Sunday, January 22, 2006

Ephemeral Essay #1: "Our New Orleans"

So many of the people I reached out to for help or feedback on the “St. James Infirmary” essay(s) were incredibly helpful and generous. Nick Spitzer wasn’t one of them. I wrote to him, but he ignored me.

But no hard feelings! Spitzer, host of "American Routes," remains in New Orleans and is clearly a dedicated booster of local music and culture. (And thus I still hold out hope that he'll address the New Orleans-ness of "St. James Infirmary" on his show some day.) I heard him interviewed recently on NPR, in connection with a benefit album called "Our New Orleans." In that interview he made an interesting point when talking about the varied fates and attitudes of New Orleans musicians in the post-storm era: "Some people, their careers have gotten real launch pads out of this. Allen Toussaint has been featured all over the place, as he has so richly deserved to be. Somebody like Irma Thomas, though she's living halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, it's sort of re-invigorated her career."

I think he's right. I'm no expert on these things, but pretty much anybody who has lived in New Orleans and cared about music knew that Toussaint and Thomas were giants of a sort, yet largely overlooked by the wider world. I remember being at the Mother In Law Lounge one night, and I was astonished that Toussaint stopped by and said hello to K-Doe; I mean, K-Doe was a local institution, but, somehow it seemed like Toussaint was too big a guy to materialize in that setting. (The Mother in Law is explained in Letters From New Orleans, and getting into that here would be a big digression.) But I suppose that was one of the things I loved about New Orleans, that some legendary figure could just show up in this bizarre bar, to say hello to its even more bizarre main attraction, and it was no big deal. Well it wasn't just no big deal: It was natural.

On the other hand I guess it was a reminder that while Toussaint might be a legend, he wasn't exactly a household name, even in New Orleans. Same thing with Irma Thomas. Sure, she had her own club, and I remember seeing her perform there one night (“Sing It” was a highlight) and telling the audience how she was still the same old Irma and hadn't let her status go to her head. And I remember thinking: Well, okay, you have a club, but it's between two bail bond places, near the Orleans Parish Prison; it's not exactly Vegas.

So anyway, now Toussaint has two tracks on "Our New Orleans," including a minor-key take on "Tipitina," called "Tipitina and Me" that's really quite stunning. Elvis Costello came to New Orleans, post-Katrina, to collaborate with Toussaint on a record due out later this year. I donÂ’t know if Thomas is getting quite as much attention, but she has a track on “Our New Orleans,” too. And while obviously it would be better if all this had come about for some other reason, it’s still a nice thing.

A footnote: Spitzer, in his NPR interview, echoed the general “our” New Orleans tone by informing the interviewer that in N.O. these days people talk about “the flood,” not the hurricane. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but similar themes came up on the January 8 installment of Harry Shearer’s Le Show, in which he and guests Ti Adelaide Martin, Clancy Dubos, and Chris Rose talked about the city and the government and what happens next. The show had interesting moments, and frustrating ones. But my lingering thought is that Spitzer, Shearer, and Shearer’s guests are all basically from the same racial/social/economic class -– and thus represent only a slice of the population of what was, in point of fact, a chocolate city. It’s one thing for people to make a joke or two about the mayor’s choice of words, but I’m getting a little uneasy about hearing these people talking about “our” New Orleans, and how “we” think things should play out. Particularly in light of the most recent study looking at the demographics of who was hit hardest by the storm. Or, if you prefer, the flood.

But of course I’m a long way away, so what do I know?

Anyway, Spitzer interviewed Toussaint in the December 7-13 episode of his show, in which Toussaint discusses his experiences with "our arch enemy lady, Katrina."

Here are overviews of both Toussaint and Irma from Offbeat.

Soulshower offers up some thoughts on Irma.

Homeofthegroove has done a whole series of posts about Toussaint.

* NOTE * : The Ephemeral Essays will remain on this web site until I delete them. They will not be archived. Ephemeral, you see?