We’re down the bayou, Bayou Lafourche, surrounded by water like always, except this time we’re in The Back, on the edge of the marsh instead of by the banks of the bayou. To get this far back any further south, we’d likely need to be in a boat. There are open fields back here where cattle graze, and eventually, I’m told, there’s even an alligator farm. It’s incredibly pastoral for coastal Louisiana, at least for being dry land. It’s the perfect place for T-Bois.
I’m sitting in one of those collapsible drugstore chairs, ankle deep in mud, and despite the fact that we’re all seated under a giant roaring tent, the rain has pounded itself into a driven mist and soaked my ass through the cloth of the chair. Fortunately, the music is louder than the rain, at least for now. Did I mention the beer comes with your ticket?
T-Bois is a music festival held in Larose, Louisiana, put on by the Falgout family, who owns the land (and the alligator farm), also called T-Bois (that’s Cajun French for “little woods”). Being good Cajuns, they know all kinds of folks, and they like to throw a party. In the spirit of a giant family crawfish boil, they began T-Bois Blues Festival. It’s basically a kind of Cajun block party. There’s a base price for a ticket, then you can add on a camping pass, an RV pass, and/or a beer pass. Food is cooked in giant pots by a ragtag alliance of professional catering veterans and Cajun guys that like to cook for a thousand people just for the fun of it. There is nowhere to spend money inside T-Bois (other than the band merch table).
There’s a bonfire out there blasting away at the rain, because it’s not coming down so hard that a 20-foot-tall bonfire can’t still make a statement. There are five areas of T-Bois (and the parking field): The stage tent/food hut complex, the camper lined street, the tent camping field, the bonfire field, and the burner village. The last two would seem random anywhere but Louisiana: the burners are the New Orleans contingent of annual Burning Man attendees, certified weirdos in most rural communities (they’re always building some fantastic sculpture and burning it down). Hence the burning field, the bonfires. There’s a solid statement in this intentional destruction. That’s why everyone is burning something out here: cigarettes, joints, incense, gas stoves, bonfires, hellfires, and other cathartic abdications of control. They burn everything here because why shouldn’t you? You’re on an improbable knot of land surrounded by nothing but grass and water and wide open air, and you can’t shake the feeling when you look out there that nothing you’re doing even matters.
This is a blues festival. When people hear the term “Cajun music,” they think fiddles and accordions, and yeah there are fiddles and whatnot, but this isn’t a fais do-do: South Louisiana is home to an impressively weathered blues scene. T-Bois is the perfect place for these people, musicians as talented as any, but they seem so much better when they’re from somewhere interesting, like the Louisiana coast. This is world-class music, and a world-class experience, too. These musicians get up there and really tear it up, like this is something they do out of compulsion, like this is a need, not a job. The audience reacts in kind.
What are you hearing when you listen from a chair at T-Bois? A lot more than you think, and I’m not talking about scandalous conversations. Every note of music that reaches your ears comes from a long and tortured history. These sounds are products of cultures and happenstance and thus totally unique. That really speaks to people. I can see them from my chair in the rain scattered light, swaying, dancing, really feeling this. Does music appeal to the quirks of psychology or does psychology shape the sound of music? And if it’s both then that means music is a form of communication, a way of communicating feelings rather than ideas. It’s another language for another way of speaking. Communities immersed in music, therefore, might communicate more easily. T-Bois suddenly seems like a very healthy thing indeed.
The attitude at T-Bois really is great. The Falgout family, led by Alligator Mike (as he’s called), has done a wonderful job of creating the family crawfish boil atmosphere. Children navigate the ocean of mud along with the roaming dogs, who don’t seem to even notice the mud. People share what they have readily. A sign by the kitchen reminds people to be mindful of others and only take their share of food. Everyone here seems to get it. Nobody ever seems to mention any particular band they are here to see, but they talk about how happy they are that its T-Bois again. Everyone’s always wishing each other a “Happy T-Bois,” as if they’d waited all year for this (many have). It’s a family thing, alright.
We return late the next day, in the afternoon, and we spend a while visiting people we know scattered about the grounds. We visit the burner village, where a woman and a dog were killed by lightning last night. They were in a tent with two others, who survived. It puts a damper on things, and people sometimes appear confused if they should be having a good time. I saw the lightning strike; I was under the big tent with my chair pointed outside. I don’t know how to explain what’s it’s like to watch the lightning like this while a band plays. It was amazing and wonderful, then violent, loud, humbling, terrifying, and then far, far too close.
The music keeps going, though. The beer keeps pouring, and the people keep trekking through the mud from here to there. Honestly, this is one bad ass gathering. These are hardy people, and everyone owns shrimp boots. This is T-Bois, after all, one of the few places where bad weather barely dents the event. If anything, this rain and lightning and mud just shifts its character. The people play through it, they play with it, they play in it. Three inches of water standing outside a tent some Cajun genius thought to site on high ground so the music would never get rained out. Mud everywhere, of course, that can’t be avoided, but still, you must respect the effort, and the well-built bonfires and cool sculptures, and being able to fill a paper bowl up with pastalaya in the middle of the night.
In the VIP area, the bathroom trailer is across a stretch of sawdust and busted couches from the food and beer. The trailer is located the mathematically exact distance away from the big speakers necessary to vibrate a freshly-poured beer off of the toilet paper dispenser, sending it splashing into the mud every damn time the bass player hits the beat. This happens to me three times before I learn to refill my beer after I pee. It’s another bit of character that would be annoying elsewhere, but like the mud and the rain, everyone accepts it as a part of the experience, something to joke about at the beer tap or at the urinal, at the beginning or the end of things. This is a bayou attitude, an attitude that comes from living on the nebulous margins of a continent at the leading edge of imminent obliteration, yet it’s been hundreds of years and we’re still here.
There’s something so important about this attitude; it seems to encourage things that seem improbable, like this festival, like the fact people have lived out here among the water for centuries. It’s important to remember that these things can be done, that these places, so far beyond the concrete lanes of cities, can be inhabited and can be vibrant, important even. There’s something so important about remembering that life isn’t pretty or easy, but it’s still worthwhile. There’s something so important about the way they all stand ankle deep in water in the fading rain, warming themselves around the gasping remnants of a bonfire. But the thing is, it’s nearly 24 hours later now and there’s still a circle of people over there tending a fire. It can’t possibly be the same fire, can it?