Lafayette's Blackpot Festival Feels Like Two-Stepping Back in Time

Blackpot Music Festival and Cookoff in Lafayette, Louisiana, is an anachronism, but a happy anachronism.

Now in its 11th year, Blackpot is an annual testament to the warm, informal conviviality of Southern Louisiana culture. The festival is a two-day celebration of old-style campground life: the music is lo-fi and unplugged, reflecting an aesthetic that shuns amplifiers for the hum and twang of acoustic strings. Most attendees keep their lodgings lo-fi as well, pitching tents up on a nearby baseball diamond. There's no big corporate vendors or sponsors on display here: just small tables from local outfitters like Parish Ink or a rustic photobooth from tintype photographer Bruce Shultz. And the festival's food? It's all prepared in a traditional cast-iron pot. You won't see any affected Instagram posting here. People tend to keep phones in their pockets; they get in the way when you're two-stepping.

The festival's location in Vermillionville, a living history museum dedicated to the preservation of local culture, offers an added historical twist on the already vintage scene. If you wander past the barn-style dancehall stage, you'll find yourself amidst restored homes from the 18th and 19th centuries, some of which house the festival's music venues. Francophone bands played in the old schoolhouse, their backdrop a chalkboard with "I will not speak French" written on it to remember when the state banned the language in schools. La Chapelle Des Attakapas, or the chapel, provided a bright, meditative space to enjoy the festival's more contemplative acts.

One such performer was Sarah Quintana, the New Orleans singer-songwriter who made her Blackpot debut this year. Standing at the altar of the chapel brimming with listeners, Quintana filled the peaceful venue with classic French songs, helped by the fiddling of Gina Forsyth. On the song "Daddy Lies," a wistful tale of a father who spins mile-long yarns, the singer charmed the crowd with her deft and personal songwriting. The line "daddy put the stars in my eyes" fit well with the family-friendly event, and ultimately inspired an unexpected old-fashioned good-bye of an encore.

To say that the cookoff is the centerpiece of Blackpot Festival assumes a dividing line between food and music that does not exist in the Cajun scene. As pans fried with lemon-stuffed empanadas and pots bubbled with dark roux for gumbo, professional and casual musicians alike gathered under a de facto communal music tent. Here, singers, fiddlers, accordionists and guitarists mingled in and out of the circle, playing a few songs with the group before queuing up for more food and beer. Underneath the cooking tents, contestants scraped out beats on dirty grill tops as if they were washboards, while others banged on pots with spoons and sang along. Of course, the ever-present ring of the dinner bell flooded the camp, whether it announced a fresh pot of jambalaya or was just a part of an impromptu song. In Cajun country, music is brewed into everything, cooked right into the gravy of this easygoing Southern lifestyle.

As Saturday evening wore on and the chapel and schoolhouse stages closed up, the night evolved into a classic fais-do-do, Halloween style. The much-beloved country-Cajun string band Feufollet took the stage to a packed audience of costumed dancers, waltzing in tight, sweaty knots on the otherwise breezy October evening. The band pulled heavily from its most recent album, regaling the festival dancers with songs like the slow-swinging "Two Universes" and the boot-stomping "Hole In My Heart." No matter the tempo, no matter the tone, the crowd danced with carefree abandon. And that dancing only got livelier as the host band The Revelers took the stage, playing into the wee hours with their unique blend of Cajun rock.

In a world where music festivals have lost their critical relevance, devolving into prefabricated, overpriced pseudo-experiences, Blackpot offers an antidote, and authenticity. The core contingent of Blackpot attendees are satisfied to keep their following Louisiana and local, with no affected aspirations of nationwide grandeur. The Blackpot community is so close-knit, and the Cajun music scene so niche, that it will likely never grow into the out-of-control behemoth that makes a festival lose its charm. And that's a good thing for Houstonians. Our city, always in flux and built on a platform of planned obsolescence, doesn't love and live in its history the way Louisiana does. We're lucky to have a neighbor state keeping a traditional hearth warm for us, even if we don't have the foresight to do it ourselves.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Katie Sullivan is a sometimes writer for the Houston Press.