Now They Call It ... the Big Uneasy

Jason Berry

Journalist Jason Berry is the author of the new novel Last of the Red Hot Poppas, published by Chin Music Press. His next book will be a history of New Orleans told through brass funeral bands. Owen Murphy hide caption

itoggle caption Owen Murphy

People stopped calling New Orleans the Big Easy. So much video of the flood, of death and destruction, made the persona of a devil-may-care town seem trite. The nickname melted away.

The most striking change came in the dirges, the sorrow songs played by brass bands in funeral parades. Younger bands had begun playing fast-charging music in the march from church to cemetery. But after Katrina, old-school jazz men called for a return to tradition. Music teachers began stressing fundamentals: the slow, solemn tolling of hymns like "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," and one of the saddest dirges ever, "Garland of Roses," a tune by the Eureka band last heard regularly in the 1950s.

As the street dancers from the funeral parades reached back across the city's history, rap singers voiced rising anger at politicians for ignoring poor people, with lyrics that here we cannot quote.

Ironically, a similar obsession showed in the satirical float art of Mardi Gras parades. That famous papier-maché head of Janus, the two-faced Greek god, one side Ray Nagin with eyes shut, the opposite face, with a loony smile, George W. Bush, and the motto: "Couch potatoes at the apocalypse." Even bluebloods at the Boston Club cheered that one, history, after all, being history.

Visual artists spawned a genre of photo-surrealism, melding scenes of stately mansions, elegiac brick warehouses and plucky shotgun houses with photo shards of water, water, water, soothing and threatening.

New Orleans literature broke with the dominant theme of the modern Southern novel: the dysfunctional family, all those wild daddy boozers and pill-popping "couzans." Instead, we read of families trying to reconnect in a world shorn of rational bearings — people pulled to distant places, promising to return. But would they?

A strong spiritual current ran through the better works, a few of which became hot items in Pentecostal bookstores. The pull of kith and kin, so rooted in Southern life, marked the works of African-American writers, and young Hispanic authors, new to the ancient city.

As Faulkner wrote: "The past is never dead. It's never even past."

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