Soaring on stilts above swamps and bayous, the four-lane interstate highway – a product of the federal road-building programme started by Eisenhower in the 1950s – will get you to the state capital in little over an hour. It bypasses the towns and there is not much to see, although the dead armadillos and the Spanish moss that clothes the cypress trees reminds you that this is indeed Louisiana. Airline Highway takes a little longer. Built by Huey Long, the flamboyant governor and virtual dictator of Louisiana who was assassinated in 1935 (tourists can inspect the bullet holes in the marble walls of the capitol building where he was gunned down), it passes through a few small towns. In one of them, LaPlace, you can stop at a restaurant whose shiny chrome facade identifies it as a classic diner, one of the first in America.
Take the old River Road, however, to flavour Louisiana’s history at its richest. Hugging the left bank of the Mississippi, which is hidden from view by towering levees, River Road twists and turns past oil refineries, sugar plantations, wooden shacks, and ante-bellum mansions. The columned mansions bear names like Belle Helene and Oak Alley, and remind us that slavery once made this narrow, fertile strip of land one of the most lucrative in America. Before the Civil War, southerners boasted that “cotton is king”. In semi-tropical southern Louisiana, however, sugar reigned supreme. In the 1950s, sprawling petro-chemical plants were springing up along the river, yet the cane fields still supplied America’s sweet tooth. Most of the surviving mansions are derelict, or, like England’s stately homes, have been turned into tourist attractions. But the ageless shotgun houses that line River Road – one floor high and one room wide, you can fire a shotgun into the front door and the pellets will pass out of the back door – are still occupied by the descendants of slaves.
That French settlers first colonised this flat, swampy land is obvious from the names of the towns – Lafayette, Napoleoville, Thibodeaux, Baton Rouge, Pointe-a-la-Hache. But other immigrant groups also settled here, as indicated by towns named Des Allemands, New Iberia, Welsh, and, less obviously, Yclosky (inhabited by shrimp-fishing Canary Islanders). In New Orleans, the influx of Irish, German and Italian immigrants has produced an accent that is more like Brooklyn, New York, than Atlanta, Georgia.
Louisiana is the only part of the South that is strongly Catholic. The counties are called parishes and have names like Assumption, Ascension, St. Helena, St. Charles, St. James, St. John, St. Bernard, St. Mary, St. Landry, St. Tammany and St. Martin. The white-washed churches, the secluded convents, and the oven-like tombs remind one of France or Spain. On St. Joseph’s Day, the cemeteries are cleaned and tidied and adorned with flowers. On Shrove Tuesday – Mardi Gras Fat Tuesday – schools close down for the festivities.
Louisiana is also part of America’s Protestant heartland, the famous Bible Belt that stretches from Virginia to Oklahoma. The northern half of the state is a stronghold of Baptists and Methodists. More obscure religious sects and cults, from voodoo to snake-handling, abound among the poorer blacks and whites. Baton Rouge is home to Jimmy Swaggart, one of America’s slickest and most popular TV evangelists. During August each year, the Baptist churches still hold emotion-packed revivals to convert sinners and test the stamina – for they go on for at least a week – of the faithful.
Driving west from Baton Rouge one enters Acadiana, Cajun country, populated by the French-speaking descendants of people who fled British rule in Canada two hundred years ago. In the 1950s, Cajun culture seemed to be dying. Derided by outsiders as coonasses – uncouth, illiterate swamp-dwellers – Cajun parents decided that French was a liability and insisted that their children speak English. Yet south Louisiana’s oil boom was already transforming and energising this isolated backwater, bringing jobs, money, roads and tourists.
A French-speaking politician called Edwin Edwards personified the Cajun revival. Elected to the city council of Crowley in 1955, Edwards not only became the first Cajun governor in the state’s history, but also the most successful politician of his generation, serving as governor for 16 years between 1972 and 1996. A debonair man of striking good looks, with well-attested weaknesses for gambling and pretty women, Edwards was the kind of loveable rogue that Louisiana voters not only tolerate but admire. Twice prosecuted for corruption, and twice acquitted, Edwards quipped he would never be convicted by a Louisiana jury – unless he were caught in bed “with a live boy or a dead girl”. Louisiana is world-famous for its laid-back, “laissez les bons temps roulez”, way of life. Tourists flock to New Orleans in their millions to attend Jazz Fest, pace up and down Bourbon Street gawping at the strip-joints, revel in the inebriated madness of Carnival, and waltz and two-step to Cajun (white) and Zydeco (black) bands. Millions who have never set foot in Louisiana know about it second-hand, for the state’s music and cuisine are among America’s biggest cultural exports. Legions of fans listen to Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, and Wynton Marsalis, who regularly perform in European concert halls. Virtually every city in Britain boasts a Cajun or New Orleans restaurant that serves up imitation gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish etouffe. Dave Lee Burke’s crime novels, set in New Iberia and featuring a Cajun cop named Dave Robicheaux, can be bought in airports everywhere. Films like Oliver Stone’s JFK popularise an image of New Orleans as an exotic city of Byzantine intrigue and decadent sex.
In 1959, however, Louisiana was in the throes of a racial crisis that threatened to destroy its reputation for tolerance and gaiety. Alarmed by the Supreme Court’s decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ruled that the South’s segregated schools were illegal, rabble-rousing politicians warned Louisiana’s whites that their southern way of life was being undermined by the growing Civil Rights Movement. In Louisiana, as in the rest of the South, black people were finally rebelling against a system of white supremacy that denied them the vote, forced them to sit in the back of the bus, and relegated them to schools that were separate and inferior. But although they had the Constitution and the Supreme Court on their side – as well as the force of right – blacks had no political power. They were terribly vulnerable.
In 1956 the die-hard racists formed a movement called the Citizens’ Council – an innocuous name that belied its vicious intent – and set out to annihilate the Civil Rights Movement. The ultra-racists could only slow down, not reverse, America’s progress toward racial equality. Yet in postponing the inevitable they wreaked havoc. Employing blackmail, intimidation, economic pressure and political coercion, the Citizens’ Councils brought Louisiana to the brink of anarchy and bloodshed. In 1959 they destroyed Governor Earl Long – Huey Long’s younger brother – who suffered a mental breakdown as he bravely defended the right of black people to vote. In 1960 they engineered one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Louisiana, when obscenity-spewing mobs tried to stop four young black girls from attending white schools in New Orleans. And in the early 1960s, they encouraged the most extreme haters and psychopaths to burn, beat and murder in the name of the Ku Klux Klan. For race relations, the years between 1956 and 1964 were grim ones indeed.
Teenagers growing up in Louisiana during the 1950s could be forgiven for feeling rootless and confused. A traditional society based on family, farm and church, was being eroded by industrialisation and the growth of cities. Highways, radios and televisions were connecting isolated communities with the outside world. Yet the modern society of postwar America, with all its promise of material abundance, provided little in the way of emotional satisfaction and spiritual security. The Cold War produced anti-Communist hysteria and national anxiety. Schoolchildren were given classes in Americanism that inculcated conservatism and conformity: a national civil defence programme trained them to duck and take cover in the event of a nuclear attack. At home, white children heard their parents talk fearfully and incessantly about the threat of racial integration – how black people wanted to intermarry with, and mongrelise, the white race.
Movies of the time occasionally captured the frustration and latent rebelliousness of America’s youth. Rebel Without a Cause made James Dean – killed in a car crash after completing the film – a potent symbol of alienated youth. The Wild One depicted Marlon Brando as the surly, black-jacketed leader of a violent motorcycle gang that terrorises a tranquil, conservative town. “What are you rebelling against?” a puzzled town elder asks him. “What have you got?” replies Brando.
Rock-and-roll, the most important musical event of the 1950s, spoke directly to the boredom, alienation and frustrated sexuality of America’s teenagers. Too young for the laid-back, world-weary crooning of a middle-aged Frank Sinatra, too sophisticated for the inane warblings of squeaky-clean Doris Day and Pat Boone, the generation that came of age in the 1950s greeted rock-and-roll with a roar of spontaneous enthusiasm. Adults were horrified by the raw sexuality of the leering, hip-grinding Elvis Presley – and by the hysterical way that their teenage daughters responded to him. Whites in the South had an extra reason for alarm: the fact that Presley and the other rock-and-rollers were frankly imitating black rhythm and blues intensified the sexual anxiety that was never far from the surface when white people thought about blacks. Not even talk of Communist plots, however, could put the rock-and-roll genie back in the bottle. It was too exciting, too sexy and too good. Besides, rock-and-roll was an indigenous southern product – Presley was from Tupelo, Mississippi; Jerry Lee Lewis from Ferriday, Louisiana.
Broadcast from a Shreveport radio station, Louisiana Hayride brought the music of Presley, Lewis and other rock-and-rollers into homes all over the state. Rock-and-roll resembled a religious revival that swept across the South. Indeed, although preachers denounced the new music as the devil’s work, rock-and-roll and religion were like two sides of the same coin. Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis were, after all, cousins.
Professor Adam Fairclough, University of East Anglia