Robert Doerschuk- Glitter and Glue – the everyday players who bind New Orleans music together all have their own ways of dealing with hard times in the Big Easy.
Ben’s cousin, Aron Lambert, is backstage on the basement level of the Nashville Convention Center, a block up from the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway. Like many of the city’s musicians who were on the road when the hurricane struck, he had spent the past week in a bizarre state of displacement. Website bulletin boards and cell phones were standing in for all the familiar touchstones of life: the front porches and street parades and bars that rocked with music even on Sunday mornings.
Aron, wearing a “504-ever” T-shirt, seems to be everywhere, his cell phone jammed into his ear. Calls into the city’s 504 area code were connecting only sporadically, but he’d gotten through enough to pick up bits of information here and there. I asked about the old clarinet player, Ralph Johnson; he’s OK. So is Joe Lastie, who had posted a note on the Preservation Hall site only a day or so after the city went under, telling everyone that he had made it out to Mississippi. What about John Brunious, the trumpeter? He got out, made it to New York, but he’d developed some problems with his throat that were causing concern. Ben was in New York too, like Aron organizing local events that would raise funds and keep everybody in touch and above all make sure that musicians far from home could start finding work.
“I live on Sycamore Street, right off of Carrollton Avenue,” Aron says between calls. “It looks like we got five-and-a-half feet of water, which means that since I’m on the bottom floor I lost all my drums, all my pictures and everything. The drums can be replaced, but my first few kits were bequeathed to me by drummers who I heard while I was growing up, playing at Preservation Hall in the late ’60s and ’70s….Honestly, I’m trying not to think of any of that stuff. I’m just trying to do things for the benefit and mobilize people to help others to at least have the opportunity that I had, to get out and do something.”
“Through pestilences, hurricanes, and conflagrations, the people continued to sing, through long oppressive years of…fortifying the town against the ever-threatening Mississippi….They are singing today.”
— Lura Robinson, It’s An Old New Orleans Custom, 1948
Music in New Orleans has always been about celebrating even as darkness peeks from around the corner. Its role in American music is incalculable, from the instrumentation and very existence of jazz to the myriad flavors of the blues and R&B, all of which drifted upriver and fanned through the Delta and into Texas and on to nurture the white blues explored by Jimmie Rodgers and the other early icons of country music.
But it’s also different from the blues, which draws from the burdens and sorrows that all people bear, some far more than others. There’s sadness in the sounds of New Orleans too, but it’s expressed paradoxically, through a kind of joyful fatalism. Some of it owes to the city’s unique social structures: the overlay of free and slave prior to the Civil War, the interplay of European and African cultures, and in particular the marching brass bands, born from the marriage of black gospel and ethnic parade traditions from Italy, Germany, and Portugal, which transformed even funerals into parties, with the shift from dirge to dance in “When The Saints Go Marching In”.
More to the point, these bands summoned citizens into the streets, where music reigned as a matter of public participation. Listeners who were in the know could recognize each band as it approached. “Each neighborhood has its own rhythm,” Cyril Neville once told me. “That’s why these marching clubs and the Mardi Gras Indians from different parts of the city all have their own style. The Uptown Indians played tambourine with the points of their fingers and a little bit of slapping. The Downtown Indians played with the palm of their hands. The fun part was to learn those rhythms and incorporate that into my own way of playing.”
The Mardi Gras Indians, descended from street gangs but enduring as social clubs known for their flamboyant posedowns, are perhaps the purest reflection of the city’s spirit. Their costumes are explosions of beads, ostrich feathers, sequins, rhinestones, all modeled loosely on Native American regalia. And their music, performed on the way toward sartorial showdowns with other tribes, strips the feel of the marching bands down to its core: drums, tambourines, and call-and-response vocals. They have no counterpart in any other urban culture; it is, simply, impossible to imagine them anywhere else than in New Orleans.
Backstage at the Convention Center in Nashville, Big Chief Smiley Ricks is far from the costume he had left in progress back home. Nondescript in jeans and green T-shirt, he seems distracted, thinking perhaps of the house he and his sister had bought across Lake Pontchartrain. “That house is gone,” he says, quietly. “My sister got my mom and some of our nieces and nephews out, and we found one of my brothers and my nephew. I can’t find my other brother and his wife. But I will not worry about this now. We’re leaving everything in God’s hands.”
Smiley was raised in the Fisher Projects, notorious as a center of urban violence. But because it, too, is woven into the fabric of New Orleans, his way out was also within reach. “I didn’t make that lifestyle in the neighborhood,” he insists. “It made me what I am today. It was the music that took me from the streets, from doing things that were totally wrong to society. My cousin got me involved with his tribe, and when it started taking me a year to make my Indian suit, I liked that because I had to sew it right if I wanted to be pretty.”
His rise to the rank of chief of his tribe, the Comanche Hunters, at age 20 opened a door toward other opportunities, including a stint on the road with Dr. John’s band. That world seems impossibly far away from Nashville, where Smiley has settled for the time being. “But I’ll tell you this here, and I really mean it from my heart,” he says. “That Indian culture was grounded there and it’s going to be there again. If you listen to some of the Indian music, now you understand what they’re talking about when they sing, ‘We won’t bow down, we don’t know how.’ When I hear that, I think things will come back there. It makes me want to go back right now…”
September 17, from the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival near Winfield, Kansas
Mike West answers to a Florida area code now. “It’s funny,” he says. “I’ve never owned a cell phone. My wife and I have traveled all around the world, but it took a natural disaster to make me buy one. And we happened to be in Florida when the storm hit.”
West’s cell phone experience begins as another chapter of his life seems to be coming to an end. For ten years he has lived in New Orleans, an unlikely transplant to the cradle of jazz and R&B. Born in Australia, raised in England, trapped for a while on the music-biz treadmill while chasing his pop-star dream, he had come to the States as a tourist and wound up sticking around. For awhile, being a singer-songwriter, he thought about settling in Nashville, but when he couldn’t afford any of the apartments he’d found there, he made one of those cockeyed decisions that turned out to make sense after all: With $75 left to his name, West bought a Greyhound ticket to New Orleans.