VIBES IN THE VILLE:
St. Francisville, LA, showcases its musical heritage
By Anne Butler
St. Francisville is the heart of Louisiana’s English plantation country, where every historic home had its grand Pleyel piano and gilded harp. The plantation mistresses were well schooled in the arts of hospitality and often entertained guests in the cool of the evening by playing classical selections on these musical instruments and usually singing as well. Sometimes families engaged string bands from New Orleans to play in outdoor pavilions for the entire summer, the strains of the music floating out over the night breezes to be enjoyed by neighboring plantations as well.
Being right along the Mississippi River, the little town was also influenced by the musical entertainments provided on the floating palaces called riverboats, with New Orleans jazz livening up the voyage as the boats drifted along, the passengers gathering in the luxurious salons or ballrooms to enjoy the tunes. And the little riverport of Bayou Sara just down the hill from St. Francisville was not without its cultural offerings as well, though the Opera House it boasted dated from the years when what was billed as an “opera house” more often showcased trained monkeys and black-face vaudeville minstrels than purely operatic arias.
But if St. Francisville has an indigenous music, it is surely gospel, that old hand-clapping, soul-stirring heartfelt musical art form born of sacred Negro spirituals married to the “devil’s music” of the blues, music designed to move its listeners physically and spiritually. Black gospel music drew heavily on the traditional spirituals passed down from slavery days, when the church provided the central focus of the community and the only uncensored outlet for uniquely black musical expression. The spirituals in turn drew heavily from tribal African music.
The slave masters on southern plantations forbade the African drums and dances, but they couldn’t still the music, which took root in the soil of the New World and blossomed into a whole new product. Here, the African tradition of call and response, with its strong rhythmic meter set by drums and other percussive instruments like dried animal bones, would mingle with European traditions of harmony and a wider variety of musical instruments to create a new African-American style of music (think of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say). Across the St. Francisville area after the Civil War the fertile fields sprouted a prolific crop of small black Baptist churches, each with a multi-generational choir raising a joyful music to the Lord, and today the gospel tradition is alive and well in the area.
Music, including the indigenous gospel and the later sounds it influenced over the years, will be the focus of a unique celebration in St. Francisville on Saturday, August 25, a music festival called Vibes in the ‘Ville. The event will be St. Francisville’s contribution to the ambitious statewide initiative grandly called the World Cultural Economic Forum, described by Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu as an attempt to leverage the state’s unique heritage and to ensure that it remains the driving force and embodiment of a global cultural economy. Designed to be the cornerstone of Louisiana’s economic revitalization, this first annual affair will bring together cultural ambassadors, educators and arts and cultural leaders coinciding with the anniversaries of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Across the state there will be special exhibits and events focusing on Louisiana’s unique cultural heritage and doing what Louisianans do so well, celebrating with food and music, art and dance, literature and plenty of optimistic joie de vivre. The workshops, exhibits, events, programs and performances, all sponsored by the Office of the Lt. Governor along with the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, promise to demonstrate the value of culture internationally and to shine the light on Louisiana’s multifaceted cultural industries. And indeed, as the state continues its recovery from the devasting hurricanes of 2005, its unique cultural heritage promises to be one of the bright lights along the way, attracting visitors from across the globe.
St. Francisville’s offering to this World Cultural Economic Forum will be a full day of music, ranging from children’s choirs to gospel groups to beloved local bands. From 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., the music will be accompanied by a variety of food offerings provided as fund-raisers by area nonprofit organizations, plus misters for cooling, tubs of ice and cold drinks; this is a non-alcoholic event. And how better to keep cool than with a big ol’ helping of homemade ice cream! These country folks know just how to make the best in the world, which will be proven at the Homemade Ice Cream Freeze-Off at 2 p.m., as competitors present their best efforts packed in ice; cash prizes provide the incentive for the ice-cream makers, and the chance to gobble up all the entries is sure to please the audience.
Lively children’s activities are planned from 11 a.m. to noon, including a chalk-walk art activity (remember how fun it was to draw with chalk on the sidewalk?) and the making of musical instruments. Sandy Johnson will have the kids up and moving, singing and playing their instruments, and then Kevin Johnson will play songs for children.
From 12 to 12:30 the featured musician is keyboardist James Williams, followed by “Friends of Friends” Amateur Hour. From 2 to 3 the New Magnolia Baptist Church choir sings traditional tried-and-true gospel songs the old-timey way, straight from the heart, followed by talented young dulcimer player Annie Fergus from 3:30 to 4 p.m. The dynamic world-famous Gospel Wonders perform from 4:30 to 5:30. Between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., popular local bands take the stage: the Feliciana Band with its old-time rock and roll from 6 to 7 (dancing is mandatory, but leave those poodle skirts at home!), the Americana-bluegrass sounds of The Fugitive Poets from 7:30 to 8:30, and then the beloved bluesy Delta Drifters round out the evening from 9 to 10 p.m.
This is a fun music festival only a small-town community like St. Francisville could pull off, casual and comfortable, fun for all ages. All events will be held under the live oaks of Parker Memorial Park in the heart of historic uptown St. Francisville. They are all free and open to the public. For information, call 1-800-789-4221 or access online at StFrancisvilleFestivals or StFrancisville.us.
The St. Francisville area has much to offer visitors year-round. There are six antebellum plantations open for daily tours: Rosedown and Audubon State Historic
Sites, The Myrtles, Greenwood, Butler Greenwood and The Cottage; Catalpa is open by reservation, and Afton Villa Gardens opens seasonally.
Picturesque 19th-century structures throughout downtown St. Francisville are filled with an eclectic selection of little shops,
and reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants. Some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight
accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities
to accommodate busloads. Recreational opportunities abound in the Tunica Hills, with excellent hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, golfing and horseback
riding, in addition to the superb birdwatching. For online coverage of tourist facilities and attractions in the St. Francisville area, see
www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisville.net, or www.stfrancisvilleovernight.com; or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.