Music of the Big Easy soothes the ghosts of hard times
settings aren’t: you can smell the bayou and all but taste the po’boy sandwiches.
You can smell the damp indoors, too, in his novel The Tin Roof Blowdown, a must for outsiders who want a sense of the emotional and physical landscape postKatrina. So too is the HBO TV series Treme (a great primer on music, though the body count might make would-be visitors excessively anxious about street crime). Another must is 1 Dead in Attic, Chris Rose’s diary of a city “with a permanent bathtub ring around it”. It’s a raw and personal read (Rose and his wife split up and he got addicted to antidepressants), but infused with a deep love for the city and a sardonic sense of humour.
Both qualities were in evidence during a tour of his I joined, on which his “spirit guide” was Ernie K-Doe, “the clown and crown prince” of New Orleans rhythm and blues. K-Doe frequently claimed that his 1961 hit “Mother-In-Law” was, with “Amazing Grace” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”, one of “three songs that will last for eternity”. He also said: “I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.” Rose, a lean, restless man with a nose fit for journalism, was intent on convincing us that that was true. As we set off from Jackson Square, he told us that North America’s first opera house had been on Bourbon Street, as had the venue where Mozart’s music was first performed in the US. “That is now Big Easy Daiquiris. Oh, how we have preserved our culture!” At the end, finishing as strongly as he had promised, he brought us to “the place where rock’n’roll was born” – where Roy Brown in 1947 recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight” – “and it’s [now] a laundromat!” In between, antsy, articulate, entertaining, he pressed the claims of Louisiana as the originator of country and an Michael Kerr was a guest of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (neworleans. com) and British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com). BA flies five times a week between London Heathrow and New Orleans; returns from £590. He stayed at the Hotel Monteleone (001 504 523 3341; hotelmonteleone. com; double room in early June from $195/£142 a night) and International House (001 504 553 9550; ihhotel.com; from $159).
Friends of the Cabildo (001 504 523 3939; friendsofthecabildo. org); Historic New Orleans Tours (001 504 947 2120; tour neworleans.com); Know NOLA Tours (001 504 264 2483; know nolatours.com); Chris Rose (firstname.lastname@example.org). by Ned Sublette (Lawrence Hill Books); by Chris Rose (Simon and Schuster); by Lawrence N Powell (Harvard University Press); by Freddi Williams Evans. inspiration for reggae, and of New Orleans as the birthplace of hip-hop.
Rose made the last assertion on the edge of the Treme district in Congo Square, which historian Freddi Williams Evans calls “the root of African American culture in the United States”. Under the French and Spanish, not even enslaved Africans were allowed to work on Sunday, so they gathered there in their hundreds to sing, dance and trade, preserving the rhythms, rites and rituals of home.
Until 2011, the square was officially called Beauregard, after a Confederate general. With meticulous research, Evans, a woman of bright smile and penetrating gaze, was instrumental in persuading the city authorities to follow local usage and revert to Congo. She has also helped devise a selfguided tour of city slave-trade sites.
As I chatted to her at a coffee shop, she introduced Malik Bartholomew, who runs Know NOLA Tours and agreed to show me the Treme. These things happen in New Orleans.
Bartholomew – whose family fled Katrina and whose parents have never returned – is a cheery soul with close-cropped hair, a great semicircle of beard and a gift for walking backwards without stumbling over words or holed pavement. I haven’t room to do justice to the ground he covered, physically, culturally and historically, over a morning with me and two New Yorkers, Erica and Chris. But Chris put it well: “I lived here for five years,” he said. “I learned way more today than I ever knew.”
We finished by walking under a stretch of freeway that in 1968 was cut right through the Treme to link suburban New Orleans to downtown. Homes, businesses and ancient live oaks were flattened, along a space that had long been the scene of black Mardi Gras gatherings. Since 2002, in a “Restore the Oaks” project, the freeway’s pillars have been painted with murals depicting the slave trade, the struggle for civil rights, local heroes from Ernie K-Doe to Fats Domino – and those lost live oaks.
Sights more obviously touristic were on the itinerary for two other tours I took, one an illuminating stroll through the French Quarter with Friends of the Cabildo, a volunteer group that supports the Louisiana State Museum, the other themed on cemeteries and voodoo, with Historic For more than 150 years, streetcars have rumbled along St Charles Avenue on the “neutral Thanks to fires in 1788 and 1794, the only extant building in New Orleans from the French period (and the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley) is the Old Ursuline Convent, built in 1745. It’s now a museum (oldursulineconventmuseum.com), with a new exhibit exploring the Catholic Church’s three centuries in the Crescent City.
New Orleans Tours. At St Louis Cemetery No 1, tighter controls have stopped devotees scratching triple-Xs on the tomb of “Voodoo Queen” Marie Laveau, but they haven’t deterred admirers of the actor Nicolas Cage from pressing red lips to the white walls of the pyramid where he plans to be interred. A more decorous tribute sits in front of the tomb of the chess champion Paul Morphy: one pawn.
I hadn’t heard of Morphy; I’m more familiar with the achievements of New Orleans jazzmen. At the Jazz Museum, where blast-proof doors betray its old life as the US Mint, I got a close look at the first cornet used by Louis Armstrong, which he played, according to the caption, “as an adolescent at the Colored Waif ’s [sic] Home”. Across the room was the white Steinway of Fats Domino, saved from his house after Katrina and restored with donations from fans, including Sir Paul McCartney.
The museum’s curator, David Kunian, tipped me off that Johnny Vidacovich, one of the best drummers in the city, was due to play that night at the Maple Leaf Bar. I rattled there in the dusk – past mansions set like wedding cakes on lawn – on another historical artefact: the St Charles Avenue streetcar, “the oldest, continuously operating street railway line in the world”. I got two brilliant drummers for the price of one: Vidacovich trading licks under the tin ceiling with Stanton Moore, accompanied by Ivan Neville on keyboard.
“The Leaf ” reopened after Katrina on September 30 2005, when most of the city was still dark and deep. Bluesman Walter “Wolfman” Washington and his band, powered by a diesel generator, got the joint jumping – until the police ruled that a curfew was still in force.
That, to me, exemplifies the spirit of New Orleans. Its people, whatever is thrown at them, get up and get on. At the end of The Tin Roof Blowdown, Robicheaux declares that “New Orleans was a song that went under the waves.” Maybe it did, but it has refused to stay there.
I know they’re sung in defiance of geography and meteorology, but I prefer the lyrics to Steve Earle’s “This City”: “This city won’t wash away, This city won’t ever drown.”
French Quarter, above; historic street car, top; Preservation Hall jazz, below
Jackson Square, named after the man who beat the British