Musicians Regroup to Benefit 'Our New Orleans' The Big Easy's musicians may be scattered by the storm, but they are united on a benefit CD called Our New Orleans. Public radio host Nick Spitzer, who produced several songs for the album, talks about the project with Melissa Block.
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Musicians Regroup to Benefit 'Our New Orleans'

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Musicians Regroup to Benefit 'Our New Orleans'

Musicians Regroup to Benefit 'Our New Orleans'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of "Tipitina and Me")

BLOCK: New Orleans enters 2006 with the wounds of 2005 still painful. The city's still just a battered fraction of what it was. And the music...

(Soundbite of "Tipitina and Me")

BLOCK: ...the music and musicians of New Orleans are scattered around the country. And maybe we're not imagining a bit more of a minor-key tinge now.

(Soundbite of "Tipitina and Me")

BLOCK: We're listening to the New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint with his song "Tipitina and Me," one of the tracks on the CD "Our New Orleans." It's a benefit album; proceeds will go to Habitat for Humanity for hurricane victims along the Gulf Coast. Nick Spitzer wrote the liner notes and produced some of the songs on the CD. He hosted his public radio program "American Roots" from New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit, and he joins us from New Orleans now.

Nick, welcome back.

NICK SPITZER (Host, "American Roots"): It's good to be here and speaking to you from New Orleans.

BLOCK: And let's talk about this song, "Tipitina and Me."

SPITZER: Well, "Tipitina" originally is in a Professor Longhair tune. It combines kind of classical and rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, soul, parlor sounds that are very New Orleans Creole sort of mix. And it's a song that Allen Toussaint has performed over the years. He's in that piano professor tradition. And he had actually been recording it for our program as a soundtrack one day, and noodling around during a break I heard him play it in a minor key, and I couldn't believe the effect that it had. And so when this record came up to be done, I said, `Allen, I think you really should do it in a minor key for the condition of the city now.' And to me, it sounds a little funerary, but on the other hand, you know, we've got all these brass bands and second lines out in the city coming back that help us move forward. But there is a moment we have to reflect, and I think this is the reflection on "Tipitina" that Allen Toussaint has given us.

(Soundbite of "Tipitina and Me")

BLOCK: The songs on the CD were all recorded after Hurricane Katrina, and what's really remarkable is that a number of them, including this one, including Allen Toussaint here, just three weeks after the hurricane hit already in the studio putting these down.

SPITZER: Yes, and I think it gives the record a sense of urgency. But doing that music, I think, had a tremendous sort of therapeutic effect for the musicians and the producers. And I credit Robert Horwitz of Nonesuch--the president of Nonesuch--he's a classically trained pianist himself and a big New Orleans music follower and fan--for going out and just, you know, moving this down the line as quickly as possible as musicians came to New York for benefit concerts or they'd go into a studio in Memphis or even Los Angeles. We did a number of them down here. And he just said, `Let's get this done. Let's get the musicians heard.'

(Soundbite of "A World I Never Made")

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) The late show is over...

BLOCK: Dr. John is on here with a song, "A World I Never Made," which is such an aching testament to dislocation. I mean, I just hear this in a whole different way, I think, given what went on in New Orleans.

(Soundbite of "A World I Never Made")

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) And I'm lost in a world that's just too cold and deep.

SPITZER: Dr. John, I think, co-wrote that with Doc Pommes, and I think it was written before the flood. We're now referring to before and after the flood, and many here call it the flood, by the way, because I think we see the breakouts of the levees as the real problem and not Katrina so much. And so that's a before-the-flood song, though that seems prophetic. And like many pieces of music from earlier times in New Orleans, it catches us now. And, you know, Dr. John has lived outside the city for many years but always kept it in his heart, and he's such a cosmic traveler; he seems so at home everywhere. And yet this song is about alienation and loss and being a stranger, and it's a strange, haunting kind of song.

(Soundbite of "A World I Never Made")

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) I'm a stranger and afraid.

BLOCK: When you talk to musicians from New Orleans, who are now scattered around, is this the kind of thing they're telling you, that they just feel lost and afraid, a stranger and afraid in a world they never made?

SPITZER: I think the reactions of musicians are like the reactions of all kinds of different people; they vary quite a bit. Some people started out with a big burst of energy, and they were out on the road when this happened, and so they stayed on the road and did OK. And then they realized that even if their house wasn't destroyed, that home would never be quite the same because of the--what had happened to the city. Some people--their careers have gotten real launchpads out of this. Allen Toussaint has been featured all over the place, as he has so richly deserved to be. Somebody like Irma Thomas, though she's living halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, has kind of reinvigorated her career. So I think people's reactions are as diverse as any set of reactions, and almost all musicians, though, want to get back somehow and use music to rebuild the city as well as their lives.

BLOCK: Irma Thomas is on here with an old song, a Bessie Smith song, about the great flood of 1927. And you could just transpose it 80-some years, and it sounds like, you know, exactly what people are going through now.

SPITZER: Yeah. It's interesting that Bessie Smith wrote that song in '27. Apparently she was up in Ohio, and the flooding was throughout the Central Valley of the United States. And she leaps boundaries here. She jumps out of being the soul queen and does a little bit of old-time classic blues.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. IRMA THOMAS: (Singing) When it rains five days and the skies turn dark at night, when it rains five days and the skies turn dark at night, there was trouble taking place in the lowlands that night.

BLOCK: Nick, do you hear these songs in a different way now? Are they always going to be, for you, in the context of Katrina and the flooding in New Orleans, do you think?

SPITZER: Well, I think some old songs from New Orleans that I had kind of dismissed over the years that maybe were a little schmaltzy or overplayed in the tourism, you know, settings, the hotel bars and things like that--but these songs take on new life, and these are new performances of old styles and songs that are already creatively new in other ways as well.

BLOCK: There's a version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" here, which I think sort of encapsulates what you're talking about. This is Eddie Bo.

(Soundbite of "When The Saints Go Marching In")

Mr. EDDIE BO: (Singing) When the saints go marching on in, when the saints, yeah, yeah, go marching on in, well, I want to be in that number, yeah, when the saints, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, go marching on in.

SPITZER: Well, Eddie Bo is in that line of piano professors: Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair and all these other folks. He improvises a lot. He's got the classic New Orleans back-beat, Caribbean sound, a little bit of soul in there. And Eddie Bo is also a carpenter. A lot of the Creoles--he's from Algiers area--a lot of those Creoles were carpenters and bricklayers. And so he's come up with a--he's constructed a wonderfully offbeat version of "When The Saints Go Marching In."

(Soundbite of music)

SPITZER: That's Professor Longhair right there in those riffs.

BLOCK: He's channeling?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SPITZER: Everyone channels him.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BO: I want to be in that number.

BLOCK: I love that defiance in there. It's like, `I want to be in that number.'

SPITZER: Well, Eddie had a house with a roof blown off here and a family home over in Mississippi that had huge damage. And he's one of the people who can not only hammer away at the 88 keys on the piano; he can hammer away because he's an old-school building artisan, and he's been putting roofs back on houses in his family. So he knows how to make it happen.

BLOCK: It's good to, along with the sort of somnolent music that we've been hearing some of, mix it up a bit, and you can't get much more exuberant and inspirational than The Wild Magnolias.

(Soundbite of song)

THE WILD MAGNOLIAS: (Singing) (Unintelligible)...

SPITZER: Well, The Wild Magnolias represent old Mardi Gras Indian tradition here, Bo Dollis leading them. And that's the kind of African, Caribbean, carnival celebration. It's got call and response and amazing sort of syncopated drumming. And these tunes have come to stand not just for the Mardi Gras Indian groups, these black social groups with their music, but also for whole areas of the city and for a sense of, `We've got to put New Orleans back on its feet. We've got to recover the body, you know, bring it back to life.' And so it's really good to hear them because they really have the energy and drive to get out on the streets and get people excited about being home.

(Soundbite of song)

THE WILD MAGNOLIAS: (Singing) Oh, three big (unintelligible) dead and gone. (Unintelligible) gone and gone. Three big (unintelligible) carry on. (Unintelligible) on and on.

SPITZER: In the end, all this vernacular neighborhood music ultimately has to be back in New Orleans. That's how it's made. It's made walking through the streets of the city, visiting the stores and bars and church halls and family homes. Parading and being seen and heard on Carnival Day is so much of what life is here, and that's how people learn to be performers here--is in their neighborhoods.

BLOCK: When you talk to musicians from New Orleans, how many of them say, `We're going back, no matter what it takes'?

SPITZER: The guys in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band are absolutely coming back. They say they need to be here, they need to walk through the streets of the city to make that music, they need to bring up a generation of young to hear them play it, to pass it on. I think everybody feels that this is the home that has to be put back together. Will it be smaller? Will it be different in some ways? Will we always remember this flood? Of course. But New Orleans has been flooded, it has been burned down, it has suffered pestilence, yellow fever. It has a history of many kinds of problems. New Orleans will come back, and it will be a place we have to dream about to make it a better place for the future.

BLOCK: Well, Nick, we started out with Allen Toussaint, and let's go out with Allen Toussaint and another song on this album, which is sort of an anthem, I think, for maybe the spirit of optimism that you're talking about.

SPITZER: It has become an anthem, Allen singing in a way that I've never heard him, such strength in his singing. It's real funky. He wrote it in the '70s. It's been done by a lot of people; the Pointer Sisters and others have covered. But there's nothing like it in his own words because Allen is very adamant about getting back here and rebuilding this city, and this has become our anthemic soundtrack around town. You hear it out of the radios, and I'm just so happy it leads this record.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ALLEN TOUSSAINT: (Singing) Now is the time for all good men to get together with one another, iron out their problems and iron out their quarrels and try to live as brothers and try to find peace within without stepping on one another. And do respect the women of the world. Just remember we all had mothers. Make this land a better land and the world in which we live.

BLOCK: So, Nick, you're hearing this song now as you drive around or walk around New Orleans?

SPITZER: Yeah. It's gotten on the radio here locally, and people are loving it. And, you know, I think it's something that you can ring your hammer to. You know, you can get out and do your work by day, you can tap your toe by night. And it's got all those great sort of '70s-era "We Are The World," you know, `let's respect women of the world,' `let's work together.' All those things seem to be really appropriate when you need collective will and soul to pull a city like this back together.

BLOCK: Well, Nick, thanks a lot. Happy new year.

SPITZER: Thank you. I'll see you in that new year.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. TOUSSAINT: (Singing) Yeah, we want it. Yes, we can.

BLOCK: Nick Spitzer, host of the public radio program "American Roots." He wrote the liner notes and produced some of the songs on the new benefit album, "Our New Orleans 2005." You can hear more music from the CD at our Web site,

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. TOUSSAINT: (Singing) Yes, we can. Great gosh almighty, yes, we can. I know we can, can. Oh, yes, we can. I know we can, can. Yes, we can, can walk it. If we want it, yes, we can, can. Oh, yes, we can. I know we can, can. Yes, we can. Great gosh almighty, yes, we can. I know we can, can.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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