Crescent City music weathers the storm

With portions of eastern North Carolina still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Irene and, over the weekend, Tropical Storm Lee spawning tornadoes from the Gulf Coast to the Florida Panhandle, it seemed appropriate to consider the music of a region nearly wiped from the map during one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to make landfall in the U.S.

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina came ashore in southeast Louisiana, causing severe destruction along the Gulf Coast from central Florida to Texas. The most significant number of deaths occurred in New Orleans, which flooded as the levee system catastrophically failed. Eventually 80 percent of the city and large tracts of neighboring parishes became inundated with floodwaters, which lingered for weeks. In Louisiana alone, over 1,500 people were killed.

Along with the loss of life, the state, and the world as a whole, came within a hair’s breadth of losing something nearly as precious: a musical and cultural heritage as unique and historically important as any in the country.

Since it first came under American control following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New Orleans has been a crossroads where French, Creole, Irish, German, and African influences have mingled and interbred to create a musical mélange of fascinating depth and variety.

The first public performances of African derived music in New Orleans occurred in the1700s, when the city’s slaves were allowed to gather in Congo Square, a large open space just north of the French Quarter, to sing, dance, and play music. Many of the instruments used during these gatherings came from a cross section of cultures: drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments, and quillpipes, as well as European instruments such as the violin, tambourines, and triangles.

As immigrants from throughout Europe, the Caribbean and other parts of the world moved through the city, that same spirit of invention through necessity would work its way into nearly every subsequent musical development, finding its penultimate form in the music most associated with the region.

Moving like a spirit of the future rising from the city’s troubled past, the earliest sounds of what would become know as jazz were a far cry from the somber, delicate tones often associated with the genre today. The raucous squeals, blats, fanfares and roars of that music were nothing less than the sounds of a race and a region’s coming out party, a loud sweaty affair cut through with blues, gospel, military marches, and even European classical music.

In the hands of men like King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton and, most certainly, Louis Armstrong, it was also a music of great beauty and emotional nuance, the sort of sound that could speak for not only a single city or state, but an entire nation.

Yet, like most things that lurk up from the Deep South, the origins of the music are hazy with swamp fog and shadow. Though jazz spread quickly throughout New Orleans in the early years of the 20th century, it was nurtured in the back alleys and speakeasies of Storyville, the city’s red light district. The notion that jazz was somehow unsavory, tinged with immorality, would cling to the music as it was exported via New Orleans musicians to the far corners of the States.

While jazz is rightfully the music most identified with the city, another mongrelized form, known as zydeco, also took root around the same time. Born in the surrounding countryside and swamps, zydeco arose from a synthesis of traditional Creole and Cajun music, along with blues and gospel. The music incorporated such everyday household items as washboards and spoons set to the rhythmic sway of accordions, guitar and bass to create a rough hewn sound that served as a country cousin to jazz’s more urban blare.

In the 1950s and into the following decade, a new generation of musicians emerged who would place the cities indelible mark on the emerging sounds of rock, soul, and funk.

Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Sam Cooke recorded seminal rock and roll sides backed by the cream of New Orleans session musicians, who added a previously unheard ferocity and swing to a music still in its infancy.

The city’s soul and blues artists have played an important, though often overlooked, role in the development of their respective music. Irma Thomas, possessor of perhaps the finest voice south of the Mason Dixon Line, recorded the first version of “Time is on My Side,” which would be one of the first significant hits for the Rolling Stones. Allen Toussaint, one of the most prolific producers and writers of the twentieth century, penned songs that become million sellers in the hands of others, including “Working in the Coalmine,” “Fortune Teller,” and “Southern Nights,” a pop and country crossover hit for Glenn Campbell in 1977.

Drawing inspiration from the cities tradition of second line brass band parades and African American Indian Mardi Gras chants, groups like The Meters, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and the Wild Magnolias created music for the brain and body that remains unequaled in its ferociously devil-may-care, celebratory resonance.

A seemingly endless stream of eccentric piano savants, from Professor Longhair and James Booker, to Henry Butler, and the aforementioned Jelly Roll Morton, are an essential part any listening experience when it comes to New Orleans’ master musicians.

The darker corners of the city’s past have also been explored by its artists. Dr. John, who once went by the moniker “The Night Tripper,” recorded an entire album, “Gris Gris” based on the very real history of voodoo practice, which has long been touted by the New Orleans tourism board as a draw for gullible tourists and the gothically-inclined.

Earl Palmer, Lee Dorsey, Snooks Eaglin, Guitar Slim…the list of talented musicians who began their musical lives in New Orleans is staggering.

In the brief time I’ve spent there, I’ve found New Orleans both fascinating and strangely depressing. Much like Memphis, Tenn., it trades on past glories and a feigned mystery that vanished many decades before. Plagued by drugs, political corruption and no clear plan for the future, the city teems with the stale odor of cheap beer and drunken college kids who neither know nor care about its history or importance to American culture. In the aftermath of Katrina, the way forward for the city seems even less clear.

What remains, however, is important: an abiding wildness that has been stamped down and tortured into the strained civility and vanilla plainness that holds sway throughout most of the country.

Presently, New Orleans depends for its livelihood on promoting the type of behavior other large cities, like New York, try to discourage, to sweep under the proverbial rug. It has been argued that New Orleans is not really a part of America at all, but more a sovereign nation unto itself existing as a sort of living advertisement for debauchery, drag queens and French architecture.

Reviled as a modern day Babylon by televangelists and politicians alike, it’s a city that should expect little sympathy or help from the world beyond the borders of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. Like foreign stragglers abandoned at an amusement park, the people of New Orleans will simply have to get mean and take care of themselves, and each other.

That sense of isolation, the fear of remote and possibly unhealthy otherness mixed with its joyous celebration, can be heard in the vast array of sounds born of a city that has come to function as a sort of national id— a much reviled, though vital, part of our musical and cultural makeup.

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