Every Christmas Eve, the levee along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, Louisiana is transformed into a necklace of blazing bonfires. It seems as if everyone in the towns of Gramercy, Lutcher and Pauline, which are located about midway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, has participated in building one of the log structures that are set alight at exactly seven o’clock in the evening, often with accompanying fireworks. The homes along on the road that parallels the river are bustling with parties for family and friends, while food trucks and small vendors sell food, fireworks and glow sticks.
Every year, Johnette’s friend Keri Walker Tramonte has invited her to the bonfires, but it never has worked out for us to attend—either we were away, the weather was bad, or some other reason prevented us going. This year, we were in New Orleans for Christmas, and the weather was perfect.
We arrived at about 3:30 in the afternoon, in time to walk a mile or so along the crest of the levee. Children were “sledding” on the grass, down the outside slope of the levee, while teenagers rode four-wheelers up and down the concrete inner side, looking as if they might tip over at any minute. Every couple of hundred feet, a family or group of friends had built a bonfire structure, and many were adding final touches. Usually, the bonfires are tepee-shaped, with a center pole and four side braces that support stacked log walls. The entire structures, which can be as high as twenty or twenty-five feet tall, are filled with more wood—large logs and smaller debris. Some structures were loaded with fireworks, or draped with red paper-covered strings of firecrackers.
Keri told us that her work had started many weeks earlier, when she and her co-builders found and cut the trees for her bonfire. “It’s hard to find long, straight poles, but after that, it’s easy to find the wood you need.” The timber then has to be moved to the levee, where a chainsaw and strong muscles are required to complete the work. The tradition of bonfire making is usually the task of the men in the family. However, in Keri’s family, it is the women who build the structure. Keri decorated her bonfire with a colored plywood cutout of the famous Blue Dog, painted so often by artist George Rodrigue. Almost every family walking along that part of the levee wanted to stop to take their photo with the blue dog.
Keri, her husband Andy and their two sons live directly across the road from the levee and her bonfire. Their yard was decorated with hanging lights, a small fire pit and two long tables filled with food, including a delicious gumbo and potato salad. Everyone made us feel right at home. We sat and listened to stories about the bonfires—this year, someone had constructed a snapping turtle, complete with a moving head—before climbing back onto to the levee to witness a sunset that seemed to have made to order, with its orange, red and purple colors. We returned to our home base for a bowl of hot gumbo and waited for the sun to set.
Then, the action shifted to the levee. We climbed up to Keri’s bonfire and removed the Blue Dog, while neighboring groups began to set off an impressive array of fireworks. Finally, in unison, each family or team ignited its work. The fires started slowly, but very soon, especially if the construction of the tower is right, each triangular sculpture is entirely aglow. Looking up and down the levee, we now could see dozens or fires blazing. The road was jammed with the slow-moving cars of people who had traveled to see the spectacle. Fireworks were popping and sparks were flying as the flames seemed to reach out across the black river.
That night, Papa Noel found his way along the river well-lighted, as he prepared to deliver gifts to the children of St. James Parish. The warmth of the community that had brought this tradition to life for another year was one of the most palpable expressions of good cheer that anyone could imagine.
Québec City has long been on both of our bucket lists. Scott had been to Montreal a few times (once, performing at the Montreal Jazz Festival with Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas), but Québec City had a different kind of allure—more French and maybe more European. Since we were already in Northern Maine, this was the ideal time to go, because Québec City was a straight shot southeast of Presque Isle. We got out our Pimsleur Quick and Simple French CDs, and headed across the border.
For the last half of our drive, the road followed the Côte-du-Sud region (south bank) of the Fleuve Saint-Laurent (Saint Laurence River). We stopped along the way at the in the small town of Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, which is known for its antique stone houses, for bowls of café au lait at the Le Café du Bon Dieu, located next to the light-filled church. Families and birders with binoculars were gathered at a picnic area behind the church, taking in the view of the wide tidal flats and the small mountains on the distant shore.
Soon, we were driving through the modern outskirts of Québec City, past stores and shopping centers that might as well have been in Dallas. However, the ambiance began to change as the street name changed to Grand Allée Est. On our left was the battlefield where the English had wrested Québec from the French, and cafés lined the sidewalks. We soon passed through an arch in the old city wall (Québec is the only walled city in North America north of Mexico) then drove a few blocks more to our hotel, Le Manoir d’Auteuil.
The hotel completed our transition into old Québec. Originally built in 1835, it was renovated in art deco style in 1933, and was the place Edith Piaf chose to stay when she visited the city. We practiced our French with the young desk clerk (who would teach us a new phrase each day) while noticing the deco light fixtures and sculptures in the hall and lobby. Scott had found the hotel online, and we felt lucky to be there.
We are both walkers, with Fitbits to keep us on our toes, so we quickly hit the often-steep streets. The city is built on a bluff, with high cliffs on two sides. Ramparts follow the top edge, with their ancient cannons pointed toward the river, surrounding a city that is now filled with 18th century homes, government buildings, restaurants and boutiques. In fact, with its street performers and artists, Québec feels like a hilly version of the French Quarter, but without the funkiness.
The area below the walls and along the river, which is accessed by a succession of staircases, or by a funiculaire (an elevator on tracks), may be the most interesting part of the city. The further we walked away from the more tourist-oriented area at the foot of the stairs, the more edgy and contemporary the art galleries and restaurants became. Yet, for our first night, we chose to dine at Lapin Sauté, a wonderful restaurant in the thick of the bustle on rue du Petit-Champlain. We shared a cassoulet with duck sausage, pork and braised rabbit leg—a hearty introduction to Québecois food.
The next morning, we slept past the hotel breakfast time. It’s a vacation, right? We then took a long walk outside the wall to the office of the Festival d’été de Québec, the summer music festival, to ask about a possible job next year. Along the way, Scott bought a flowered shirt to wear on stage. We were able to see Québec’s “other” side, where people live and work, and it still reminded us of Europe.
For dinner, we treated ourselves to Restaurant Légende, where Chef Frédéric LaPlante uses only Nordic ingredients in his intricately designed small plates. Thus, pickled daisy buds replaced capers in a tomato salad. Along with a scallop ceviche and a dish of bison flank steak with vegetables, three courses made a meal that stimulated thought about how specific flavors can be to a place, with ingredients like sea buckthorn and fir mousse. Our expert young waiter encouraged this discussion as he recommended a Québecois chardonnay that reminded us of the high altitude wines of Italy’s Alto Adige.
For out last day, we walked to the Marché along the waterfront. It’s a permanent farmer’s market, in the European style, with vegetables, fish, meat and snacks available at different stalls. We bought fresh berries, and wished we had access to a kitchen to make use of the beautiful produce. Then, it was on to the Promenade des Gouverneurs, a boardwalk with stairs that follows the cliff just outside the city walls, passing the Citadelle, an old military headquarters that is still in use. At times, it was a steep climb, overlooking the river.
After all that walking—we averaged ten miles each day—we figured it was time for poutine, at least if there ever would be. Poutine might be the Québecois national dish, so we chose the restaurant La Buche, which features all traditional cuisine. The recipe is simple—French fries and cheese curds, covered with gravy, and often topped with something else (duck confit, sausage, etc.). It looked good when it arrived, but the gravy had been generously infused with maple syrup, and it was too sweet. We both decided this might be one of those dishes, like haggis (the Scottish dish that is boiled in a sheep’s stomach), cracklins (the Louisiana dish of pork skin fried in pork fat, then sprinkled with cayenne) or chapulines (Oaxacan fried grasshopppers) that we only had to try once in life. Who knows—poutine cravings may yet sneak up on us!
When we left Québec the next day, we knew we would miss the friendly people, and especially the poised and confident young staff at the hotel. Québec is not an international city like Montreal or New York City. Rather, it is a place that has its own French culture, of which its citizens are clearly proud. It seems like a place where everything works. If only it wasn’t so cold in the wintertime!
Last week, we were in road trip mode, traveling to the northernmost part of Maine, then on to Québec City. Our first stop was the Cumming-Chapman-Duncan Clan Picnic in Presque Isle, Maine, which has now been held each summer for over 140 years.
Scott’s grandfather, Stuart Duncan, was brought to New Brunswick, Canada from Stonehaven, Scotland in 1873 at the age of three, the youngest of the nine children of William and Elisabeth Duncan. Several large families had boarded the same ship, the Castalia, after a Canadian recruiting agent had convinced them of the opportunity to be found in the New World, showing them pictures of the cleared agricultural land and pleasant cabins that awaited them there. Yet, when they arrived in Upper Kintore in late spring, they found only forest and rocky soil, causing some to immediately leave. Those who stayed spent their first summer living in tents. They persevered, soon building the sturdy church that stands today, but after twenty years several of the families in the “Scotch Colony” decided to cross the border into Northern Maine, where many of their ancestors and Scott’s extended family members live today.
It is difficult to know the exact reason that William and Elisabeth left Scotland. He was a “spinner” who made yarn, and perhaps this was a fading trade in the face of the industrial revolution. Scott and his daughter Meredith visited Stonehaven several years ago, and found the cozy stone house they had left behind, which today is a renovated middle-class home. Stonehaven is a fishing village with a majestic castle that sits on a rock by the edge of the sea, with crashing waves below.
Maine is a large state. About two hours into our trip, we stopped at the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, where Johnette bought a summer dress. Scott’s mother once recalled seeing a roomful of women tying fishing flies there, and the store still offers a vast selection of fishing gear, with the flies now incorporating high-tech materials intended to glow and pulse in the water. This “downeast” region is known for its rocky shores, lobster and lighthouses, but farther north is a vast area of forest that includes Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, which we could see off to the side of I-95. With all the warning signs for moose in the road, Johnette hoped to see one, but it was probably safer that we did not. Finally, at Houlton, the landscape changed to rolling agricultural land, with potatoes and canola seed the main crops. Another hour north was our destination of Presque Isle.
In many ways, a visit to this isolated part of Maine is a step back in time, especially with the large population of Amish people who have settled in the area. Every time we drove along one of the two-lane roads, we saw them in their buggies, or perhaps tilling the soil with horse-drawn plows on their uniformly neat and prosperous looking farms. We even made up a silly song called “Buggie Wuggie,” to the tune of “Wooly Bully,” which we sang in harmony whenever we saw one. The rolling fields, with potato plants in full blue or white blossom, could make anyone forget how cold it gets here in the wintertime.
The Cumming-Chapman-Duncan picnic was a gentle gathering, with potluck dishes brought by the forty-five or so attendees. In the past, Scottish pipes and dancing were sometimes a part of the picnic, but this year’s event was quieter. Scott was glad to see his second cousins Bill Duncan and Kristin Chapman Headley. Bill presented the findings of his recent DNA analysis (he’s a Scotsman!), as well as the family tree that he keeps, in which he recorded the past year’s births and deaths. Kristin brought along a collection of photos of the Scotch Colony, including a picture of Scott’s grandfather (and her great uncle), which we had not seen before.
Stuart Duncan left Northern Maine when he was in his twenties. He learned the plumbing trade and married Scott’s grandmother, Frances Marston (who was from “downeast” Maine) in the Boston area. They settled in Everett, Massachusetts, where Scott’s mother was born. It seems like a very long time has passed since Stuart arrived in Canada, but Scott is of only the second generation of Duncans in the US. It was wonderful to renew his connection with this history, and for Johnette to be welcomed as part of the greater family.
Stay tuned for an account of the next part of our trip. Onward to Québec!
After living in Johnette’s hometown of New Orleans for most of the past five years, we have been able to spend several summer weeks in Scott’s city of Newburyport, Massachusetts. When Scott first arrived in Newburyport some 45 years ago, as the roommate of two fellow Mexican Overdrive band members, the old downtown area was largely derelict, with only a few brave merchants occupying storefronts in the old brick buildings. The Firehouse Center for the Arts was a boarded-up and crumbling ruin, the fire department having moved out many years before.
Now, the city has blossomed as a thoroughly renovated community, and a destination for tourists from around the world, who flock to the upscale boutiques and restaurants that fill the downtown area. Further, the Merrimack River is no longer polluted. Fish, birds and wildlife have returned to the vast and increasingly pristine Great Marsh ecosystem that stretches for miles north and south of the city. The Plum Island National Wildlife Refuge remains a breathtaking strip of barrier island sand dunes and beach. As a result, there is a great deal of eco-tourism in Newburyport as well.
There are many layers of history here. Newburyport was once a major international port, and a center of clipper ship trade. Over 200 of of these large and sleek ships were built here, and they could reach London in only two weeks. Some brought back goods from as far away as China. The U.S. Coast Guard was founded in Newburyport, when the United States Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Life Saving Service were merged (their initial goal was to catch smugglers who were evading customs fees).
Our greatest pleasure has perhaps been our daily walk downtown, past Federalist and Victorian houses that have been carefully restored; past the boat slips and wildflowers along the river; past the boat yards to the waterfront boardwalk. It’s a gentle place. For example, along with the construction of two new public bathrooms, the city is now offering free sunscreen in dispensers. The local Tendercrop Farms raises it’s own grass-fed beef, hogs and chickens, so it’s possible to eat locally almost all year long. It’s also tempting to eat too many fried clams (locals debate the merits of the clams at the Park Lunch versus The Clam Box, which is ten miles away).
I’m sure we’ll soon start missing funky New Orleans, but for now we’re enjoying the relatively cool weather and the calm New England sensibility.
About 15 years ago, Johnette and Scott met at the Cutting Edge Music Conference in New Orleans. Scott, who was then Vice President of A&R at Rounder Records, was on a panel of music industry people, to whom musicians could anonymously submit songs for evaluation. Johnette had submitted her song, “Feliciana LeRoux.” Scott listened to the song and was impressed with the writing, the performance and especially the singing (in fact, he fell in love with the voice of the singer on the spot). He said, “I know I’m not supposed to know who this is, but would the singer be willing to identify herself?”
Johnette was not going to raise her hand, but her friend Geri Goldstein, who had accompanied her to the conference, convinced her to do so. After the panel ended, Johnette and Scott talked, and discovered they had a mutual friend, with whom Scott was scheduled to have dinner that evening. On the spot, Scott invited Johnette to join them. After that, they remained long-distance friends for many years, getting together for friendly chats and lunches when Scott came to town to work. Finally, they realized that their place on earth was to be together as partners, making music and exploring the world together.
Today we are really excited about getting some new photos taken with our photographer friend Rick Olivier. Here is a photo from our last session with Rick several years ago.
We had a fabulous time performing in the Kids Tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last weekend. We knew it was going to be a special day when among our amazing fans in the audience were musicians Irma Thomas, Tom Fisher, Jason Mingledorff and Matt Lemmler, as well as writer Michael Tisserand and photographer Pat Jolly. Then when Irma Thomas and her daughter Tina started dancing the Cajun two-step with the other families to our “Bon Jour Mes Amis” song, we knew it was going to be memorable – one of those “only in New Orleans” moments.
Thanks to all of our fans and friends who made this Jazz Fest performance one of the best yet!
We’ll be performing in New Orleans three public concerts in April. Johnette’s regular Free Family Friendly First Friday in the French Market will be on April 7 at 11 AM, at the newly renovated headquarters of the National Jazz Historical Park, at 916 North Peters Street in the heart of the French Quarter.
Two days later, on Sunday, April 9 at 11 AM, we’ll be performing at the French Quarter Festival at the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park Centennial Stage, along the Riverfront at the Natchez Steamboat Landing.
Finally, we’ll have our annual show at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Saturday, April 29 at 3 PM, at the Kids Stage.
This Mardi Gras, we marched in the Muses Parade with the Bloco Sereia Samba Ensemble, with about 40 drummers and fifty dancers, along with several very large puppets. We are learning to play the small Brazilian drum called the tamborim, which might be one of the loudest instruments on the planet. You hold it in one hand and beat it with a bundle of nylon rods, either damping the sound with your finger on the inside of the drum, or letting it ring out. We are pictured here getting ready to march.