Peter Holsapple- Some thoughts on the past, present and future of New Orleans music. Beans and Rice.
Today, in Nashville, I have met up with musician friends of mine from the band Beatin Path who had been displaced from their homes in New Orleans. We are having rice and beans at Mike’s apartment, cooked by his wife, who has taken the kids to Wal-Mart to get clothes. After dinner, we stand on the tiny porch and smoke and talk, trying to absorb the facts that we are far from our home and the lives we’ve led for so long, and that we don’t know when next we’ll see each other.
All of us have our moments of emotional silence, punctuated with laughing it off and expressing gratitude to be amongst each other. Someone brings up the hurricane, then quickly apologizes for introducing the topic. But who else do we have that we can talk with about it? We share experiences there together that our well-meaning friends and helpful strangers will never fully understand now.
We speak of the incredible charity we’ve seen and been recipients of. We compare reactions to people finding out where we were from. We catch up on where our other friends have landed. We slide from aggravated to amused at how many people took the time to tell us their considered opinions on what had gone wrong in New Orleans. We consider how different people are in our new boroughs. We note how often we hear Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” running through our minds.
We talk of our physical losses. Mike had sold us his old house two years ago and had moved his recording studio and family deeper into St. Bernard Parish. Both of our homes had water up to the roof, and both were filled with musical gear, personal effects and memories. Eddie evacuated with his girlfriend to St. Louis, where he works at a record store that another friend of mine runs. I had seen pictures of his neighborhood, behind the enormous Schoen Funeral Home on Canal Street, when it was awash. Skeet had been in the process of trying to sell his house and had to leave without instruments because he thought he was showing the house the next day. The house may be OK, but he didn’t know, and wasn’t sure how he would sell it now.
Skeet, Eddie and Mike have a gig the next day and need to buy replacement gear, so we go to Guitar Center and try out amps and hollow-bodies and drums. A check is written on an account full of relief funds, and we tote half a band’s worth of equipment to Eddie’s minivan for the ride home. Shopping was weirdly giddy, a kid-in-a-candy-store sort of overwhelming, but it was tempered with the recollection of what was to be replaced.
Having visited Eddie and Skeet, I have now managed to meet up with all the members of my newest band, the Peoples’ Revolutionary Army of St. Bernard, spread around America like so much spin art. Sandi, my bass player, had been present at the recent shows I did with the dB’s at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, and will be living on the coast of South Carolina. Alexandra, my other guitar player, and I had a sweet and sad reunion during a free afternoon I had in Manhattan yesterday. Despite the great intentions we all have about keeping that group together, it will prove very difficult given our newfound geographical limitations, and the jobs and lifestyles that support everyone individually. It’s hard enough to keep a new band going when you all live in the same place. The Byrds said “Change is now,” and ain’t it the truth. The revolution will have to wait a little while longer.
The term “diaspora” has been used regularly to describe the dispersion of the music community of New Orleans. So many players there depended on regular gigs in the French Quarter and elsewhere nearby, which kept them home and loved and secure in a place they knew. Now they are in Houston and Memphis and St. Louis and New York and Nashville and beyond, and they must reconsider how they can make a living. Besides the enforced zen of having lost all ones’ worldly goods, the functional need to bring New Orleans’ music to the rest of the world has become a huge part of our reinvention, post-Katrina. And yet, another result of it may be that people will get paid better money elsewhere than at home, which may also factor into whether these people will return to their old pay scale.
So now we have all become ambassadors, bringing whatever sounds we assimilated there to the rest of the world. That is one of the benefits of having a musical career: being able to take your song to other places. Towns such as Nashville are offering “New Orleans nights” to the many nomads who are staying on the road since they have no place to return to. But it’s hard to imagine not running into each other at Whole Foods or parks as we have for years.
There’s no question that people love New Orleans music. Dr. John, the Meters, the Nevilles, Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint are part of any knowledgeable musician’s pantheon of good influences. Jazz and Dixieland have made their mark everywhere. Other genres such as rock and singer-songwriters may be less able to attract the kind of curious interest people have for the stuff associated with Bourbon Street — not because it isn’t good, but because it’s less obviously attached to what people think of as being from there.
New Orleans will be rebuilt, that is certain. The levee structure’s safety is the paramount first obstacle. But people will come back. I know plenty of folks who are hell-bent on getting in there and getting back to life as they knew it, despite the fact that everything has changed and will likely never be the same again. The music of New Orleans, at least the stuff everyone knows best, will survive in its shattered state, then will replant itself into the corners of the Quarter where it has resided comfortably for generations.
But it’s also true that many folks will not be back to live. I will treasure and revere what the city’s music bestowed on me like precious secrets that only we get to know. I will return to help Habitat For Humanity build houses when I get off the road. I will see another Mardi Gras and another Jazzfest, but it will be as a visitor again.
So right now, everyone will do their best to make their new homes little corners of New Orleans hospitality, keeping the community alive elsewhere for now. Beatin Path will gig at the Bar Car on Wednesday with their new equipment. And I believe I’ll have another helping of rice and beans…