This is the story of a song that has taken on a life of its own. I have been lucky enough to spend time in New Orleans off and on for most of my life. In the 1980s, I began to frequent the Crescent City as an adult and learned about places to go that are away from the French Quarter, the city’s colorful and well-renowned tourist destination. Like my friends in Mobile, where I lived from 1980 until 1987, I loved the French Quarter. But they knew where the locals went to hear music, eat and party. They opened my eyes to other parts of New Orleans and introduced me to their friends who then became my friends.
The Maple Leaf Bar is down on Oak Street
I learned about the Carrollton Avenue area which includes The Camellia Grill, The Maple Leaf Bar, Carrollton Station and other haunts that became favorites for me. I also began playing music in New Orleans and writing songs about my experiences there. Although I moved to Nashville in 1987, I have never stopped playing music (and just playing) in New Orleans.
In 1988, I wrote a song called Below the Level of the Sea. Any length of time I spend in New Orleans stirs my creative juices like a Napoleon House cocktail and this song emerged. It became the title song of my first Nashville-produced album and has been a concert favorite ever since (thank you!). In 2008, I recorded a new version that includes saxophones, now often a part of our concert performances, for the New Orleans Set CD.
This really is a writer’s town
John Travis is the editor of the Maple Leaf Rag, a poetry anthology series using the work of poets who read at the weekly Everette Maddox Memorial Poetry and Prose event at the Maple Leaf Bar. Thanks to introductions from Mobile friends Max Reed and Peter McGowin in the 1980s, the late Everette Maddox, the series founder, asked me to play my original songs at the event periodically. Nancy Harris, the poet who conducts the series now, has graciously invited me to appear, as well. John asked me if I would submit some lyrics as poems for his 2010 edition, the Maple Leaf Rag IV. I was honored and I submitted Below the Level of the Sea, along with a song called New Orleans in the Spring. They were included in the book, to my delight.
You live your life and you write it down
Seeing my words in a New Orleans poetry anthology thrilled me. But, as I said, the song has a life of its own and just as the Mississippi River winds through the city, it took another turn. Artist Barbara Le Blanc was commissioned to produce a piece for the Blue Plate Artist Lofts, a new residential project. The lofts are located in renovated Blue Plate mayonnaise factory building. She had read the lyrics to Below the Level of the Sea in Maple Leaf Rag IV and contacted me about using them in her project. Again, it was an honor to have my words considered for such a presentation.
I have learned that it’s impossible to know where what you write will lead. Sometimes after you write a song, it will take you where it wants to go, much like a St. Charles Avenue streetcar. With Below the Level of the Sea, I believe that I am now just along for the ride.Maple Leaf Rag IV, An Anthology of Poetic Writings, New Orleans
Liner Notes Copyright 2013 by Les Kerr