The Spirit of New Orleans Is in Its Music For many music fans, it has been hard to hear the dramatic stories coming out of New Orleans and not consider the city's rich culture. The city is steeped in music, a heritage that folklorist Nick Spitzer, who evacuated the day before Katrina hit, continues to celebrate on the air.

The Spirit of New Orleans Is in Its Music

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Over the past two weeks, it's been hard to hear the stories coming out of New Orleans and not think about the music. New Orleans is steeped in music from the street parades of Mardi Gras to steamy, smoky corner blues bars to the brass bands that accompany jazz funerals. And so the flooding of the city has resonated on several levels with folklorist Nick Spitzer. He hosts the music program called "American Routes" on public radio. Both his office and his home are in New Orleans. He and his family evacuated the day before the storm hit. Since then, he's been staying in Lafayette, Louisiana, and has produced a post-storm version of his show from member station KRVS in Lafayette. That's where he joins us from now.

Nick, thanks for being with us.

Mr. NICK SPITZER (Host, "American Routes"): Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And I know that along with thinking about the loss of this city and the effects on its people, you also are thinking about the loss of culture, what might happen to the musical culture there.

Mr. SPITZER: I look at this as as much a cultural disaster as a natural disaster. And I don't just mean the beautiful historic landscape of the city, which is largely restorable from my view of having seen it the last few days. But I wonder about those neighborhood bars, because that's where the music continues to come from and be created for now and the future. And I think it's important to remember what a contribution the city's made in the past and could continue to make if we can regroup with the community-based culture.

BLOCK: When you think about that music, Nick, do you immediately start composing a personal soundtrack for yourself?

Mr. SPITZER: I've always had favorite songs from New Orleans over the years, and then some of them are kind of clicheic ones that everyone's heard a million times. And yet I think they've heard them a lot because they do resonate so beautifully and brilliantly. And now they mean more, because the whole historical context has shifted to New Orleans as evacuated, empty, almost ghost city. And so that music feels special to me now, and I listen to it a lot.

BLOCK: Well, what's the first song that came to mind?

Mr. SPITZER: Well, I think the very first song that came to mind--and I was listening to it as I was leaving the city--is Fats Domino's "Walkin' to New Orleans."

(Soundbite of "Walkin' to New Orleans")

Mr. FATS DOMINO: (Singing) This time I'm walkin' to New Orleans. I'm walkin' to New Orleans. I'm gonna need two pair of shoes when I get through walkin' these blues when I get back to New Orleans.

Mr. SPITZER: That song is just filled with mystery. There's a man on the road with a suitcase. You think he's going back to New Orleans. But the way it's sung, you almost think he might be leaving. You know he left at some point. There's this sort of human confusion, but the emotional core is about someday getting back home to the city and to the person that he loves. And I think that's something that a lot of us feel about our friends and our home place.

(Soundbite of "Walkin' to New Orleans")

Mr. FATS DOMINO: (Singing) New Orleans is my home. That's the reason while I'm gone, yes, I'm walkin' to New Orleans.

BLOCK: You know, I've been spending the last couple of weeks with one song in particular in my head, and that's the song that Randy Newman wrote, "Louisiana 1927," not about a hurricane, but about a huge--the huge Mississippi River floods in 1927. And I guess the version I hear most often in my brain is actually the Aaron Neville version of that song with that wonderful, tremulous voice of his.

(Soundbite of "Louisiana 1927")

Mr. AARON NEVILLE: (Singing) Louisiana. Louisiana. They're trying to wash us away. They're trying to wash us away. Oh, Louisiana.

Mr. SPITZER: Well, the song is an interesting one. It came originally on Randy Newman's "Good Old Boys" record, a concept album from 1972. That song, while it does embody a flood, is, in fact, appropriate, because really what happened in New Orleans is--more than the hurricane is the breaking of the levees after the hurricane. The Gulf Coast was smacked by wind and water. New Orleans has been drowning. So in a sense, the flood makes sense. I think this song gives comfort almost the way a sad song in a bar about a relationship gone bad makes you feel better somehow, because, you know, you sort of contain the feeling and the sadness, and you share it with everyone who listens.

BLOCK: In the midst of all this darkness, Nick--I mean, New Orleans has always been a place of such exuberance and joy and humor--I mean, is there any musical note of triumph or fun that you might think of here?

Mr. SPITZER: Well, I'm one of those people that believes that you have to sort of laugh to keep from crying. And Dr. John knew that a long time ago. He's a native son, of course. And he lives outside New Orleans, lives in New York, but he comes very often, and everyone loves Dr. John "Mac" Rebennack. And he had a great song. It's kind of a soul funk song that talks about chance in life, the undercurrent of what might be some hoodoo occurrence or something. And it's called "Right Place, Wrong Time." And I think New Orleans will always be the right place, but God knows, this storm was the wrong time.

(Soundbite of "Right Place, Wrong Time")

Dr. JOHN "MAC" REBENNACK: (Singing) I've been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time. I'd have said the right things, but I must have used the wrong lines.

BLOCK: Nick, you're in Lafayette now. It's a great town, a wonderful music town. But I'm sure you're thinking about when you can go back and what the city's going to be like when you get there.

Mr. SPITZER: I am. You know, I've been back just going in with news crews and various ways to get into the city that I know. And so I've been looking at things and listening. And, you know, it's not the same city when it's not filled with the people. And so I'm missing the old New Orleans, and as I miss the old New Orleans, I go to a classic song out of the Tin Pan Alley tradition that many, many people have done. My personal favorite is Louis Armstrong, who, of course, left New Orleans years ago and came back a little bit here and there over the years. But it's called "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?"

(Soundbite of "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?")

Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans and miss it each night and day? I'm know I'm not wrong. The feeling's getting stronger the longer I stay away.

Mr. SPITZER: It could be a little schmaltzy and silly sometimes, kind of a--you know, a lounge club number. It could be turned that way. But I'll tell you, sung right by Satchmo, it hits all my heartstrings about returning to a place of beauty and joy. And it has a signal line in many of the versions, which is `I miss someone more than I miss New Orleans.'

(Soundbite of "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?")

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Singing) And there's something more. I miss the one I care for more than I miss New Orleans.

Mr. SPITZER: I think that's a statement about the people again who make up life, love, family, neighborhood, make up New Orleans. So that's what we've got to start with as people, and keep smiling and listening to songs like Louis Armstrong sings.

BLOCK: Nick Spitzer, I hope you get back there soon. Thanks so much.

Mr. SPITZER: Thank you for having me. Just talking about it is enjoyable to think about what a great place New Orleans is.

(Soundbite of "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?")

BLOCK: Nick Spitzer is host of the public radio program "American Routes." He spoke with us from the studios of member station KRVS in Lafayette, Louisiana. You can hear full versions of these songs and more music reminiscent of New Orleans at our Web site,


BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block.

SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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