“New Orleans is the only place I know of where you ask a little kid what he wants to be and instead of saying, I want to be a policeman, or I want to be a fireman, he says, I want to be a musician.” – Alan Jaffe, Jazz Musician and Founder of Preservation Hall
Where do you begin with New Orleans music? We all know that jazz music began in this city, and that it profoundly influenced American music thoughout the 20th century.
There’s Jellyroll Morton, a man never slow to come forward with a long list of his own achievements. He invented jazz, he said. He’s the city’s first composer he said. Its finest pianist he said. So full of great tales from Storyville, the famous red light district, you’ve got to believe him.
There’s The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, full of gusto and fun – and the first recorded versions of Tiger Rag, and Sensation Rag. Or the early cuts of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, with a young Louis Armstrong.
Each song just a fragment of the whole picture – recorded music only capturing that latter stages of a vibrant musical synthesis that was lighting up the city every night – the music we now know as jazz.
In this city the good stuff is rarely found in the concert halls. Music lovers are far more likely to be found in places where they can dance, holler, sing along and eat and drink. Mac Rebbenack – Dr. John to his musical friends – has said that when a brass band plays at a small club back in the neighborhood its as if the audience is a part of the band.
Visiting the city, and walking its storied streets you’ll find yourself attracted to a doorway by the sound of live music, and the spirit of New Orleans takes ahold.
In this city music is a part of the parades, held on anniversaries, holidays, birthdays and funerals. Parades, led by bands, and followed by the second line, wind through the streets, stopping at bars for refreshment, toasting the departed good journey to the land of the shades.
Sidney Bechet – St. Louis Blues
As a youngster Sidney played in family musicales – waltzes, quadrilles, the polite music of the middle class. He was an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso, toured the country and travelled the globe. Bechet played the clarinet and soprano saxophone equally well .He had a distinctive vibrato that gave passion and intensity to his playing. What was different about Bechet is he was the featured player and soloist rather than simply serving as part of the ensemble in classic New Orleans style.
St. Louis Blues was a blues piece composed by W. C. Handy, and has been a firm favorite of jazz musicians ever since. It was rare in its day because it includes a set traditional solo, which suited Bechet well.
St. Louis as a place is connected to the city thanks to 19th century steamboat routes north along the Mississippi. Back in those days St. Louis was the second largest port in the country -in the 1830s, it was common to see more than 150 steamboats at the St. Louis levee at one time. For the big steamboats from New Orleans it was their last stop – Rapids north of the city made St. Louis the northernmost navigable port. Thanks to the showboats (and a little help from Mark Twain) this magical route is now lodged in popular imagination.
Louis Armstrong – Where the Blues were born in New Orleans
I think a lot of people remember Louis Armstrong by his gravel voice rather than his virtuoso playing. He came across in later life as a cheerful eager-to-please entertainer who occasionally played the trumpet.
Here he’s making a a show of introducing his All Star band to none other than Billie Holiday in the 1947 musical drama New Orleans. The movie’s plot is nothing to write home about. Billie Holiday is a singing maid, which says it all, really.
The guys that Armstrong is introducing are the top jazz men in their fields. Just let ’em play Louie…
Leadbelly – In New Orleans
This song’s origins are lost in the American wilderness. The first recording of the song was a 16yr old girl named Georgia Turner, the daughter of a coal miner; captured singing acapella in rural Kentucky. In the book ‘Chasing The Rising Sun writer Ted Anthony covered over a dozen states and never really got to the bottom of it.
Leadbelly recorded several versions of the song, as did Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but it didn’t really make its way into popular consciousness until the 1960s, and that’s whole other story…
Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong – Do You Know Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans
We’re back to the 1947 movie New Orleans and this time Lady Day takes the lead. The song has become a favorite of New Orleans musicians, yet was written specifically for the movie by Louis Alter, who had been writing for movies since the silent era, and Eddie DeLange, a lyricist buddy of Jimmy Van Heusen.
The song took on much more importance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Filmmaker Spike Lee used it very movingly in his 2006 documentary When The Levees Broke. A beautiful modern version came in the final series of the HBO drama Treme. You can watch that here.
Freddie Cannon – Way Down Yonder In New Orleans
Way Down Yonder was a tin pan alley song, covered by many people over the years, especially in the swing era. I have a particular soft spot for the Bix Beiderbecke take here, but it came to life in the hands of a rock and roller from Massachusetts called Freddy Picariello.
Under the name Freddy Cannon he made great noisy rock & roll records – a style that made him famous on TV shows like American Bandstand under the tutorlege of Dick Clark.
Gary U.S. Bonds – New Orleans
Another hit from the Bandstand era, U.S. Bonds claim to fame is that he headlined the Beatles first tour of America. Attention was brought to the record by having promotional copies sent to radio stations in sleeves inscribed “Buy U.S. Bonds” – hence at age 19, Gary Anderson became Gary U.S. Bonds.
Fats Domino – Walking to New Orleans
The song came from a little joking around between Fats Domino and fellow singer Bobby Charles. Fats had recently recorded a song by Charles, and invited him back to his New Orleans home so he could give him a copy. Charles joked that he didn’t have the money – he’d have to walk.
Later, when Charles made it to New Orleans, he’d written the song and played it to Fats, who loved it. With a little bit of orchestration the song was ready to record and eventually sold over two million copies.
Dixe Cups – Iko Iko
Now here’s a song with a fascinating history. Surely based on African call-and-response chants it is a song firmly rooted in the famous Congo Square celebrations in the 1800s and reaches us by way of their colorful descendants, the Mardi Gras Indians – to whom this song really belongs, no matter what it says on that vinyl label.
The song was originally called ‘Jockamo,’ and it has a lot of Creole patois in it. Jockamo means ‘jester’ in the old myth. It is Mardi Gras music, and the Shaweez was one of many Mardi Gras groups who dressed up in far out Indian costumes and came on as Indian tribes.The tribes were like social clubs who lived all year for Mardi Gras, getting their costumes together. Many of them were musicians, gamblers, hustlers and pimps. Dr. John
Leiber and Stoller recorded the girls during a break, as they sang an old song they knew from their grandmother. Opportunistically they put the girls down as song writers, unaware that the song was actually a cover of a 1953 record by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford called Jock-A-Mo.
Rumours that Jokomo is Mardi Gras Indian lingo for kiss my ass are unconfirmed.
The Animals – House of the Rising Sun
We pick up the story of Leadbelly’s New Orleans in the 1960s, after Bob Dylan had put his distinctive spin on the arrangement. American writer Dave March called the Animals version “the first folk-rock hit,” sounding “as if they’d connected the ancient tune to a live wire.”
The band’s singer, Eric Burdon was in his own words a spotty teenage animal living on fish and chips and Newcastle Brown ale when he began to immerse himself into American blues and folk music. The band were only slightly aware of the song’s long history. The impact of his electrified blues, though, was enormous.
John Steel, in his biography of the band ‘Animal Tracks‘ tells an interesting story. He was driving in a car with Bob Dylan and the song came on the radio. He had the car pull over to listen to it. “He jumped out and banged on the bonnet. That gave him the connection – he could go electric.”
Them – Baby Please Don’t Go
Over in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a young band led by an intense 19 yr old singer called George Ivan Morrison were covering a range of imported American blues covers. It was a repertoire around Morrison’s taste in music, including numbers originally by Slim Harpo, John Lee Hooker, and T-Bone Walker. With recent blues hits from The Animals and the Rolling Stones, the band’s sound was proving a winning combination.
Baby Please Don’t Go is a song that goes way back – possibly to civil war and slavery days. It is one of the most played, arranged, and rearranged pieces in blues history according to music historian Gerard Herzhaft. Of the many versions it sounds like the band were especially taken by Lightning Hopkins version ( see that here). Critic Grail Marcus noted that there’s a desperate hurry in Morrison’s voice that all but re-writes the song. He said “Though the excitement of the music doesn’t flag for a second, silence – anticipation – seems in command. Something is going to happen. You don’t know what.”
Professor Longhair – Go To The Mardi Gras
Hundreds of songs have been written to get people into the spirit of Mardi Gras. There’s a whole range of rhythm and blues cuts by local legends like The Meters, Bobby Charles, and the The Neville Brothers. The most infectious of all came from one of the older characters in the Quarter Professor Longhair, with his infectious whistling refrain.
Longhair had been central to the development of the New Orleans musical gumbo in the 50s – a heady mix of mambo, boogie-woogie and rhumba. Some of his songs, like Tipitina and Bald Head are still played all over town. His yelps, whistles and asides were all part of his old style bag of tricks.
Story goes that Fess dropped out in the 60s working as a manual laborer until persuaded to play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the 70s. With folks like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and the Neville Brothers all singing his praises, he finally left poverty behind and became a star.
Dr. John – Down In New Orleans
So many of Dr. John’s songs could have made this list. Mac Rebbenack just is New Orleans with his eccentric stage persona and his bayou growl. He’s very much the consummate New Orleans musician, adept at funk, zydeco, jazz and blues styles and tells some of the best stories in the city.
Here, though, he’s singing a Randy Newman song over the titles of Walt Disney’s 2009 animated film The Princess and the Frog, which is very loosely set around the Brothers Grimm’s ‘Frog Prince’ story. The film is set in 1920s New Orleans and features a gorgeous opening sequence. It was a return to traditional animation for the Disney studio – sparking off what film buffs have called the Disney Neo-Renaissance.
Wynton Marsalis – St. James Infirmary
We’re back to the roots of jazz with St. James Infirmary, a song made famous by Louis Armstrong in the 20s, where Sachmo took a song rooted in a major key British folk song and placed it in minor, with a structure influenced by Latin America. There have been key versions of the song by Duke Ellington, Bobby Blue Bland – and performers as diverse as The White Stripes and Van Morrison.
But this gives me an excuse to include here Wynton Marsalis – a master trumpeter, composer and founder of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. From an early age Wynton showed technical virtuosity in both classical and jazz fields, and toured with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Herbie Hancock.
What is special about Wynton Marsalis is his purist aesthetic – he plays with a deep understanding of music history and genre, and has been the foremost advocate of New Orleans jazz for a generation.
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page – Levee Breaks
Written by Memphis Minnie, a blues singer, and her husband Kansas Joe McCoy shortly before they left Tennessee for Chicago. It told of the devastating floods that swamped the Mississippi valley in 1927, Now, post Hurricane Katrina, it feels prophetic and connects the song to New Orleans more than it otherwise might. New Orleans itself got hit on two consecutive years – 1947 and 48, which sparked Congress into taking a federal role in raising the levees – and reached a peak after Hurricane Betsy did her work in ’65.
British rock band Led Zeppelin (with singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page) made the song the centerpiece of their Led Zeppelin IV album. A swampy, primeval arrangement that returned the band to their twelve bar roots. Music critic Robert Christgau argued that, because it plays like an authentic blues song and “has the grandeur of a symphonic crescendo”, their version both transcends and dignifies “the quasi-parodic overstatement and oddly cerebral mood of” their past blues songs.
Elvis Presley – Crawfish
Based on a novel by Harold Robbins the movie ‘King Creole’ was meant to be a showcase for James Dean.
Michael Curtiz, a giant of the Hollywood studio system (Casablanca, Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels With Dirty Faces, Mildred Pierce etc etc) was assigned to direct. He decided to shoot in film noir style and he put together an experienced cast including Walter Matthau. Blackboard Jungle‘s Vic Morrow came along with his scowl and his switchblade.
Casting Presley was a master stroke. Elvis was a star. Curtiz was used to dealing with Hollywood royalty and didn’t hold back, though, telling Elvis to lose fifteen pounds and shave off those sideburns. Elvis was a surviving rebel with a cause; his cause was music.
It’s the best opening to any Presley movie – superbly quirky with a pounding drumbeat. Elvis shows off his soul and vocal range and the city, even on a Universal Pictures back lot, looks great.
Dr. John and Bobby Rush – Another Murder Down in New Orleans
This song comes from Decisions, a 2013 collaboration between ‘King-of-the-Chitlin Circuit’ Bobby Rush, a 7-piece funk band Blinddog Smokin’ and 6-time Grammy winner Dr. John. They’ve known each other most of their lives but hadn’t recorded together, and boy do they make up for lost time.
I thought that I’d end with a bang, and bring this list up to speed with one of the leading voices out of New Orleans this last decade. The video shows all the different facets of ghetto life around the Magnolia Projects, located in the uptown area of New Orleans known as Central City.
The song is a 1998 single from rapper Juvenile and it propelled a little known bounce record label – Cash Money – right into the mainstream. Juvenile, like Lil Wayne, emerged from a 1990s hip hop act called Hot Boy$ and Ha was his breakthrough hit.
So that’s my list! It’s missing some major names of course, but a city like New Orleans has so many great songs I have to stop somewhere.
I will leave you with a quote from one of the Crescent City’s finest:
My music is homegrown from the garden of New Orleans. Music is everything to me short of breathing. Music also has a role to lift you up – not to be escapist but to take you out of misery. Allen Toussaint
I have a post-script in the works – songs about Hurricane Katrina. Watch this space.
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