Hands raised against a Mid-City sunset, Jazz Fest, April 30, 2006.
When the storm first passed, August 29, 2005, they said we’d dodged the bullet. Then, by trickles and by running streams, the gushing breaches revealed themselves and the city filled with water.
We were stranded and we were running. We were evacuees and we were refugees. We were beneficiaries of charity and we were God’s punishment. We were left for dead and we were picking ourselves up by our bootstraps. We were racists and we were together. We were northern most island of the Caribbean and we were the most European city of the United States. We were nomads and we were pioneers. We were you and we were not you. And what were we thinking, coming back? What were we thinking, rebuilding? What were we thinking, trick or treating in debris canyons full of roofing nails and gutted sheetrock and mold? What were we thinking, having Mardi Gras? What were we thinking, hosting Jazz Fest? What were we thinking, rebuilding and then filling the Superdome with sporting events, people still not home?
When the water slowly drained, so many people were gone, and the music gone with them. But even when the water was still pouring in, the music spread out to find us in our temporary homes, our New Orleans neighborhoods in exile. On September 4, 2005, in a complex of Montgomery apartments furnished with cast-off hotel pieces meant for traveling “executives,” I watched musician Wynton Marsalis on CNN’s Larry King Live. For days and nights I had tuned my car radio to pick up the signal from WWL, hearing the desperation and the anger in the voices of mayors and parish presidents, but now, on the television, Wynton calmly laid it out:
It’s deeper than pain. You know, pain is something quantifiable, or something we can understand, it’s a deep profound American tragedy. … I want to say to the American people, it’s important to understand that this is a very profound moment in our history and it’s important for us to realize that our political leadership is not reflecting the will and the feelings of the American people. As a musician, I’ve been around the country, around the United States of America for twenty-five years touring and representing the city of New Orleans and our country. … And I have to tell you that I know as people around our country of all hues look at these images and hear these people talk, they will understand that these are beautiful people. And there’s nothing to fear. So the whole history and legacy we had for polarization, using race and other issues, pointing fingers at each other, this was at the root of slavery, it was argued when the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence was being established, the Civil War, it was at the center of that, the Civil Rights movement. We’ve had a whole legacy of these things. It’s time for us to dig down into our souls and realize that this is the time for us to redefine American greatness.
Then, as he lifted his trumpet to his lips and played the slow dirge of “St. James Infirmary,” I sat in that apartment and tears rolled down my cheeks for my home, my family, my town, my people, and all the uncertainty that still lay ahead.
Wynton Marsalis singing "St. James Infirmary" in Spike Lee's 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke.
In New Orleans, a dirge is often just a jazz funeral’s beginning; after the loved one is interred, the band picks up its beat, the weary lift their feet, and a second line dance celebrating life exits the cemetery grounds. That process was slow after Katrina, but it didn’t take long to detect its growing undercurrent.
As we could, we came home. As one parish line opened up and then another, as friends and family piled into whoever’s house was dry and had room, as jobs slowly returned, or didn’t, we came home. We gutted, we cleaned, we sorted. Construction debris in one pile; limbs and fallen trees in another; household chemicals and paints in a third; appliances—including the rows of duck-taped refrigerators emptied of their putrid contents and spray-painted with signs decrying the times—in another pile. Week after week, these canyons built up along the edges of streets, intended for pick up by the constantly roving demolition and trash crews; the sounds of chainsaws and roofers’ hammers and the constant thumping of helicopter rotors beat the air.
The author taking a break from helping his sister clean her house, which had stewed in five feet of water, just two blocks on the wrong side of the water line.
The “first response” would drag on for months, even years of response and rebuilding. But in those early months we could hear the first whisper of the second line beat to which our community would grow to dance. Before the storm, the Voodoo Music Festival in New Orleans’s City Park had grown into a hip up-and-comer on the national music festival scene, stretching to fill multiple days over the Halloween weekend. After Katrina, the festival’s proposed future alternated between cancellation and rescheduling elsewhere until former New Orleans resident and Nine Inch Nails front-man Trent Reznor advocated for keeping it in town. So two months after the storm, Voodoo Fest was held in a riverfront park—a one-day-only, free-of-charge event open to first responders and relief workers. Local acts were cheered on by National Guardsmen from the Midwest. Roofers and nurses whirled in mosh pits on damp ground. In New Orleans, people stopped working and worrying for a couple hours, and came together to listen to music.
A month and a half later, the law firm that employed me, as I worked remotely from the city, returned from the exile of their temporary quarters in Jackson, Mississippi, just in time for our annual Christmas dinner in the French Quarter. Upstairs at Arnaud’s, the Joe Simon trio played trad and Dixieland classics. I requested “St. James Infirmary” and listened to it quietly, but smiling this time because friends and colleagues were coming back. Nothing was simple. Some people who came back would leave again, and nothing would ever be the same, but there was no longer the issue of “if” New Orleans would be back.
The Joe Simon Trio, with Joe Simon on bass, playing a brunch at Muriel's Restaurant.
Following the holiday and the end of a dreadful Saints-season-in-exile, depression and desperation set in—there was still so much work to do. Reports started going out around the country noting that “[a] growing chorus of critics, concerned that throwing a massive party would be unseemly and impractical when much of New Orleans remains in ruins, are pressuring authorities to do the unthinkable: call off Mardi Gras.”
Music and Mardi Gras and New Orleans are intertwined, even inextricable. We need our traditions, we need to dance, we need our Mardi Gras Indians and our Skull and Bone Men, we need drumming and Lundi Gras night on Frenchmen Street, we need to mask, we need to come together on the neutral ground for a city-wide family picnic, we need to poke fun at you, we need to poke fun at ourselves, we need our brass bands, we need our marching bands, we need to be angry, we need to be joyful. And we needed it all that year.
During Mardi Gras weekend of 2006, six months after the storm, I went with an old friend, Michael Behan (pronounced “bayin’,” like what a wolf does at the moon), down to Mid-City’s Rock ‘n’ Bowl to bowl a few frames and catch a set by the Rebirth Brass Band. Mid-City was one of those flooded neighborhoods, parts of which had stewed in eight to twelve feet of water for weeks after the storm, one of those neighborhoods where few people had returned so soon after.
In the past, Rock ‘n’ Bowl would have been packed to capacity for a Rebirth show during Mardi Gras, but that night, in that neighborhood, in that year, it was a group of maybe a hundred, maybe more like fifty, who watched the Rebirth men wail on their trumpets and trombones and saxes and sousaphones to the steady beat of a snare drum and a big, battered bass drum. During the set break, old friends with glistening eyes bumped fists, white and black, hugged, asked “Where y’at?” and “How’d you make out?” and said, “It’s great to be home, great to see you.” Of course, there were packed venues that night in some places—down in the Quarter and in the Warehouse District near the tourists’ hotels there were lots of crowds and raucous behavior—but this was home, and these were our people, and this was our homecoming.
The Heckuva Job Brownie Company, Mardi Gras morning, 2006.
Lundi Gras night, Michael and I stayed up until four in the morning fiddling with duct tape and blue roofing tarp and, only a few hours later, woke up and donned our homemade costumes: the blue bakers’ uniforms of the “Heckuva Job Brownie Company,” complete with George Bush masks affixed to wooden cooking spoons to hold in front of our faces, mocking some out-of-touch remarks made by the president to the former director of FEMA. We drove downtown, parked in the Marigny, and began a serpentine parade into the Quarter, then on toward the parade route in the Central Business District.
In addition to countless guffaws and shouts of “Heck of a job, Brownie,” there were a number of highly emotional responses to our get-up. One young man, maybe twenty or so, pulled up to us as we crossed a street in the Quarter, twisted his arms in a violent contortion and gave us a full-body flipping of the bird. We laughed, then he laughed, then flipped another full-body bird. One little girl, about five or six years old, burst into tears upon seeing us. Three teen-aged boys sitting on the low wall bordering Lafayette Square shouted, over and over, “Get the fuck out of here, Bush! Get the fuck out of here, Bush! Get the fuck out of here, Bush!” Another young man looked at my mask and said, “I oughta’ shoot you in the face.” A woman, leaning against a beat-up car in the Quarter with five or six other people, put down her joint to get in my face and yell, “Well, when are you going to come down and see my house in Chalmette?! See what a fucking heck of a job you done down there!” Her husband restrained her before she could say or do anything more. A conservative-looking older woman, probably in her 70s, took one look at our company logo and said, “Should have said ‘fuck-u-va,’” then invited us back to her courtyard for a beer, an offer that we accepted. Walking up and down the neutral ground on Canal Street, we were followed and serenaded by a bearded older man with a ukulele, dancing and singing, “Brownie you’re the best / To heck with all the rest / We don’t sing this in jest / ‘Cause Brownie you’re the best.”
Beloved and now departed New Orleans blogger Ashley Morris most aptly summed up the feeling of walking through the crowds on that Mardi Gras morning: “Damn, I’m glad I live here. Proud to call it home, indeed.” We masked, we marched, we made music.
One of the crowd, marked by the mud from the weekend's downpour, Jazz Fest, April 30, 2006.
The weekend of April 28, 2006, saw the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—Jazz Fest—since the storm. As with Mardi Gras, there had been naysayers, but we’d learned to tune them out. Besides, we had worries to forget about in the sunlight of the Fest, with a new hurricane season just a month away and so much work left to do. On Friday my wife and I entered through the gates not long after they opened, tears in our eyes and lumps in our throats. I barely remember the music I heard that day, but I do remember the people: People from home, and people from everywhere else, coming to sit with us and share with us. We thanked so many perfect strangers for coming to our city and eating our food and listening to our music and spending their money.
On the Sunday of that opening weekend, my sister and I camped in front of the main stage to hear Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band play their first official performance in support of their just-released We Shall Overcome album. I don’t know why I thought it was important to be there. I’d never been a Springsteen fan. It had stormed the night before, leaving ankle-deep mud that oozed around our blanket. We sat through great sets by Los Vecinos, John Mooney and Bluesiana, Sonny Landreth, and Allen Toussaint with Elvis Costello.
When the time came for the Seeger Sessions Band, eighteen musicians took the stage with Springsteen: fiddlers, horn players, a banjoist, acoustic guitarists, a pianist, a couple of drummer/percussionists, a pedal steel guitar player, some vocalists. It was an immersion and an integration of performers and congregants and time and place.
The band started with songs from We Shall Overcome then played some Springsteen classics re-imagined for the big band—nothing specific to New Orleans, but it was all about us that day. The first song, O Mary Don’t You Weep, found Springsteen yelling for special emphasis on the line, “Not a wall of water, but fire next time,” with corresponding rise in the crowd’s response.
The following songs—loud, rattling versions of “John Henry,” “Johnny 99,” and “Old Dan Tucker”—lifted spirits. The band then slowed into “Eyes on the Prize.” For the first time that day, 70,000 people stood transfixed, tears in their eyes, singing along softly. The band picked up again with a playfully angry “Jesse James.” After that, Springsteen told the crowd the band was going to play a song “about the other great American natural disaster in our country’s history,” then played “My Oklahoma Home.” 70,000 voices again joined together to sing the chorus, “It blowed away / It blowed away / My Oklahoma home has blown away / Well, it looked so green and fair / When I left her standing there / But my Oklahoma home has blown away,” 70,000 voices again echoed the “blowed away’s” together.
Introducing his rewrite of a Blind Alfred Reed song recorded after the 1929 stock market crash, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” Springsteen told the crowd, “We had a chance to travel around in New Orleans yesterday, from Lakeview to the Ninth Ward, and I think I saw sights I never thought I’d see in an American city. The criminal ineptitude makes you furious. This is what happens when political cronyism cuts the very agencies that are supposed to serve American citizens in times of trial and hardship. And this is what happens when people play political games with other people’s lives.” Springsteen then dedicated the song to “President Bystander,” and belted out lines capturing our own anger and frustration.
The Seeger Session Band performing "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," at Jazz Fest, April 30, 2006.
After rousing versions of “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Open All Night,” and “Pay Me My Money Down,” along with a powerful, slowed-down “We Shall Overcome,” Springsteen opened his encore with “My City of Ruins.” From the opening chord, every note and every word sounded like it was for New Orleans and about New Orleans. From the “blood red circle on the cold, dark ground,” to “the rain is falling down,” to “the church doors blown open” and “the congregation’s gone,” to “the sweet veils of mercy,” “My City of Ruins” resonated the experiences of the previous nine months. When the band got to the “With these hands” chorus, 140,000 hands rose into the sky. No cheeks were dry. The sun, just setting behind the crowd, poured sharp golden beams through the sea of arms and hands.
Something about the performance made our collective experience infinitely more bearable. By the time the band had finished their encore, a haunting version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and my sister and I had slowly made our way out the festival gates, something of the anger had dissipated. The anxiety about the impending hurricane season, though not erased, was mellowed.
If you ask New Orleanians about milestones in the recovery, they’ll come up with a list of musical events. Unfailingly, they’ll mention Springsteen’s Jazz Fest set as a particularly poignant marker. Life in New Orleans wasn’t all sunshine and roses after that performance, but the ubiquitous sense of defeat had turned to determination.
Another landmark New Orleanians generally agree upon was the reopening of the Superdome on September 25, 2006. Music was a big part of that celebration as well. From brass-band and hip-hop and local rock music outside the Dome, to the gripping performance by mega-acts U2 and Green Day inside the building, we celebrated our grandest public structure and our resurgent athletic team as only we could.
The reopening of the Superdome was marked by music and dancing, both inside the Dome and out, September 26, 2006.
As the second year after the storm progressed, we needed to remind the nation of what had happened here, what was still happening here, every day, with everyone still not home, with too many FEMA trailers dotting too many neighborhoods, with houses gutted or completely abandoned. Music, as it always had been, was New Orleans’s connection to the rest of the world. During a Christmas episode of NBC’s short-lived Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip, New Orleans musicians Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Kirk Joseph, Kid Merv, Roderick Paulin, Bob French, Steve Walker, and Frederick Shepherd teamed up for a memorable “O Holy Night,” which, through the original broadcast and through the deluge of subsequent downloads, helped raise awareness for the city and for the Tipitina’s Foundation.
Performance of "O Holy Night" by New Orleans musicians on Studio 60, December 2006
The musical landmarks of the recovery, like the recovery itself, keep rising up—bounce, flow, brass, funk, trad, Dixieland, modern jazz, folk, bluegrass, rock, metal (yes, metal), electronica, DJs, punk, latin, marching bands, R&B, blues; black kids with bottle caps on their shoes tap-dancing for spare change, and out-of-town white kids with mangy dogs and dreadlocks banging out folk songs for change even sparer; a packed club or a street corner, or a fight with the city over permitting, or a guy and a girl hanging out in an apartment writing something new, or a piano in a church on a Sunday morning, or old dudes playing older tunes in a backyard, or college kids on a front porch stoop singing a song they heard the night before—these landmarks are music, and they’re alive, and they’re us.
As Steve Earle said in a song he penned for David Simon’s Treme series, itself another, newer musical landmark of our recovery,
Doesn’t matter, let come what may.
I ain’t ever going to leave this town.
This city won’t wash away,
This city won’t ever drown.
Steve Earle discussing and singing his song, "This City," from HBO's Treme series.