A Second Line for New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina affects us all one way or another. The disaster is something much larger than any of us -- collectively or individually -- and we will never be able to gauge its complete impact. But if any city can begin to imagine what New Orleans is going through, it's Miami. We had our own date with near-devastation more than ten years ago with Andrew, and we recently had to sweat out Katrina's first landfall.
"Apollo Kid" will be back to its regularly scheduled programming next week, but in honor of the fallen and fleeing in the Gulf Coast states, this column is dedicated to New Orleans and the other areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama scathed by this tragedy. This is our way of letting them know our hearts and prayers are with them.
As a tribute, I've culled a few songs from or about that area. This is by no means a "New Orleans Greatest Hits." I wouldn't even pretend to be an expert on that city's music scene, and I doubt a few songs could do justice to its long and storied musical past. Artists such as Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Aaron Neville, The Meters, and so many more made such a lasting impact on American music. But this is simply a mixtape of songs that serve as personal signposts -- sonic triggers that remind me of the Big Easy.
Fats Domino, "Walking to New Orleans": My first memories of listening to music involve traveling in my grandmother's big blue Cadillac to our family's hometown of Waterproof, Louisiana. You don't lose cool points if you've never heard of Waterproof. It's a dying town along the Mississippi River that as of the 2002 Census had a population of 893 with a median income of $10,000 per household. In 50 years, it's doubtful it will even exist. If New Orleans had a sudden submersion into a nightmarish apocalypse, then Waterproof is taking a slow ride into the sunset.
For the road trips my grandmother would bring a handful of eight-tracks that served as a musical education for a young Apollo Kid. Fats Domino was a favorite. This song might be called "Walking to New Orleans," but it's really more of a strut through that city. Fats tells his woman: "You used to be my honey/Till you spent all my money/No use for you to cry/I'll see you in the by and by." Luckily Fats won't be reunited with his O.G. gold digger just yet. The hardheaded New Orleans legend refused to leave his hometown when Katrina was approaching but was thankfully rescued from the flood.
Hank Williams, "On the Banks of the Ponch": This is another track from my Waterproof days. Hank Williams was to country music what James Brown was to soul -- a high-water mark many would try to foolishly replicate but none could ever really touch. Deceptively simple music about life in the rural South, Williams's songs dealt with themes of betrayal, desperation, and salvation -- everything a young kid needs to know about. I think my grandmother was a bit disturbed that I had memorized all of Williams's lyrics by the age of eight. This song revolves around an escaped convict who wandered through Texas and Louisiana before resting on the banks of "old Pontchartrain," the same lake that spilt into New Orleans. While hiding out, Williams finds a "fair maiden" whom he vows never to leave. Of course, Johnny Law comes to pick up our smooth criminal, and Williams is forced to abandon his love without saying goodbye.
Tom Waits, "I Wish I Was in New Orleans (in the 9th Ward)": Tom Waits wasn't born in New Orleans (he's from Southern California and now lives in Marin County), but with his raspy, near-growling voice; barroom narratives; and reliance on blues and jazz idioms, Waits owes more than a little to that city's musical legacy. He's not alone in romanticizing the bluesy swagger and smoky cool of New Orleans. In "I Wish I Was in New Orleans," Waits references "When the Saints Go Marching In," pines for red beans and rice, and threatens to drink the city under the table.
Lil' Wayne, "The Carter": Lil' Wayne is like the Radiohead of rap. When he first hit the scene with the Hot Boyz, he was dismissed as a gimmick thanks to a painfully ubiquitous single (anybody remember "Back That Azz Up"?). But he's now one of the most respected lyricists in the South, with comparisons being made to none other than Jay-Z. When I saw Wayne during VMA weekend, I asked him how he felt about the comparison. He held my hand, bowed down to me, and whispered, "Thank you." In the midst of the VMA celebrity clusterfuck, I didn't think to ask him about his No Limit fam in New Orleans. He didn't look disturbed at the time, but none of us could have possibly imagined how bad it would've turned out. My best wishes are with him and his Cash Money family.
Soulja Slim, "Only Real Niggas": One of the more talented members of Master P's No Limit label, which paved the way for the Southern hip-hop explosion, Soulja Slim was another of hip-hop's warriors who never realized his full potential. On November 26, 2003, at the age of 25, Slim was shot to death in front of his home. Pop listeners will remember him best from his posthumous guest spot in the video for Juvenile's 2004 hit "Slow Motion," which depicted Slim's funeral.
Like all of the Big Easy's great musicians, Slim was honored with tradition. In New Orleans, funeral processions oftentimes double as parades that usually include classic brass bands (Slim's was no exception) and are called second-line celebrations, dating back to the early 1900s when musicians would pay final respects to their fallen peers with a musical sendoff.
It's in this celebratory spirit that I dedicate this column. I don't believe what they say about the demise of New Orleans; it may take a few months or even a few years, but the city will come back. And until she comes back, here are a few songs you can ride to.
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