In March 2006, months after Hurricane Katrina, I went to New Orleans to volunteer for the first time. We were gutting houses, which was grueling and nasty work. After racing to the showers and the service laundry at the volunteer camp, we had some precious downtime before dinner. More often than not, I’d wander over to the Chalmette Battlefield, site of the Battle of New Orleans, and the adjacent Chalmette National Battlefield. There, on a decrepit bench under the live oaks, I’d read or muse in the company of the dead African-American soldiers from the Civil War dead, buried in the cemetery behind me. There, surrounded by so many stories, is where the idea for the New Orleans course first emerged.
When I got back to New Hampshire, I started reading everything I could find on New Orleans while piecing together a proposal for a first year seminar on the City. It was approved and in January 2007 I began teaching the New Orleans class for the first time. I had a full class of 25 and I proceeded to inflict my newfound knowledge on them with text-heavy PowerPoint slides. I tried to communicate all that knew and they tried their best to sort through it all. It was a learning process for all.
I returned to New Orleans that year and seven members of the class went to the Gulf Coast with UNH-Alternative Break Challenge, for which I had arranged volunteers slots with Habitat for Humanity, UNH Intervarsity, or on their own. We had a blast taking in the sights and sounds of New Orleans while working in and around Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward. As I watched my students on the trip, I realized that they were able to link the classroom with experience, and in the process, their learning was much different than for those students who remained behind. When the Honors Program approached me to teach it as an honors course in 2008, I asked if I could require all of the students to go on the service learning trip. They* said “yes” and you can guess the rest of the story.
So here we are, the day before the beginning of the ninth installment of the New Orleans class. Katrina has become more distant, the PowerPoint slides have grown lighter, and the service learning trip still has the power to be a life altering experience. Along the way, while centered around New Orleans, we’ve experienced the Crescent City, the West Bank, St. Bernard Parish, St. Tammany Parish, and Waveland, Mississippi. 200 students and student trip leaders, almost all former students in the class, have danced in second lines, listened to everything from traditional jazz to zydeco to sissy bounce, walked with Mardi Gras Indians, finagled “throws” in numerous parades (no flesh has exposed in the process, but there was some smooching with old Irish and Italian guys), and consumed hundreds of po boys.
And in less than two months, we’re going to do it all over again. For the second year, we’ll be staying at Camp Hope in Arabi, Louisiana. And for the third time, we’ll be working with the wonderful folks at lowernine.org in the Lower Ninth Ward. We’ll experience the Downtown St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Mardi Gras Indians on St. Joseph’s Night, some Afro-Creole cooking, alumnus Kyle Murphy’s French Quarter Scavenger Hunt and, weather permitting, the massing of the Mardi Gras Indian gangs on “Super Sunday.” And more importantly, we’ll work on homes in the still distressed Lower Ninth Ward and, in the process, meet some of the nicest and most open people in the world. In other words, the class will come alive. Within days of taking their mid-term exam, students will have hands-on experience with what they have learned.
And I can’t wait.
*The “they” was really Professor Lisa MacFarlane, then Head of the Honors Program, now Vice President for Academic Affairs/Provost at UNH. I am forever indebted to her trust, foresight, and ability to say “yes” so quickly. The result has been a singular and sometimes life-changing course at UNH. It never gets old for me and, I hope, the same goes for the students.
On June 6, 2014, I had the pleasure of interviewing Herbert Gettridge, a retired master plasterer who built his own home on North Roman Street back in the 1950s. In February 2006, he was the first homeowner to move back into the Lower Ninth Ward — by weeks. A 2009 episode of Frontline, entitled “The Old Man and the Storm,” chronicled his struggle. In June, we talked about his life, his work, and the assistance volunteers provided to help get him and his late wife back into his home. When I told my friend, Errol Joseph that I was going to talk to Mr. Gettridge, he said: “You mean ‘The Wizard’?” I asked why he called him that and he responded: “Oh, the things that man could do with plaster.” Mr. Gettridge died on October 31, 2014.
Today marks the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. It was nevertheless fought in Chalmette, Louisiana, and the battle, while an overwhelming victory, was arguably meaningless. As events unfolded, General Andrew Jackson’s ragtag, multicultural force annihilated a British force which had just defeated Napoleon, and decisively so; but because of slow communications, it took place weeks after an armistice ending the War of 1812 had been signed in Europe. Nevertheless, it marked the last instance in which a foreign army invaded the United States.
The quiet, green, marshy expanse of the Chalmette Battlefield means a lot to me. When I returned to New Orleans to volunteer in the months after Katrina, I stayed in a FEMA camp in the shadow of the battlefield. It was closed, having been covered by a dozen feet of water following the storm. The brick walls and some of the tombstones of the adjacent national cemetery had been toppled. But under the live oaks and among the quietude of the mostly African-American Civil War dead, I experienced moments of calm and contemplation after days of gutting nearby homes. Paradoxically, as I have found when I visited King’s Mountain or Gettysburg or Antietam or Yorktown, the battlefield provides solace. It is as if the telescoped hours of death, carnage, and horror were being neutralized by peace, by a counterbalancing aura of humanity. It is why I believe I love battlefields.
I try to take my students to Chalmette for that reason. It is instructive of the battle and with the correct interpretation, you can see the British troops, accompanied by the bagpipes of the Scottish Highlanders marching to their doom as Choctaw snipers, Jackson’s Kaintucks, New Orleans Creoles, and Jean Lafitte’s pirates efficiently exacted their revenge for the British burning of Washington. But the calm of this green plain, decorated with a variety of wading birds and crawfish tunnels, persists.
I felt that that first time in 2006, when it was more or less abandoned, and I last felt it on a rainy June afternoon in 2014, the last time I graced the grounds. However, in the future, that quietude will be disturbed by the subject of a column in today’s Times-Picayune, by New Orleans geographer Joseph Campanella. It will forever disrupt my sense of calm as a wander the battlefield.
According to Campanella, a free man of color named Pierre Fazende inherited a portion of battlefield in the 1850s, not long before the Civil War. Shortly after the war, in the bloom of Reconstruction, he sold off a strip of lots that ran perpendicular to the Mississippi to African-Americans. That strip of houses, shops, a school, a couple of barrooms, and other assorted buildings became the village of Fazendeville. While the promise of the forty acres and a mule never materialized in the post-war South, this little strip of land became a symbol of black ownership and independence.
The residents were proud of their attachment to regional history, as the community lay roughly equidistant between Jackson’s old fortifications and the mouldering graves of Civil War dead in the National Cemetery. And so they would remain for nearly a century.
The 1960s carried a couple of forces for change, one arguably noble, the other spawned of racism. If you do the math, 1965 marked the sesquicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. The worn, working class houses of Fazendeville lay about where British General Edward Packenham was mortally wounded during the British advance. Hence, the community disrupted what could be a tourist attraction for St. Bernard Parish, which played and continues to play second, third, or fourth fiddle to its neighbor and tourism magnet upstream. At the same time, in the midst of the Civil Rights era, racist politicians saw this as an opportunity to rid Chalmette of a black, working class enclave. By 1964, most houses had been bulldozed. The century-old community, the Battleground Baptist Church included, was cleared for a green, uninterrupted plain. Most of Fazendeville residents relocated to the the Lower Ninth Ward or to Violet, a community downstream from Chalmette. And needless to say, residents of all three: the Lower Ninth, Chalmette, and Violet, were inundated and displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Henceforth, I will take my student to the battlefield. And we will talk about the events that transpired on January 8, 1815. But, we will also discuss the events that took place in 1964.
Today is the Epiphany, which for Catholics marks the end of the Advent/Christmas season. Trees on the curb by December 26th notwithstanding. The period following the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (the Sunday following Epiphany) and the beginning of Lent is called Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar. So church-wise, there will not be a whole lot going on.
However, in New Orleans and in most Catholic-infused cultures, Epiphany marks both the end of Christmas and the beginning of the Carnival season; that is, the season ending with Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, the day of celebration before Ash Wednesday and the solemnity of Lent. So Christmas candles are replaced by King Cakes, while shopping and gift-giving and caroling are replaced by dances, masked balls, and parades.
So today, in addition to the first King Cakes of the Carnival season (Haydel’s Bakery had Uber delivering them all day), there was the Joan of Arc parade in the French Quarter. And Uptown, the Phunny Phorty Phellows commandeered the St. Charles streetcar line for an evening of frivolity. And as is true every year, this is just the beginning. Goodbye Christmas; welcome to Carnival.
I’ve been reading reviews of new music by New Orleans musicians, most of whom I’m familiar with, but there are others I need to explore. As I was reading through reviews, I realized that students in the New Orleans class have met quite a few musicians over our eight visits beginning in 2007. And three of these artists have new recordings.
In 2012 and 2013, the class had the opportunity to spend an evening with an ensemble led by Paul Sanchez at the Gentilly Baptist Church. These concerts were especially meaningful because of Sanchez’s work as composer of songs drawn from Dan Baum’s book, Nine Lives, a class favorite. In addition to Sanchez, it introduced them to such talents as singer/guitarist Alex McMurray and singers Arsene DeLay and Antoine Diel. Sanchez’s latest, from independent label Threadhead Records is The World is Round Everything that Ends begins Again. In it, he explores his song-writing and acoustic skills, but also draws from his years in the rock group Cowboy Mouth. He has surrounded himself with a bevy of great voices and instrumentalists, but it is Sanchez, his guitar, and his song writing that stand out. Or as John Swenson, the grand old man of New Orleans music criticism puts it: “These very personal songs…are what makes this the finest moment in Paul Sanchez’s career.”
Just last year, the class had the chance to meet Big Chief Alfred Doucette on his visit to New Hampshire. In addition to being chief of the Flaming Arrows Mardi Gras Indian gang, Doucette is a singer who frequents clubs on Frenchmen Street and elsewhere. This five-song cd, called Originals, is paradoxically a reworking of a number of classic New Orleans tunes; Doucette has added his own lyrics and occasional chord changes. According to Swenson, they work fairly well with a few bumps along the way. It includes his most famous song, “Marie Laveau,” which it to the tune of the New Orleans chestnut, “Little Liza Jane.” All in all, it sounds like a good, albeit short, party recording.
The musician with the most contact with the New Orleans class is clarinetist Dr. Michael White, but unfortunately, he doesn’t have a new recording. After our first meeting with him at Xavier University in 2008, the class went down the street to the old Rock and Bowl to hear Glen David Andrews. In addition to a fun-filled set, Andrews pulled student Teresa Ware on stage and sang happy birthday to her. It was the talk of the class that evening as we rode back to Waveland, MS. Andrews has had some personal travails in recent years, but he has literally redeemed himself with a new recording, Redemption, which the staff of Offbeat Magazine and John Swenson consider the top Louisiana recording of 2014. In his May 1, 2014 review, Swenson wrote: “Nothing Andrews has done prepares you for the complete breakthrough, the creative transformation he achieves on Redemption….The result is a career-best triumph for both artist and producer, an album that joins recent work by Trombone Shorty and Rebirth Brass Band in a new era of New Orleans jazz and R&B excellence.”
Needless to say, I’ll be scouting in the weeks before I head down in mid March. In the meantime, I’ll employ cds, downloads, and Spotify to “get out” and listen to some fine New Orleans music.
A few days ago, I stumbled over an article in the Louisiana Cultural Vistas, a journal sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. It was by a fellow archivist and friend, Bruce Boyd Raeburn, director of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. It was about Louis Prima, a genre-bending singer and bandleader, who fascinates me. I knew he was Italian-American and from New Orleans. He is perhaps best known as one of the first big headliners in 1950s Las Vegas and for being the voice of Ape King Louis in the 1960s Disney feature, The Jungle Book. However, it was Bruce’s 2006 article that made clear how much of New Orleans Prima carried with him when he left his hometown in the 1930s.
Prima, the son of a Sicilian grocer, grew up in the predominately African-American neighborhood of Treme. And while he was unquestionably Italian, it is clear that he absorbed the music, the Creole food, and the patois of his neighborhood. Undoubtedly, it served him well growing up and later in life, but it was the source of some confusion when he tried to launch his career in New York in 1934.
Prima came from a musical family; his mother encouraged him to learn the violin, which he played in St. Ann’s Parish. At the same time, Prima was influenced by local musicians, such as Louis Armstrong and his own brother, Leon, both cornet players. Leon and Louis left New Orleans for greener pastures and Prima eschewed the violin for the horn, jazz, and the club scene. In 1934, while playing in a dive on Bourbon Street, Prima caught the eye of bandleader Guy Lombardo. He thought so much of Prima’s act that he got the young entertainer a gig at Leon and Eddie’s on New York’s 52nd Street.
Prima made the trip to New York and introduced himself to club owner Eddie Davis. What Davis saw was a swarthy, jive-talking musician from New Orleans and retracted the offer because he thought Prima was black. Clearly, Davis could not comprehend the melting pot that is New Orleans and the power of neighborhood over ethnicity. In spite of the setback, Prima had the last laugh as he ending up launching his career at the Famous Door, just two doors down from Davis’ club. He took the town by storm and the rest, they say, is history.
Prima went onto fame in music, film, and later, in Las Vegas. In spite of the confusion at Leon and Eddie’s, Prima continued to draw from the music and musicians of his New Orleans. He went on to write such standards as “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which he recorded with his New Orleans Gang; however, the tune would become emblematic of the Swing Era, when Benny Goodman covered it in 1937. In addition , Prima became one of the first Italian-American entertainers to promote his ethnicity and it became an important part of both his professional identify and repertoire. And he continued to do so throughout World War II, despite increased anti-Italian sentiment.
Prima went on to fame as a performer at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas with his fourth wife, Keely Smith. He surrounded himself with a musical ensemble, the Witnesses, led by New Orleans saxophonist, Sam Butera. Years later, Prima and the band would record “I Wanna Be Like You” for Disney’s The Jungle Book. Both the recording session and the animation paid homage to the music and exuberance of the second line parades of Prima’s old neighborhood.
So, while Prima may have left New Orleans in 1934, it is clear that New Orleans never left him. For Raeburn’s article on Louis Prima, click here.
Uncategorized Aurora Nealand, Chalmette National Battlefield, House of Dance & Feathers, Lower Ninth Ward, lowernine.org, New Orleans music, Ronald W. Lewis, Spotted Cat Music Club, UNH students 8:32 am
For the first time in years, we had a full bore, no doubt about it rainy day. Needless to say, our group did not go back to siding Steve’s house in Backatown. Instead, we went to John’s house on Deleray Street, literally across from Jackson Barracks. The other groups were already working indoors, therefore work would not be affected — or so we thought.
John has been renovating this house for about a year. He has done a loving and meticulous job at bringing out its beauty and promise. However, working alone, he literally hit the wall when it came to, we’ll, the walls. Between installing awkward sheets of board, taping, mudding, sanding, etc. it is extremely time consuming and not a one person job. And that is where lowernine.org comes in.
We were able to bring a group in of largely inexperienced students to do work that takes a while but is easy to learn. While the guys installed Sheetrock, the rest of the group worked throughout the house doing multiple layers of prep work. It didn’t take long to see substantial progress made. Both John and Bob, our crew chief, seemed pleased. The other grounds continued to work at tiling and installing Sheetrock in other parts of the Lower Ninth.
And while we worked in poured. Clearly, this would not be a levee lunch day, so I proposed we meet at the Chalmette National Battlefield. Even in the rain, we could go through exhibits and drive around the site of the Battle of New Orleans. Inauspiciously my car was parked on the side of the street in what had become a five inch deep puddle. As a result, I had to remove my shoes in order to get into the car. The battlefield, which is marshy on the best of days, was not much better. We ate lunch; some walked around in the rain and mud; but evyone got a lay of the land, at least.
Everyone returned to their respective tasks and had productive and rewarding afternoons. About four we broke for the day to make our annual pilgrimage to Ronald Lewis’ House of Dance and Feathers. And just as in our visit to Kajun’s pub, it was useful that we had just finished reading Nine Lives. So, they got to meet Ronald AND gain a better understanding of the lace where they are working and staying.
Everyone went back and cleaned up. We ate our first dinner at Camp Hope which was not bad. After dinner everyone descended on a small Baskin Robbins in Chalmette where they overwhelmed the poor young woman running the place alone. They were patient, and from what I understand, tipped generously. Some went back to Camp Hope to chill while the rest of went into the City.
I walked about for a while before settling in for a couple of sets at the Spotted Cat. It has become so crowded I don’t get there as often as I used to, but one of my favorite New Orleans musicians, Aurora Nealand, was performing. It was crowded, but not wall-to-wall people. Her band was tight and she was her bright and exuberant self on the clarinet and soprano sax. A wonderful close to a day that some might call a washout, but to us, it was anything but.
Uncategorized 7:54 am
The New Orleans class and I are once again in The Crescent City for our annual service learning trip. I got in just before noon on Saturday. The three vans started arriving about 1:00 pm. For me, it is my ninth spring break in New Orleans. For most of them, it is their first time here; and that is the fun part.
I have a tendency to fall into old routines and do many of the same things over and over. However, I have vowed to get out and try new things. And so far, I think I am off to a good start.
Once I picked up my rental car (a bright red Toyota Yaris, if you care) and picked up Kyle in Treme. Instead of heading over to Domilise’s or Parkway for a po’ boy we drove out to New Orleans East for some Vietnamese food. Pyle took me to Dong Phuong Restaurant and Bakery. We had some beautiful spring rolls followed by a bowl of noodles and shrimp. Magnificent. We followed that up with a visit to one of the local Vietnamese groceries.
Afterwards, we drove in St. Bernard Parish to check into our housing at Camp Hope in Arabi, LA. We received a lowdown on the rules and go the lay of the land. By the time we left to head back into the City, two groups had arrived and were settling into the accommodations.
We kicked around the Marigny and French Quarter before heading out to a pot luck at Kyle’s house in Treme. Kyle and his roommate Matt are renting half of a 1830s Creole cottage just off of Claiborne. Great evening with friends, family and food. The latter Kyle’s jambalaya, Matt’s homegrown collards, grilled fish, kale salad, mashed cauliflower, and too much more.
Afterwards, Kyle and I waddled over to Siberia for a late night of bounce music. Another first for me. It was a major disappointment. Katey Red was there, but by 1:30 am had not dressed. Big Freedia, who was central to all advertising for the event, was performing in Minneapolis. Given the onset of daylight savings time, we muttered under our breath and went back to his place.
The next morning, I walked the few blocks over to meet the students at St. Louis #1 Cemetery. I started off the tour, much to irritation of some of the tour guides. In time, a personable guide cooped part of class and the rest of us soon joined in. For the next hour we were entertained and educated (I think) by our guide. With the looks we got from the some of the other guides, I’m not sure he an official guide, but what we might have missed in veracity, he made up for with humor. On mayor “Dutch” Morial, who died while visiting his mistress: “he literally came and went.” He also removed a brick from on of the vaults and one by one carefully inserted our cameras to take pictures of the contents. Ghoulish fun that I’m pretty sure is not authorized.
After parting ways, I took the students over to Armstrong Park before turning them loose in the Quarter. I got some coffee and some lunch and walked around myself. A beautiful day, reflected by both the weather and the crowds. At 3:00 pm, I met up with the students at Kajun’s Pub — another first. It was not for alcohol, but to drink in the stories and wisdom of owner Joann Guidos, who was colorfully portrayed in Dan Baum’s wonderful Nine Lives. For hour she regaled us with stories of her colorful life, struggles to stay open during Katrina, and insights into the diversity of New Orleans.<
As if that was enough, we all raced out to Orleans Avenue to catch the end of an enormous second line parade. Three brass bands, several social aid and pleasure clubs — although we only caught the end, it gave the students a flavor of what happens here. We then turned around and went back to Treme, where we were treated to a fabulous buffet dinner at L’il Dizzy’s Cafe on Esplanade. We had fried chicken, fried catfish, collards, macaroni, and some wonderful bread pudding. And, oh yes, sweet tea.
The students walked out of the restaurant into a beautiful evening, but the past 48 hours had been too much. 1600 miles, a day running around in the sun, topped off by a heavy meal. Predictably, everyone was back at Camp Hope to shower, rest, and prepare for work.
It’s that time of year again. I got excited today because the March 1st temperature in New Hampshire climbed above freezing. I eat well, actually too well, on a regular basis, but the food I normally eat is nothing like that found in New Orleans. But the magnetic pull that I feel in the week before I head to the Crescent City is not the warmth or the red beans and rice: it is the music.
This is when I WWOZ’s Livewire daily to see what will playing while I’m there. I look at Nola.com, Gambit, and sites for individual music venues to see what will be happening. Te tragedy is that it will be more than I can take in; but that is the beauty of music of New Orleans. It is an embarrassment of riches.
I hear the drums and tambourines of the Mardi Gras Indians. I hear the funky growls of the brass bands. I see the nonverbal glances that jazz musicians pass to one another as they hand off the next solo. I am swept up in the joy of locals two stepping to zydeco at the Rock n Bowl. I see people twerking on front porches and dancing on roofs. And it makes me want to be there even sooner.
Most visitors to New Orleans miss the real music. They are to busy accepting that the crap on Bourbon Street is what there is to hear. They never experience Frenchmen Street because it is three blocks outside of the French Quarter. They miss out on Rebirth at the Maple Leaf. Kermit at Bullet’s. Big Freedia at Siberia. Or John Boutte at d.b.a.
As tragic as it is, I will not lose any sleep over their ignorance. I know it that as they are crowding some bar on Bourbon Street, drinking a watered down drink out of a plastic green hand grenade, listening to bad classic rock; I will be somewhere somewhere else. Listening to some of the best live music America has to offer.