New Orleans is my essence, my soul, my muse, and I can only dream that one day she will recapture her glory – Harry Connick Jr.
All the songs - Spotify playlist
A catastrophe like Katrina changes everything. The harsh and painful realities are so hard to bear. The experience losing your home and possessions, of enforced exile, of desperate choices forced on families, on entire communities can be a massive challenge to overcome.
Tradition and pride can provide comfort, and also a drive to re-build. Because as we shall see, New Orleans has an extraordinary spirit. As drummer Johnny Vidacovich puts it – “Tradition can be a verb. It isn’t over yet. It hasn’t become history yet.”
On August 29th 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the shores of Louisiana. Nearly every levee in metro New Orleans was breached as the category three hurricane passed just east of the city limits, bringing 8-10 inches of rain and stormsurges that devastated the city. The resultant winds and flooding caused a significant amount of deaths, with over 700 bodies recovered in New Orleans alone.
Many musicians were exiled, and for those who returned the experience was often traumatic. The clarinetist Dr. Michael G. White, a professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, lost his home in the storm. “I’m trying to figure out if I can be salvaged. I tried very hard to picture what this would be like, but you can’t begin to imagine. The hard part is that there’s a lot of history here that can’t be replaced. It’s all gone. I’m overwhelmed. I wouldn’t know where to start.” he said.
“People that live on bayous close to the Gulf have been dealing with floods every four or five years. We’ve been flooding more and more from less and less of a storm. For the city, the state, and the country, Katrina and Rita were a rude awakening: ‘Oh Lord, where did this come from?’ Well, this has been brewing for a long time.” Tab Benoit – Musician / Voice of the Wetlands Foundation
Just how long the issue had been on the minds of musicians is evident in song.
Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie – When the Levee Breaks
Written about the Mississippi floods of 1927, which was the most destructive river flooding during the whole of the 20th century. More than 200,000 African-Americans were displaced and housed in temporary relief camps. Many chose to join the Great Migration north rather than return to agricultural labor. Many southern blacks viewed the flood as an act of God that liberated them from the hated sharecropping system. Bob Dylan recorded a fine version of the song, which can be heard here.
Charley Patton – High Water Everywhere
Patton, considered the father of the Delta Blues, was another inspired to song by the floods of ’27. In his day he was extremely popular, a musical jack of all-trades who could play white hillbilly, 19th century ballads, and deep blues with equal ferocity.
Patton sings the song as if he’s telling you the news, shouting over his guitar lines and slapping his guitar.
“Oh Lordy, women and children drown
Oh women and children sinkin’ down
Lord have mercy
I couldn’t see nobody’s home
And wasn’t noone to be found.”
Randy Newman – Louisiana 1927
In this song, Randy Newman repeats the line “They’re trying to wash us away.” This is because the political powers that be decided to save New Orleans by blowing up the levee, effectively destroying St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes.
The bosses in New Orleans probably were behind the decision to let it flood up there, diverting the water away from their city. The cotton fields were wiped out, changing America forever, disemploying hundreds of thousands of black field workers. The 1927 flood is a big deal down there – the flood of the Mississippi caused $300m damage in pre-depression dollars and wiped out the cotton fields and the sugar too. Randy Rewman
Aaron Neville and India Irie brought the song to the modern day by playing it at NBC’s Concert For Hurricane Relief. You can watch the video here.
Songs For Katrina
Terence Blanchard – The Levees
A resident of New Orleans’ Garden District Terence Blanchard came out of a hard bop tradition, with african-fusion feel to his music that gives him a unique sound. Blanchard is particularly known for his film scores and has been Spike Lee’s go-to guy since Jungle Fever and Malcolm X.
His involvement in Spike Lee’s HBO Emmy winning documentary When The Levees Broke is strong. He appears in the film with his mother and aunt as they return to their flooded Pontchartrain Park home. His music for Lee’s film, released on his 2007 album A Tale of God’s Will – A Requiem for Katrina, partly drew on his own experiences as a little boy when Hurricane Betsy flooded his Lower 9th Ward neighborhood in 1965.
Steve Earle – This City
Now a modern New Orleans classic, Steve Earl wrote the song for a HBO Series Tremé. This TV drama took us all back to 2005 just months after Hurricane Katrina and focused on New Orleans residents rebuilding their lives, families and jobs in the aftermath of the storm.
Treme creator David Simon asked Earle to write something that his character on the show, Harley Watt, a street musician, would have written in 2005. Earle woke up the next morning and wrote This City.
This city won’t wash away
This city won’t ever drown
Blood in the water and hell to pay
Sky tear open and pain rain down
Doesn’t matter ’cause come what may
I ain’t ever gonna leave this town
This city won’t wash away
This city won’t ever drown
Also from the post-Katrina HBO series Treme is a topical re-make of Smiley Lewis’s Shame Steve Zahn leads us into a protest song mocking the government response to the city’s problems. You can watch that right here.
Dr. John – The City That Care Forgot
The whole album of the same name is a lament for the city. New Orleans celebrated soul man Mac Rebbenack uses loose blues guitars and atmospheric percussion to conjure up the loneliness of a place “where music and laughter once filled the air.” His anger and sadness are heartfelt in this swampy, gothic title track.
Ian Hunter – How’s Your House
“That song came to me. I didn’t go looking for it.” said rocker Ian Hunter, who contributed the song (and a cracking video) to Jeff Beninato, the musician who founded The New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund. NOMRF is a grass roots charity founded by displaced New Orleans musicians after Katrina with an aim to provide grants, instruments and gigs for New Orleans musicians.
If you have a musical instrument that you don’t play anymore, NOMRF will find it a good home in the hands of a New Orleans based musician that lost their instrument or a student just getting started. Contact them here.
Marc Broussard – Take Me Home
Louisiana native and bayou soul singer Marc Broussard was one of the quickest artists to respond to events, dedicating all the proceeds from a five-song live recording to the relief effort. Bootleg to Benefit the Victims (Available Here) led off with one of his live favorites Home, given added poignancy by events. I’ve always thought that Marc comes alive in concert anyway…
Harry Connick Jr – All These People
Harry Connick Jr’s personal response to the crisis was exceptional. He was down there the next day, and wasted no time helping out to raise money to rebuild. His Musicians Village initiative has been one of the fastest moving and most successful of the re-build programs. The album he recorded in the weeks afterward, Oh My Nola, is prabably his least self-focussed works, with a quality big band helping him through some of his favourite songs from the city including classics from New Orleans legends like Allan Toussaint, Lee Dorsey and James Booker. All These People is one of his own, and proceeds from it go to the Musicians Village charity. It’s a heartbreaking song – he teams with gospel singer Kim Burrell to reflect on the human suffering he witnessed first hand.
Juvenile – Get Your Hustle On
New Orlean rapper Juvenile gets right to the heart of it, and no-one gets out unscathed.
The video of three young boys donning masks of Bush, Cheney, and Nagin as they roam the ruined landscape of one of New Orleans’ flooded neighborhoods is very effective work.
Mos Def – Katrina Klap (Dollar Day)
Mos Def borrows Juvenile’s “Nolia Clap” and launches a direct assault on the Bush adnministration and the federal government’s lack of response to the Hurricane Katrina crisis. Reputedly done in one take, it was great to see the concerns amplified to a national audience in this way.
It’s like Dollar Day for New Orleans
It’s water water everywhere and homies dead in the streets
And Mr. President’s a natural ass
He out treatin niggaz worse than they treat the trash
(Unflinching video slideshow btw – not for the faint hearted)
R.E.M. Oh My Heart
Oh My Heart tells the story of a Katrina refugee relocated to Houston and was inspired by Barbara Bush’s comment that the displaced were better off in the Houston Astrodome than their old homes. Oh My Heart revisits an earlier song Houston, and features the New Olreans brass band Bonerama.
I stand beside you
The good of this world
Might help see me through
This place is the beat of my heart
U2 and Green Day – The Saints Are Coming
Critically called out by Mos Def in Katrina Klap, Saint Bono made good with this powerful cover of the old Skids song, with proceeds going to Music Rising, a charity dedicated to providing musical instruments and programs for the the city’s youth.
It was memorably performed by U2 and Green Day during the pre-game show when New Orleans Saints played Atlanta Falcons in September 2006. The first game in the Superdome since the storm. And yes, the Saints won. Since then it’s become a regular pre-game song at Saints home games.
Elvis Costello / Allen Toussaint – River In Reverse
Costello’s title song to his collaboration with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint is a stong return to his protest days of yore. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor at AllMusic puts it this way: “This undercurrent of protest gives The River in Reverse thematic cohesion — and as politically minded pop goes, it trumps such other 2006 albums as Neil Young’s Living with War, if only because it isn’t so heavy-handed about its intentions — but what makes the album rather extraordinary is that it’s as much celebration as it is protest.
Wake me up with a slap or a kiss
There must be something better than this
‘Cos I don’t see how it can get much worse
What do we have to do to send
The river in reverse
Down – On March The Saints
Former Pantera guitarist Phil Anselmo is from New Orleans and was moved to record Down III: Over The Under where many of the tracks deal with the devastation of New Orleans, (including the destruction of his own restaurant, Anselmo’s).
We have seen the change
From the season of the storms
With all our lives at stake
From at rest to the present
Are sitting high among the elect
On march the saints…
In a recent interview with Sic Asylum Anselmo talked about the impact of the hurricane. “Something about it, you lose material things and to me it’s almost humbling because you realize what’s important to you is tomorrow and the people around you. As long as the people around you made it out alive, as long as they’re safe. It’s all about the people around you and rebuilding the community to the best you can or at least trying to do the best you can. You gotta put one foot in front of the other.” Read Full interview here.
R Kelly – Let Your Light Shine
R Kelly performed a stirring finale to the 2005 BMA Awards, featuring his Hurrican Relief song “Let Your Light Shine”.
At the time Kelly said “People were trying to get me to do something else, but I would have felt guilty. People are still hungry, still without clothes or homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This is not about R. Kelly. This is about hope. And hope is more powerful than any crisis.”
Black Lips – Oh Katrina
This was a real puzzle when it came out, just weeks after Katrina had faded away. Black Lips are hard- assed Atlanta garage rockers not known for subtlety, yet here they are, giving Katrina what for.
Personifying the hurricane as an abusive, vindictive lover, the song cuts right to the chase: “O Katrina! Why you gotta be so mean?”
Prince S.S.T./ Brand New Orleans
Prince immediately recorded S.S.T. and Brand New Orleans to help raise funds for the victims of the hurricane. He played all the instruments himself and is a return to the old school Rogers Nelson groove, with enough New Orleans in the swing that you can easily here Dr. John covering it.
U gonna b happy with how Ur life has been spent?
Did u have open arms 4 each and everybody U met
Or did U let them die in the rain? Endless war, Poverty or hurricane…
It’s time 4 another groove…
The Prince Police have ensure that there’s nothing I can embed for you here, but Amazon has a preview… “S.S.T.” refers to sea surface temperature, which is used to monitor the threat of hurricanes.
Why New Orleans Matters
Tom Piazza, in his passionate defence of the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, challenges the public figures who, early on, questioned whether it “made sense” to rebuild New Orleans. He said that if any city could survive something this traumatic it was New Orleans.
He writes that New Orleans inspires the kind of love that few other cities do. “New Orleans has a mythology, a personality, a ‘soul, that is large and has touched many people around the world. It has its own music, its own cuisine its own way of talking its own architecture, its own look and feel. There is an element about it that is timeless, that is always the present.”
My own last visit to the city was just a few years later, clutching tickets to a Terence Blanchard concert. We found the city strong, vital and well on the way to recovery. There was work to do – not least to persuade tourists to return – but the visit proved beyond a doubt that Nola has retained that astonishing vitality that has helped shape the very best of what we think of still as American culture.
The music is still there for any who want it. . . . The blues, and the spirituals, and the remembering, and the waiting, and the suffering, and the looking at the sky watching the dark come down—that’s all inside the music. And somehow when the music is played right it does an explaining of all those things. Sidney Bechet – Treat It Gentle.