"Strong wind, strong wind. Many dead tonight it could be you. And we are homeless, homeless. Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake."1
How do we comprehend the drowning of New Orleans, home of Bourbon Street and Rampart Street and the St. James Infirmary and the whorehouse of the Rising Sun and so much jazz and folk and blues and Rock 'n' Roll that the city has always been one of the most crucial touchstones of American culture?
The roots of American rhythm are in Africa, and their tore-off broken branches were forcibly brought here in slave ships and still, somehow, took deep, deep root. And in the 19th Century, in Congo Square in New Orleans, the harsh rules of inhuman bondage were temporarily loosened while a multitude of African descendants played African instruments and, as best they could remember, played African rhythms and danced African dances and sang African songs.
"Town's folk would gather around the square on Sunday afternoons to witness," writes Thomas L. Morgan. "In 1819, a visitor to the city, Benjamin Latrobe wrote about the celebrations in his journal. He was amazed at the sight of five or six hundred unsupervised slaves that had assembled for dancing. He described them as ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts, with fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells and balls, jingling and flirting about the performers legs and arms... In addition to drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments and quillpipes made from reeds strung together like panpipes, marimbas and European instuments like the violin, tamborines and triangles were also used."
Out of these gatherings, these mixings of African music and culture and America and hard times, came the greatest music America would ever know. Ragtime and Stride led to Jazz led to Boogie-woogie led to Gospel and Rhythm & Blues and Rock 'n' Roll and Zydeco. Then there was Cajun, come from the bayous by way of Canada and France. It is safe to say that virtually no form of American music in the last 150 years has not been influenced by New Orleans. Musicians from other parts called it the Big Easy because the city had so much music that it was an easy place to get a job. Let the saints go marchin' in. Let the good times roll.
Louis Armstrong grew up in New Orleans; they named the airport after him. His trumpet is in a museum there - or at least it was, before Katrina hit. The Marsalis family. Three generations of Nevilles. The great and amazing New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
"Well, I'm walkin' to New Orleans" happily sang Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Fats Domino, one of the greatest boogie and stride piano players of our time. Lost in the floodwaters for almost four days, they finally pulled him out last Thursday. Another Hall of Famer, the legendary Allen Toussaint, who wrote "Java," "Whipped Cream," "Right Place Wrong Time" and "Mother-in-Law," among so many, many others, and who produced so many other great artists, was also missing during the first days of the flood. Later they found him at the Superdome. Irma Thomas, officially named by the city the "Soul Queen of New Orleans," may still be missing.
What happened to your vaunted mojo, precious city?
"Superstition is all I own. I've got black eyes and black cat bones. My demons won't feed me, they don't need me, I feel small... Just as tough as you can make it, I can take it all... If you teach me how to take it easy, I'll take it all."2
Maybe we should ask the rock & roll doctor? "His patients come from Mobile, from Moline, from Madison. From Macon, Georgia down to New Orleans, in beat up old cars and limousines to meet the doctor of soul."3
Doctor, what do we do now for our rhythm and our blues?
We mourn, baby. Now it's all we can do. We mourn.
"Whippoorwill's singing, on a soft summer breeze. Makes me think of my baby, I left down in New Orleans."4
New Orleans has always been tied to the landscape that surrounds it.
"The stars can see Biloxi. The stars can find their faces in the sea. We are walking in the evening by the ocean. And the storms will blow from off towards New Orleans."5
That one storm, that Katrina, she blew down Biloxi. She sure blew.
"What has happened down here is the wind have changed... Louisiana, Louisiana. They're tryin' to wash us away. They're tryin' to wash us away." 6
Ten thousand may be dead. They are the weak, the sick, the old, the infirm, the many, many poor. They are the ancestors of the slaves of Congo Square. Bodies floating in the muck, and all of us, some way deep in our hearts, homeless, homeless, moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake.
"Roll our your old-time carriage. Roll out your rubber-tyre hack. There's 12 men goin' to the graveyard, but 11 comin' back."7
New Orleans is the spiritual home of American music. Now it's a waning stew of rot, sewage, rats and poisonous snakes
Strong wind, strong wind. Many dead tonight it could be you.
1 "Homeless" by Paul Simon and Joseph Shabalala
2. "Take it All," Chris Smither.
3. "Rock 'n' Roll Doctor," Lowell George.
4. "Magnolia," J.J. Cale.
5. "Biloxi," Jesse Winchester.
6. "Louisiana 1927," Randy Newman.
7. "Frankie and Johnny," traditional.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. She can be reached at email@example.com.