Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What Is New Orleans ?

Just got back from about 9 days in New Orleans, and it was an eye opening experience, and something I'm still digesting, both literally & figuratively.

Clinging to a foothold in the sludge of the Mississippi basin, there's so much gustatory goodness floating around that town, I occasionally had to eat typically fattening Louisiana meals up to 4 times a day just to keep from washing into the Gulf.

Now a good ten pounds heavier and airlifted to safety, I can hopefully reflect on my journey through a town that bursts not just at the proverbial beltline, but with rich history as well.
a gilded statue in New Orleans along the riverfront near French Market
The town is as twisted as the river that's it's raison d'etre, and I could go on for hours alone just about the current crazed & corrupt political scene there...

How about the District Attorney, who finally resigned this month, not after bankrupting the office by losing a multi-million dollar anti-discrimination lawsuit twice for firing all the office's white employees...but after an armed robber and alleged copkiller was seen hanging out at his house with the DA's girlfriend.

That's just the sort of contradiction in character someone might expect in New Orleans' top law enforcement tier...

The former DA claims he was victim of a racist witch hunt of course, his critics claim that like a steady stream of notorious "public servants" before him, they were the duped victims of another fatheaded fool...

Louisiana's infamous governor in the 1930's Huey P Long once put it this way "Someday Louisianan's are gonna get good government and they're not gonna like it."

Long, a storied figure in Louisiana politics was known popularly as "the Kingfish", and also once said
“Don’t say I’m working for niggers. I’m not … ‘Every Man a King’ means every man, niggers along with the rest, but not especially for niggers.”

While that may sound horribly backwards & racist in today's lingo, in 1930's Louisiana it was taken quite differently, and showed the man to be a true populist, and forward thinking in his time, considering the cracker barrel regional prejudices.

Long, a political orchestrator that would make Pakistan's Musharraf look indecisive, clumsy & weak by comparison, died a violent death at the state house in 1935, but his Louisiana legacy lives on...

Not a day goes by in Louisiana when a politician isn't running afoul of the FBI, or being investigated or on trial for some cheap chicanery...

Perhaps you heard about the longtime Louisiana congressman who attempted to hold onto office after being found by the FBI to be keeping piles of cash in his freezer wrapped in foil.

In a front page headline last week, the local paper labeled the new governor merely "trendy" for proposing ethics reform...

Meanwhile, in biz as usual, a New Orleans city councilman was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison while I was there for getting caught taking bribes...

One politician has said of the citizenry's incapacity for finding appropriate electoral leaders:

"The more I become acquainted with the inhabitants, the more I am convinced of their unfitness for a representative government... Added to this is the ignorance and credulity of the the mass of people''

While it sounds lifted out a recent editorial, it was actually the state's 1st American governor William C.C Claiborne in 1804. At the time, C.C was worried that the populous & it's candidates they would choose wouldn't be up to par, or even capable of benefitting from American democracy. He actually petitioned Thomas Jefferson to postpone elections, but Jefferson would have none of it, and ever since then... you could say city has had uh, mixed results at best in elected leadership...

Looks like recently, the political tides have churned a bit, and due to the Katrina diaspora and record low voter turnouts, for the 1st time in some 35 years there are currently more white faces on the city council than black ones...

Some of the fresh faced council members seem intent on finding out where all the tax & federal grant money has gone...

Some of those recent no bid contracts look a tad wasteful...especially when their are real everyday concerns flitting about. Basic services like public schools have yet to reopen two years after Katrina, the murder rate is the highest in the nation per capita, and taxpayers are stewing.

At a budget hearing I saw, the Mayoral appointees that Nagin put in place looked ill equipped to answer any questions, set any time tables or provide any substantive background on nearly anything under their purview...

The council members peppered department heads about perks & wasted resources, basic numbers, projected numbers and whatnot.

The dept heads merely looked befuddled...and made rambling excuses. It seems blame FEMA is the only game left worth playing, what with the Saints out of contention this year.

Many citizens complain the star of the Katrina debacle, Mayor Ray" C Ray" Nagin isn't even in town most of the time... a running joke is "C Ray?"... uh, not lately... try Dallas or Austin...

With political leadership lacking, the rumors & racism start running amok...

A lot of people in New Orleans seem deeply scarred by years of racial disparities, in some cases hundreds of years of racial disparities.

One 40 something year old black woman I saw on a local cable program calmly noted in a conspiratorial tone to the audience that for years blacks were kept at separate drinking fountains, but now that segregation has ended, she's noticed suspiciously that the whites are now drinking bottled water.


Interesting theory, even if the ubiquitous rise of daily bottled water consumption took about 35-40 years after segregation ended to take popular hold...

I saw black tv hosts refer to "white devils" , "fork tongues" and those who are attempting to "put a boot up our ass"...

Let's just say, despite some "Eracism" bumper stickers, not all is rosy with the race relations...

If New Orleans is anything, it is a product of distinct cultures, melding & clashing at the same time, mixing up in a muddy river of daring dreams & disjointed distrust. A sort of chaotic outcome and beautiful entropy played out on a raggle taggle stage in the swampy lowlands where America's greatest river system gathers the riches & offal alike of it's tributaries and steadily dumps into the salty sea...

Over a hundred years ago, Mark Twain once referred to the place as an "upholstered sewer", and it still fits today.

The paradoxical nature of the place makes it highly incongruous and at the same time intriguing to many, especially fitting as refuge of last resort for souls that fit outside the American norm. It steadily has attracted writers, drunkards, musicians, homosexuals, grifters, slackers, criminals,outcasts and free spirits for a never ending party at the end of the civilized world. This ongoing cycle is embodied in that "lagniappe" attitude.

The French language influence came in the 1700's when Britain exiled most of the French Canadians out of the colonies of Nova Scotia & Quebec. Those who were able to escape the slaughter at the hands of redcoats & hostile Indians went south to the boggy inhospitable malaria pit of New Orleans. Many of the Acadians who found their way there from Canada found themselves unwanted by the Frenchmen already there who were more loyal to the crown and a second slaughter was soon at hand.

Those French speaking settlers who fled New Orleans this time around became the Cajuns...short for Acadians. Meanwhile the muddy city attempted to thrive, but suitable land was scarce and there wasn't much profitable industry to export yet. Not too mention that yellow fever, small pox, mosquitoes, poor sanitation, close living quarters, dampness, and heat and numerous accompanying tropical ills plagued it.

The "inevitable" city was slow to grow, and a scheme was hatched called the "Mississippi Company" in which stocks were sold to Frenchmen who rushed to invest in the burgeoning colonial mercantile outpost. But, like dotcoms & mortgage industry of today by 1720, when no glorious bonanza of dividends were forthcoming, the "Mississippi Bubble" burst. The scheme and it's holding company collapsed investors rushed to unload the shares, and the schemers fled France just ahead of an irate hanging mob.

Then for 40 years in the late 1700's the Spanish Bourbons held the town of some 4000-8000 souls. The French eventually got the city back under Napoleon, but now in deep debt from disastrous wars, Napoleon was forced to sell it to the ever encroaching Americans.

After purchase by the United States in 1803, the predominantly creole culture underwent a rude awakening as the far less tolerant "American" values crept into the city.

When Jefferson bought Louisiana back from the French, the population was approx 50% of African descent and most were actually free men of color rather than slaves. That would change though as the Anglos, traveling, trapping and trading via the Mississippi river began seeping in.

The racial mixing that was becoming common in New Orleans was heavily frowned upon by the new "Anglais" speaking arrivals. The French that still had ties to France were aghast at the barbarian like Americans, and resisted change.

By this time, some plantation owners even kept two families, their white children and wives residing in the country, perhaps in a stately white mansion off the river road, while in the city, their creole mistresses and colored babies would be kept.

It was common for "Creole" families to live in colorful homes like those seen in the Caribbean, while whites painted their houses, uh, you guessed it... white.

Blacks that had earned their freedom under the French "Code Noir" version of slavery were the most alarmed, and endangered. While slavery was no picnic, at least in Louisiana the slaves were allowed days off, and many would congregate in the Vieux Carre at Congo Square. It was one of the only places in the US that allowed people of African descent to engage in public contact, singing, drumming and dancing during the mid-eighteenth to nine-teenth century.

The "Code Noir" was eventually abolished by "Le Americans" for being too lenient, and a resentment of these foreigners imposing their backwards culture in New Orleans had begun. The city became two places, with a distinct "French Quarter" where the savory & spicy African/Euro blended dishes of Creole cuisine was enjoyed, and the rest of town, where the more uptight Anglo "whites" lived. The older "vieux carre" part of town became a sort of melting pot, and sloppy drinking & debauchery zone. Creoles & French struggled to maintain their identity, but soon found themselves becoming ostracized.

By the early 1900's the Klu Klux Klan and other harsh white extremists begun enacting "whites only" policies. Some black business owners and citizens were outraged & challenged these policies in the courts. In a one case, a "colored" New Orleanean entered a whites only railroad car and was ousted. That anti-discrimination suit wound through the Louisiana courts & later US Supreme Court and became known as "Plessy v. Ferguson", but when the "colored" rider lost, the challengers had set up the precedent for the Jim Crow laws that reigned for another 60 years. Ironically, Mr. Plessy being a fairly light skinned black avoided some of the legal prejudice by filling out his next voter registration card as a white, and was able to "pass blanc".

It's a city full of contradictions, corruptions and cultural complexities...

Proud of it's French heritage & influence , consider the period in the 1950's & 1960's when just speaking French in a New Orleans school was punishable by physical beatings.

Proud of it's home as the birthplace of jazz, consider that musicians are now arrested for parading & performing without permits...

Now the people complain about the growing presence of Mexicans and other south of the border imports in the post Katrina era who will come in and do the jobs the African Americans & whites no longer want to do...

(sign at Harrah's casino)

I'll likely rant on more in detail here in the near future...

But for now, I'll just pepper this post with some historical tracks from the past & present for those who could use a refresher course in New Orleans role in the history of American music...

I could attempt a chronological musical post, but how far back do you really wanna go?

Is Kid Ory or Piron's New Orleans Orchestra going too far back in time ?

Maybe I should try to at least use recordings made when electricity and radio were already common household items?

Today I'll start with someone that no fan of New Orleans music, or rock n roll in general should be unaware of...

In the 1950's, Antoine "Fats" Domino rose to the top of the charts and became the predominant presence in R&B and Pop music associated with New Orleans....
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His main musical director was Dave Bartholomew who got Fats hooked up with Imperial records. Fats became one of the world's most instantly recognizable musical stars, and this fame was widespread. Not only was white America charmed by the jolly pianist, Caribbean islanders could even pick up faint strains of New Orleans R&B stations from their radios, further cementing the musical ties between the islands and New Orleans.

The song below was one of many he released that were popular in the Caribbean, and when Sam Cooke toured there in 1960 he said he heard Fats Domino everywhere. One Jamaican nightclub in the late 1950's supposedly even named their beer garden in his honor. This song was particularly popular in jamaica, and has a slight ska feel to it

Fats Domino - Be my Guest

According the book published by Da Capo Press called Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll, he was a real hero & legend in Jamaica. Soon, in 1961, a year after Sam Cooke noticed his dominance of local radio waves & jukeboxes, Fats was touring Jamaica himself.

Amongst Fats many fans in Jamica were people like Bob Marley, Prince Buster and Jimmy Cliff who all later credited him for influencing the creation of their now familiar stuttered reggae & ska beats. The band Justin Hinds and the Dominos were supposedly named in his honor as well, and numerous covers & uncredited cribs of his songs appeared on Jamaican turntables over the years.

Here's a 1961 track and a video of Fat's hit song "the Four Winds Blow" done live in 1962.

Fats Domino - Let The Four Winds Blow

Fats Domino, despite his fame couldn't even escape from the Jim Crow laws of New Orleans. Tiring of being forced to play segregated shows in the south, and then running afoul of the NAACP boycott, Fats, like Elvis Presley (the only rock performer of his day with wider acclaim & sales), moved to perform exclusively in Las Vegas.

This sorta killed his relevance & appeal... but the Beatles were upon the country now, and fats had to ride that storm out as well...

Anyhow, here's a few more classic cuts from this still living great who had 23 gold hit singles and was said to have sold over 65 million records...

This one came from a 1980 album, called simply 1980, that shows that the man had lost none of his charm, chops or relevance despite the disco decade having pushed him aside from the mainstream radar. By the 1970's, Elvis himself called him the true "king of rock n roll"...

In 1979 Cheap trick recorded fats "Ain't That A Shame" for their Live at Budokan album reintroducing a new generation, even if unwittingly to Fat's style.

Fats Domino - Just Can't Get New Orleans Off My Mind

On May 1, 1985, Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw ( once of Rusty & Doug) recorded a session with Fats at the now destroyed Ultrasonic Studios in New Orleans. This song here is the end result, and Fats can be heard happily jamming along with the fiddle player, adding his trademark piano triplets and deep vocals to the Cajun zydeco classic "Don't Mess with my Toot Toot". Fats made a video in which then Louisiana governer Edwin Edwards appeared as a limo driver. Edwards would be unable to attend any of Fats Domino's tributes as Edwards 80th birthday was spent in federal prison, after being sentenced to 10 years in prison on racketeering charges from a 2001 conviction.

Doug Kershaw & Fats Domino - Don't Mess With My Toot Toot

Fats some years ago claimed he'd never retire as he wants to play music for the rest of his life, but the revered piano man's age is slowly getting the best of him.
During Katrina, we all saw him being lifted out of his flooded 9th ward district home. Some 60 years after starting his recording career, earlier this month when he came to New York for a tribute, the once world famous singer went basically unnoticed by passerby in Times Square when posing for a photo session...

Sadly, I bet a talentless hack like 50 Cent or Soulja Boy wouldn't have had that problem on a NYC street. But I suppose we'll have to see who pays tribute to Soulja Boy or T-Pain in 60 months, much less some 60 years after the tides of time take a toll on today's fickle music audiences.

Here's also a video and a link for the new tribute to Fats Domino entitled "Goin Home : A Tribute to Fats Domino". It features numerous New Orleans artists and special guests including Robert Plant,Corinne Bailey Rae, Joss Stone, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt etc. It is a unique album put together to not only pay tribute to Fats, but raise dough for the Tipitina's Foundation.

Bonnie Raitt & Jon Cleary - Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino (Bonus Track Version)

or buy directly >from Tipitina's website

Anyhow, that's our classic New Orleans artist profile, and in interest of the present I'll highlight another local fave performer today below.

I hope you'll check back at this website later this month at and I'll include a few more New Orleans tracks as we continue to look at Louisiana's vibrant musical community. It's a special scene that unlike the business & political failures, simply thrives & even exceeds all expectations because of the unique region...

I'll look at some of the currently operating creative forces that are strong enough to float above fray. The artists that are truly excellent examples of essential spirits that are keeping that city alive, despite many of the setbacks it's had over the past few years.

The city of course has an incredible musical history for well over a century, and one could study the varied players and their numerous contributions.

No look at the current crop of Louisiana's finest players could ommit Mr Kermit Ruffins.

Co-founder of the world renowned ReBirth Brass band, and for ten years plus now, he's been an incredible solo performer whose band the Bar B Q Swingers have been an equally respected local fixture.
In fact one local t-shirt company called Dirty Coast has added a Ruffins for Mayor t-shirt to it's line...

If I lived there I would definitely be sporting that one...

If you wanna check out some of the many ultra killer & very original deep south flava T's from Nawlin's own Dirty,, just click the banner here, oh and for a ltd time at checkout u can enter the code FACEBOOK for a quick 15% discount y'all!

Anyhow, Kermit Ruffins' spirited jazz trumpet playing and showmanship have seen him compared to the legendary Louis Armstrong, and no trip to the city is complete without a stop in the Bywater at Vaughan's where he generally can be found every Thursday for the past 15 some years.

Here's two cuts by Ruffins... the first from his album "Live At Vaughans", one of the best selling CD's at the annual jazzfest, it's raucous live sound perfectly captures the ecstatic energetic & casually contagious New Orleanean funk fervor to be found in a Ruffins set.

Kermit Ruffins - Drop Me Off In New Orleans
Live At Vaughan'sKermit Ruffins
"Drop Me Off In New Orleans" (mp3)
from "Live At Vaughan's"
(Basin Street)

Stream from Rhapsody
Buy at Napster
More On This Album

The next cut is from a reunion collaboration between Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band, and the song brings us the all too appropriate title tie in to this post...

Kermit Ruffins & The Rebirth Brass Band - What Is New Orleans ( pt 2)


See ya next time:

love, Lil Mike

Click here to visit The New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund site.


New Orleans News Ladder said...

Hey Lil'Mike, that was a really long and fine & funny post. Glad you had such a great time and please come back. You hear my mouf talkin"?

I placed your piece onto today's New Orleans News Ladder. Check it out and say hello and tell your friends:) We just launched it a couple of weeks ago and would appreciate the feedback.

Remember Krewe du Vieux rolls early in January this year.


Anonymous said...

Nice post Mike. I have to admit it started out sounding a bit like most of my white bread friends who first go to NOLA - but you did get off the corruption thing eventually. Your "Fats" bio was great, but it isn't that low hanging fruit? How about Anders Osborne or John Gros? - contemporary talented artists unheard of by most of the country.