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Issue 79, Winter 2012

Begin Again

Since there’s no question more urgent for the city of New Orleans than whether the haute bourgeoisie can sleep, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has lately embarked on a campaign to tighten up the noise of nighttime. During the last two years this has meant enforcing noise ordinances and live music regulations that had gone unenforced since, roughly, the days of Bienville, when he stumbled upon this spit of high ground in the bend of a river and lay awake while mosquitoes droned. Clubs across the city have shut down their music programs (some permanently), even clubs that had operated continuously for the better part of a decade, sometimes more. The mayor’s crackdown on off-license music was greeted with outrage and disbelief, as more evidence that this great city could never resist an opportunity to foil itself. Our beloved New Orleans is an incorrigible clown, a pratfall artist—we know this, and mostly it’s endearing, but the mayor’s noise campaign seemed aimed at something more essential, something practically mystical: the city’s sense of its music.

The fight became bitter, innocents suffered collateral damage. As the news of the crackdown reached the various nodes of the New Orleanian diaspora, it sometimes conveyed a dismissive, knowing aside about how the mayor and his crew had no interest in any music but the kind of music heard on the television show Treme, that only the clubs that offered Treme music—Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, The Meters—had been spared. This music, in the cramped and sentimental aesthetics of the mayoralty, was authentic New Orleans music, and anything else had been declared noise. Those were the fighting words, that was the story, whether or not it was actually true. The trumpeter Kermit Ruffins now owns Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, which is nearly the most Treme-esque sentence one could possibly write, and yet even he had a hell of a time for eighteen months getting a live music permit for one of the best known New Orleans clubs.

Mayor Landrieu doesn’t seem the sort to have opinions about music, but still the accusation persisted: that the mayor had it out for any music that hadn’t been safely historicized, entombed, and transformed into advertising jingles. Metal, punk, noise rock, bounce, and hip-hop would naturally fall into this category of the inscrutable. Of course the mayor wouldn’t know what to make of his constituents Juvenile and Lil Wayne, for instance, nor what they might mean by “Back That Azz Up,” and the directions contained therein:

        After you back it up and stop

        Then drop, drop, drop, drop it like it's hot,

        Wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody,

        Drop drop it like it's hot,

        Wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody

        Wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody wobbody,

That’s New Orleans music through and through, and it would have been easily recognizable as such by Louis Armstrong, who was a world-class ass hound among other things. Even so it’s easy to imagine the confusion in the mayor’s office, and the subsequent conclusion that what they were hearing in “Back That Azz Up,” one of the great bounce compositions, was mere noise.

In these cases we sometimes call on David Simon for guidance. Simon is the docent of Treme, a museum-quality exhibition that also happens to be a television show about New Orleans, with the soundtrack to prove it. The curated quality of the music, in fairness, arises from real appreciation of that NOLA sound and a desire to present it to the world. Even when it admits other influences—as in the second season subplot featuring bounce, a kind of call-and-response hip-hop that originated in New Orleans and continues to exert outsize influence on American popular music—it’s as the exception to the rule, something to dabble in for comic relief before the story (and the music) returns to the main event. But in the current moment bounce (and hip-hop, and metal, and punk, and noise rock) have as much claim to be the main event in New Orleans as jazz and zydeco do, especially as music produced and enjoyed by a majority of New Orleanians.

In its stubborn policing of New Orleans’s musical categories, Treme follows a long tradition of archivists, folklorists, and fanboys who, having discovered a sliver of unadulterated (so they think) authenticity down at the lower end of the Mississippi, then set out to preserve and popularize it. It is this historic tension between the hoarding and the performing that has lately been expressed in the resentment of that Treme music: the bad feeling that something is getting shoved down one’s throat and that someone else—the mayor, the television producer, somebody—has been raised up as both the arbiter of taste and its enforcer.

The code enforcer mediates the battle between the urge to preserve and the urge to cast aside. He is an old, possibly ancient figure. Eighty years ago we had the Lomaxes, John and son Alan, traveling the Depression country and exploring places they themselves characterized as the eddies and backwaters of American culture—the lumber camps, the isolated swamp communities, and especially the prisons. They set out to record “the Negro who had the least contact with jazz, the radio, and with the white man…. The convicts heard only the idiom of their own race,” the Lomaxes wrote in American Ballads and Folk Songs. In these low-down hermitages, they theorized, a folklorist might find old songs that had been preserved in the pure state of their creation. Jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and the radio were presumably compromised by their promiscuity of influence. The musicians themselves would be earthy types, volk, who played in the way of the ancestors, which the Lomaxes would recognize because it would sound authentic, a tautology that apparently didn’t trouble them much.

The relationship of the Lomaxes to Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter demonstrated the paradox of the authentic and the collector’s dilemma: The father-and-son team “discovered” Leadbelly in Angola prison, which they regarded as sufficiently isolated and idiomatically pure; on his subsequent release they took him on as their driver and housekeeper, while entering into the recording business with him. Because of excessive concern for authenticity, on occasion the Lomaxes pressured Leadbelly to scrub his music of modern influence; because of excessive concern for record sales, the surest way to preserve the music, they also pressured Leadbelly to scrub the nasty, sexy bits from some of his songs. They managed his image by presenting him to the world as a backwoods savant and a violent, dangerous ex-con (LIFE magazine, 1937: “Lead Belly—Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel”); they managed their own image as intrepid explorers whose first prison meeting with Leadbelly they re-enacted on film for a March of Time newsreel—which, in a po-mo twist, Leadbelly himself recreated (again and again) on the stage during his own live show. The hunger for the authentic circles back and devours itself.

The idea of the authentic nonetheless bears the promise of an identity; the authentic is a pure thing that conveys history, membership, and meaning upon the maker and the collector alike. The Lomaxes—and they weren’t alone—believed that there existed a unique American folk music independent of the old country’s influence, a virgin birth of the American experience, sung into life out of the peculiar American character. Leadbelly had known this music from the cradle, they decided, and had somehow held it close and pure. They would preserve it and broadcast it, and in doing so created an American canon of song that endures.

It’s puzzling to think that Leadbelly could ever have been a pure exemplar of anything. He was raised in the drunken crossroads syncretism of Shreveport, Louisiana: the border town of Ark-La-Tex, gateway to the West, harbor city on the Red River, always racially and musically mixed. Leadbelly grew up a musician in one of the American towns where he was most likely to have contact with jazz, the radio, and with the white man. After World War II, Shreveport gave birth to KWKH’s Louisiana Hayride—the experimental and looser-hipped cousin of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry—the stage of which launched dozens of acts that didn’t fit neatly into the rigid music-industry categories of “race” and “hillbilly.” On the Hayride show listeners first heard Hank Williams rip through his weird, uncategorizable, Louisiana-bred “Lovesick Blues,” and it was on the Hayride that Elvis Presley went big. TheHayride was where you heard the early stirrings of a country and western music, where you heard the first sounds of rock & roll, followed later by rockabilly. Leadbelly himself, best known as a blues and folk musician thanks to his canonization by folklorists, was arguably the greater genius as an early avatar of country music, which had come naturally to him as a child of Shreveport.

But at least he’s preserved, thank God, and firmly established in the collection of the Smithsonian.

Preservation implies categorization, otherwise we’d hardly know what to go out and capture on our field recorders. Categorization, inevitably, means exclusion. If I were a television producer and I set out to portray New Orleans music, for instance, I’d have to be able to say what that music was, and so I’d look for music that said “Big Easy” to me, a novice with a mental image of Louis Armstrong’s big, billowing cheeks fully inflated behind his cornet. And let’s face it, ex-Pantera frontman and New Orleans native Phil Anselmo, who went to summer camp and grammar school with Harry Connick Jr., drinking the same water and eating the same po-boys and so on, looks and sounds nothing at all like Louis Armstrong. (He looks demented and dirty, sounds cretinous, and once punched Connick in the nose because he wouldn’t stop singing a Barbra Streisand song.) And so Anselmo drops off the callback list along with the rest of New Orleans’s internationally famous metal scene. As mentioned, bounce is a detour in the second season soundtrack; in the first season, one of the few signs of bounce is the grumbling of John Goodman’s character about his daughter, who’s getting her groove on. “She can’t hear you over that bounce rap, where her heroes are undoubtedly saying ‘fuck,’ and ‘shit,’ and ‘keep off me bitch,’” the miserable old coot growls, at music no one can hear because his daughter is wearing headphones while she—because this is Treme, the perfectly closed cultural system—reads happily to herself from the collected nineteenth century New Orleans reportage of the young Lafcadio Hearn. As children often do.

About New Orleans there’s always a clear sense of what’s inside and what’s outside the category of local music, even if that sense is only an instinct, the same kind of instinct the Lomaxes relied on when hunting down authentic examples of sounds they’d never heard before. In Treme this has meant developing a cast of characters unreasonably obsessed with combo jazz, Cajun and zydeco, and old men blowing “Basin Street Blues” on brass. Characters like this surely exist in New Orleans, but in far smaller numbers than Treme would lead you to believe. It’s possible that there’s nothing terribly significant at stake in all of this—in the high-minded folklorist’s instinct to preserve and popularize, the subsequent decisions about categorization, inclusion, and exclusion—and that therefore it’s silly to protest it. And, of course, I am also projecting a kind of categorization (and a will to preservation) when I protest that, no, this is the real thing, the real music, I don’t think your taste is representative. Honestly, even as I tweak the dorks of the music world, I can hear my own cry to preserve the music that has imprinted itself on me, that makes me a whole and reasonably authentic person with loves and hates and ideas about art, and who likes danger in his music and in his musicians.

Implicated in this, I think, is my wish to cheat death. My life is a discrete unit of time, with an easily discernible beginning and end, marked by the length of time that I breathe. I am categorized—carbon-based, bipedal, conscious, bald, mammalian, and especially mortal. I once lived in New Orleans. I have memories of it, and right now I’m thinking about the boys who used to stand out on the corner of North Rampart and Press with some brass horns they hardly knew how to play. I’m not sure what they were trying to play. Hardly anyone had anything to salvage out of the flood in those first few months after Katrina, but these neighborhood boys had somehow got their hands on some brass and were blowing lights out with those things. It was awful, and it seemed hopeful and eternal.

Louis Armstrong bought his first horn on wages advanced from his employer, a coal dealer to the Storyville brothels and saloons. That was down at Rampart and Perdido Streets, the horn was a B flat cornet, and Armstrong was about ten years old. Not long after that he was arrested and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, where he would eventually become leader of the house band. The rest of the story, the public musical story, is well known. It’s not important to recount here. But Armstrong, who had experienced the rage of categorization throughout his life—categorization of his music, of his race, of the relative shade of his skin—made a lifetime project of recording and documenting his own sense of himself, outside the eye of the culture czars and fanboys. In the Louis Armstrong Archives there sit six hundred and fifty tapes that Armstrong recorded of his life at home and on the road, most of them hand-decorated with collages also made by Armstrong, and at least five different unpublished manuscripts of his memoirs written and boxed up at different times of his life. He said, as the writer Ben Alexander has pointed out, that the recordings and the manuscripts were made “for posterity.” Armstrong recorded everything: dinner table conversations, fights, television and radio shows. He’d turn the recorder on and just let it roll, often forgetting about it. He had one recorder in his house and another that he carried with him on the road, along with the typewriter on which he composed his memoirs and letters. Armstrong spent a vast amount of time putting himself down—on tape, on paper—without interference. He doesn’t appear to have cared how he came off on the recordings especially: Often he can seem like a real jerk, especially to his wife Lucille, who in fairness gave it back as good as she got it.

Posterity. This is the crucial point. Beyond the reach of the musicologists and the critics, the Hollywood producers and the club owners, Armstrong created his own version of himself that he meant to leave for the time after his death. On one tape he says, by way of not caring what anyone else thinks: “Well, folks, that was my life. And I enjoyed all of it. Yes, I did. I don’t feel ashamed at all. My life has always been an open book. So I have nothing to hide. And well, Mary Wana honey, that’s marijuana to you, but it’s Mary Wana honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you very, very much.” Satchmo loved weed. He loved other things, too, but weed was right up there among his favorite things, and he didn’t care whether it was legal or illegal. It was his Mary and as true and important as anything else the scholars and critics could write about him. He loved marijuana. Satchmo was a pothead. You can almost hear him thinking, Work that into your critical study, professor. Too late to ask me about it, I’m dead.

We preserve. We define and exclude, and by extension possess. We transform the thing in its naming according to our near-Linnean systematics. We lift it out of its own, fluid ecosystem where the music coheres by what it made you do—dance, sit, cry, pray, fuck, shout, fight, laugh. We introduce it into a new ecosystem, one in which it might be preserved for posterity outside the derelict inheritance from which it came, and into which it might have disappeared except for our recording machines, our notebooks, our archival quality tape.

I admit: I am anxious about the demise of my own personal cosmology. I wish to preserve the guidestars, my art and books and music. I know I’ll be forgotten, but given a choice I’d just as soon the things I cared about were preserved. The alternative is, as the vampires of Louisiana apparently say, the one true death. This is the even more basic anxiety of our mortality: that we are to become not only dead, but also the forgotten adherents of a dead culture. Forgotten isn’t even the right word, as it implies such a thing as an historical memory. Dead and never even suspected is more like it. Dead and never imagined. But I resist the contingency of my life. I resist the idea that my life and the things I loved were neither inevitable nor foreordained. Even Armstrong knew he wanted to leave it behind, the whole mess, boxed up and filed under posterity.

And so: preservation and popularization. Anger over the enforcement of noise ordinances that, suspiciously, seem to target my music. Fights over the legitimacy of a television show’s soundtrack which, in its preciousness, seems terribly fragile and invented, but which is nonetheless a fantastic set of tunes. The establishment and the revision of canons, the back and forth over the legacy of the Lomaxes. Louis Armstrong recording his poker games.

The boys on the corner with their brass instruments had so very little idea of what they were doing and didn’t appear to care. No one stood over them tapping out the particulars of “St. James Infirmary,” no one told them what they had to know. At that moment they were free to make their music out of whatever came to hand, whatever they heard. Hip-hop? Sure. Jazz? Possibly. The clacking of the train that passed on the railroad tracks just fifty feet from where they stood? Probably. All of it and more, the sounds in the air. We were in a state of nature back then, but someone had managed to conjure a trumpet, a tuba, and a trombone, out of which came new and strange sounds.

Over time, though, the boys got tighter. I can’t say I understood what they were playing, but it came cleaner and closer to harmony. There was a big backbeat in it, and staccato punctuation at the high end of the trumpet. I heard call and response, too, when they took a break, some nonsense out of an adolescent fantasy, the usual. There was a swing in it, I heard it. They had been listening, and with no one to show them what to do they took what they found. And maybe that was Armstrong, or maybe it was the Rebirth Brass Band, or maybe it was native sludge metallists Down. Didn’t matter. Sound had begun to gather in, to coalesce on the three boys, to form up and combine like cells bearing with them the chromosomes of a living history. It was like listening to the beginning all over again.

Live music.

Duncan Murrell

Duncan Murrell is a writer, a contributing editor for the Oxford American and Harper’s Magazine, and a track and field coach. He lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.