FROG CAPITOL OF THE WORLD
Come on everybody take a trip with me...
The first bad smell hits us ten miles east of Beaumont, Texas, just before the refineries come into sight. Then there's a worse smell, followed by an awful smell, trailed by a big death smell from a tiny green smokestack.
"Yeow, get rid of it!" someone yells, "Make it go away!"
"Uh uh," says Nick Patoski, music freak and free-lance writer from Austin, Texas, "somebody has to bear the brunt. Somebody has to pay for all this technology. You got your car doin' 65, you got R&B playin' on your tape machine, that stuff ain't free."
"That's just it," I say. "We're payin' too much for it. The blues are dying—maybe they're dead. All the mom-and-pop truck stops are gone. High-energy technology is taking over. Life is turning to shit before our eyes. I don't wanna pay no more. Get me to New Orleans before it's too late!"
Past Mae's Loop-D-Loo Breakfast outside Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the dying afternoon light. Through Crowley, Louisiana, Rice Capitol of the World, and Rayne, Louisiana, Frog Capitol of the World, past the Boom-A-Round Car Wash and the Joy Theater and the Rice Theater. The Cajun radio station in Ville Platte is playing Clifton Chenier, and John "Juke Joint Johnny" Lumsdaine, music expert and proprietor of Down Home Music, a record store specializing in traditional music, in El Cerrito, California, cannot believe his ears. "We spend most of our lives tracking down this kind of music," he says, "finding old records, making tapes, digging up obscure musicians—and then here it is, coming over the AM radio..."
We're on our way to one of the last great folk festivals, the New Orleans Jazz Festival and Louisiana Heritage Fair. For eight years, George Wein (producer of the Newport Jazz and Folk Fests) and Quint Davis (New Orleans' resident folklorist/entrepreneur) have been throwing this party, and for eight years word-of-mouth has been drifting back about great music, terrific eats, good times.
On one level I'm going because I'm a music freak too, and still miss the Newport Folk Festival after all these years. (Rock festivals can't come close—too big, too loud, too mechanical.) But more important, I'm starting to get nervous about the speed with which regional styles and traditional modes of life are disappearing. The quality of life seems to be going downhill fast, while tradition and technology fight it out just offstage. I've never been to New Orleans, but I've started to suspect that it might be an arena where the battle can be seen close up. It seems to be one of those places where time slows down, and old values linger; underneath the mass-produced good-time image there could be something real—at the least, some clear sense of what the past felt like to compare with the recent. I'm hoping for a vantage point from which to score the rounds of the fight—and I'm looking for New Orleans mysteries.
Midnight, New Orleans, the Mississippi River. We roll into town after God knows how many hours of straight driving. Lumsdaine and I can hardly keep our eyes open, but before we let ourselves sleep there's something drawing us to the river. When we hear the bells and steam whistles we know what it is.
"Listen, man," says Lumsdaine. "It's 'Sea Cruise.'" He's right. The riverfront sound effects are virtually the same ones that run through Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise," a legendary New Orleans R&B hit also featuring Huey "Piano" Smith, a merciless sax section, and timeless lyrics like "I got the boogie-woogie like a knife in the back."
Over the levee we go, past some gates meant to keep us out, down onto some barges tied at the wharf, and right to the edge of the river. Out on the water, tugs and flatboats are unloading a big container ship from Rotterdam—floating the cargo away dreamlike, downriver, in the middle of the night. No metaphor needed here—it's a working river, and it smells like it. Oily. Funky.
Come on everybody take a trip with me
Down the Mississippi down to New Orleans...
FROM MOTHER-IN-LAW TO OOH-POO-PAH-DOO
An electric whisper runs through the crowd as Allen Toussaint sits down (unannounced) at the piano. There's a five-piece band up there too, but Toussaint, in a shiny blue suit with sequins across the shoulders, is a certified New Orleans legend. As writer/producer of an outrageous number of classic Orleans hits, from Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-In-Law" to Jessie Hill's "Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo"—not to mention "Fortune Teller," "Workin' In a Coal Mine," and "On the Way Down"—Toussaint doesn't need to play the piano for bread. But now and then he plays it for fun, or for friends. Today it's for both.
Lee Dorsey, a bouncy man in wire rims, short hair, a light green suit, and a delightful smile, rocks into "Coal Mine" by pretending to shovel coal, dancing, and leading the audience on Toussaint's habit-forming backup vocal:
Working in a coal mine
Going down down down
Working in a coal mine
Oops about to slip down...
Behind him at the keyboard, Toussaint seems totally relaxed—but he's got the beat under control, pushing it, stretching it, making it rock. It's instant New Orleans R&B, easy but irresistible, and the entire audience is in motion—clapping, waving handkerchiefs in the air, dancing in a solid crush toward the stage. Toussaint looks up for just a second to see how it's going over, flashes a shy smile, and settles back down at the piano. Music, not entertainment, is his business...
New Orleans has been behind some of the best music that ever happened, music that started long before Jelly Roll Morton and kept blazing right through rock 'n' roll until now. Probably it's because up until 1875, enslaved Africans were allowed to play drums and dance in Congo Square (sometimes known as Congo Plains)—years after it was forbidden elsewhere. Congo Square is also where Buddy Bolden blew his cornet so loud and fine you could hear him in Algiers, clear across the river.
When the United States bought New Orleans from the French in 1803, one of its first actions was to permit enslaved Africans to congregate in Congo Square on Sunday afternoons for dancing. Of course Black people had been drumming and dancing in New Orleans for many years, both in informal public gatherings and secret religious rituals. The dances in Congo Square must have been pretty hot—somewhere between a modern second-line parade and a competitive dance contest. George W. Cable, writing in 1886, noted that "Congo Plains did not gather the house servants so much as the 'field hands.' These came in troops...gangs—as they were called—gangs and gangs of them, from this and that and yonder direction."
The dances continued until 1875, when a law was passed in New Orleans that forbid Africans to enter public parks. Meanwhile, the square was renamed "Beauregard Square, and the Municipal Auditorium was built there in 1929. At that point the Treme had become a densely settled Black neighborhood—but the city simply took over the houses necessary to get the space it needed, paid the owners a pittance, and threw them out. It would not be the last time the Black community in New Orleans paid the price for the city's expansion.
Out of Congo Square came the jazzmen—Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and the rest—and when real New Orleans jazz faded in the late 1940s, New Orleans rhythm and blues took over. The honor roll includes Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, Professor (Fess) Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Lee Dorsey, Huey "Piano" Smith, Jessie Hill, Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville, Benny Spellman, Lloyd Price, Earl King, the Dixi-Kups, the Showmen, Shirley & Lee, Frankie Ford, Mac (Dr. John) Rebennack, Snooks Eaglin, the Meters, and the Neville Brothers.
You probably know what classic New Orleans R&B sounds like, even if you don't know you know. Plenty of blues piano; plenty of tenor sax; an easy-rocking beat, sometimes called "New Orleans Bounce," with lots of space around it for dancing; nonsense background vocals ("Tra-la-la-la-la-la, hoola-wala-gala") that could be bastardized French, Creole African, detuned voodoo, or just outer space jive; and a sense of fun that seems to run through all New Orleans culture. (I cite Aaron Neville's "Spaceman," in which Neville is attacked by a Martian whose ultimate goal is not to conquer the earth, it's to steal Aaron's bottle and have a party.)
These days, new New Orleans R&B is sounding a bit like reggae, which is no accident; experts (and Rastas) agree that reggae started in New Orleans. During the 1950s, powerful clear-channel radio stations in New Orleans and Miami blasted Jamaica with all the great New Orleans R&B hits—and the Jamaicans loved that shit so much that the top sound-system DJs used to fly to New Orleans and come back with their suitcases full of the latest 45s. Then, in the '60s, when many of the radio stations changed their style to bland middle-of-the-road pop music, Jamaican musicians had no choice but to try and recreate the New Orleans sound they loved—but when they added an extra few cups of Afro-Caribbean culture it came out ska, and then rock steady, and finally reggae. Nowadays the flow is running the other way; modern New Orleans R&B features the same powerful lead bass and heartbeat rhythm guitar that reggae does—and both styles share a fine, fat beat.
New Orleans is called Crescent City, or Bend City, because it follows the curve of the Mighty Mississippi as it winds to the Gulf. Down at the edge of the Mississippi River, my friend Jeff is about to reach right down into the water and grab up some Mississippi mud to smear on his postcard home. He's on his knees, he's sticking his hand down between the rocks... Wait a minute. Shit! He's up, and his hand is bleeding bad. Jeez! He cut it all to hell on a big piece of broken glass!
Noon, and the Fairgrounds are packed. Eight stages are scattered across the grassy oval inside the race track, plus a Jazz Tent, a Gospel Tent, and a bunch of food stands where vendors are busy separating people from their money in return for crawfish pie, red beans and rice, frog legs, shrimp po-boys, fried catfish, barbecued goat, Cajun jambalaya, stuffed crabs, muffalettas and ribs. Beer stands are located wherever there's space; Schlitz co-sponsors the Festival, and don't you forget it!
It's a beautiful day—warm, fragrant and breezy. Get a sausage to munch on, grab a beer, and let's walk through the Fair. Here's Percy Randolph and Little Freddy King, knocking out a bluesy version of Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock" on bones and electric guitar. (What? You want to know what Chuck Berry has to do with traditional music? I'm gonna pretend I didn't hear that question.) On the next stage, Blackie Forestier and the Cajun Aces are fiddling an elegant version of "Jolie Blonde," waltzing in unison all the while. There's the Como Mississippi Fife and Drum Corps, pounding out loud African music on three big drums. In the Jazz Tent, Bob Greene, an elderly white pianist, is rocking on Jelly Roll's "Wolverine Blues." At the far end of the green, the Meters are laying down a tough electric groove, and in the Gospel Tent the brothers and sisters are hand-clapping their way to heaven.
That's just for openers, right this second. The acts change every half hour, and then there's Saturday, Sunday, and all of next weekend too. Hey, you want another beer?
TWO QUARTS OF LOUISIANA HOT SAUCE
"This is my father's secret crab boil recipe," says Junior, pointing at the far funky wall of Frankie and Johnnie's steamy back room. "Can you see where he wrote it on the wall over there? After he died we painted back here, but we left a hole for the recipe."
Junior is about to boil up 100 pounds of crawfish. He starts with the cayenne pepper, scooping it out of a 50-pound sack with a big dinner plate. Two heaping platefuls go into a giant pot of boiling water, followed by two quarts of Red Ball Louisiana Hot Sauce, after which Junior shovels in herbs and garlic to taste. The air grows intensely peppery, but prize-winning filmmaker/folklorist Les Blank (The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin', Chulas Fronteras) is too busy filming to sneeze. Anyway, he loves hot pepper like a fool. Blank is supposedly shooting a documentary on the traditional music of New Orleans, but what he's really into is traditional food. (Food is folklore, too—and what's more, you can eat it.)
Frankie and Johnnie's is a working-class seafood joint half a block from the docks in New Orleans' Irish Channel neighborhood. It serves the best crawdaddies in town, and to keep up with demand it's got a crawdad-cooking factory in the back: two giant pots (one for washing the crawdads, one for cooking them), a wire-mesh cage that slides into the pots, a winch to raise and lower the cage, and a sorting table on which crawdaddies separate themselves into quick and dead. (The live ones fight their way to an opening at the end, fall into a basket, and into the cage they go; a horrible existential metaphor, if you ask me.)
Lumsdaine is playing with a crawfish, poking at it with a pen. Despite his teasing, the crawfish ignores him. Finally, lulled into a false sense of security, Lumsdaine sticks his finger at the crawfish, and the crawfish (who's no doubt been planning and waiting for hours for this opportunity) locks his claws into Lumsdaine's finger. Lumsdaine, startled, flings the crawfish across the room.
"Could you hold the plate up?" asks Blank from behind the camera. "I can't see the garlic." Junior elevates the plate, and Blank zooms in for a close-up of five big heads of garlic nestled on a deep bed of red cayenne pepper. He's been waiting for this shot all his life.
MOVE WHAT YOUR MAMA GAVE YOU
Originally, the second-line was the crowd of people who followed the band at traditional New Orleans funerals—a line of friends, strangers and kids prancing along behind the official mourners (who paid the band), enjoying the music and the sense of community, partying in the face of death, for free. These days, the term also refers to a distinctive style of playing drums that was probably invented by new Orleans legend Paul Barbarin in the early days of the century, syncopating around the beat (as in "second-line drumming.")
Hardly anyone who writes or talks about second-line has observed that it's not a rhythm, it's a polyrhythm—a combination of the typical New Orleans street-marching brass band bass drum lick (one-uh-two-uh-three-uh-four-and-a-one-uh-two-uh...) beating against the syncopated snare-drum rhythms. Most writers simply say stupid stuff like "it's a funky, calypso-like 2/4 cadence struck up by the bass drummer in a New Orleans funeral parade." Sigh.
Of course, Mac is right on target, as he always is. In his notes to Gumbo, Mac sez , "The classic New Orleans second-line style [is] where the drummer plays relaxed licks all around the beat, but with perfect time. You could call it 'melody drums.'"
But that's not all. Second-line dancing refers to the fast, syncopated, combative dance steps second-liners do as they strut down the street, twirling their decorative umbrellas, waving their white handkerchiefs, and challenging one another for second-line supremacy.
And something more. There's a sexual-mystical dimension to second-line, complete with Zen contradictions and coded references to secret, esoteric racial knowledge—but, just like a second-line drummer playing around the beat, most New Orleans musicians will only talk around the second-line. It's one of the central mysteries. (Well, I'm in the market for mysteries, remember—and we had to hit one sooner or later.)
At the Fairgrounds. "We want you to do the second line," says Inell Young of the Dixi-Kups. "You know how to do the second line. But if you forgot...just plant your two feet and move what your mama gave you." (Most of this message is encrypted. The code words are: "you know how," and "if you forgot," and "your mama." It's about memory, and the power it brings. What else did you forget that you used to know, Black man? Who are you, really, Black woman? Where you come from? Remember!)
At the Fairgrounds. Eddie Bo, a hugely successful soul musician in the 1960s who fronts a tough, modern New Orleans R&B band today, says, "Second line! You just gotta get into the thing." (Code: "just" and "the thing." In other words, it's easy! For us, anyway. Remember who we are, and it's easy. But remember something else: If they catch onto us, they can make it hard, so keep it secret. Don't name it, or reveal your own real name. Dissemble. Our power, our nature, our selves are "the thing.")
At the Fairgrounds. Jessie Hill breaks off one of his biggest hits, "Highhead Blues" to shout, "Let me see you do your second line!" (Code: "your." Nobody can take it away from you, if you remember your real name.)
At the Fairgrounds. Irma Thomas, undisputed Soul Queen of New Orleans R&B, has raised her audience to the point where it's screaming at a perfectly sustained level, something like a controlled explosion, so she kicks back, smiles like a schoolgirl on her first date, jumps off the floor and yells, "Put your backfield in motion—that's the second line!" (Code: "backfield." Sexual power; Black woman power; holy dance; celebrating the life force by moving your hips. And your ass.)
But this stuff has been on the street forever. In his song, "Second Line," Huey Smith sings, "It's very old but they just brought it out," and adds, "I can do it, so why can't you?" You can read the code by now, right?
And on a little second-line parade around the Fairground, an old Black man, second-lining down the path, says "If you take your time, you can do it too. I been doin' this since I been seven."
"If we talked about it," says tribal elder Allen Toussaint, "there wouldn't be a second line." (No code; burn after reading.)
Knowing where The Party is is both a New Orleans tradition and a traditional test of Festival status. Tonight, thanks to photographer Michael P. Smith (who always knows), we're on the scene at an after hours bash in Preservation Hall. It's 1:30 in the morning, the front doors are locked, and on stage we have the Tokyo Jazz Band, an aggregation of enthusiastic Japanese jazz fans who sound amazingly like the Dukes of Dixieland—except for their lead vocalist, who sings: "Tack my haynd, precious Load, tack my haynd...")
The novelty wears off fast, and by 1:45 a.m. Lumsdaine and I are on the street in front of the Hall, ready to split for home and bed. Then, as if by magic, a large automobile pulls silently to the curb. A company of Black people emerges with steaming pots, and purposefully makes its way into the Hall. With equal purpose, we make a fast U-turn and follow close behind. We may be sleepy, but we're not stupid.
The Black people are from Buster Holmes' restaurant, and the pots are full of Buster's legendary red beans, rice, and the best garlic sausage in town (some of which features cayenne, and some of which doesn't). Lining up for the eats, we meet Les Blank, who's no fool either. "Great tradition," says I, loading my plate. "The food arrives at 2 in the morning."
"That's when you need it the most," says Blank sagely, loading his plate too.
An hour later, stuffed and sleepy, we're on our way back out when we meet Mike Smith himself. "Where are you going?" he says, pulling on his coat. "This party is just getting started."
"Sleepy, gotta crash, " I mumble. "Anyway, you're goin' too."
"Yeah, well, there's a better party uptown," says Smith. "Toussaint is playing piano. See you later."
NEW ORLEANS WOMEN
Back at the Fairgrounds, I'm dancing and trying to take notes at the same time, when someone pinches my ass. Turning around, I discover two beautiful Creole women, drinking beer and laughing like crazy. "What are you doing?" one of them asks.
"I'm taking notes," I say, "whatdaya think?"
"Yeah? For who?"
"You never heard of it." (This is a safe assumption. So far, no one in New Orleans has recognized the name of the magazine I'm working for—and even when I tell 'em, 30 seconds later they think it's Mother Earth.)
"Come on, who are you writing for?" says the dark-haired babe in the tube top, eyes flashing with fun and alcohol.
"Well, um, it's a national magazine called Mother Jones."
"No shit?" says the blonde in the tight white playsuit. "We subscribe to Mother Jones! You want a joint?" She digs out a reefer and passes it over. I take a hit (just to be polite; wouldn't want to offend a subscriber) and then we all start dancing.
"Hey, when you write this up, be sure and mention that two fine New Orleans women got you stoned on dynamite Colombian," she says.
"Of course!" I laugh back. "It was my plan from the very beginning."
TOO TOUGH FOR ROCK 'N' ROLL
Dark hipster shades, flashy gold teeth, cream-colored suit, pimp hat and all, Professor Longhair is closing out the first Festival weekend. Back in the late 1940s, Fess and Fats invented rock 'n' roll by mixing up blues, barrelhouse and boogie-woogie. Fats became a star; Fess remained a legend. "I heard Fess, and then I started playing," says Allen Toussaint to Blank's camera. He hits a lick from Longhair's "Big Chief," smiles to himself, and adds, "You could die and be happy with that."
Fess opens his Festival set with an instrumental boogie-woogie. He's fronting a classic New Orleans R&B combo, with twin tenors and a no-nonsense rhythm section, so he lets the horns take the lead while he warms up. Then he segues into "Mess Around," with a vocal. Fess is mainly a piano player, but when he sings he sounds dirty—like a sax with a split reed. The audience is jumping and getting crazy, and Fess responds by slamming into the keys and kicking the beat a little harder; he doesn't know how to lay back like Toussaint.
"Big Chief" comes next, and then "How Long," and "Got My Mojo Working." Fess is sweating now, he's into some kind of transcendental groove that's more than blues, past boogie-woogie, and too tough for rock 'n' roll. It's primal New Orleans—the mother tongue.
Boisec Ardoin is a Black Cajun from Big Mamou. The guys in his band wear cowboy hats and play primitive cajun/country music on guitar, fiddle, bass, and accordion—all loudly electrified. The crowd in front of the stage is mostly Black too: down-home funky with lots of gold teeth and blue-mirror shades.
One white couple, wearing cheap, simple clothing, and plain faces showing old hurts, waltz gracefully, spinning, waving to friends in the audience, their faces alternately smiling and sad. Then two Black kids join them, an eight-year-old boy in jeans and a striped t-shirt and a tall, 12-year-old girl in matching orange pants and blouse. The kids are good, mixing full-contact jitterbug breaks with fancy stepping. Finally the boy spins his partner away and takes center stage for a big theatrical finish with splits and a duck-walk.
There's a smattering of applause for the kids, but no more than you'd expect if one of your cousins did something clever at the family picnic. The crowd is too relaxed and comfortable to turn the party into show-biz.
Getting busted for dope is a tradition in New Orleans. There's even a song about it, "Junko Partner," that's been recorded by a lot of New Orleans singers:
Six months ain't no sentence
One year ain't no time
They got boys up in Angola
Doin' nine to ninety nine.
"Hey you clowns, look over there!" says Lumsdaine. So I look to my left, and there's a cop standing right outside the car window, just about a foot away from me, and he's watching me take a long hit on the joint that Patoski just handed me...and for a long couple of seconds thoughts flash through my head about how this is Louisiana, where you can do time for one joint...and how we're all from out-of-state...and how they're serious about dope down here.
Then we're busted and handcuffed and on our way to the slammer for one joint, and a quarter of an ounce of seeds and stems. "Oh yeah," says the cop, "the state of Louisiana now owns your car. Y'all sure are stupid."
In the jail they take our eyeglasses away ('cause they might get broken), confiscate my note pad (presumably because I might use it to take my life), and shove us into a tiny holding cell barely big enough for three people—and then they cram in four more guys. Lumsdaine, who has never smoked a hit of dope in all the years I've known him, is sitting with his head in his hands. Patoski and I are trying to keep our spirits up by singing jailhouse songs, real soft—but the only ones we can remember all the verses to are "Framed," and "Jailhouse Rock." Well, this is tradition too.
And yet, nothing is quite what it seems. The laws are harsh, but sometimes tradition changes beneath the surface. If that means an old-fashioned juke joint recreated on some Disneyland back lot (like Bourbon Street, or Memphis's Beale St.) where you can taste the letter but not the spirit of the funk, well, piss on that. But in this case...well, we're white boys with a few dollars in our pockets, so our high-powered attorney manages to spring us just before they send us upstairs for the night. One week later we find ourselves in night court, pleading guilty—with the understanding that the judge will refuse to hear the plea, and as long as we manage to stay out of trouble for a few years he will conveniently forget that we have ever appeared before him.
Even so, there's still that moment after you say "Guilty," and before Hizzoner says, "Suspended," or "Say what?"—a moment more than long enough to think about all those hard-times-in-Angola songs. For some reason my internal DJ chose this moment to fire up Aaron Neville's "Jailhouse," the one with the lines that go:
They come up here skipping and jumping
But you know they won't last long
They gonna wish they were a little baby
In their mother's arms.
I had long enough to remember all the times I'd decided that good music was worth the hard times that made it necessary. Easy enough for me to say, since, after all, they weren't my hard times. Hard life, good music.
And then we walked. And I found my way into the far reaches of the city where a lonely parking lot held at least a million criminal's cars (including Slow Joe, my ancient Dart, named after my dad from whom I'd inherited it); the powers that be had decided to let me have it back. Eventually we even made our attorney, John Reed, a jailhouse tape with all the songs we wished we had been able to remember.
In the tradition.
GOT TO GIVE IT UP
It was two in the morning, nine hours or so after we'd gotten sprung from the jailhouse, when Lumsdaine, Patoski and I emerged from the Steamboat Stomp—a roaring rhythm 'n' blues concert held on a Mississippi riverboat as part of the Jazz Festival. A thick, warm fog was rolling in off the river as we crossed the dock and headed for the parking lot. We piled into the car, drained our last whiskey bottle, and proceeded to spend the next half-hour stuck in a nightmarish, low-visibility traffic jam. Finally we got out of the French Quarter, and I aimed the car toward our motel, a long, 45-minute drive up-river in Metairie. After the long day in jail and the late-night show on the river we were all too tired to talk.
The fog closed in; New Orleans disappeared. I slowed down, hit the windshield wipers, and punched up WBOK, the local soul-music station, on the radio. Over a faint crackle of static, a giant, sliding bass-line filled the car, accompanied by voices screaming and shouting excitedly in the background. I recognized it right away: Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up" was a current New Orleans favorite, playing constantly on every jukebox in town. The chant-like single-chord structure, the subtle, second-line beat, the background party track, and the electrifying, reggae- sounding bass synthesizer gave the record an exciting, New Orleanian sound. Plus, what could be more New Orleanian than "giving it up," giving up your heart, your love, your very self to a loved one; giving up control, rationality; giving in to passion, music, madness; giving up life itself? The high-energy, late-night excitement of the record was exactly what we wanted to hear; I settled back, turned up the volume a little, and rolled happily through the thickening fog.
When the record was almost over, the DJ smoothly cross-faded to a second copy on another turntable and let it play again from the beginning. That was fine with me. Outside the car, the river fog revealed occasional glimpses of crab shacks and highway overpasses, but mostly it held us in a white nothingness that seemed to stretch forever. Then, the music faded down a little and a man's voice came through the night and the fog, slightly compressed as it made its way through the telephone call-in line. "I'm gonna give it up for Margie at Washington High School, 'cause, she so tough," it said.
"I'm a sexy Scorpio," said a woman's voice, clearly another telephone call-in, "and I wanna give it all up for the Libras."
Another female voice came in over the studio phone line: "I'm giving it up for you, Papa, for you, OK?"
Then the DJ came on, close to the microphone, talking softly, intimately over the pulsing music: "That's all right, honey, Papa Joe sure thanks you for that fine phone call, but how about the rest of you out there? Who are you gonna give it up for? You know the number, New Orleans..." He faded the music up into a cowbell and a wailing saxophone solo.
"Hey, check this out, you guys," I said to the back seat. "There's a party goin' on all around us! We're right in the middle of it, only we can't see it on account of the fog. I turned up the volume. The static was getting worse, but music and voices were still loud and clear.
"I'm wanna give it up for the Charmettes Social Pleasure Club, and expecially for Zulimae," said a voice somewhere in the night. The windshield wipers clicked back and forth.
"Hello, Papa, I'm gonna give it up for the Cancers and the mighty, mighty Geminis."
We were driving in a white dream as the DJ's seamless segue started the song a third time: the relentless bass-line, the hypnotic single-chord melody, the cowbell, Marvin Gaye's ethereal vocal floating over it all. Outside, in the night, New Orleans was alive, talking to itself, jiving itself on down.
"I'm a member of the mighty TNT Club, and if I don't give it up for Betty and all the Capricorn ladies in New Orleans I be a fool!"
By now the signal was fading, but we were all glued to the radio, unable to believe what we were hearing. Gaye's backup singers were chanting:
Get funky, what it's all about!
Get funky, what it's all about!
Calls were coming in faster now, voices from the fog.
"I'm from the Fun Lovers," whispered a woman's voice, "and I'm giving it up for the Rabouin High School cheerleaders."
"I got to give it up for the Scene Boosters Social Pleasure Club or my old lady gonna kill me!"
"Hey, Papa, this is Rockin' Charlie, and I think all the foxy Scorpios ought to give it up for me!"
At last, driving as much by instinct as by eyesight, I pulled into the foggy motel driveway, found our room and turned off the engine. None of us even dreamed of turning off the radio, though. By now the signal was almost gone; I had the volume cranked all the way up, and loud, crackling static threatened to overwhelm the music—but over the noise "Got To Give It Up" rocked on a fourth time, and a fifth time, as the fragmented voices of Black New Orleans jived into the night. It was too good a party to leave. It was life itself.
"This is the Lower Nine, and..."
"...Hello, papa, what's..."
"...uptown Gemini sisters of the thirteenth..."
"Landry High School Tauruses..."
Gradually the signal faded to fuzz; powerful stations on nearby frequencies began nudging in bursts of Tom Jones and Donna Summer, and I clicked off the radio. The fog-shrouded night was utterly silent. With sight and sound gone it was suddenly cold and scary, too much like dying for a foggy 3 a.m. I reached out for the radio to turn it back on again, just for a second, but then I stopped. I didn't need to turn on the radio. I stepped out of the car and did a drunk-stumble second-line down the walk toward my room. I knew the jive was still going on, all around me, even if I couldn't hear it.
It had always been there, and the way it sounded that night I believed it might go on forever.
JOCK-A-MO FEENO HONDO HONDO
If you dig deep down into the rich layering of New Orleans street culture, down past jazz and the second line, down past Mardi Gras and Buddy Bolden, down past the French Quarter and "Where y'at?" and "Yeah you right!" down into the true primal ooze...that's where you'll find the Mardi Gras Indian Gangs.
Black Mardi Gras Indians are the Rastafarians of New Orleans R&B, and they've had a powerful influence on the music and the culture. The Wild Magnolias, the Black Eagles, the Wild Tchoupitoulas (pronounced CHOP ih-TOO-lahz) and perhaps 25 other gangs are made up of working-class Blacks, each of whom spends a great deal of time and money each year making an elaborate dream-of-an-Indian-costume out of plumes, beads, sequins and sparkle. Twice a year, on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's Day, the tribes put on their psychedelic Indian drag and hit the street—singing songs and chanting rhymes that may go back more than 100 years. One theory suggests that the tribes began as secret societies just before the Civil War, when traditional African dancing and drumming were made illegal in Congo Square—the idea being that if Black slaves couldn't get away with it, maybe Indians could. Another theory looks to the Caribbean, especially Trinidad, where Carnival stick-fighting bands and Black Indian masquerade characters offer many intriguing similarities. In any case, the songs and secret languages have been orally transmitted for a long time; they are probably as close to Congo Square as we'll ever get.
A few tribes have added a third opportunity for getting into costume—the Heritage Festival. In a sense, this is part of a growing pattern of commercialization that's beginning to split the tribes into warring camps. In 1976, for instance, the Wild Tchoupitoulas put out a record on the Island label, beautifully produced by Allen Toussaint, backed by a crack R&B band (mostly the Meters) and featuring many of the Neville brothers (Aaron, Cyril and Charles) on backup vocals. While the chants were totally traditional, the arrangements certainly were not. It was such a powerhouse production that it caught the attention of the East Coast critics, and sold quite a few units. So this year the Tchoupitoulas are boss Indians at the Jazz Festival—but some of the more traditional tribes won't mess with them any more, because they've "gone commercial."
Actually, there have been a number of commercial record releases by various Indian gangs over the years. The first was in 1970, when Polydor released an album called The Wild Magnolias featuring great arrangements by Willie Tee. Several more LPs followed on various labels by various groups of musicians with various tribal affiliations, but good as they might have been as R&B, none captured the spare, powerful, percussion-driven folk music you hear if you encounter a gang in the street.
When the Jazz and Heritage Festival started, it provided yet another opportunity for the Indians to package and sell their culture—an opportunity that proved hard to resist in the face of continuing economic hardship in New Orleans' African-American community. Indians became a regular attraction at the Fest, and began appearing at clubs around the country as exotic musical performance ensembles.
New Orleans photographer/folklorist Mike Smith is uneasy: "Just a few years ago you could see and hear individuals conversing in a spontaneous song language, and the drums 'talked'; now you hear 'performers' who are becoming 'song writers' and 'professional musicians.' What was once a joyous, spontaneous celebration of life is becoming something else...something molded by economic considerations required to survive in the modern world."
Folklore always changes and grows—and if Indian singers are becoming increasingly aware of their creative opportunities, that's not necessarily fatal. But Smith voices the familiar, conservative concern of the anthropologist and folklorist when he concludes: "The traditional music of the Mardi Gras Indians [is being taken] out of authentic cultural context and made into a commercial enterprise. Whether this is an evil compromise with white culture or merely an inevitable fusion and change, as the world and its cultures change, is a topic much debated between the purists and the pragmatists in the community."
In any case, several gangs are appearing at the Festival this year. The Black Eagles have no record, nor do they have a band—just drums. But they sing the same traditional songs as the Tchoupitoulas, their drums are more primal than the Meters' uptown arrangements, and they leave more room for vocal improvisation. The Eagles' audience is almost 100 percent Black (which is rare for the Festival; increasingly the musicians are Black and the audience is not), and if you look closely you'll see some of the listeners doing the double bump. As for the Magnolias (ex-boss Indians) they come backed by Willie Tee and the Gators, a top New Orleans jazz/funk band; the Magnolias were the first Indian tribe to record, and while they are perfectly capable of singing all the traditional chants on the street, they have learned to tailor their performance to the audience. So instead of the traditional "Mighty Cootie Fiyo," their Festival chant is "Party Hearty." For 20 minutes.
Thanks to their hit LP, a lot of people have come to the Festival specifically to hear the Tchoupitoulas, and when the gang makes its entrance—seven Black men in brilliant Technicolor feathers—there's a roar of recognition that turns heads across the Fairground. It's as if color was being invented before your eyes. The backup band for this live gig isn't the Meters, but keyboard wizard Art Neville (the ex-Meters' ex-leader) is at the 88s, and off to one side of the stage the Neville brothers are clustered around a single mike, leaning into it like the toughest street-corner singing group you ever saw. And sounding like it too.
When the music starts ("Indians Here They Come") it's just like the record—not traditional, perhaps, but tight, tough, and 100 percent New Orleans. For music freaks, the revelation is how much the call-and-response vocal textures owe to the Nevilles, but despite the high-powered arrangements, at heart this is still the real, magical old-time stuff—feathered madmen waving battle staffs and banging tambourines, acting out a psychodrama even they may not fully understand. In the end, it comes down to a chant: "Hey! Hey-hey-hey! Hey, pocky-way!" Over and over. The chant moves into the audience and continues to beat long after the Tchoupitoulas have left the stage.
They have great streets in New Orleans. Like... Harmony Street. Music Street. Pleasure Street. Abundance Street. Humanity Street. Mystery Street. Peace Street. Hope Street. Desire Street. There's a whole section of streets with names taken from King Arthur. And there's a surreal corner where Desire crosses North Bunny Friend.
It's a well-known fact that voodoo queen Marie Laveau (who died in 1881) is buried in St. Louis Cemetery, not far from Congo Square—in a crypt, since the water level in New Orleans is so high that if you dig a hole in the ground and bury someone, the next time it rains they may come popping right out of the ground. The crypt isn't hard to find—it's marked with voodoo signs and flowers.
The only thing is, it's almost a sure thing that if Marie Laveau is buried anywhere in New Orleans, it's not there. Recent scholarship suggest that her burial place is in another cemetery altogether. Oh well.
You can buy pictures of Marie all over town: drawings, mostly, showing a handsome, young, light-skinned woman. None of the drawings look alike. There's a wax figure of her in the Voodoo Museum on Bourbon St., next to a sleepy snake in a cage, and a dusty voodoo alter decorated with chewing gum and a cigar butt. There's no gris-gris on the alter, no money, no food for the loas. The Museum sells photos that are purported to be of the real Marie Laveau, but even a cursory glance reveals them to be photographs of the wax figure. Save your money and buy a copy of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.
Mary's Twilight Lounge (originally Ester's Restaurant & Bar Pool Hall) on Tchoupitoulas St. is a Black joint that mainly serves lunch for dock workers. Mary is a short Black woman with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, and I am trying to get her to relax under the lights and tell Les Blank's camera why she uses garlic powder instead of fresh garlic in her smothered garfish sauce piquant. This is not a trivial issue for Blank and me. We believe that garlic powder is an invention of the Devil—another evil sign of the changing times.
"It's cheaper," says Mary, and waits for Les to turn the lights off. When he makes no move to do so, she pulls out a handkerchief and mops her face. "Sure is hot," she utters pointedly.
It's not a fancy place. Falstaff and Dixie Beer signs make up 83 percent of the decor; the other 17 percent is a large poster featuring day-glo silhouettes of Black couples in astrological intercourse. Mary's menu, which is written on a small blackboard, lists Bake Chicken, Smother Garfish, Fry Fish (Gar), Pork & Beans & Wieners, Collard Greens, Potatoes Salad.
Mary seems prepared to stare into the camera indefinitely, without a word, while expensive negative runs through the gate. So I try again: "Doesn't the food taste different with garlic powder? I mean, different from the way it used to?"
"No, it tastes the same," says Mary. "Garlic powder is more convenient. These are modern times."
"Don't you think people care about those things any more?"
"No, they don't care. My, it's hot under these lights."
We give up and turn off the camera. But Mary gets the last word anyway: Garlic powder or no, when the garfish comes out of the pot, it tastes so good it'd make a preacher lay his Bible down.
If we had been really paying attention, we'd have comprehended this little lesson Papa Legba had arranged for us, but we were too arrogant to understand. At least right then.
Waking up in the morning to find people sleeping on the floor of your hotel room is a timeless festival ritual (at least in my life) that goes all the way back to the Newport Folk Festival, and can probably be traced to pre-Christian gatherings in Crete or some damn place like that. ("Hail, Antony, what make thee of yon stinking bodies beyond the chamber pot?")
One morning the body count in my room was up to four, and Patoski was one of the bodies. Someone had placed a hand-lettered sign on his chest, and somehow it had remained there through what must have been a long and bumpy night. "DOA" it read, with an explanatory parenthesis that noted, "Drunk On Arrival."
Les is around here somewhere—in a bar up on Tchoupitoulas Street, filming some damn thing, and Lumsdaine and I are supposed to find him. When we spot a tiny Black bar without a sign of any kind it's so funky that we know this has got to be the place, so we duck inside. The first thing we see is nothing: It's dark, with only two low-wattage light bulbs to see by. After a few seconds we start to make out a few details: an electric bowling game, a jukebox, a very old cigarette machine. But no sign of Blank. Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" is playing on the juke.
There are 15 or 20 people hanging around. Women (in print jackets and hats) as well as kids and men (in white t-shirts). So while we think about what to do next, the Juker orders a couple of beers, and we're just lifting the bottles to our lips when the jukebox clanks and whirs, and by God it starts playing Howlin' Wolf, Chester Arthur Burnett, singing "Tell Me What I Done!"
Juker and I look at each other in amazement, and do the high five. As any fool knows, Howlin' Wolf isn't on jukeboxes any more, not even in Chicago—and if, by some weird chance one of his sides had managed to stay inside a working juke box somewhere (even in New Orleans), no self-respecting Black person would spend a quarter to play that old slave music.
Sunday morning in the dirt-floored Gospel Tent, packed with a salt 'n' pepper crowd clapping and shouting to a succession of gospel quartets, choirs, and song-preachers. Gospel, at least, seems to be in no danger of dying—the audience is young, the performers are too, and they share a living tradition.
"Do you need to dump your trash?" asks the MC. "Just shout your way to the trash can, drop in your trash and shout right back to your seat. And if you want to take your shoes off, go right ahead and walk in the mud. You can get a mud baptism today. And now, let's welcome five young men who have come a long way to be with us today, the Antioch Spiritual Singers!" By the time the quintet rocks into the third chorus, hundreds of hands are clapping together on two and four, and the tent canvas is beating like a heart.
LITTLE LIVER PILLS
Bluegrass jokes are the worst in the world. Even worse than rodeo jokes. "My girlfriend is so dumb. The other night I took her out to a fancy restaurant, and she started eating her peas with a knife. I was so embarrassed I dropped a whole handful of mashed potatoes!" And so on. I won't tell you the one about the girls in the hotel room.
So one of the Meyer Brothers is trying to keep the audience from leaving while the rest of the band tunes up again. "Boy," he says, "that amplifier has more knobs on it than Carter has liver pills. Oh, I mean 'peanuts.'" You might not get this unless you're old enough to remember Carter's Little Liver Pills, an over-the-counter nostrum popular in the early days of the 20th century. By the year 2000 people won't get the peanuts joke either.
The Festival crowd is getting out of hand, and long lines at the portable toilets are making life tough for serious beer drinkers. Then someone notices a deep, muddy ditch in back of Stage #1. Soon it's crowded with pissing men, clinging desperately to the steep sides to keep from slipping down. One poor drunken bastard loses his grip on a slippery root, slides cursing down the slope, and rolls right into the nasty muck at the bottom.
He's too befuddled to care, but he still wants us all to know that he's not entirely out of it. "Regular mud is bad enough," he observes from the bottom, "but piss-mud is terrible."
A pretty Black woman of indeterminate age, beer can in hand and Foxy Lady t-shirt on back, is dancing a dirty boogie all by her lonesome when she spots a white, virginal-looking hippie. She looks him dead in the eye, catches his glance, and starts rolling her ass right at him, very slow and very sexy.
The kid is terrified. "Come on and dance...motherfucker," she whispers, but she's too much for him and he edges sheepishly away. Disgusted, she spots an older white man and gives him the same shameless invitation. He's more than willing to jump onto this freight train, and in less than a minute he's tight behind her, bumping and grinding his groin into her rotating rear. Moments later he loses his footing and falls, grabbing onto her for support which just brings her down too. They writhe and roll in the mud, tangled and helpless, too drunk to know what just happened to them, let alone what to do about it.
No one gives them a second glance.
THE FAT MAN
A rolled up beer can comes flying through the air, missing my head by inches. It hits the girl next to me, who's too drunk to feel it.
Giant speakers crackle to life. "Albums are for sale, ladies and gentlemen, over by Fats's car, by that brand...new...1977." The crowd cheers for Fats's car, a huge pink Lincoln with gold trim. This is the final blow-off, end-of-the-Festival Sunday concert, and of course it's none other than Antoine "Fats" Domino, the undisputed King of New Orleans R&B. I've been waiting almost 25 years to see him perform live.
Fats is carrying a big band these days, with a large horn section. It's a change from the days when he worked with a tight little blues combo with a single tenor, but Fats plays Las Vegas now, where the audiences figure they're not getting their money's worth without a lot of horns. Fats is still an elemental force, and he can cut through anything—but the horn section is top-heavy, playing lame Las Vegas charts and missing all the slurs and slides. (F'rinstance, one of the things that made "I'm In Love Again" was the repeated four-note descending slide on the tenor. Fats still does the tune, but now the horn section just hits the top and bottom notes of the original slide, which just isn't the same thing at all.)
But hey, don't mind me. I'm frazzled and short-tempered from too many people banging into me. It's getting almost impossible to sit down without sitting on a smelly old crawdad—or a piece of broken glass. Plus it's horribly crowded up near the stage, and the giant, high-tech sound system has been blasting at top-volume all day. Massive amplification crushes high frequencies, compresses dynamics, and hurts your ears—but where's the choice? There are thousands of people here today, and they all want to hear the music.
We have the technology to mass-produce (or amplify—same thing) nearly anything, but we haven't caught on that there's a price. The trick is to spot the point where a steel National guitar (for playing loud in bars) becomes an overpowered sound system that makes Fats' piano sound like a synthesizer—because that's the point where the blues die, where garlic becomes garlic powder, where cream becomes non-dairy creamer, where Newport becomes Altamont.
So the basic problem may well be as simple as this: Too many people. Too many people want to hear Fats today, so you have to push him through a huge amplifier, which means the physical space in which he can be heard expands—but then more people just crowd in, so you end up just like before, only a few orders of magnitude farther away from the guy you paid to see. Only the promoter profits. And you'll never know what it was like to sit at a small table in a juke joint in the Lower Nine checking out the Fat Man playing 20 feet away from you.
And the huge crowd makes people inhuman, cruel, crazy. So far today people have danced on my hands, spilled beer on my pants, blown whistles in my ear, and knocked me down. Now, halfway through Fats' set, a teenaged blonde behind me sticks her burning cigarette right into my arm.
She's drunk, she's staring into space, she's doing a very dirty boogie with the guy next to her, and she doesn't care about anything. Talking to her would be a waste of breath, so I just shove the cigarette away .
A minute later she burns me again, so I take the cigarette away from her and stamp it out. Now she's confused; her cigarette has disappeared. Where did my cigarette go? At this point another woman comes shoving through the crowd where there's no room for a snake to slide, screaming, "Oh God! Get out of my way! Oh God!" So I get out of her way—giving the blonde time to light another cigarette. I have two clear choices: I can kill her, or I can split.
By the exit gate, I'm standing next to a huge pile of stinky crawdad shells, checking a street map to figure out where I parked when a long-haired kid with a scraggly beard and a shell-shocked look in his eyes comes stepping up to me. "That map is full of lies," he says. "Full of lies. Got a light?"
He pulls out a joint, which I wave away; he looks dangerously contagious. But he's determined. "I got something gonna make us all feel good," he says, pulling out a little bottle of amyl nitrate. I turn it down, and finally the kid goes away.
One of the best Fats Domino songs there ever was comes drifting over the fence on wings of electricity:
Talkin' on the phone is not my speed
Don' send me no letter 'cause I can't read
Don't be long or I'll be gone...
Well, I can't say he never warned me. I should have been here in 1956. Or even '49.
Goodbye Fat Man.
A troop of Black cub scouts, in full uniform, are sitting on the ground halfway between one stage and another, eating watermelon. A dream of cub scouts. A dream of watermelon. Land of dreams.
It's one in the morning, and the steam whistles from the river have the night to themselves. But the lights are still on in Tipitina's, a great new club devoted to traditional New Orleans music that's just opened this year, so I park my car, walk across Tchoupitoulas street, and swing open the door.
Piano music comes rolling out! Professor Longhair is on the stand, the dance floor is jammed, and every damn body I know in town is here .
Patoski is working out on the Captain Fantastic pinball machine (featuring a big picture of Elton John), knocking back Lone Star beers and racking up more free games than he can possibly play. Lumsdaine is standing close up to the stage, putting away beer after beer and listening hard. It's as if he were trying to memorize every detail; as if he had come back in a time machine from a future in which Fess was dead and he had been granted this one evening alone to fill the rest of his life with Fess's music. Even Blank is here, nursing a bottle of Jack Daniels—back from Mosca's Restaurant across the River and telling tales of oysters baked under cornmeal breadcrumbs and garlic. The joint is jumping.
Named in honor of Longhair's big local hit, Tipitina's is a year-round Heritage Festival. A big, square room with lots of space for dancing, its regular attractions include Lee Dorsey, Chief Jolly (George Landry) of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Dixi-Kups, Tuts Washington, James Booker, the Wild Magnolias and, of course, Fess himself—all the great old-time New Orleans musicians. And those who aren't playing are hanging out, drinking, listening.
"The New Orleans Heritage Festival is the best one I've ever been to," Patoski is saying. "A veritable concentration of soulful music in the United States."
"Well, maybe," says I, "but it's getting too much like a rock festival. They should put the headliners on at night, and keep the daytime concerts on a small scale for the traditional guys."
"Your trouble, Goody," says Patoski, "is that you're a purist. You wanta play doubles? There's nothin' feels as good as listening to Professor Longhair and beatin' the shit out of Elton John at the same time."
So, what do you think? Who's winning? Is tradition hanging on? Technology slipping into the lead? Or is it simply the inevitable triumph of time that we're looking at?
In any case, it's getting late. Fess is playing easy-rocking, two-in-the morning blues, as if he thinks the blues never died and never will. Slow dancers have taken over the floor. It's the middle of the night in New Orleans.
 I wonder if this is how come groups of Mardi Gras Indians came to call themeselves "gangs."
 That is, in 1977; currently, the biggest influence on New Orleans music is hip-hop.
 If his name is familiar it's because he was Ginny Foat's attorney in 1983.
 I remain fascinated by the Mardi Gras Indians, and over the years I've learned a lot more about them than I knew when I wrote this piece in 1977. I've resisted the temptation to expand and/or correct this section—but be sure to check out additional material on the Indians that appears later in this book.
 And even worse than calypso tent jokes in Trinidad.
 Editing this in 2007, it took me a few moments before I remembered the joke! President Jimmy Carter, gentlemen peanut farmer.