'Treme,' Episode 4: Tragedy, Comedy, Song : A Blog Supreme Only four episodes into Treme, one of the ideas that keeps recurring is how ultimately doomed everybody is -- and how everybody manages to crack an occasional smile in spite of it all. Josh Jackson breaks down the black humor and the music.
NPR logo 'Treme,' Episode 4: Tragedy, Comedy, Song

'Treme,' Episode 4: Tragedy, Comedy, Song

John Boutte performs the Treme theme song -- and prominently in episode four as well. Paul Schiraldi/HBO hide caption

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Paul Schiraldi/HBO

John Boutte performs the Treme theme song -- and prominently in episode four as well.

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

We're only four episodes into Treme. But one idea that keeps recurring: everyone is ultimately doomed, and everyone manages to crack an occasional smile in spite of it all.

Insurers' greed, correctional incompetence, municipal utilities failure, corruption, death of loved ones, physical injury, resentment, racism, relationship drama, parental guilt and the federal government's crocodile tears greet every character at every turn. But for nearly everyone, playing, hearing or being around music enables some sort of familiar grin. Davis' madcap songwriting, Antoine's gruff incantations (to LaDonna in particular), Albert's Indian rituals, Sonny and Annie gigging, Toni and Creighton's Christmas music, Jacques' kitchen radio, Delmond's sheepish encounter with jazz greats and so forth: whether transmuting their emotions or escaping from them, music is there for people. Even the visual sequence behind the theme song juxtaposes images of hurricane destruction with an upbeat, good-mood tune.

Part of this is the character of musical theater, sure: everything gets filtered through song. But it's especially effective for Treme. There's powerful, unmitigated grief in the show, met by bureaucratic mess. And if you think about oil spills, erosion, global warming and inevitable future hurricanes, nothing seems to be working in Louisiana's favor. When faced with the mortality of your entire culture and community, the humor tends toward darker shades of black. New Orleans just so happens to have great music as a way to work through that.

Again joining me to talk about the music is WBGO's Josh Jackson. HBO's full playlist is here.

Patrick Jarenwattananon: Antoine opens the episode in the hospital. So of course, he gives us an interpolation of "St. James Infirmary" -- somewhat tragicomic, in the great New Orleans way.

Josh Jackson: Touro Infirmary was the first hospital in Orleans Parish to open after Katrina. I can only imagine what the real scene was like after the storm. "St. James Infirmary Blues" is an old folk tune, based on one of the English ballads, "The Unfortunate Rake"; this same song spawned the cowboy ballad, "Streets of Laredo." It was malleable enough to get churned by variations of American experience, including a jazz version by Louis Armstrong. It's a blues about a dude who just left the morgue where his girl was lying on a long, white table. Chilling. Then he proceeds to ruminate about his own death over a drink. My favorite version of this song is Danny Barker's solo take from Save the Bones.

Quick aside: the nurse calls for "Edward Bocage" ahead of Batiste. That's a reference to Eddie Bo, a genius pianist (and bricklayer) who was another important figure in New Orleans. Listen to his music when you get a chance. He wore a beanie just like that.

PJ: We see Antoine singing again soon afterward, laying it heavy on LaDonna. He sings "Just A Little Overcome," by Ollie and the Nightingales. Then there's this exchange about Tommy Tate and "all these deep-fried musicians" from the South who remain obscure and nearly forgotten, but who played on some of the greatest Stax Records soul sessions there were. Can you explain?

JJ: First of all, great tune for this scene. And you could find stuff like this in New Orleans bars. The joints in town are notable for great jukeboxes.

Antoine is right. This was the B-side to "I Don't Want To Be Like My Daddy." Ollie and the Nightingales have a backstory. They were originally The Dixie Nightingales, a gospel group on a Stax subsidiary, Chalice, that crossed over to soul. The mighty vocalist David Ruffin from The Temptations once sang with them! Antoine also mentions Sir Mack Rice, who wrote "Mustang Sally" and "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin,'" one of my favorite Christmas tunes. (It's not in this episode, but we do get to hear John Boutte sing "White Christmas.")

Tommy Tate is a cult figure, one of the many underrecognized voices of Southern Soul, the genre that includes Stax and Muscle Shoals kind of stuff. His sides for Ko Ko Records are stunning. This genre of soul music has a fairly dedicated new following because of groups like Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. The point is that there are a ton of records from New Orleans and points south that had an impact regionally, but they never got R-E-S-P-E-C-T nationally.

True story: Batiste also mentions the Al Hirt brick incident. The famous New Orleans trumpeter was indeed accosted with masonry during a Bacchus parade. A Saturday Night Live sketch parodied it to great comic effect. John Belushi played Al Hirt.

PJ: The job done by Clarke Peters and the other Mardi Gras Indian cast members continues to astound me. The neighbor's boy walks in on them rehearsing a song called "Shoo Fly," and the kid jumps in clinking beer bottles for percussion. It's like he stumbled upon a fascinating inner sanctum, but with backbeats.

JJ: That's exactly what it is. This is an extremely private practice that occurs on Sundays. In the past, very few outsiders got to attend. I once heard Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias practicing in the H&R Bar on Second and Dryades. Long story, but a man named John Sinclair took me. I would have never had the guts to walk into the place. Anyway, this is exactly what Darius needs to connect to something powerful about his heritage, and Albert Lambreaux needs a protege to fill his son Delmond's absence. All good.

PJ: There are then multiple tunes performed in a Texas roadhouse, with a characteristically New Orleans band led by Glen David Andrews (older brother cousin of Trombone Shorty, and a bandleader in his own right) and featuring a drummer named Tanio Hingle. We hear "Who Dat Called Da Police?" before Sonny jumps in, then "Go To The Mardi Gras" featuring Sonny, and "At The Foot Of Canal Street," featuring the great singer John Boutte and keyboardist/bluesman Joe Krown. And when Sonny sits outside, Glen Andrews and the band do "Knock With Me, Rock With Me." It's like they're saturating this show with New Orleans musicians just 'cause they can.

JJ: Great set of songs here. "Who Dat Called the Police" was a staple of New Birth Brass Band. Tanio, their bass drummer, wrote it. "Go to the Mardi Gras" is a Professor Longhair song that works well as a corollary to Creighton's YouTube diatribe. "Roll With Me" is from the Lil' Rascals Brass Band's Buck It Like a Horse. Glen David created that song, and the full version is some powerful stuff. If you watch Lolis Elie's documentary, Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, you can see Glen perform it live in the streets of the Sixth Ward.

"At the Foot of Canal Street" is a collaboration between John Boutte (he sings the Treme theme song) and Paul Sanchez, a producer, songwriter and former member of Cowboy Mouth. Great tune, and it lends the name of this episode. Canal Street, the historic demarcation line of the French Quarter and the American city, runs from the Mississippi River down to a collection of cemeteries. We're getting back to that tragicomic part of the New Orleans psyche: basically, we're all gonna end up dead, so try getting along and living a little. We'll see you all at the foot of Canal Street nonetheless.

PJ: Episode four is jam-packed with familiar cameos (Anwan Glover! aka Slim Charles in The Wire as the prisoner), one of which is Steve Earle (who also had a small part in The Wire) with his son, Justin Townes Earle. They're playing a bluegrass-ish tune with Annie called "Gold Watch and Chain."

Steve Earle (right), returning to another David Simon urban drama, with his son, Justin Townes Earle. Paul Schiraldi/HBO hide caption

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Paul Schiraldi/HBO

JJ: An oldtimey song that is part of the Carter Family's codicil of Appalachian music. Goes all the way back to the "Reuben's Train" song and Westerdorf's "Is There No Kiss For Me Tonight, Love?" For Davis McAlary on this particular night, the answer to that question is "no."

PJ: As an aside, several times this episode, characters drink out of plastic cups. Annie even asks for red wine to go, and in the previous episode Davis references the "go-cup." There are some mighty liberal open container laws in New Orleans, I now understand.

JJ: You can drink alcohol publicly in any type of container other than glass. Metal cans and flasks, plastic cups and sheepskin are allowable. You can also get a frozen daquiri in a styrofoam cup via drive-thru, as long as the straw is on the side. This is what happens when you let Catholics run a town.

PJ: A moment to consider the characters of Annie and Sonny, whose careers seem to be leading them apart a bit. They're both from out of town: Annie from conservatory and New York, Sonny from Amsterdam. The first point would be that while the show focuses largely on born-and-bred talent, there are a lot of bohemian musicians who move to New Orleans and find their way into the scene. The second point is that it reminds me vaguely of a certain Swedish couple who moved to New Orleans ...

JJ: New Orleans has a strong magnetic pull, and buskers come from around the world to play music in front of people. I'm thinking of folks like Ingrid Lucia and the Flying Neutrinos or David and Roselyn. Everyone's invited to sing a song. Why not? To your second point, if these two are related in any way to Theresa Andersson and Anders Osborne, then their relationship may not be long for the world. If that's true, maybe Sonny and Annie will still play on each other's records when they make it. Sonny will need to start growing his beard right now.

PJ: Anyway, Annie takes another gig without Sonny on piano, this time at the Spotted Cat with the New Orleans Jazz Vipers (as seen in the second episode). The tune is "Blue Drag." You know, what strikes me about New Orleans jazz after a weekend at Jazz Fest is that you can actually see it on the same continuum as New Orleans pop/R&B/etc. It's certainly not the sort of jazz you hear in clubs that Delmond might play in New York.

JJ: New Orleans is a small town with an abundance of musicians. Fortunately, it hasn't intellectualized music to the point of making it obsolete for people who know little to nothing about the jazz tradition. New Orleans never lost the dance. I hear plenty of brilliant music in New York clubs, but rarely does it stimulate any place below my shoulders. I'm not saying that's better or worse. It's just from a different place.

PJ: By the way, the Spotted Cat is on Frenchmen Street. "Frenchmen" gets referenced at least once in the episode, and there are multiple shots of it, including the coffee shop where Creighton gets a latte and Annie talks with Steve and Justin Townes Earle (where the background music is from pianist David Torkanowsky, by the way) ... From my impression of it, Frenchmen is a packed, thriving music hub, but the Bourbon Street tourists aren't out in force there.

JJ: Frenchmen Street has always had been a great entertainment district. It's just off Esplanade Avenue at the edge of the French Quarter, in the Faubourg Marigny. I used to live on Kerlerec Street, so I spent many a night at now-defunct joints like the Dream Palace (now the Blue Nile) and Cafe Brasil. There are still great anchors like Snug Harbor and the Apple Barrel (also in this episode), a recently reopened Spotted Cat, and newer establishments like d.b.a. There was talk of opening another jazz club at the old U.S. Mint. I hope that happens.

PJ: While we're talking inside references, I take it that Entergy is some sort of do-it-all engineering company that hasn't been working fast enough, and that the Swift Bus is some sort of Louisiana bus service. And I remember bicycling past Lil Dizzy's Cafe on the edge of the Treme on Esplanade Avenue ...

JJ: Entergy is the company that runs the monopoly on providing power in New Orleans, after the previous monopoly, LP&L (Louisiana Power and Light), was dissolved. It is not uncommon to have a $600 monthly power bill during the dog days of summer. Residents love them! LA Swift buses transported people from Baton Rouge to New Orleans after Katrina. It was among the smarter things that FEMA funded. Lil Dizzy's is owned by the Baquet family, people who know how to cook. So does Lulu, who stuffs mirlitons (the chayote squash) for dinner with Albert Lambreaux. That's a very South Louisiana thing to do.

PJ: I couldn't help laughing at Sonny and the band cramped in their tiny car listening to some New Orleans rap, passing a joint. That's an anthem called "F--- Katrina," by a local dude named 5th Ward Weebie ... another of his songs plays in Janette's kitchen, when one of the cooks changes the station to Q93, the local hip-hop/R&B station. Now, I get a feeling that locals -- and especially the African American population -- listen to rap somewhat more than this show portrays. I mean, that cook switches to Q93 because he's tired of that "Dixieland" stuff.

JJ: Rap music is HUGE in New Orleans. Q93 always had deejays who had their finger on the pulse. Wild Wayne is still reppin' for the cause.

PJ: We haven't yet talked about the ridiculous jazz cameos in the New York party scene with Delmond and his lady. I mean, there's Stanley Crouch and McCoy Tyner, and was that Ron Carter, too? It makes even the conflicted Delmond feel like a "country boy" ...

JJ: I think he's feeling a little country after getting punked by his girl. If Ron Carter and McCoy Tyner know you by name, you ain't country no more. You're jazz famous.

PJ: And of course, there's that other scene (with Jim True-Frost, aka Lt. Pryzbylewski of The Wire playing an agent named "Jim") where Delmond is hesitant to take some sort of gig with Donald Harrison. It would supposedly position him next in the modern New Orleans trumpet tradition, behind Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Christian Scott (the list could go on). But he does say this: "I'm from New Orleans, but I don't play New Orleans. And neither do those guys. That's why they made names for themselves." And this: "Jazz hasn't run hot or cold since bebop. It just is, man." You want a piece of any of that?

JJ: I'm comfortable saying that jazz simply IS, without the "just" qualifier. There's no red-hot intensity of an actual movement anymore. The music is now a loose confederation of individual heroic quests, and heroes are the figures of antiquity. Jazz, however, is still current, but that's a different measurement value than it was during the heyday of bebop. As long as there's a need for freedom of expression, jazz has a base of operation.

PJ: I did notice that, as Delmond says, audiences clap on beats 1 and 3 elsewhere in the country (the indie-rock hub of Portland, Ore. in this case), but while in New Orleans, I realized they actually clap on 2 and 4. At that moment in time, I was really proud, for some reason.

JJ: Pay attention to that last line from Antoine Batiste on the Swift bus. "New Orleans: always for pleasure." Not only does it reference a fascinating documentary about New Orleans by Les Blank, but it also contains a certain truism about the city. There's much more joy on 2 and 4, enough to make many of the displaced proud swim home. By the way, "I'm Going Back To New Orleans," by Deacon John, is the music to the end credits.