By Anne Butler
|n the 19th century, according to Louisiana author Stanley C. Arthur, “with the coming of summer, planters with their wives and children flocked into the city from the countryside, all looking for culture.” Everyone knows the story of how plantation mistress Lucy Pirrie of Oakley found gifted artist/naturalist John James Audubon down on his luck in New Orleans, engaged him to instruct her artistic fifteen-year-old daughter Eliza in drawing at $2 a lesson in the city, then persuaded him to continue the art lessons for the summer and fall in residence in West Feliciana Parish, where he would find the inspiration to paint dozens of his famous bird studies and also found the courage to continue his quest to paint all of the birds of this fledgling country.
That’s all true, but there’s more to the story than that, for what Mme. Pirrie was seeking for young Eliza was just as Arthur noted: culture, and Audubon was ideally suited to introduce his pupil to more than just drawing. Indeed, as Audubon wrote in a letter to his wife about Eliza, “Yesterday I begged to hear her Sing and play on the Piano. I played with her on a flute and made the mother stare. She was much surprised to hear me sing the notes.”
And so, in June 1821, the destitute artist accompanied the Pirries upriver to the Bayou Sara landing aboard the steamboat Columbus, taking along his portfolios, art supplies and guns, violins, flutes and flageolets. He would spend some four months at Oakley, with half the day devoted to studying and recording the birds of the surrounding woodlands, and the other half instructing the beauteous Eliza in drawing, dancing, mathematics, French, complicated multi-strand hair plaiting (the artist called it “some trifling acquirement”), and music.
Audubon’s sojourn in the St. Francisville area would last a scant four months, cut short by a bitter disagreement over money. After he left, his beloved Feliciana birdsong would be accompanied throughout the 19th century by mostly indigenous music---soulful gospel songs wafting from little country churches, sturdy field chants of slaves or prisoners, sprightly piano or harp playing in plantation parlors.
Lately, there has been mostly just the live music every Friday night drawing folks to the little local casual cafe familiarly called The Mag. Though there are a handful of wonderful resident musicians, some homegrown and some transplants, this is, after all, English Louisiana, lacking the French joie de vivre that elsewhere erupts so joyfully in song and dance, and so recently the Feliciana hills have not exactly been alive with the sound of music.
That’s all about to change, thanks to two festivals coming to St. Francisville the second weekend in November.The LA Vets Fest, an annual event held on Veterans Day weekend at the spacious West Feliciana Parish Sports Park, is sponsored by the Louisiana Veterans Foundation, a non-profit organization whose goals include providing support for veterans or active military personnel and their families whose needs are not being met by community or private resources. Along with fun activities for the whole family, employment assistance is provided for veterans, along with recognition and appreciation for their service.
The Louisiana National Guard provides military equipment---tank, helicopter, personnel carrier---plus soldiers to explain the performances of these vital big machines. There will be fund-raising auctions, children’s activities, hotly contested cook-offs (Friday gumbo, Saturday BBQ and jambalaya), classic cars and motorcycles. The LA Vets Fest takes place at the Sports Park on Friday afternoon, Nov. 8, and all day Saturday, Nov. 9; on Sunday a guided bus tour to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans will depart from St. Francisville (tour tickets of $74, aged 65 or older $70, include museum admission and supper at Boutin’s in Baton Rouge on the return trip).
Headliner performance is by Tennessee singer-songwriter Craig Morgan on Friday, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m.; tickets, $20 plus handling, can be purchased in advance (www.lavetsfest.org). Morgan is a country music star, competitive dirt-bike racer and award-winning host of an outdoor adventures television show. Inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, Morgan has had a number of hits, including “Almost Home,” “Redneck Yacht Club,” “This Ole Boy,” “That’s What I Love About Sunday,” and “Wake Up Lovin’ You” from his new CD “The Journey.” He also spent ten years on active duty in the Army’s 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and nine years in the Reserves, and remains an avid supporter of America’s military. In 2006 he received the USO Merit Award.
Other musical performers at the LA Vets Fest include talented young Julia DeJean singing the National Anthem to open the festival both days, the Alaina Richard Band Friday, and on Saturday the Richard Family, West Feliciana High School Band, Angola Prison Band, A. Scott Clement, and blues singer-guitarist Josh Garrett, plus the US Marine Corps Band.
Another exciting musical extravaganza scheduled for this same weekend in St. Francisville is the Modern South Music Fest, set for Sunday, November 10, at Hemingbough, just off US 61 south of St. Francisville. Sponsor Anchorline Events, Nashville-based professional festival promoter, promises a mix of music, food, fashion and culture in a series of tents and stages, with hopes the event will attract some 7,000 attendees from early afternoon to 9:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased online (www.modernsouthmusicfest.com ); general admission is $39.50, reserved seating $49.50, and varying levels of sponsorship are available.
Featured musicians are the Avett Brothers, Texas country-Red Dirt singer Wade Bowen and Mississippi native Charlie Worsham, a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and Nashville session player whose debut album, “Rubberband,” was released this year by Warner Bros. Records.
Formed in 2001 by North Carolina brothers Scott (banjo) and Seth (guitar), the Avett Brothers have released a number of albums, so popular they landed high on the Billboard Top 200 and received outstanding reviews from music critics across the country. Touring tirelessly, they have also performed on TV shows including “Austin City Limits,” “Late Show with David Letterman” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” San Francisco Chronicle critic Dirk Richardson describes the band’s combination of bluegrass, country, punk, pop, folk, rock and roll, honkytonk and ragtime as producing a sound having “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, and the raw energy of the Ramones.” That’s a lot to live up to!
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: the Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the Farmers Markets on Thursday mornings).