Monday, September 6, 2021

What Happened on Highway 61 - Part 2: The Big Easy

By A Tyke Dahnsarf
To read Part 1 of this blog series, please go HERE

"Baby please don't you go down to New Orleans, you know I love you so. Baby please don't go."
--Big Joe Williams (1935)

There are cities you can't help falling in love with. They have that intangible something, an aura, a magic that permeates the very air that surrounds them. New Orleans is such a City and I was smitten from the moment the A300 touched tarmac at Louis Armstrong airport.

We were billeted in the French quarter, where tourism is displayed in Technicolor and Dolby surround sound. Often, careworn and grubby, it clings precariously to life, held together only by the Blutack of collective will; it's magnificent patina a magnet to many. It has no pretensions, displaying it's light firmly placed before the bushel and heart worn proudly on it's sleeve for all to see. At once cosmopolitan and provincial, conservative and carefree it is a haven to the deviant and dispossessed, embracing diversity as a mother would an itinerant but talented, favorite child. Yet, and for good reason, the Big Easy's citizens live in the now; tomorrow is an indulgence only the tourists can afford. Enjoying the moment is the raison d'etre of the natives of Nola and all-comers are welcome to join them in their hedonism. And, what better way to jig than to a tune of the Devil's making?

It was indeed, the music created in this great city which was the primary drive to begin my odyssey. A cradle to all the greats so, inevitable that I should visit all the places chronicling their lives and to experience some of the vibe of the Petri dish where their talent was nurtured. The French quarter bars look as though they might be constructed in a studio back-lot in Burbank and transported to Bourbon Street, but convey something of how it might have been. In any case, troubadours hustling tourist dollars for song requests is in keeping with this great city's tradition.

Amongst the wealth of museums and exhibits celebrating New Orleans' gift to the world, is the Katrina Exhibition. Not that the descriptives of celebration or gift can be applied to this tearful, moving experience, which documents a human catastrophe on a Pompeiian scale. However, the resulting outcome, with its message of optimism for the future and can-do attitude is, at least uplifting. At the of risk of this particular Limey telling grannie how to suck eggs, I would urge that you include this in your itinerary if planning to visit. It probably says as much about the fortitude of this fascinating city, and determined inventiveness of it's people as any musical construct of 12 bars. More on the pride the citizens take in their heritage, later in this missive.

Another most surprising and rewarding experience in New Orleans was that provided by the Ranger Service.

In Britain, Rangers range over ranges, are little seen and seemingly, purposed only with the task of overseeing the fauna and flora in their care. In the US, they are interactive, not just custodians of green spaces but of public buildings of note where they also act as guides, historians and (in New Orleans anyway) musicians.

I can recommend a visit to the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park near the French Market where free concerts are given. Provided by, not only, the excellent resident Ranger band but also, by extraordinarily gifted musicians performing music of the current scene. The lectures (also free) provided by erudite Rangers are exemplary, as the talk attended on the post-Antebellum period and resulting social consequence to the region proved to be. Certainly, it gave music of the South, Mississippi Delta and Blues music in particular - a further historical perspective otherwise unknown to me. As did my introduction to T Dwayne Moore, who had a rendezvous to interview a musician friend accompanying us on our trip. Dwayne's outstanding knowledge of the music, history underpinning it and his work in preserving churches, burial grounds and gravesites of great Blues artists was equally revelatory to me. More on grave matters in my latter scribblings.

Also, on a subject not entirely unrelated to the music of the South - Mardi Gras, a European festival transported to but made uniquely New OrleanIan - it too, can only truly be appreciated after visiting the city. Originally, a Pagan festival in the hope of, and celebration of survival, it became the more poignant in the aftermath of Katrina. It was the very Krewes participating and competing in this huge event, that coalesced to help re-build the city after this terrible disaster. To their credit, It was largely the resilience and tenacity of the people, not State or Federal intervention that ensured New Orleans didn't share the fate of Pompeii. Much damage remains but you can only admire them for their proud stoicism and continuing, welcoming, bonhomie in the face of such adversity.

Next, the Bayou and beyond - how a Catholic France and Canada's loss became Louisiana's gain.

To be continued...

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