Music is transformative, but I didn't realize how much the blues could bring out the soul in a place I'd pegged as overly commercial.
In a culturally rich state, Baton Rouge seems to be an anomaly upon first glance. In moving here for university, I wanted to get to know its people, its dive bars, its movers and shakers. Parks and downtown areas usually unearth the city's artists, but they're hard to find here. I've seen glimpses of Baton Rouge's cultured folk in coffeeshops and music venues, but they don't walk downtown streets in the evening. Downtown, with its lovely restaurants and galleries, has its patrons running to and from their cars. How Baton Rouge of them.
Baton Rouge is primarily known for two things: Louisiana's flagship university, Louisiana State University, and the Louisiana State Capitol. Our sports program draws in thousands of fans and national attention, and our state legislature is no stranger to national scrutiny -- especially when our legislators draft bills to make the Bible our state book. This keeps a notable portion of the population busy, but what makes this city tick outside of the legislative session and football season?
In my first semester here, I thought I had Baton Rouge figured out. My conclusion was that this place didn't have soul like New Orleans or Lafayette -- it was cold and commercial. There were concrete plazas and shopping centers surrounding the university. Chain restaurants dot the LSU area with typical collegiate fare: burgers, pizza, sandwiches and Taco Bell. Girlfriends spent leisure time shopping at the Louisiana Mall or Perkins Rowe. Everyone remains within his or her own car while loudly complaining about traffic. Outings for university students within the LSU Bubble include Friday nights in Tigerland and drunken stops at Raising Cane's. That's the thing -- to hang out in the city, you have to be somewhere buying something. This was reflected in the sheltered mentalities of many of the Baton Rouge kids I met coming from private Catholic school. They usually didn't imagine weekends outside of bars or tailgates. As a defect from the sheltered private Catholic school circuit, I knew what it was like to feel your community was restricted to the people within your circles. I didn't want that in university, but as I looked around LSU, that's all I seemed to find.
If I'm removed from the local community and even the locals I'd met seemed removed from the local community, where was I to find Baton Rouge culture?
In my years at LSU, I've spent my time searching for the soul of Baton Rouge. I've seen it, quiet and reserved, at Highland Coffees or Spanish Moon. Even when I saw people who seemed cultured, it still wasn't accessible: walking up to someone I didn't know and telling them they looked cool didn't seem like the way to gain access to the cultural scene. It's almost as if I had to be invited in with poetry I'm not writing or band membership I don't have. I couldn't buy my way into the culture, and the culture I spotted seemed hidden somewhere between the oaks of the Garden District and Spanishtown. I didn't understand what thread these different communities together -- what inspired their art in this concrete jungle?
At the recent Baton Rouge Blues Festival , it was something you could interact with, even feel. There were hundreds of families watching over darting children. The snowball line was the longest line, but all food vendors served local favorites such as alligator and crawfish. There were booths of uniquely Louisiana art and jewelers, one of them being a renowned activist. People were camped out with chairs in the shade, sharing infectious vibes from the music and each other. There were so many people, different people, easygoing people. This was the relaxed, artistic, soulful side of Baton Rouge. Even uptight places find room to breathe, and what better place than in the heart of the city?
The Blues Festival showed me a different side to people and places I thought I knew. Being in a college town, you're bound to see some university faces at any public outing. Two of my professors and journalistic mentors played in their band at the Old State Capitol. My friend recognized a quiet student in her American Lit class as the guitarist in SpeakEasy, , a local funk band. As I left the festival, I saw my history TA walking over and awkwardly waved. Just as I do, these people sport a studious face on campus, but it's nice to see academics with a passion for preserving local art -- even being local artists themselves. It was another reminder that the LSU community can contribute the Baton Rouge cultural community.
When I tuned my ears, I heard the voices of blues legends that could soothe the most troubled soul. Kenny Neal and Henry Gray's performance had fans swaying and clapping in the sunset breeze rolling in from the Mississippi. Baton Rouge has bred many sounds, spanning several genres. Better Than Ezra and Boosie found their start here -- what you can make of that voice I'm not sure, but Baton Rouge definitely has something to say.
In my subsequent semesters, I've come to see the city beyond its landmark bridge and college bars. I've met several bands, proving admired musicians were more beyond the mic. I've played pool in smoky bars and thrifted for pieces no mall can offer. I judged a poetry slam last week, moved by the power of local poets as they shared their life struggles. There's a mural project funded by local businesses and inspired by the progressive art community to paint the town all sorts of colors.
Yes, maybe our culture isn't dancing around our streets throughout the year, but it shows itself loudly in the spring sun.
Perhaps it's unfair to compare Baton Rouge to New Orleans. As I'm slowly discovering, Baton Rouge has its own unique brand of underground culture. In a city that seems mainstream, our indie scene is so underground that its whisper faintly reaches the average LSU student. Discovering the Capitol as a cultural center requires investigation beyond the LSU gates, but seeing Baton Rouge's soul has transformed my view of my current home.
Louisiana's heart of SEC sports and politics has room for culture, and sometimes it takes some Southern warmth to resuscitate its beat.