Dee Dee Bridgewater's Joyous Gift To New Orleans "We wanted to be a part of the healing process of the city and of the people," Bridgewater says. Her new album, Dee Dee's Feathers, mines the rich history of New Orleans music.

Dee Dee Bridgewater's Joyous Gift To New Orleans

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Jazz is the soundtrack of New Orleans. From African drums to brass marching bands, hot Dixieland to cool modern jazz, the history and spirit of the city lives in music. That's the idea behind singer Dee Dee Bridgewater's new album, "Dee Dee's Feathers."


DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Going to wear feathers in my hair, wear them feathers (unintelligible). Hold on steady. Hold on steady. Hold...

RATH: So, Dee Dee, what are your feathers? Tell us about that song

BRIDGEWATER: (Laughter).

RATH: The title song here.

BRIDGEWATER: Well, that actually represented, you know, the chiefs at Mardi Gras. It represented the relationship between the African-Americans after slavery and being taken in by the Native Americans in, you know - all along - all around Louisiana, Mississippi, you know, in the South. And, you know, I love feathers. I love feathers, so it kind of encompassed all of these things.

RATH: That's one of the original songs on this album. There's also some great traditional songs...


RATH: ...Associated with New Orleans.


RATH: The song "Big Chief"...


RATH: What does it mean for women to be singing the song "Big Chief"?

BRIDGEWATER: Well, I am the first woman to ever sing that song. It is a song that is associated with Mardi Gras, you know. So, you know, when we were doing the arrangement, I said, oh, I'm going to sing like Dr. John. He sounds like - hey, (unintelligible).


BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) (Unintelligible). My whole tribe be having fun.

RATH: It's funny 'cause the - I think for a split second, oh, Dr. John can sing in a higher register. No, wait, that's you.


RATH: What - how...

BRIDGEWATER: Yeah, you're not the first one. Oh, he thought it was funny.


BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Heap big fire water going to make me shout. Chief going down to get me squaw.

So, you know, when we did it, I think we recorded that one the first day. And so when I was listening back to it, I said, you know, maybe Mac would consider singing on it, you know? And that would kind of a blessing for me for this - for this whole project, you know? So I called, and I used my best little girl voice. I was like, Mac, I've done "Big Chief," and I really - it would really be wonderful if you would come and lay down some vocals with me and kind of give me the blessings. Oh, baby, I got to go to the dentist tomorrow. I said, but I'm going to be here for three days. Please? OK, Dee Dee. You know? And so we got him to come in.


BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Shotgun Joe, Shotgun Joe, Shotgun Joe.

MAC REBENNACK: (Singing) Yeah, you know, Dee Dee.

BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Shotgun Joe.

REBENNACK: (Singing) His big, huge shotgun, yes.

RATH: Another great classic song with New Orleans association - "St. James Infirmary."


RATH: I always think of Louis Armstrong first. The version gave me - gave me the chills.


RATH: The version that you do, though - it's brighter.


BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) It was down in old Mayfield's (ph) bar room - old jazz playhouse, that is - around the corner by the square - Jackson Square. Drinks flowed all around, as usual. A drunk and high crowd was there. Deep in a...

Even though it's about death, it's also about living. And it's - you know, they have a tradition in New Orleans of celebrating the crossing over of an individual from our physical life into, you know, the spiritual life. So for me, I chose to give it a brighter outlook, you know, than one would traditionally give it because I've experienced death with my stepfather who raised me, so he was really my father.

And I was - I was with him when he took his last breath. And I helped to prepare him to cross over because he was very afraid, and he wanted to make it to 2001. And I said, OK, Daddy, I'm going to help you get there. We're going to make it. And 10 minutes after 2001 came in and the fireworks had ended - he was on hospital bed, but in the house - I said, Daddy, it's 2001. We made it. And this smile came on his face even though he was semi-conscious, and then he took his last two breaths. And so for me, I always felt, gosh, what a blessing I had that I was the one that was given, you know, that duty of helping him to crossover. So when I sing let him go, let him god, God bless him, I think of my dad.


BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Let him go. Let him go. God bless him, wherever he could be. He can search this wide world over, but never find another happy, pleasing woman like me, that's for sure.

It was just a wonderful way to personalize it, you know, and make in my own.

RATH: I know this record reflects deep New Orleans history, going back, you know, hundreds of years.


RATH: But it's impossible not to think of Katrina when we're talking about New Orleans these days.


RATH: Is that trouble, the turmoil of that time reflected in the music of this record?

BRIDGEWATER: Well, what we tried to reflect is the joy and the celebration of the fact that the city has come back to a large degree. Even though there is a kind of celebratory tone, there is a still a lot of pain associated with Katrina because there are a lot of people that didn't come back. There are a lot of people that lost everything, and we wanted this music to lift people up. We didn't want people to do anything that was going to be maudlin or, you know, bring it down or - no, no - because we wanted to be a part of the healing process of the city and of the people. I was in France when Katrina happened. I was still living in France, so I couldn't go to help out. So for me, this project is my way of giving back to the city. And I think that a listener, when they put the CD on - I think from the moment it starts, you get that sense of joy.


RATH: Dee Dee Bridgewater - her new record is "Dee Dee's Feathers." It has been such a treat speaking with you. Thank you.

BRIDGEWATER: Thank you. Thank you so much, Arun. I've enjoyed speaking with you.

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