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We finished our food, dropped a $20 bill on the table, crossed the road and gingerly eased open the barroom door. It was 8.30, half an hour after the lounge had opened, and things were just beginning to warm up. At the bar, gossiping over bottled beers, a dozen or so old-timers, plainly locals. In the corner tables by the back door, a dozen or so nervous-looking youngsters, probably students and plainly from somewhere else. Behind the curved counter, two sullen bartenders, wearing coats to guard against the cold. And in the middle of the room, a drummer, casually building his kit as other drinkers drifted in around him. On a nearby ledge, a cigarette burned blue in an ashtray next to two cans of Coors Light.

This could be anywhere, but for one detail. The meal we’d just eaten was breakfast, and the time was 8.30 in the morning. This is Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, the heart of Cajun Louisiana, and one of the most uncompromising traditions in American music.

 


 

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Fred Tate bought the bar that still bears his name in November 1946, sealing the deal on his 34th birthday. Just under 16 years later, early one Saturday morning in June 1962, a local musician and high-school teacher named Revon Reed hosted a live radio broadcast from Fred’s Lounge, introducing a group of local musicians playing classic Cajun tunes.

The broadcast became a series, and the series became a tradition. It outlasted Fred, who died in 1992. It’s survived two changes in ownership, possibly more. And it’s now the only thing keeping this squat brick building from demolition. Fred’s Lounge is closed six and a half days a week, but it still opens every Saturday morning at 8am. The band starts at 9.15am and stops around 1pm. An hour later, everyone’s left. And then next Saturday morning, they come back and do it all over again.

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The music is pure-bred Cajun, easier to recognise than describe. The line-up is unique, or has been since the last Western swing band went the way of the dinosaur: in front of a chugging rhythm section sits a pungent front line of accordion, fiddle and pedal steel guitar, aces all. If you’re lucky, and sometimes if you’re not, there’ll also be a vocalist, often working in Louisiana French and usually not so much singing as barking.

This is music for dancing. In general, the band’s either playing a speedy two-step or a lazy waltz. When they try to branch out, perhaps with a blues or a country standard (we spotted a Merle Haggard tune among the repertoire), it sounds… Well, wrong. They don’t branch out very often. The locals prefer it that way.

 


 

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Fred’s Lounge may have brought Mamou a measure of fame, but it hasn’t brought prosperity. Rural Louisiana has always been a poor part of the US, and many of the town’s 3,500 residents struggle to make ends meet. The per-capita income is half the national average, and more than a third of the locals live below the poverty line. (Even the dogs are hungry – the one above followed us down dirt roads for eight miles the next day in the hope that we might give him a little love.)

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We’d spent Friday evening at the bar in the town’s only hotel. Plenty of other cyclists have passed through before us – Mamou is right on the Southern Tier, a popular cross-country cycle route promoted by the Adventure Cycling Association – but the scale of our journey lent us a curiosity factor for the other drinkers, who weren’t guests but rowdy, likeable locals. Shots arrive, unbidden but drunk regardless. Cigarettes are offered and politely declined. When we ask if there’s any place in town where we can get something to eat, the hotel’s new owner hops into his car and returns ten minutes later with two shrimp po’boys. It’s that kind of place.

 


 

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At around 10am, a tiny, smiling woman in a purple T-shirt appears at the back door of Fred’s, and is instantly greeted and treated like an old friend. This is Tante Sue, Fred’s former wife and the bar’s main link to its glory days. She’s officially the bar’s manager, employed by the current owners, but the role she fills is closer to that of a mascot: handing out slices of boudin from a cardboard box, passing around a bottle of cinnamon schnapps from which she takes regular slugs herself, and taking to the dance floor. Tante Sue is 84 years old.

The bar is full when she arrives, and only gets fuller. The room is packed with dancers, including most of the students (and even, a little unsteadily, us), paired off and gliding with various degrees of competence around the cramped dance floor. Which, as a sign above the band reminds visitors, isn’t really a dance floor at all.

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At noon, we drain the last of our bloody Marys and wander back to the hotel to pack; we’ve 50 miles to make that afternoon, most of them into a headwind. As we carry down our bags, we hear the rich twang of a pedal steel over a gentle hum of conversation. Pushing open the door to the hotel bar, we find another band setting up in the corner. It turns out that when Fred’s closes at lunchtime, everyone wanders over to the Hotel Cazan and the party keeps on rolling. Sunday mornings must be awfully quiet around here.

from Morgan City, LA, USA