Gulf Music Tells Tales of Past Disasters

Music has played an important role in the Gulf region and the Mississippi delta, often elaborating on stories of natural and man-made disasters. The music has borne testament to upheaval over the centuries.

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Maybe more than any other American city, New Orleans is a home place for music. In fact, much of American music was nourished directly in the Mississippi delta region, a place that has experienced disaster--many times before--both natural and manmade. As NPR's Tom Cole reports, the music has borne testament to upheaval in the region.

TOM COLE reporting:

It's hard to believe that one of the earliest musical streams feeding the city by the delta sounded like this.

(Soundbite of singing in French)

COLE: This was music from the 1750s, and what is it? Fred Starr is a clarinetist and saxophonist, former president of Oberlin College and co-founder of the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble. He says this is 18th century French music with a New Orleans twist added by the Irsaline nuns(ph).

Mr. FRED STARR (Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble): It is popular tunes of the day. French pop music, but to which they had written religious lyrics, and it shows the earliest emanation of New Orleans musical culture.

(Soundbite of singing in French)

COLE: New Orleans has always defined itself through culture, says Fred Starr, even in the worst of times. Founded by the French, its initial construction was delayed by two severe hurricanes in 1721 and '22. But by 1806, there were two professional opera companies competing for audiences--audiences that were both rich and poor, black and white, and Latin American and Caribbean. The city boomed after the Civil War. Then economic disaster struck in 1873 when the stock market crashed.

Mr. STARR: New Orleanians started asking themselves, `Who are we?' And they developed the idea that, `We're really, you know, a little backward and out of it and we're relatively poor, but we have heart.' And this wasn't a joke because this was the period when they were living among themselves, interacting in spite of segregation. This is when New Orleans started thinking of itself as something defined in terms of culture and not wealth.

(Soundbite of brass band music)

COLE: And when times got tough, the tough in New Orleans started dancing.

(Soundbite of brass band music)

COLE: Brass bands thrived, both black and white, as New Orleanians went dance crazy. It's a typical response to hardship, says Bruce Boyd Raeburn, a drummer and curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University who escaped Katrina's wake and is now in California.

Mr. BRUCE BOYD RAEBURN (Hogan Jazz Archive): During the 19th century, there were numerous plagues, yellow fever, cholera. There have been race riots there, both going into Reconstruction, coming out of Reconstruction. But music has been the antidote against the perils of being a person living in New Orleans. Music has been a way of coping. It is in its essence the glue that holds society together in many ways.

COLE: If that sounds a little romantic, consider this: In 1927 a flood ravaged the countryside around New Orleans. The city itself was saved. Sharecroppers were driven from their homes, taking what they could, says Pete Daniel, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and author of "Deep'N as it Come: The 1927 Flood."

Mr. PETE DANIEL (Author, "Deep'N as it Come"): When the flood came, people a lot of times didn't have time to save very much, and they sometimes got out with only the clothes on their back. But if they had a chance to save something, one of the first things they saved was the Victrola. Even some of the poorest people would save their money to buy a Victrola and then they would save money to buy records. It was a very important part of poor people's lives.

COLE: In part because it reflected their lives. In 1927, Marty Johnson was one of many who wrote and recorded songs about the flood.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARTY JOHNSON: (Singing) Water was rolling down the valley just like a thunderstorm. Washed my little valley house away--there's no place I can call my home.

Mr. BILL FERRIS (University of North Carolina): The singer really is a spokesperson for his or her community.

COLE: Bill Ferris teaches at the University of North Carolina where he also works with the Center for Study of the American South. He says in addition to reflecting its community, music is also shaped by the upheavals it documents.

Mr. FERRIS: The blues is a new music that came out of the Reconstruction and the Jim Crow worlds of 1890s when lynching was widespread. Blues was part of that music, as was jazz. They were both birthed during that decade especially.

(Soundbite of jazz)

COLE: As much as jazz and blues were shaped by social conditions, New Orleans jazz musicians were not particularly interested in writing about strife and disaster, says Tulane University's Bruce Boyd Raeburn. He says they were more interested in celebrating life.

Mr. RAEBURN: For example, Jelly Roll Morton's "Milenberg Joys." Jelly Roll Morton, when he was interviewed by the Library of Congress' Alan Lomax in 1938, references the Robert Charles riots of 1900, he references a lot of the murders that occurred in relation to Storyville, the red-light district there. But if you look at his repertoire, he doesn't get into that in his songs. "Milenberg Joys" is about having fun on a Sunday afternoon on Lake Pontchartrain.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

COLE: The `let the good times roll' city that was home to jazz musicians and the rhythm and blues players who followed them, like Professor Longhair and James Booker and Fats Domino, fosters in part a culture of avoidance, says Bruce Boyd Raeburn, and he thinks that contributed to a city that avoided dealing with its poor, specifically the thousands of poor blacks left behind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Yet one of the city's trademark sounds is built around what might be called life's central tragedy: death. The brass bands that play for funerals were commonplace across the United States in the 19th century. But musician and scholar Fred Starr says in New Orleans they still play the dirges leading up to burial and the joyous marches afterward.

Mr. STARR: New Orleans clings to tradition and habits. It is change-resistant. Part of this was this emphasis on joy as well as on tragedy. This is the two masks of theater, and when in life is one more confronted with both faces than with death.

COLE: And perhaps in the face of the current tragedy, musicians will step forward again to document, to help listeners cope and even provide escape from the sorrow overwhelming us all. Tom Cole, NPR News.

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