It will take more than a hurricane to drown the spirit of America’s musical tap root. The Crescent City’s life blood comes from its total immersion in the sounds of revelry. Not from finger pointing politicians. Not from looters, lugs, thugs and thieves. The Big Easy might not be so easy for a while, but if the blues could lift us from slavery, the second line will dance our way up from this sorrow. We dedicate this issue of Elmore to the eclectic collective song that is this city and to the wonderful people who define party. How can you not have faith in a society that dances on the graves of the newly departed to free their spirits for a better existence? That dance is called the second line.
Marva Wright, the glitter queen of New Orleans: “Way back in slavery days when someone would die, close relationships would have the funeral. They would bring the body to church and have a little brass band that would play behind the wagon that carried the body, and it would play a slow gospel number until they would bring the body to the church. The hearse was just in line, and the band behind the hearse was the second line. They’d still be playing the slow music when they got to the cemetery. When they deposited the body in he ground, they’d play happy, fun, galloping gospel. Everybody that left the cemetery was dancing and rejoicing that the soul was going to heaven.”
If Chicago, Memphis, Austin, San Francisco and Kansas City each have their sound, New Orleans has dozens of sounds. Those sounds come from the around the world to the mouth of the Gulf, entry to the Mississippi, the southern most heart of America. Art Neville of New Orleans’ first family traces his ancestry back to the Seminoles Indians and Haitians. When his mother and grandmother first came to New Orleans, they spoke no English, only patois. “The slaves intermingled with the Indians down here. Different tribes of Indians took ’em in. They then married with some of the Indians, and this was the only way that the black man could express himself at Mardi Gras in the early days ’cause you wasn’t involved in Mardi Gras.”
Jon Cleary speaks with a British accent, but his music is Luther Vandross with a Dr. John edge. The native of Kent, England, has spent half his life in New Orleans. “Music is the soundtrack of life. It’s like a social glue that keeps everything together. New Orleans is different from other cities in the states because it’s different culturally. And it has nothing to do with the cities that lie to the north and everything to do with the cities that lie in the Caribbean to the south.”
Spencer Bohren is from Wyoming, but he’s made New Orleans his home. “You never find the bottom of this well. The well is here, and it’s still clear. If you find it, and you can’t help but find it, it’s simply in the air here. Music is happening here right now as we speak, creative, yet another musical gumbo that is coming up from wherever it’s coming from, the mud.”
If there’s a silver lining to the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, it’s that the survivors will dance the second line over the bodies of those we’ve lost and free the spirit of this great city to spread its song throughout our land. When I asked French Quarter cab driver turned blues artist Mem Shannon 10 days after the hurricane why he left his home when those around him stayed behind, he answered dryly, “None of us can swim.”
If you can have a sense of humor when your whole life is being swept away, anything is possible. Even at that bleak moment, he had enough foresight to see a future. “You gotta get the people that are really the heart of the city to want to come back and live in the city, and I expect that’s going to happen, but it’s going to be a while before it even feels right. It may be past my lifetime.” We dedicate this issue of Elmore to the brave men and women who will create the theme song for that future.
— Don Wilcock