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The Music

April 15, 2010

Billie and DeDe Pierce, 1962 by Lee Friedlander

My introduction to New Orleans music came via my mother.  In truth, my introduction to most music first came from her, but this music was different. Two things are pertinent here: one, my mother was nuts about most music, and downright obsessive about some of it; two, her favorite album of all time was “Billie and DeDe and Their Preservation Hall Jazz Band.” The one with the blue cover, black and white photo, recorded in 1966.

Now I know for most of you, this is probably “tourist music” but to my mother, that record was like a time/space machine, taking her back to the New Orleans she’d first visited years before. Before 1966 for sure, before I was born, before she and my dad argued so much, before they both had health and money problems, before… just before, when things were less complicated.  My dad was a shrimper and for several seasons back in the early ’60s, he was running a boat for a company out of Freeport and he’d offloaded in Gretna now and again. My mother and his deckhands’ wives would drive over from Texas and they’d party and hang out in New Orleans.

I had trouble enough picturing that, much less whatever it was my mother was trying to get me to grasp when she would make me listen to this music. Yeah, I said make me listen.  To my adolescent ears, it seemed so corny and weird. And old, as in played by old people. As in, an old woman pounding like hell on a piano and bellowing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” across a crowded room to an old man who’d holler back at her then play on what even sounded like an old trumpet. Billie, DeDe, George Lewis and the rest of them on the cover, old in that photo, almost certainly dead by the time I heard them.

Of course, in retrospect I get it, and I’m grateful for her tutelage, but as a kid, it was weird seeing my mother so transported. “Listen to that natural reverb! That’s real, that’s how an old building sounds, that’s where they are, it’s just an old building, not some recording studio!” There was that word, “old” again.  “Just listen to that.  These are real people! In New Orleans. Just regular people. This is their job. That’s what New Orleans really sounds like. No matter where you go, there’s always music.”

In her own way, my mother was trying to get across what Ray and alli are talking about.  You N.O. citizens, ‘fugees, and exiles know this. We also know from what’s been said by Treme‘s creators that music is going to be front and center, another leading character throughout. This, more than anything, is what makes Treme different from The Wire.  These characters we are following have access to something — music, culture, a sense of heritage, place and community — that feeds their spirit, connects them to something bigger. And yeah, some of them are also selling that to get by, slinging music and good times instead of dope. But like Ray reminds us, they are all still just “them little bitches on the chessboard.

I disagree (respectfully) with wet bank guy that Creighton is the show’s Greek chorus. Maybe to an extent, but I see him more as a Cassandra. I see music itself, together with the attendant New Orleans cultural essentials,  as Treme’s Greek chorus.  In the classic sense, the chorus was considered a character in the play, with the critical difference of existing at a remove. The chorus isn’t directly affected by events befalling the other characters, it survives being tossed about by the drama at hand so it can perform its functions, the most basic of which is to serve as interconnection, a bridge between the actors and the audience, between the past background and the events occurring on stage, and between the tragedy onstage and the real world, in effect giving the audience a way out.

The first episode of Treme opens with a ritualized return to life, the Rebirth-led second line, and it ends with a funeral rite.  In between, Albert fights to make a space so his tribe can come home.  Music/Greek chorus/bridge, it has to keep going. The old chief has no choice in the matter, because he knows what it’s like to miss New Orleans. Birth, death, in between, life. The songs change, but the music doesn’t stop.

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  1. jeffrey permalink
    April 15, 2010 5:39 pm

    Hey I just thought of a question. And forgive me if this has already come up in a separate thread about historical accuracy/continuity but does anybody know when the “first second line after the storm” actually happened? Was there one inNovember?

  2. April 15, 2010 6:36 pm

    I’ve heard the one in Treme was supposed to echo the one for Austin Leslie. which was in October ’05:

  3. jeffrey permalink
    April 15, 2010 6:56 pm

    I had forgotten about the Austin Leslie thing. The episode showed a funeral at the end but the first second line at the opening (the one that nekkid Davis runs out after) seems like it’s supposed to be a regular anniversary parade or something. I was wondering if any of those would have been happening at the time.

    The reason I ask is the first second line I remember after the storm was an “All Star” parade on MLK weekend 2006 (Yes, one day before the “Chocolate City” speech) One thing I remember well from that day was the sight of some of the marchers carrying street signs “Benefit” “Humanity” “Desire” It seemed poignant. I took pictures. Anyway, I’ve noticed that scenes from Treme actually recreate this in their depictions of the parade.

    Just saying so I could note one detail about the show that impressed me.

  4. April 15, 2010 6:57 pm

    And Virgo, you might be interested in Tom Sancton’s “Song For My Fathers”, which is about to be released in paperback, all about his coming of age among the jazz musicians at a fledgling Preservation Hall:

    Ben Jaffe released a CD/DVD set called Hurricane Sessions, too, which combines some old PH classics and some new ones, and I’ve really been getting into it. The “Eh Lah Bah” kicks it off right.

  5. April 15, 2010 7:05 pm

    Thanks, Miz Lady

  6. jeffrey permalink
    April 15, 2010 7:22 pm

    Oh wait a minute. That’s still not even right. Here’s a cell phone pic I took on 12/18/2005 during what I’m pretty sure was Prince of Wales Uptown. So yeah it’s quite likely that people were parading by November.

  7. April 15, 2010 7:43 pm

    One of the positive results from Tremé appeared fairly early into the shooting process. The owner of NO’s recording studio, Piety Street, who is as antagonistic to anything hyped or hoped as you can find, says that he can see the money that’s going directly into the pockets of New Orleans musicians. They have more spending money than they’ve had even before the flood, and they’ve got money for new recording projects.

    I’m here via a mention of your place on Citizen K’s blog here.

  8. April 15, 2010 8:16 pm

    Welcome, Foxessa. Don’t be a stranger. That’s encouraging news.

  9. April 15, 2010 9:23 pm

    Thanks virgotex. That was nice.
    Music soothes even the Tilla’beast.

  10. adrastosno permalink
    April 15, 2010 10:31 pm

    Good work, B. You’ve even chilled about the Editilla, which is no small feat.

  11. alli permalink
    April 15, 2010 11:44 pm

    Speaking of the music not stopping, I just got back from seeing Kermit at Vaughan’s. It was packed. He played “Skokiaan” and most of the people around me knew the song.

    Oh, Steve Zahn was there, too.

  12. April 16, 2010 12:39 am

    You are spot on with the show spotlighting the importance of tradition and ritual. I took a powerful liking to the Mardi Gras indian chief, but now that worries me. I know Simon and Krewe are going to wrench our hearts with some wild plot twists, so now I expect the chief will die within a few episodes and his son, the musician who doesn’t want to be in NOLA, will have to step into his father’s place to lead the next Super Sunday. Tradition and ritual will triumph over the son’s personal ambitions playing fancy jazz in New York.

    That’s just me prognosticating; I don’t have any more information than anybody else in the peanut gallery. It’s fun trying to guess what will happen next knowing these aren’t real people.



  13. April 16, 2010 7:36 am

    I can see why you’d immediately want to associate Creighton with Cassandra (Category Five levees, anyone?), but the function of the Greek chorus was to fill in essential holes in the story outside of the dramatic line and I still assert that’s Creighton’s role.

    I thought the same way you did, back when you could find Al Hirt and Louis Prima and Louis Armstrong on a jukebox. Now, not so much. If that’s old people’s music, bring me my cane. And another drink.

  14. virgotex permalink*
    April 16, 2010 9:22 am

    hey old man, leave room for my rocking chair. And make it a double. We’ll argue about greek theater and get plotzed.

  15. ferngrrl permalink
    April 16, 2010 3:40 pm

    Oh, man, now ya got me thinkin’….. I’ve been trying to guess at what’s gonna happen about LaDonna’s brother and attorney Mary.

    Now, wait a minute. What’s wrong with playing jazz music in New York and Boston and anywhere else but NOLA? Spreading the joy, as it were, and making a living at it…. What’s wrong with personal ambition? Ah, now, let’s not set up conflicts where they may (should, that is) not exist. Could have a little of both sides. But I agree that that does seem to be a built-in tension for future resolution.

  16. ferngrrl permalink
    April 16, 2010 3:41 pm

    Now *that’s* what I like to hear!

  17. April 17, 2010 6:06 pm

    Well, I just read that, according to Simon, Davis is the Greek Chorus.

    But really, what does David Simon know anyhow….

    (I keeed)

  18. adrastosno permalink
    April 17, 2010 9:39 pm

    Well, Davis *is* a malaka so maybe so…

  19. alli permalink
    April 19, 2010 1:51 pm

    Hey, the NYTimes agrees with you about Creighton Bernette as Cassandra:

    “In ‘Treme,’ HBO’s new series about New Orleans, a college professor played by John Goodman railed against the needless tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. The storm was a natural disaster, he says, but the flooding that followed was a man-made catastrophe, decades in the making. Many people knew about the threat, but no one did anything about it.

    Mr. Goodman’s blustery tirade about warnings not heeded channeled a national anger that extends well beyond Katrina. We are living in an age of Cassandra, in which experts and ordinary people are regularly grabbing the appropriate authorities by the lapels and warning them of impending disasters — almost invariably to no avail.”

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