throw it in the open window of a house dance, so that everyone it came into contact with, it would attack them. This is the kind of thing that people would do if they wanted to end the dance, or if there were boyfriend … If you broke up with your girlfriend and you didn’t want her to be there with somebody else.
Additionally, people would use red pepper, and they would have pockets full of it, and they would go into the dance floor and they would drop it onto the floor. As they were leaving, they would walk away, and the next group of people that would come in and would start dancing, it would just put pepper in the air, and the whole crew would have to leave the house. Probably the craziest prank was down the bayou, out of a dance hall that had a door that led to the bayou that was also the women’s restroom. It was a small room with a door to the outside. Two boys caught a blue crab, and they put it in the chamber pot, and the poor woman who sat on the chamber pot found that little blue crab in there and yelled loud enough to stop the band.
When you’re talking about stuff like this, these community events before public entertainment, this was the public entertain, fights always are going to be a big issue and a big topic. There’s a story about a guy that was well known as a bottle thrower, and if you had a problem with him, he would never fight you on even ground … Two guys trading licks. He would catch you dancing at a dance hall by a open window and throw a bottle in and knock you out. Some of these stories I got from the archive and some from people who have passed down in families. Fights and pranks started at house dances, and then they continued to the dance hall.
Before we start to talk about dance halls, just as a reminder, all these things are highly segregated, as our society really is today. The house dances particularly were very segregated. One of the exceptions was the band of Amede Aroin and Dennis McGee, a renowned string band who played together … I’m sorry, accordion and fiddle who played together and made some very important recordings.
From house dances, when money became more available, people had jobs, it wasn’t so much a subsistence living, they had extra income … Dance halls were opened. These weren’t buildings that were built to be dance halls, in the beginning, they were retrofitted as the picture mentioned. The buildings themselves, they started as grocery stores, some of them, and turned into bars, and they went from there into full-on dance halls. The big difference was that this wasn’t your invited friends and family and neighbors, this was open to the public. Anyone who could pay to get in could be there, and sometimes that caused lots of problems.
The early dance hall buildings much more resemble the buildings that we see … The Texas buildings, the Texas dance halls. More of an open floor plan, open rafters. Some of them, as we talked about a little bit yesterday, the windows were actually just boards that flipped up on the side of the building. These images are from the office of War Information and from security folks. These are the earliest photos of any known dance hall, and this is 1934. It’s Leleux dance hall, Cajun dance hall.
Audience Member: Where was it at?
John Sharp: It’s Leleux, Louisiana, it’s an unincorporated community near Crowley
Audience Member: How do you spell it?
John Sharp: L-E L-E-U-X. This photo has a lot going on in it. Some of the things that … This man here is Mr. Leleux. He was the owner. This is the makeshift ticket booth. When men paid, and there would be some kind of a ticket attached to their collar. Sometimes, in some of these communities, they just knew each other and they knew if you paid today. Mr. Leleux is sitting here. This area behind, with all these men, I called the bullpen. This is where young men, who are unmarried, would stay and wait … They would be there until they asked a woman to dance. They weren’t just allowed to roam freely.
In some of these places, there was a designated area for the bar, which is unseen in any of these photos. Also, sometimes a card room. You can see a little bit of a seating rail here behind. Sometimes this continued all the way around the dance floor. Sometimes there were raised areas for more of a stadium-type seating for people to watch the dancers. Also, here’s the band, here. We can see they’re around a microphone, so that’s … Many times that was not the case. Before electricity, just a few … Some people have said that’s one of the reasons the accordion had a level of popularity that didn’t really carry.
In the courting and separation vein, it was very common for women and men to be separated at these dances. It was sort of like the equivalent of going to church, the only other activity that many people did, other than work. This is the only time that they saw each other. For the most part, the sexes were kept pretty separate, so it’s common in all these old photos and in the stories for the women to all be together in one area, and the men in another. Here’s another shot of the bullpen. I heard this story that Mr. Leleux’s brother, here, heard that a photographer from the US government was going to be there, so he went home and put on his best clothes.
As I mentioned about courtship, this was a place for people to meet, spend time together, get to know each other before actually dating or getting married. At this time, many of the people went straight to marriage from courtship. The mothers and grandmothers would typically watch, and stay inside, while many times the fathers were out drinking and talking outside the building. Several stories that I heard, people said that they would dance, and they would go there with their mom and their grandmother, and they would sit in the stadium kind of seating and they would watch them dance around the floor. As they would dance, they would look over, and they would see their mother and their grandmother looking at them very intently. As they got closer, they would pull down their glasses, and further, lift them up. It’s kind of like NASCAR.
The wedding dance was something that came up a lot. A lot of times if I meet people, and they have a story about a dance hall, they met at a dance hall. They first saw each other at a dance hall. If that dance hall played a large enough role in their life together, they got married, sometimes, in the dance hall, or they had their wedding dance in the dance hall. The thing that I didn’t see coming was, now, if you’re going to have your reception somewhere, you pay … Say, you pay Vermilionville to have your reception here. Back in the day, a dance hall paid the couple to have their reception at the dance hall because people would drink more freely, spend more money at such a large event. Several dance hall owners said, “Oh, that was good business. That made a lot of sense.”
Drinking, in the early dance halls, was not so much of a story. It was much more of a family environment, all ages came together, stayed all night together. When the kids fell asleep, they were just putting them on the floor underneath those benches, and keep dancing. Drinking mostly occurred on the outside with liquor and beer brought by the individuals. Of course … Sorry, John, go ahead.
Audience Member: Do you know who these musicians are?
John Sharp: No, and I’ve never seen the names. Given some of the people that I’ve met recently who’ve ID’d many, I bet that I know the right people to find out. Remind me of that, and I’ll try to find that out. Fighting in the dance halls, was, in the early dance halls, where people paid to get in, was a huge part of the entertaining. I went to talk to a Cajun musician, D.L. Menard, and I asked him, “Did you see a lot of fights in the dance halls?” He said, “If you went out for the weekend, and you didn’t see a fight, and you weren’t in a fight, it was like nothing happened. There was nothing to talk about. It was boring.”
I had another interview with a swamp pop musician, Johnnie Allan, and I was asking him, “Did you see a lot of fights over the years?” He said, “Oh yeah, I saw a man get his ear bit off one time.” I said, “Oh, wow, tell me that story.” He said, “I saw a man get his ear bit off.” I don’t know what else I was hoping for. Fighting was a huge thing. There was an area that was in the oil patch that was renowned for fighting. Where a man would walk in, there would be board inside the door … A man would walk in, stab his knife into the wall, and then hang his hat on it. That was to say, if anybody wants to find me, I’m here, and I’m ready to go.
Of course, music, let’s not forget there was music at the dance halls. It’s been very interesting to talk to the musicians, particularly older musicians who have a story very much about being able to keep a crowd happy, and to keep a crowd. There were, for the most part, musicians were hired on a monthly kind of a basis. They would play on a regular basis on a certain night. Either that, or a band was just guys from the neighborhood. Many times, I would ask people, “You used to go to this club, this dance hall. Who was the band?” They have no idea who the people were. It wasn’t a celebrity kind of a thing. It was for entertainment. Music by neighbors, for neighbors.
Only later, after World War Two, was that really a big thing … Who the band was. Most of the bands tell a story of, If somebody came up and they said, “I want to hear this song,” and you didn’t know it, next week, when you play, you better be able to play that song. If you want to keep those people coming, keep them happy, keep getting paid. A lot of these people, they made a lot more than working in the field, playing in a band. They had to be very smart. Also, the same kind of thing with the dancers. If a band played a song and nobody danced, that would immediately fall out. They had to be able to work the crowd. They had to be able to know … You have to be able to keep the dancers happy, because if the dancers aren’t happy, the dance hall owner’s not happy. People stop coming because they’re bored with the band. It hurts the bottom line.
Here’s an example of the difference over the years. That’s the Leleux dance hall on the left, and then the Crawfish Festival, on the right. Segregation is still there, although that varies per an occasion. Because of my living in Lafayette, there are two main kinds of dance halls that I’ve come across. Cajun and Zydeco. I’ve been lucky in that a few of the Zydeco clubs and dance halls have still been open during this time, and I’ve got to visit with people there, and go there and meet the owners, and meet a lot of musicians there and get information from people.
This is Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas, it actually recently closed. The reason was that was given was that the younger generation did not show proper respect. There was always a problem and always drama and always a bunch of mess to clean up after a weekend dance. Another reason is that the owner, Tony Gradney, works in the oil field in North Dakota and he relies on his family to help him keep it going, and it’s a lot of work. Miller’s Zydeco Hall of Fame, formerly Richard’s Club .. I should say, Slim’s was built in the late 40’s. Millers, or Richard’s, also built in the late 40’s. It has down times where things … There are no dances, sometimes for months, special occasion only, more of a rental hall kind of a feeling.
This is the Davis Lounge in Cecilia. Really interestingly, inside that dance hall, there’s another club. It was built around another club, a brick building, called the Blue Dahlia. It’s very interesting. On the inside, there’s one area, and then there’s very distinctly another building inside that building. It’s closed now, as well. Whiskey River, which a bar on the levy in Henderson. It was originally a marina and boat launch, and they built a back porch so that they could have fish weigh-ins at tournaments. They’ve only been having music since the late 90s, but it’s very much an institution in live, local music. For the most part, it’s a zydeco hall, but it depends on the occasion. A lot of different bands play there.
El Sido’s, here in Lafayette, is an R&B, Blues, and Zydeco club. It’s also, really, only a special occasion place. There’s a couple of big … They have a show on for Thanksgiving, sometimes they have a show for Mother’s Day, and usually you can get into either one of those shows with canned goods or money. It’s always an all-star event that you can see 10 people, all in … All the bands hanging out together, playing together.
There have been some great … I was able to find some information on some earlier zydeco clubs and mostly some rural clubs. This is the Cowboy Club in Duralde, Louisiana, which was owned by Bois Sec Ardoin. He and his family ran that club, many people filmed there, took photos there. Alan Lomax included it in several of his fieldwork journeys. The Clifton Chenier Club … Oh, I’m sorry, the Cowboy Club is … A couple of boards still standing up back in the woods, now. The Clifton Chenier Club, which is in Loreauville, is still there. It’s a beautiful building, very rarely used. Inside is somewhat of a shrine to Clifton Chenier. Many of his photos of himself in the backstage dressing room, and posters. It’s a great place, but it’s very rarely open.
The Offshore Lounge, here on the bottom right, which is in Lawtell not far from Miller’s, but back in a neighborhood. This was originally opened by … It was really, originally, in the 1940s, it was called the Ginside Inn because there was a cotton gin next door. It was bought by Roy Carrier in the 80s and turned into, after sitting with nothing going on for a while, turned into the Offshore Lounge. It is always, it is perpetually almost open again. I think the latest problem is there’s some plumbing issues, or it’s a septic tank, there’s a septic tank issue, and they’re trying to get that. It’s a great place, another big, long, open room.
Another well-known club was Hamilton’s Club or Hamilton’s Place here in Lafayette, it’s on Verot School Road. Many people drive by it everyday, and the last show there, I believe, was 2006. The family, as is kind of a typical thing, the family just tired of running it and decided to use it for special events. The building is still in great shape, inside and out, just not interested in having visitors anymore.
In the early 80’s began something that we also touched on yesterday, maybe at lunch. Faren, you might know better, is the late 70s for white night? Sometimes, people say it’s the late 70s, but the first time I’ve seen it in print is the early 80s, that they advertised white night … Which was an advertising thing to say to the community, particularly the college students, this night’s okay. Monday night is white night. It’s okay for you to come be in our club. I think it was almost, also, just as much to warn the regulars … There’s going to be a bunch of weird college kids in here on Monday night. It’s a very well known place. It was originally a rural Creole club, but town has encroached to way past it now. It just seems very out of place. People say, it’s very well known as the place that Lafayette learned to Zydeco.
The other kind of club that I get most often informed about or find, is a Cajun dance hall. This is the French Casino which is outside of Mamou. This building used to be downtown and they moved it to this spot to save it from being destroyed. It’s had a life … It closed in the 70s, it’s had a life since then as a rock club, after some time. An adult bookstore, now it serves as a storage unit, basically, for T. Ed Manual’s old jukeboxes and vending machines, run by his son, Eugene.
This is Bourque’s Club, which is in Lewisburg. This is another building that I’ve been lucky enough to go in. It was built in the early 50s. Many people knew it, there were regular jams there, there’s a big backroom for an actual dance hall room. The jams were in the front bar. Many of the people that I’ve talked to said, “We used to go to Bourque’s all the time.” The overwhelming story was that, when it rained, the whole building leaked. Every time it would rain, the people, the owners there, Elaine Borque, she would run out and put these buckets on all the tables. Enough people told me that, that it stuck in my memory, so, I guess, two years ago, I got to go inside the building.
It’s completely falling apart, we almost feel through the floor in several portions. All those buckets are sitting on those tables, and they’re filled with water, and the water overflowed, dripped down the legs of the tables, and has rotted the floor. The tables still have the tablecloths on them, these plastic, red table cloths, but the tables have fallen all the way through the floor. It’s truly an amazing experience to be able to go in there and to see that. If you’re going to be here tomorrow, Phillip Gould, I’m sure, will show some of the photos. I was with him. We went in.
This is The Barn … No, I’m sorry, this is the Lakeview Club out of Lakeview. They don’t have shows there, now, but it was originally, it was an original dance hall. This is the place that, supposedly, they cut a hole in the ceiling over the stage because Marc Savoy wanted to stand up when he played accordion. Many people played there over the years, the Balf Brothers, but it’s sort of also in a state of perpetual almost-ready to be reopened. They would … It’s my understanding they would like to move out of the barn, which is where they currently have bands play, and back into the actual club.
This is Gidrey’s Friendly Lounge, which is also in Lewisburg. In a project like this, means asking people where something was … The first time I went to Lewisburg, I saw some people in the front yard, and I said, “Where is the Gidrey’s Friendly Lounge?” It was two older people, and they were raking. They both just looked at me, and one pointed that way, and the other one pointed that way. This is what this project is like. I just get conflicting information constantly. The funny thing is, Lewisburg is round, it’s just a little strip that goes in a circle. They were both right, I just didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, which is also very typical. I got there just in time to see the last big pile of trash being picked up from the club being completely torn down. All that there was was a concrete pad and a couple of old beer pull tops, and that was it.
This is the Chinaball Club, which is in Bristol. This is another one of those clubs that has a song about it, but is also long gone. Fonenot’s Main Street in Basile. This is the Hollywood Club in Rayne. The OST Night Club in Croley, named after the Old Spanish Trail, which is the road that it’s located on, also gone. There are a few of these kind of dinosaur places, and one of which is La Poussierre, which is in Breaux Bridge. Not that long ago, I guess, two years ago, there was a tornado that ripped off part of the roof. Got a lot of water damage. Jennifer and I ran out there the next day to go see the damage. Literally, the next day, they were already fixing the roof, but wasn’t the club owners.
The night before, as soon as people heard about the damage, the people who play there on a regular basis, all just got on the phone to each other and said, “Okay, we’ve got to have a fundraiser to fix the roof. Is this date going to work for you?” They set up an all start lineup, and then they called the club owner to day, “Hey, we want to come fix. Don’t worry about the repairs, go ahead, we’re going to pay for it. We’re going to make it work.” What they didn’t know is that the dance hall owner was kind of like, Oh God, well, this is it. It’s really not that bad, it’s a good time to get out of the business. Since then, he came around and decided he would keep it open. He said that, pretty much, he didn’t make the decision, it was made for him.
One of the other main kinds of places is swamp pop and rock dance halls. Here we have the Southern Club, this is in the 80s, it’s 84. That we were yesterday, and you can see there was a sign on top that’s been gone a long time. Here is Landry’s Paladium, which was a very well known rockabilly and early rock place on the way to Scott from here, to the West of town, on 90. The Step Inn Club, which was in Lawtell, and beside it was another dance hall that was a swamp pop place. In between these two clubs, Sunday afternoon, they would just shut down the town with traffic. Most of these places, it’s pretty common for there to be a story about cars being a mile in every direction on the road, and the same for Lawtell.
Some clubs, they go through a life cycle. They start as a country bar, or a rock place or a swamp pop place. This is Cal’s Plantation that went through- it was right down from the Southern Club, it went through a life cycle that started as a swamp pop place, turned into a country place, before it was torn down it was … They had punk rock shows there. Later, they had zydeco bands play there. Whatever keeps the doors open, whatever keeps people coming. Many of these places, they weren’t just a dance hall. There was a restaurant attached, there were other kinds of things. Yesterday, several of us talked about the side business of prostitution that was always kind of a backroom, Illegal gambling tables, things of that nature.
One of the most interesting is probably the cock fighting clubs. This is Jay Saucier from Jay’s Cockpit, which is in Cankton. This is one of the few pictures that I’ve ever seen. Most people just said that was really gross and don’t want to talk about it. The bartenders there said that you would root into the cooler to get out a beer, and quite frequently, you’d pull it out, and it would have feathers on it and blood from the losers, which would be kept to make the gumbo. This is, of all the places that I’ve learned about, this is the place that I most wish that I could go. Probably, my most favorite stories and the bands that played there. It was kind of where Cajun met cosmic cowboy at a weird time frame where things got very interesting around here.
The 1980s, the World’s Fair being in New Orleans in 84, and a little bit before that, brought the rise of the dance hall restaurant. It’s your one-stop shop. You get something to eat, you get to see authentic music, as much as I hate to use that word. There’s a whole lot of culture that you can get in one shot at a place like this. Mulate’s , which this is the Beaux Bridge Mulate’s. There was also one in New Orleans. Now, this is Pamproux’s, which is on the schedule that we might want to do tomorrow night. This is down in Houma, the name just escaped me. Anyway, it’s another dance hall restaurant in Houma, which is very unusual. There’s not really a very strong Cajun culture, public component there, these days. This is Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge, which is now very renowned for their zydeco breakfast.
Through my job, I work at several of the festivals recording, helping out in various ways, and I realize that this is very much the same thing. It’s instant community, a very strong sense of place and belonging with all the other components of a dance hall, all in one place. Zydeco festival in Plaisance, Festivals Acadiens in the park, Gerard Park, here in Lafayette. Blackpot Festival, which is now held in this on the campus that you’re on today, most of in this very room. This is Step n’ Strut Trail Ride, another very interesting …
One of the things I didn’t see coming was the amount of ways that I would have information thrown at me. Yesterday I had joked, when we went to eat lunch, that I like to eat at a place that I can find out something, I can look around on the walls and find out some new information, I could get a new dance hall. I didn’t even realize that it’s everywhere. It’s all around us, and all I had to do was really start to pay attention. Matchbooks, I’ve never been a matchbook collector, but this has become a recent obsession. Many times, the only information that I can find is on a matchbook. It’s great because, as you’ll notice, the owner, the manager, pretty graphic. There’s a lot there, it’s a lot of information. Show posters, an incredible resource. They’re everywhere, but it’s just coming across them.
This Sanborn Insurance maps, anybody familiar? Oh my God, so much stuff in the Sanborn Insurance maps. Just to look through the ones from the area and find out what was there on these maps. It’s not always the easiest thing to decipher, but it’s just very incredible. Of course, I did a lot of old newspaper digging. This is one of my favorites. “The Saturday Blade Says Ghost Appeared Here.” A dance hall near here, on Opelousas, which has a large patronage every Saturday night, last Saturday night, the figure of a woman dressed in all white appeared. Of course, most of these are, like, bloodshed, horrible, horrible, horrible stories, but this was a fun one. Also, old phone books and city directories, advertisement in those kind of things … The Blue Goose in Eunice. Ashtrays … the Holiday Lounge in Mamou. Of course, tons of audio field work done by other people, a lot done by myself. Information has been everywhere, once I decided to reach out and grab it.
I don’t know if I can make this play. It’s not going to play, but one of the most surprising things is that, when we started to get the word out, things that we were looking for, things that I never dreamed that I would find: 16 millimeter film of dance halls. This is a dance hall, presumed to be in Louisiana because of the collection that it came from. The front of it says The Cotton Club, it had the same kind of front as the Southern Club, a stepped parapet. I wish that I could show you this, but it’s not going to work. 16 millimeter film, 8 millimeter film. Sometimes, when I’ve been talking to dance hall owners and I say, “I wish somebody had made movies,” and they say, “Oh, you want that kind of stuff? Oh, it’s in my attic. I’ll get it out.” That’s actually what I do is digitization of archival materials. That makes me scared when something is in somebody’s attic. The amount of things that we’ve come across just from asking a few people is amazing.
These places, where are they? What happened to all these dance halls? Of the few that I’ve showed you, I have some information of over 1600 of these places. Some of them, now, people say, “Oh, the Good Hope Hall is here in Lafayette. It was a huge jazz hall, very well known, well traveled, people from all over played there.” Where was that? Where is that? It’s a lawyer’s office. It still says Good Hope all over the door, but you wouldn’t know it if you went inside.
This is Webster’s Meat Market in Cecilia. I met with the owner of Webster’s Dance Hall and asked her, “What happened to the building?” “We cut it in half. We stored hay in one half and we made a meat market out of the other half.” The meat market is still there. The sausage is pretty good. I went in, and as soon as I walked in the door, the way that these boards are in 90 degree angle, I can tell that I’ve just walked onto the dance floor. It’s very strange, to look around the building, they let me look everywhere, you can tell where the coolers were because the floor has stains. Many of the buildings are still around, but some of them returned to their former uses and some of them have gone onto new life. This is the Midway Club in Evangeline, Louisiana. It looks like an antique store, but it’s actually the home for the Bandidos biker gang of that area. It’s their clubhouse. They were really nice and let me spend a little time with them.
I always ask people, “Why do these dance halls close? What happened?” The most often repeated reason is that all of the people who used to come to the dance quit coming to the dance. When people got older, all the people who had a renewed interest in their culture, particularly after World War Two, the huge resurgence. Then, as those people grew older and they went out less, or they died, the number dwindled. It continues to dwindle. It just didn’t make sense anymore. Most people that own a dance hall now, they say it’s an incredibly expensive hobby. That’s how they describe it. They love to be there, and they love their clientele and they love everything about it. Several of them say, “Mostly all I can think about is how sad it is, how different it is that this place used to be packed. I used to worry about the floor falling through with people dancing on it.” Now, they have people who come from all over the state, every weekend, to go to these places where there are still dances.
If you ask the owners of zydeco clubs what happened, almost every one of them will blame the casino. The rise of the casino. The same bands, they hired the bands away, they pay them more money, that buffet has got a lot on it. Those drinks are cheap, and that’s what they all say. Pretty much every single one they blame the casino. I want to make sure that one of the last things I say to you is that all these places aren’t gone. I’m still finding out about places, both that are gone, and that are open, that have bands constantly, that people … New spots are always coming up.
The Whiskey River, every weekend. The Davis Club just closed. El Sidos, occasional, Clifton Chenier Club, sometimes. Every weekend, the Holiday Lounge in Mamou is open. The interior is amazing. Glow in the dark, day glow silhouettes of cut outs of women with black lights. It’s a very strange place, but if you get a chance, you should definitely go there. Tell Eugene that I told you to go there. Of course, there are new places opening. One of our most well known and popular here in town is the Blue Moon Saloon. The dance floor is pretty small, but if you go there at the right time and I think you get somewhat of a glimpse of what maybe the new version, the new paradigm of the dance hall is.
Part of the thing that I’ve done, I’m making a documentary film about dance halls in Louisiana. Originally, that was what I was really excited about. When I started to do research, the research overwhelmed the film, because, like I said, I have over 1600 sites that I’ve documented. I had to decide something to do to try to put that in this era of public information. I wanted people to help me find out more information. I decided I would make a dance hall website. Everything is … There’s a map, you can look everything up by keywords. There’s photos when I have them, many of them I don’t have photos of.
There’s quite a few that I don’t have any information, but I just know that I met a guy in line at the grocery store, and he told me that he used to dance there. I believe that guy, and I’m waiting for more information. On the website, if you guys get a chance, you should check it out. I have over 1600 sites, currently. I always do this at the end. Somebody here knows something that I don’t know yet. Please add to the information pool. That’s it.
Louisiana was once dotted with dancehalls—many communities were outfitted with at least one. Equal parts bar, performance hall, and community center, the traditional dancehall provided a space for much needed recreation. Although a few remain open today, the majority of these legendary institutions have closed their doors.
Now a frequent stop for tourists from all over the world, these dancehalls started as an intensely local phenomenon. Many would remain unknown to people in other nearby communities. This talk is an overview of the Louisiana Dancehall Project- an attempt to research and document the history and culture of halls all around the state.