Followers of my music and this blog know how much I have always loved New Orleans. From family vacations when we lived in Jackson, Mississippi to later living just down Highway 90 (or I-10) in Pascagoula and Mobile, I grew up well within range of the spell the city casts upon so many. As I wrote in a song called Below the Level of the Sea, “Her rhythm and her blues are part of me.”
As sure as it causes you to sweat in the summer on Decatur Street, New Orleans’ humidity carries the French Quarter’s history in an almost tangible manner. I never tire of learning about how this city became “New Orleans” and these three books may be of interest if you’re a fan of that seductive city.
The World that Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette
This is a history book of the most interesting kind, going back to the 1600s to the first explorers up until 1819. The impact of what happened then is relevant now musically and culturally. The author explores the influence of slaves coming in from Africa via the Caribbean and the impact that what is now Haiti and what was and still is Cuba had on New Orleans.
Changes made in New Orleans as a Spanish colony (where everyone still spoke French) in the second half of the 1700s, such as sidewalks and architecture, were significant. It was a surprise to me that St. Charles Avenue was named after Spanish King Carlos IV. Frenchmen Street got its name because it is where the second Spanish governor executed the former French colonists who had run the first Spanish governor off to Havana. Think about that the next time you’re in Snug Harbor (626 Frenchmen St.) listening to Charmaine Neville rocking with her great band!
Dixie Bohemia by John Shelton Reed
William Faulkner and artist William Spratling shared a French Quarter apartment in the 1920s. The aspiring writer and the cartoonist wrote an amusing little book about friends and acquaintances called Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles. Among the ironies of the book (which included Faulkner’s text and Spratling’s drawings) is that only two of its subjects were “Creoles.” The term originally applied only to colonists or descendants of colonists. Faulkner’s contemporaries were described with affectionate send-ups in the small book.
The author of Dixie Bohemia uses the Faulkner/Spratling book as a roadmap of the 20thCentury Bohemian period of the French Quarter and includes a great step-by-step progression applicable to any area deemed “bohemian” from start to finish. In a nutshell, the “bohemian” neighborhood starts as a slum only affordable to starving artists. Then, as others take notice, begin to improve it and encourage people to move there, the original inhabitants are priced out and must leave to find more affordable accommodations.
If you have read Faulkner’s Mosquitoes, you’ll recall a scene involving a boat trip on Lake Ponchartrain throwing the characters together in a small space. There was such a boat trip with Faulkner and his friends and readers (including the subjects themselves) later argued about which character was which real person. Oddly devoid of many musical references, especially since this was the “Jazz Age” in a city known as the “cradle of Jazz,” the book stands out because it focuses on the non-music interests of the principals.
Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans by John Broven
Originally published in 1978, this book may seem dated to those who only know the contemporary New Orleans music scene. The Neville brothers (with a small “b”) were all there but had not become the powerhouse funk unit that made the capital “B” necessary. Henry Roland “Roy” Byrd, whom the world knew as “Professor Longhair,” was still alive. Within the previous two decades, incredible rock and roll standards like Sea Cruise, Mother In Law and Iko Iko had come from New Orleans and swept the nation and were still within fresh memory (and radio airplay). I remember well walking on Bourbon Street by the Crazy Korner where Clarence “Frogman” Henry (who made national hits for Chess Records) held forth in the mid-seventies.
What strikes me as an armchair musicologist and fan of music in general is the detailed history of how those records were made. The impact of mom and pop record stores and studios, as well as the long-vanished regional hit, cannot be understated. When national record companies started taking notice of New Orleans, Fats Domino took what he called rhythm and blues across America.
At the time the book was published, the author was still amazed at how little the music of New Orleans was appreciated by the outside world. Since the 1980s, that has been changing. The movie The Big Easy, the cable series Treme and other media have had a big impact. The flooding after Hurricane Katrina helped scatter New Orleans culture, music, cuisine and musicians around the world.
So let these books take you on a trip to the New Orleans of your choice and please comment below about what you may be reading about “The City that Care Forgot.” You can also click the image of my New Orleans Set CD above to sample or download songs I was inspired to write about New Orleans.
Text and photos copyright 2009, 2013 by Les Kerr.