I started writing this last Tuesday night, and I guess I should finish it before a week is up.
So, tonight, instead of listening to the State of the Union, because the TV I would be watching it on and throwing things at would not be mine own, I decided to take another path. I loaded up the car post-work and trucked across town to the University of New Orleans, as their Midlo Center was hosting a free lecture series/history course on the history of New Orleans.
Never one to turn down free college level history course actually taught by professors in which no papers, exams or tests will be required, my Tuesday evenings are now booked (with the exception of Mardi Gras) through April.
Tonight’s lecture was presented by Dr. Connie Atkinson, who set up this particular series of lectures and classes. She is an expert on the history of New Orleans music (and actually used to publish and edit Wavelength Magazine) and has called in experts from all over to fly to NOLA this semester and give talks.
Her talk hit on some very interesting topics that ranged deeper, in my mind, than just New Orleans music in the post-Katrina environment. During her examination of how the music scene/environment can be reconstructed post-K, and her discussion of what role music will play in the strategies to survive/rebuild, what really stood out was the ‘myth of New Orleans’ and the double edged sword that has presented to the City in the past, and how that will affect the City’s future.
That got me to thinking about other American myths, how strong they are, and how deeply they affect other people’s perceptions and beliefs.
Before Katrina, what did you think of when you thought of New Orleans? Go on back – back before all the recent nastiness. Go on back to the good ole days I know you think about all the time.
I’d put money down that the thoughts in your head when you thought about New Orleans – before - were of jazz music, spicy Creole food, zydeco music, gambling, football, beads, topless women, steamboats, clarinets, gaudy masks, blues music, Southern Comfort, drinking heavily, Mardi Gras, brass bands, partying, sinful lifestyles, fried dough and coffee – probably close to that order, but it doesn’t matter. The thoughts you had in your head were of a wild city, exotic and alien from the hum-drum of your everyday life in Anycity or Anysuburb, USA. New Orleans is the Big Easy, the City that Care Forgot, “I want to eat fried dough in the most corrupt City on Earth.” You’ve seen movies that expound on this exotic, sinful and alien theme; vampires and criminals, voodoo dolls and Mephisto masks. You’ve heard – and sing along to - countless songs about hippies and rambling men drifting down to New Orleans.
Why is that? Where did that image in your head come from? Was it put there by reality and experience, or was it put there by those folks who sell New Orleans to the rest of the country? Was it put there by accident, or are you supposed to think those things?
This is an important question, one I have asked myself more than a few times. The lecture went on and began working its way around the timeless myth of New Orleans and the music here, that all the music of this place is nothing but a happy accident, something in the water, a creation in spite of itself. Jazz was birthed, we are told, quite unexpectedly. That is the spontaneous nature of New Orleans, a city that is itself, a happy accident.
Dr. Atkinson examined how this myth is far from the case. Back in the bad old days, New Orleans was one of the scant few places where the slave population was allowed means of expression, however limited. Congo Square was such a place, where drums were allowed. In other places across slave holding North America, the enslaved were prohibited from such expression. Other items point to the fact that slaves could also attend some French operas in the city, shocking as that may seem, in segregated areas.
So, even in the days of slavery, there was a foundation for music. New Orleans’ position of strategic importance at the mouth of the Mississippi river – a trading city linking the rich interior of North America with the world – also brought a population of merchants and traders and wealth; such wealth that could patronize the arts. Immigrants of all varieties brought their music with them.
Even further proof against spontaneity is the emergence of musical geniuses in New Orleans, but it was not just ‘something in the water.’ Louis Armstrong had discipline problems that had to be resolved before he was allowed to touch his trumpet; he was taught the instrument by Peter Davis and tutored in its mastery by his mentor King Oliver. Despite those facts, he is heralded as a genius that is genius alone, as if he just picked up a trumpet one day on Louisiana Avenue and started playing Canal Street Blues.
Just like the Armstrong myth, the myth of New Orleans is sometimes what people believe to the point of ignorance. We do this for very good reason: as Americans, though we do not like to admit it, are a mythological people who need our Pantheon just as full as any society of old.
George Washington and his cherry tree, the Southern redneck is a fixture in self identification, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday – the North and South working together again after the war, the endless promise and greener grass of California, the cowboy; mythological figures and parables one and all. New Orleans is not the only American myth, but it is an important one. She sold herself as that myth, too, which has turned out recently to have unforeseen and unpleasant consequences.
Americans have always had their fascinations with the domestic-exotic and the roguish, and we use such myths and the places that represent those myths to blow off steam. For a long time, New Orleans provided that piece of our story. New York is The City, Miami is all drugs, Chicago is all work; Atlanta is all business, San Francisco is hopelessly homosexual, and Houston is hopelessly fat; Dallas is all plastic, Los Angeles is too, and Detroit is just Detroit, the home of Kid Rock, who we all knew, deep in our hearts, would come from Detroit someday.
New Orleans was something different. She was so many things, the Queen of the river cities, old buildings and generational corruption unresolved. Long sultry summers drew a sheen of sweat on the ladies, who were dressed as comfortably as the heat would allow. You could drive from the puritan upland South and see a burlesque show in the French Quarter that same evening. You could go a little crazy and your behavior would be tolerated, while no one back home, save your partners in crime who came here with you, would know. You could buy drinks on Sunday and all night long if you wanted to. The music was wild and sexual, and the food was almost everything the rest of America considered an aphrodisiac: fish, oysters, red wine. People danced in the streets. In two words, New Orleans was sexy and dangerous; and she was sexy and dangerous in the ways that you wanted her to be, but didn’t really want in your home city. You went to New Orleans to be in a city where cares didn’t matter, that all the problems could be solved another day. The only other place comparable was Las Vegas, and New Orleans wrote the script for Vegas, and was doing so a hundred years before that city was founded.
That’s the myth, those hot Southern nights of jasmine and magnolia, that soundtrack of clarinets and horns and accordions. But, while those things do feature prominently here, people wake up and go to work just like they do in any other city in America. Like any other city in America, New Orleans had her problems with unemployment, the school system, infrastructure, and business investment. Real people lived here, and no matter how many gigs the former attorney general played during the week, he was at his desk the next day in a suit and tie.
New Orleans was also an industrial town, mighty rail-yards and thick shouldered dock workers. New Orleans was the home of school children and the lake port of day sailors. It was built the way it was for the same reason all American cities are built the way they are, a strong dense core surrounded by miles of post-WWII housing. Except New Orleans was surrounded by walls, as many river cities - like Sacramento and Pittsburgh, Memphis and St Louis - are. None of the folks who bought into the myth, and only the myth, of New Orleans never really knew those walls existed. They never had to see the private, everyday lives of New Orleanians.
When those walls came down, the whole of America was forced to see the whole thing. You desire your lover over your spouse because you don’t have to see your lover in anything but silky lingerie, you never have to wash your lover’s dirty underpants. New Orleans had gone from a sexy and dangerous lover to a violent and disorganized embarrassment, and her dirty laundry was aired for everyone to see. Every problem Americans face in their own cities was being force fed back to them for 24 hours a day, from a city that was supposed to represent their escape from their own shit. Americans had to see their myth destroyed in front of them, and violently so, and were shamed by their own embarrassment. Like a lover who comes to her man at his wife’s home looking for help, the man refuses acknowledgement, and denies the affair ever existed.
Many Americans were hit by this and responded like angels, taking in the displaced, contributing what they could and volunteering their time and effort to give succor to those in need. Others denied the affair ever existed, questioned why the city of New Orleans ever existed, and responded by making fun of a catastrophe at a football game.
Florida is rebuilt every year without a question of why. The Carolinas are rebuilt every two years without a question of why. We send billions in aid to a nation a world away built on the side of a volcano.
But New Orleans had a different myth than any of those places, New Orleans had a different story and sold herself in a different kind of way. Because of that myth and because of that story, some folks have decided she is nothing but a used up whore, ready to be discarded.
Dr. Atkinson closed her lecture in wondering what was next for New Orleans, what story would be sold about the music. Would the story continue to be the ‘happy accident’ myth that this City has just lucked out with all the good things you think about her, or would the story be something more in depth, about how this city produces composers out of inner city kids? I know this story isn’t done, and I know there are millions of Americans pulling for this place to win.
I’ve come to believe that history is not written by the winners, but by the best storytellers. New Orleans has plenty of those, and when this city comes through this thing – because she will – the story is going to be about drywall and foundations, about living on second floors above gutted basements, about a magical football season, about what was lost along the way and how those who were left to carry on persevered and came together. It will be a story about one of the greatest triumphs over adversity in American history.
The next lecture is tonight, at UNO, in the Earl K. Long Library. 4th Floor, if any locals want to join us for the talk.