For the first time, the entire group went into New Orleans. And heading from Slidell, we logically, and by planning, went from east to west. First stop was the Lower Ninth Ward, arguably the part of the City hardest hit by the flooding after Hurricane Katrina.
We began our visit at 1317 Tupelo Street, home of Ronald Lewis and his backyard museum, the House of Dance and Feathers. I first met him last summer, but I got to know him several years ago in Dan Baum’s wonderful book, Nine Lives. Ronald’s voice, as relayed by Baum, captured me, and before they read the book, I wanted my students to meet Ronald and hear him and his wisdom in person.
Ronald was heading off to speak at a onference at Tulane, but he took the time to talk about his lifetime in the Lower Ninth, the Mardi Gras Indian and second line traditions, and his collection which represents both. The students were mesmerized, both by his experience and his knowledge. And his warmth. It was a great introduction to the Lower Ninth before heading over to the levee along the Industrial Canal, where the worst damage occurred. It is always sobering, but it was heartening to see slow, steady, and sustainable progress in a place where an entire neighborhood was swept from the face of the Earth.
After our informal tour, we parted ways, the students to get a bead fix at the Metairie St. Patrick’s Day Parade and me, to go to the Keep N It Real Social Aid and Pleasure Club second line in Mid City. The students had a ball tastefully collecting beads and throws from marchers at the parade in Metairie. And they caught cabbages, carrots, potatoes and onions thrown from the two level parade trucks — it is not a parade for the inattentive. It would be interesting to get a total weight of the beads they brought back and I heard a couple complaining of sore necks resulting from wearing so many beads. Needless to say: a good time was had by all.
I joined Kyle and his friends for the second line, which started at Bayou St. John and Orleans Avenue. In keeping with the Nine Lives theme of the day, the To Be Continued Brass Band played behind the dancers. Their formation, under the direction of band director Wilbert Rawlins, Jr., was also chronicled in the book; a story, which to me, created some of the most moving parts of the book. So, here they were, the driving for for the throng which pointed itself towards Treme. And one which would not stop dancing, drinking, and eating until several miles and hours later. We followed for a couple of miles before taking
the car to catch up with them as they entered Treme. Highlight: the band and marchers version of ”A Closer Walk with Thee” that segued into “I’ll Fly Away.” Priceless.
We went into the City to listen to some great music and great musicians on Frenchmen Street, before polishing off three pounds of boiled crawfish. But the day was not over.
We reunited with the sunburnt and bead weary students at the Gentilly Baptist Church for a concert by singer, songwriter, guitarist Paul Sanchez. We were there as guests of Tom Brink and UNH Intervarsity, who are staying working in Gentilly. And it was fun for us to see and visit with friends and former students in a place far distant from Durham, NH.
And in keeping with the theme for the day, Sanchez has spent the last three years collaborating on writing a musical based on the book, Nine Lives. Alongside guitarist Alex McMurray and singer Arsene DeLay, niece of singer John Boutte, they would highlight and draw together our collective experiences.
For an hour and half, they brought tired students to their feet. Had them dancing. Singing. Sanchez opened with Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” and later played one of my favorites, “At the Foot of Canal Street,” written in collaboration with John Boutte. My favorite part, however, were selections from the musical, including “Fine in the Lower Nine,” written in the voice of native son Ronald Lewis, and “It Could Have Been Worse,” which DeLay used to bring down the house. And it would not be the first time.
At about 9:30 p.m., the concert and singing and dancing and socializing wound down. What a day. The students still needed a beignet fix. I opted for a shower and some quiet time and instead headed back to Slidell. And when it was time to get up this morning, I was very happy I did.
Reader beware: these daily posts during spring break are often done on the run, usually in a McDonald’s. I generally don’t have the time to review or edit them as I might usually, and the chances that I’ll go back and catch things is limited. In advance, let me apologize for typos (especially this year since I am using a netbook) and missing words. It goes with the territory, but if I can, I ‘d rather post as often as time allows, albeit imperfectly.