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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