Alex Rawls- Some thoughts on the past, present and future of New Orleans music. The battle of New Orleans
Every day after hurricanes Katrina and Rita brings another hint that nothing will be the same in New Orleans. President George W. Bush said, “We’ll not just rebuild, we’ll build higher and better.” Experts talk about bringing the Orleans Parish School District into the 21st century, and of instituting revolutionary, community-based health care; they contemplate ways of repopulating the city that won’t result in large pockets of poor. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin envisions a community of 250,000 to 300,000 for the next year to 18 months — compared to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates of 462,000 in New Orleans proper before the hurricane.
In light of such forecasts, I suspect Bush and I have different notions about what constitutes a better New Orleans, and it’s easy to wonder if his new Crescent City would have room for such iconic, idiosyncratic R&B heroes as Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill, Professor Longhair or the cross-dressing Bobby Marchan. Sounds and rhythms that evolved in New Orleans have been crucial to the last century of American music, but where does music figure into the city’s future, and how does the music scene reconstitute itself?
It is, of course, impossible to know, writing in mid-September, and each day brings new causes for optimism and gloom. Right now we can only begin to count the damage and the blessings, and hope the balance works out in the end.
More than anything else, the suburbs Harahan and Kenner and the New Orleans neighborhoods Riverbend and Uptown looked like trees had decided the space allotted them wasn’t enough. Many moved slightly, leaning against fences, power lines, and the edges of roofs. Hundred-year-old trees fell and laid roots-up across fences and yards. So many live oak branches fell along Carrollton and St. Charles avenues that when raked to the edges of the neutral grounds — traffic medians — they resembled brambles or WWII barbed-wire rolls. For the western end of the city and the parts nearer to the Mississippi River, Hurricane Katrina was a wind event more than a rain event, and little of it flooded significantly.
“U LOOT WE SHOOT” was spray-painted on a sheet of plywood propped up along River Road in Harahan. A week before New Orleans first planned to start reopening, sights such as that were thankfully uncommon. Still, the city’s state of security made a bigger impression than even the wind-related destruction. Along Magazine Street, where it separates Audubon Zoo from the rest of Audubon Park, National Guard tents covered the lawn and spilled over toward the park’s executive golf course. At the corner of Louisiana Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street, a parking lot was full of Humvees, and the Tchoupitoulas Street Wal-Mart (a looting target, as captured on videotape by CNN) had become another National Guard encampment. A handmade sign featuring a stick figure with a gun and a backpack was posted by the side of the road; written on it was the phrase, “Soldiers Crossing.”
While I checked out the condition of Tipitina’s, the famed Uptown music club — a bench outside looked like it had been screwed into the ground and a branch from the tree behind the club had fallen, hitting the roof behind the stage; otherwise, it was fine — two Humvees, an NYPD squad car and a Nevada highway patrol car rolled by on Napoleon Avenue. In lawless times, perhaps this much security is needed, but the vehicles still looked out of place.
Wynton Marsalis writes on his website, “New Orleanians are blues people. We are resilient, so we are sure that our city will come back.” That sort of essential vision is reassuring — the notion that something intrinsic will cause the city and its music scene to return in a form we recognize. It’s a perspective shaped by history, and it’s one that Bywater organ player Mr. Quintron more or less shares.
“A week ago, I’d have had some emotional, drunken proclamation to make about this; now I’m totally confused about what’s going to happen,” he says. “All I know is that you can’t pull it up by its roots and not have it grow back. It’s too old. The culture’s not going to die; it’s too far underground. It’s older than dirt.”
Quintron and his wife/percussionist/backing singer Miss Pussycat are one of the bridges between the underground rock ‘n’ roll scene and the world of eccentric New Orleans R&B. They were friends with Ernie K-Doe and remain close to his widow, Antoinette K-Doe. Their likenesses appear on a mural on the side of K-Doe’s Mother-In-Law Lounge; Miss Pussycat pays tribute to the K-Does by featuring Antoinette’s voice and using a handmade, miniature version of the Mother-In-Law as a set in her most recent puppet show, “Electric Swamp” (included on DVD as part of Quintron’s new CD, Swamp Tech).
“That insane anarchy and violence [that spawned the looting],” he continues, “that same energy, the other side of it is in brass bands and it’s in Mardi Gras and in Mardi Gras Indians on Claiborne Avenue, and seeps into the rock ‘n’ roll scene and the hedonism on Decatur Street.”
Racial tension has been a constant in New Orleans for most of the city’s history, fueling both destruction and creativity. It certainly has manifested itself in crime and in drug and alcohol abuse, but African-Americans in the city also have dealt with that struggle creatively. Most obviously, jazz became a form of music and an expression of solidarity and racial pride as blacks celebrated their African roots just outside the view of white slave owners.
Early African-American leaders channeled anger toward institutionalized racism into music, second lines, and the Krewe of Zulu, which mocked the all-white, wealthy Krewe of Rex’s traditions from the outset. They developed private institutions such as the Mardi Gras Indians, whose origins remain shrouded in mystery. Every year, participants make oversized costumes covered with feathers and beads; because the costumes are so labor-intensive, it’s a real concern whether or not many that were lost in the flood will get finished this year.