RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One of New Orleans' best known native sons was back in town for Mardi Gras. Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, was angry at the hurricane destruction and the response to Katrina that's left many homeless. Six years ago, Dr. John showed NPR's John Burnett some of his favorite haunts. They got together again, but this time the mood was more was more somber.
JOHN BURNETT reporting:
Before we get on the bus, Dr. John wants you to have this little primer on the nature of New Orleans' traditions.
Mr. MALCOLM JOHN REBENNACK (Musician): Everything about New Orleans is passed down, whether it's cooking, music, whether it's the Marsalis family, whether it's the Neville Brothers, families pass music on. It's passed down from people's knowledge and their wisdom and their understanding.
BURNETT: Remember this point a little later on when we get into the neighborhoods, the transmission of culture has to have a place to happen.
Wearing a beret and a black leather jacket, carrying a funky wooden cane, Rebennack climbs into a van. At 65, his gray ponytail falls down the seatback.
Mr. REBENNACK: Hey, how you doing?
BURNETT: We drive through the narrow streets of French Quarter, wrought iron fences are festooned with beads, sidewalks are crowded with Mardi Gras revelers. The van pulls on to Saint Claude Avenue and heads toward the Lower Ninth Ward. The high times of the Quarter recede as we enter the dead zone east of downtown.
Mr. REBENNACK: This is my heart, and it's like broke. This city is broke in a million ways.
BURNETT: Dr. John now lives on Long Island and he was on tour when Katrina struck six months ago. But he felt the storm's wrath intimately. Nearly every member of his band, and much of his road crew, had homes in New Orleans that were either damaged or destroyed. To help, Dr. John released a CD last year called Sippiana Hurricane, in honor of his drowned hometown. The profits go mainly to musicians charities.
Mr. REBENNACK (singing): Sweet home New Orleans. I can sho'nuf hear you calling since the levee came falling. I say where my little darlings?
BURNETT: At the heart of Dr. John's concern is what happened to the people who make the music. We passed by white FEMA trailers parked next to blue tarp shotgun houses. There are signs for roofers and sheet rockers. Much of the debris has been cleared away, but the neighborhoods are still not habitable. We crossed the Industrial Canal on our way into the Lower Ninth. The van turns down a side street. As we get closer to the huge levee crevasse, all that's left of the houses are piles of lumber. Dr. John is lost.
Mr. REBENNACK: I can't even tell you where Mr. Google Eyes use to stay out here, where Cousin Joe lived with his wife at one time.
BURNETT: He's speaking of two noted New Orleans blues singers: Joe Mr. Google Eyes August, who wrote No Wine, No Women, and Pleasant Joseph, better known as Cousin Joe, who composed Hen Layin Rooster, a song Dr. John recorded.
Mr. REBENNACK (singing): I'm a hen-layin rooster and my feathers don't match. (Unintelligible) I'm sho'nuf going to snatch.
Mr. REBENNACK: Sure, there's musicians all over New Orleans, but this whole area was such a vibrant chunk of different ends of New Orleans' music. If you just look, this is just what's left of the Ninth Ward, right here. I mean it's like that.
BURNETT: Rebennack looks out the window at a house lying on top of another house, both shattered. We turn on to Caffen(ph) Avenue and pull up in front of the unmistakable black and yellow residence of Antoine Fats Domino; it's flooded to the roof. Someone wrote RIP on a column when they thought he was killed in a flood. The 78-year-old Domino is staying across the river in Algiers these days. It was Domino's guitar player who gave Rebennack music lessons. As we pull away, though, it's not Domino's music that Rebennack talks about, but his food.
Mr. REBENNACK: He's one of the few people, he made chitlins, I'd eat it. I don't even eat chitlins (unintelligible). Oh, he makes the best hog head cheese, old school.
BURNETT: Fifteen minutes later we pull up in front of 324 Jeff Davis Parkway in a middle-class Third Ward neighborhood.
Mr. REBENNACK: Yeah. This two-story gray pair right there. It was upstairs on the left, that's where I grew up.
BURNETT: Both doors are wide open and the first floor is gutted. There's no one around.
Mr. REBENNACK: As you can see, the waterline went pretty high all along here.
BURNETT: Rebennack says he's glad his aging mother and his aunt have both passed away. He's not sure they could have handle Katrina.
We turn on to Orleans Avenue and pass another local landmark, Dooky Chase's Restaurant. It was flooded and it's still closed.
Mr. REBENNACK: Dooky Chase's. Ray Charles took that Louie Jordan song Early in the Morning, and he put a line in it that said, Went to Dooky Chase to get something to eat, the waitress looked at me and said, Ray, you sure look beat. Well, there's Dooky Chase. You don't see him being open neither. I'm sure they ain't got enough people in to work the restaurant. This is the pathetic part about why what ain't open.
BURNETT: Again, places like this are the threads that make up the fabric of New Orleans. Rebennack points out that Mr. Google Eyes started out as a busboy at Dooky Chase's. Dr. John is emphatic; it all has to come back for New Orleans to be New Orleans again.
Mr. REBENNACK: It wasn't just the musicians. And this is what nobody gets about it all. It was the whole guts of this city, of the people that worked in the clubs, the people, the bartenders, the characters that were the customers, the high rollers down to the guys. Everybody was a part of a culture that made the music flourish here in ways that it didn't nowhere else.
BURNETT: Dr. John sang that sentiment later in the evening at House of Blues. The song was more optimistic than his bleak outlook during the tour of the flood zone.
(Soundbite of song)
BURNETT: Dr. John wants you to understand something. These are not low lying, blighted ghettos that were flooded. These are not disposable neighborhoods to be turned into green spaces or condos or a Creole Disney World. This is sacred ground. This is the musical seedbed of America.
John Burnett, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Hear more music from Dr. John's benefit album at npr.org.