Coming Through Slaughter / Tears Behind the Mask (At The First Post-Katrina Mardi Gras, 2006)
By Christine Ohlman COVER STORY New Haven Advocate/Hartford Advocate/Fairfield Weekly April 2006
Day 1: 2-27-06 Lundi Gras
I wake, after an almost sleepless night, before dawn (this will be a recurring theme). The beehive pre-teased and sprayed, I tumble into the car and barely make Bradley for my 7:20 a.m. flight to New Orleans via Nashville. I’m joining a select group of pilgrims that have been gathering from around the globe for the past two weeks—all of us, going down to the well of inspiration and joy that is The Big Easy. This time, though, the well is partly dry, and we go, not just in joy, but in sadness, with longing for the City that was, and outrage at the name-calling and excuse-making that the Federal, State and local governments have resorted to in the wake of their own unbelievable lack.
The view from the air is of water, water, everywhere. You get the idea, every time you fly over New Orleans, that it might as well be an island. Post-Katrina, the city is forever changed. I know this going in, but I want to see for myself the effect on a place I love so much that at one time I considered it my second home. There could be no better guide than Skip Henderson, guitar player, former owner of City Lights Music in Piscataway, NJ, mutual friend of Cub Koda, GE Smith, and Marshall Crenshaw, transplanted to New Orleans nine years ago when he married Fontaine, (alias “Cupcake”) and started a second family that now includes twin baby girls, Mimi and Lucy, and a son, Hudson.
Skip founded the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, which placed headstones on the graves of Robert Johnson, Elmore James, and many other Delta blues greats. He’s an intrepid, fearless cat who braved a racist Mississippi farmer’s shotgun blast to lay a stone on the grave of the immortal Tommy Johnson, composer of “Canned Heat”. Skip loves New Orleans passionately, but from the moment he picks me up at the airport, I can sense that he’s had it. The Gulf is warming, he tells me, and evacuations have become a yearly deal. During the one for Hurricane Ivan, his bulldog Ike (of the notorious canine duo Ike & Tina Henderson) expired in the car, a victim of heat and stress. The family was stuck in traffic for 2 hours with the grieving dog-widow, Tina, three kids, and 70 pounds of dead dogflesh. In August. On the interstate. He and Cupcake are thinking, seriously, of moving to Lafayette. She, New Orleans born and raised, is agonizing over the decision.
We plunge into the sentimental, disturbing journey immediately, with Skip providing an anger-fueled running commentary. Throughout the next four days, I will keep having to remind myself that we are more than six months removed from the flood, because so little seems to have been done, and what I will see looks so new.
First impressions---SNAPSHOT: Miles of abandoned cars, thousands of them, parked under the 1-10 overpass. SNAPSHOT: No traffic lights (we pass three accidents in 20 minutes). SNAPSHOT: Chain stores and fast-food joints boarded up. Even McDonald’s has declined to return, Skip says. SNAPSHOT: The devastated Ninth Ward, seen from the highway, alongside a blue-tarped tent encampment. Blue is the color of the day, in fact. Those tarps are everywhere--covering roofs, doorways, and windows. SNAPSHOT: Trash—literally mountains of it, uncollected for weeks. SHAPHOT: Heavy brown rings on buildings, trucks, highway abutments. “Check out the water marks,” Skip says. “The darkest ones, the ones that are 4 and 5 feet off the ground, show where the water stood for 4 1/2 weeks. Notice how all the vegetation is dead? The water was toxic--killed grass and nearly every plant it touched” (except, I note, the hardy, impervious palm trees, which continue to flourish).
Driving west out of this war zone, we reach Skip’s house in the Bywater section, just next to (and a 15-minute walk from) the French Quarter. Bywater escaped, by about five blocks and by dint of its slightly higher elevation, being flooded out. Its streets are lined with historic “shotgun” dwellings, so named because one room opens from another, corridor-less, so that a shot fired through the front door has a clean path to the back.
It being Skip’s 55th birthday, there’s a party in the lush back courtyard, where everything is in full bloom (the weather will be lovely throughout—75 degrees, sunny, just humid enough), and I meet some of the Bywater Bone Boys Krewe, with whom I’ll march tomorrow. The Krewe is Skip’s creation, a diverse group of male and female artists and musicians who mask as skeletons, their avowed purpose “to wake our fellow pre-deceased to the feast.” We gorge on King Cake, a large, round, flaky pastry filled with almond paste in which a tiny plastic baby doll is hidden. He who gets the piece with the baby in it must buy the next cake. Then it’s off at twilight to St. Charles Avenue, with its wide grass median, to view the Lundi Gras parade of the Krewe of Proteus, a fine assortment of vintage floats from as far back as 1955 interspersed with “Flambeaux”, men carrying flaming torches to light the way. The Krewe of Orpheus is to follow (parade routes have been consolidated and parades put back-to-back so that City resources are not further strained). It’s a bigger parade with double-decker floats that I’d like to see, but it’s behind schedule, and we bag it in favor of our beds, and sleep. The Big Day lies ahead… __________________________________________________________________
Day 2: 2-28-06 Mardi Gras
We rise early to wake the pre-deceased. We of the BBBK are the already-dead, costumed mostly in black, with bone-white greasepainted faces and ghostly eyes, although Skip’s older sons, visiting from New Jersey, portray a dead conquistador and NFL referee, respectively. The radio in the kitchen blares Earl King’s “Trick Bag” as I eat my breakfast. Skip’s iTunes library is soulful and eclectic, and he’s programmed the morning’s soundtrack with the likes of ”City Of New Orleans,” (Johnny Cash), “Back Water Blues” (Bessie Smith), and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” (Louis Armstrong). The mood is set.
At 7 a.m., we fan out though the morning mist, pushing the 3-year old twins, pink and purple ballerina-clad, whitefaced bone princesses, in their stroller down cobblestoned streets of candy-colored shotguns, calling, “Wake Up!!! Mardi Gras today!!!”, rattling tambourines, hooting, banging on doors and drums (one of them made from a metal “Evacuation Route” sign—again, blue). Skip brandishes a homemade banner with the Bone Boys logo on one side and “New Orleans Is Eternal” on the other. The streets are deserted save for Mexican day laborers and an unwigged, already-glittered drag queen, but doors open, coffee cups are raised in our honor, New Orleaneans smile and wave. It is, after all, their national holiday.
We stop for two “home invasions” where copious amounts of food and alcohol are consumed in complete disregard of the 8 a.m. hour, and music plays continuously. Near the far end of Royal Street, we join the beginnings of the Parade of St. Ann, a magnificent, motley group of small but flamboyant krewes that will march all the way into the French Quarter. The costumes are dazzling and inventive, ranging from a pregnant woman’s exposed belly emblazoned with a neon-green “X-TFW” (the symbol spray-painted on nearly every dwelling; “TFW”= “took flood water”) to multiple takes on the Hershey bar/”Chocolate City” theme. We march for a while, digging the sights and sounds—a tiny knot of black amidst a swirling rainbow—then veer off the path and repair to Maggie’s second-floor apartment on Chartres Street in the Quarter for drinks, snacks, more drinks, and two kinds of King Cake. Here, all is lovely. The apartment is airy and possesses that rarest of commodities: a front-facing balcony from which to watch the festivities and drop beads on the passing parades. Soon, the St. Ann’s revelers we’d just left appear below us. It’s a different view from above, dizzying in its sequined flash, color and intensity. Brass bands and drummers deliver ass-shakin’ versions of “Iko Iko” and “Land Of 1000 Dances,” the rhythms ancient. We shimmy and grin as more folks arrive and the party heats up. Cupcake says the crowds are one-quarter the size of last year’s. But that’s okay. This is largely a gathering of true believers, with a deeper purpose---the resurrection, and celebration, of an entire culture.
Maggie herself is a Chicago transplant. In fact everyone at the party seems to have been born elsewhere, and everybody has a story about Katrina, which is referred to among the locals, cryptically, as “the Thing.” One man’s condemned house had finally been demolished only the day before. He is calmly having a drink. “It took me five months after the Thing to even get a contractor to come out and look at it,” he says. “They take the refrigerators out last, because they explode, and the smell is like waking the dead.” Maggie tells of a call just two weeks before from a photographer friend who’d been assigned to do a shoot, asking “if the roads were passable.” That indicates on some level the wider perception that the entire city is trashed. In fact, the Quarter is completely intact, and beautiful. It’s the ring around it that’s gone---really gone. __________________________________________________________________
Day 3: 3-1-06 Ash Wednesday
7:30 Mass at St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square is a ritual for Skip and his two sons. Although I am a long-lapsed Catholic, I wouldn’t miss this reminder of what it’s all about. Ashes are dispersed. We cross the Square to Café Du Monde for café au lait and fresh beignets. The beignet, one of the world’s great culinary inventions, is a small square of fried dough (puffier than our New Haven variety) dusted with confectionary sugar, with extra dumped on the plate, perfect for melting into the café au lait.
But all the sugar in the world cannot alloy the bitterness to follow, as we pile into the car for what Skip darkly calls the “Magical Misery Tour” of St. Bernard, The Ninth Ward, and East New Orleans. I am unprepared—and shaken to the core. What I saw from a distance on Monday’s ride from the airport is now visited on me, up close. Enough misery to break the patience of Job. Enough, as the blues songs say, to make a grown man cry. For mile after mile, slab-built homes have collapsed entirely and sit piled one upon another. There is no sign of human life anywhere save one solitary man walking along the garbage-strewn road. The barge that slid out of Lake Ponchatrain, taking four city blocks with it, sits where it landed while welders work to cut it apart, tiny insects crawling over its massive bulk. The cradle of American popular music—washed away.
Further on, down Gentilly Avenue, rows of fine-looking, even opulent, homes stand empty, the high-water marks telling the tale. “NE” (“No Entry”) is sprayed on nearly every door, and although a few sport FEMA trailers on their front lawns, the area is largely deserted. “Couldn’t live here anyhow,” Skip says. “No electric, no water. Drive by on the highway at night, you can see the stars over the whole city.”
He explains the economics, which had escaped me until now. Some folks owned their houses, paid in full. Those lots belong to them. Many did not, though, and have defaulted on the mortgage--ergo, the bank owns the land. All paperwork having washed away, figuring it out amidst the wreckage will be the bureaucratic nightmare of all time. Ditto for cars. We pass an abandoned Lexus. “Cat must have had a big note on that one,” Skip observes. Now I get it. If you owed money on it—car, house, business, whatever-- best to let it go, let the City haul it away, move on, and maybe never come back.
Later that afternoon, I walk back alone to the French Quarter, through humid, deserted streets, over a railroad crossing whose lights have been flashing continuously for 6 1/2 months. The feeling is almost unbearably bittersweet, and I recall that always, in the past, it was incredibly hard for me to leave. This city tugs on the heart in a way no other does. I remember my late father, with whom I spent seven Jazz Fests here, and my mate of so many years, who’d passed in 2005 and whose idea it was in the first place for my father and me to visit together. I grieve for them, and for the City itself. But there is the smell of gardenia and freesia overlaying the rot, the salty scent of the river, still fresh…I turn into an alleyway and come upon a pristine candle shop staffed by a gracious man and woman who invite me in (go to their site and buy something—the stuff is wonderful: www.frenchquartercandles.com) and treat me like a sister, pouring me coffee and explaining how they’d reopened in October, and will never leave. I am reminded that this is such a one-on-one human tragedy, but that it is the human condition to survive, no matter what. __________________________________________________________________
POSTSCRIPT: Day 4: 3-2-06 The Journey Home
Skip and I head out at 5:30 a.m. so he can escape the return traffic from Baton Rouge (“they moved up there, still work in New Orleans, drive back and forth every day”). On the way, we talk politics. Mayoral elections were deferred from November and Skip’s hope is that current Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landreau (“the lesser of two evils”) will replace Ray Nagin. He wants to begin work with a new non-profit revitalization group, but there is the prospect of the family’s move to Lafayette. (“Nothing standing between us an another hurricane season except Jazz Fest, and that’s going to be held with one eye on the horizon.”) My heart aches for my friend, and I recall the words of one of Maggie’s party guests—“It’s tattered and bruised, but it’s my city, and I’m staying.” How it all ends…..I wonder, and only God knows.
Home Is Down The Lonesome Highway / February, 2007
by Christine Ohlman, Cover story: New Haven, Hartford, Fairfield Advocates
I was born in the Bronx with Mississippi in my blood. It was always there. I started covering Muddy Waters when I was 13 and wrote “The Seventh Sons,” a song about him and his musical nemesis Howlin’ Wolf, for The Hard Way, my first CD with Rebel Montez. I read Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Larry Brown. As a guitarist, I worshipped at the feet of Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who learned from Charlie Patton on the Dockery Plantation, and when it came time to make my first record at the age of 17, it turned out to be Staples Singers cover, “Wake Me, Shake Me.”
Yet, I’d never touched the soil of this place that is, as surely as any, my artistic home. Finally, on a bitterly cold morning in late February, I set out to make the Magnolia State my own. Home, they say, is where the heart is. I’d put that to the test, on a backroads journey.
Flying into Jackson, I relax into the sweet, hot rhythm of the South at the Mayflower Café —recommended by Eudora Welty’s niece as “one of Miss Welty’s favorites” —for a “plate lunch” of fried catfish, butter beans, fried okra, sweet tea and peach cobbler while soul singer Freddie Scott’s sixties classic “Are You Lonely For Me” plays on the jukebox. Already, I’m in heaven. Highway 49 calls. By week’s end I’ll have visited the resting place of the King of the blues harmonica, Sonny Boy Williamson, in Tutweiller, and the birthplace of the King of it all, Elvis, in Tupelo; walked the streets of Oxford and been a guest at the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour, with its monster house band led by the legendary Jim Dickinson (225 seats, sold out on a Thursday night, inside a book store on the town Square—take notice, New Haven; it can be done); and traveled south, past McComb, the birthplace of both Bo Diddley and Britney Spears, all the way to New Orleans. But it’s the beginning of my journey—to Clarksdale, the cradle of the Delta Blues, via Greenwood, where its King, Robert Johnson, is buried (at least most scholars now agree he is; there are two other disputed burial plots) —that I want to tell.
Music is everywhere, the backdrop to daily life. The blues blares from speakers inside gas stations where catfish is fried and beer is sold behind the counter. It’s a delight to me—Connecticut girl that I am—this place that can claim not just one but several musical styles as birthright, this land where so many ghosts walk, reaching across space and time even today, to Cassandra Wilson, Jack White, Keb’ Mo’, John Mayer, Debbie Davies (another Connecticut girl), the North Mississippi Allstars (the sons of that same Jim Dickinson), and countless others.
I’m searching for a soul connection, tapping the bottomless well of memory. It’s the songwriter’s curse. You want the taste, the feel, the smell…all your senses want it, and need it. There might be a song in there someplace. I’m looking for new memories cloaked in remembrance, if that makes any sense…
Right away, I realize that this isn’t about the blues so much as it is about loneliness (back to Freddie Scott on the jukebox), the kind that swoops down and settles. This is a solitary journey, and the aloneness of the place is palatable immediately. Highway 49 —one half of the famous “Crossroads” that dissects Highway 61 at Clarksdale—winds through hill country to Yazoo City, where it splits into an east and west fork. I follow it past mile after mile of desolate, fallow cotton fields watered, down the years, with buckets of tears unleashed by the ugliest kind of racism. The houses are so few and far between as to be almost invisible. My heart goes out to the land, its mix of economic poverty and artistic richness. “Home” down this lonesome highway would surely be a place of refuge in every way, the bonds to family titanium-strong. So to be born into this vastness, and then to leave it—to seek a new home both artistically and in reality (I think of Muddy and Wolf, two who left the plow behind to head north up Highway 61 to Chicago)—what incredible strength and focus must that have taken?
I cross over the muddy Tallahatchie River in the late afternoon glow. Just outside Greenwood, I pull off a dirt road into the shadow-soaked graveyard next to the diminutive white clapboard Little Zion M. B. Church, and time stands still. There are perhaps only forty graves in all, and many, although far from newly-dug, are banked with mounds of dirt and rainbow-hued artificial flowers. Not those meager cone-shaped holders with a lone fake rose that we’re forced to leave at graves here; no, these are extravagant, funeral-home-style sprays and wreaths, their profusion making every grave seem fresh, every loss new. A warm wind rustles the branches, a few cars pass as folks wend their way home from work, both the light and the silence are pure and golden, and, although I’m not easily spooked, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. Robert Johnson’s headstone is under a tree near the back, inscribed in a replica of his own handwriting, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem. I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the Grave.” This most primal man, who lived so hard he’d be dead before his 28th birthday, staked out his home in glory in words every bit as strong as those in his songs.
Being around the dead should be a heartache for me, a reminder of the loss of both a mate and a bandmate in the past two years, yet here I feel solace, and joy. What is it that imbues Johnson’s relatively small recorded output with so much weight that entire artistic lives, Eric Clapton’s certainly not the least, have found their home in it? I asked my friend Rocky Lawrence, a renowned disciple of Johnson’s, and his answer was simple and beautiful: “He covers the human condition in 29 songs; ‘nuff said?” How deep is deep? Very, it turns out, and it’s all around me. I’ve never been a classic blues singer, as such, but I’ve written my own version of the blues, and sung it, and had the good fortune to sing with some who truly work the genre. Now—and I’m so grateful—I’ve touched the bottom of the well, and it feels like home.
The sun is past setting, the sky fuchsia-streaked by the time I arrive in Clarksdale for a two-day stay in the tiny “Cadillac Shack” on the grounds of the Hopson Plantation, just half a mile from the Crossroads. I have no romantic notions about the snug little Shack’s origins. It was home, once, to a sharecropper family, and I enter with respect for the toil and strife that its walls have seen. Those same walls, worn smooth in the soft lamplight, are now covered with souvenirs left by blues fans from all over the world. There’s a shiver-inducing moment as soon as I drop my suitcase on the floor. In a pile of CDs left by past visitors I find, to my wonder (I mean, what are the odds?), a Hannah Cranna disc recorded by that legendary New Haven band at Trod Nossel, my musical home for so many years, founded by the man whose death I am partly here to assuage, Doc Cavalier, and engineered by our dear friend Richard Robinson, now relocated to L.A. Home is where the heart is. Doc, Richard, and the New Haven music scene settle into the Cadillac Shack with me.
A few fellow travelers— lovers of the lonesome highway, all—are gathered around an oil-drum bonfire in front of the Plantation’s main building, sharing drinks and stories. I’m advised there’s a storm on the horizon, and it’ll be bad. Having lived, now, through our own mid-April Connecticut version of that “perfect storm”, I’m nevertheless completely unprepared for, and awed by, the fury of what passes over me later in my tiny dwelling. It’s vicious and intemperate, and comes on so suddenly, rain hammering the Shack’s tin roof relentlessly and wind howling loud enough to wake the dead. Then it’s over, as suddenly as it started, and I sleep and dream, full of new memories in this land of spirits.
Southerners take for granted the existence of ghosts. The land is haunted, and they know it, and are at ease with it. Northerners, I’ve found, have to work at it. They tend to trust the heart less, preferring the mind. Yet we are alike in this, I believe—home is wherever the heart wants, or needs, it to be.
I awake to find the Mississippi light ever-changing, from blue to gold, pink-edged, then back again, then silver as twilight falls, and in the morning, gold again. Car wheels hum on Highway 49, visible from my porch. I set off down it.
COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER REDUX (revisiting New Orleans, one year later)
The road to New Orleans is a straight shot from the East on I-10, over bayous stocked with moss-covered live oaks, fishing shacks on stilts, and long, canoe-like skiffs called pirogues in towns with exotic names like Manchac. And it’s in East New Orleans, including the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, where Katrina did her worst. On the drive past the airport, all that’s missing is last year’s profusion of bright blue tarps covering roof after roof. Otherwise, this part of town is still a moonscape of boarded-up homes and businesses, littered with abandoned vehicles.
It’s been thirteen months since my last visit to Skip and Fontaine (“Cupcake”) Henderson, and I only have one night to spend before an early-morning flight. Skip had counseled me against coming for Mardi Gras this year and I’d taken his advice to heart. Helen Hill, the filmmaker shot and killed in the January dawn when she surprised an intruder at her front door, was a friend. She, her husband, and their baby lived just one neighborhood over, and the whole city had become too dangerous, Skip said, e-mailing me—with his usual lack of sentimentality—a photo of himself posed on his front porch, a vintage Fender guitar in one hand and a rifle in the other. Over dinner at Cupcake’s parents’ home, where life has resumed on the second story, the first being still unusable due to the water that stood for six weeks all around the house, the conversation turns naturally to Katrina (still being referred to as “the thing”) and the government’s lack of response and continued bungling. Yet, there are small signs of encouragement in the Hendersons’ world—the kids have had an uninterrupted year of school, and Skip’s older son has moved there from New Jersey permanently to work in social services, following in his father’s footsteps. Skip (Delta expert and founder of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, which has placed markers on Robert Johnson and Elmore James’ graves, among others) is the kind of man who tries to make a difference; in his book, the ultimate sin is inaction. He and I take a late-evening walk on Montegut Street in his Bywater neighborhood, toward a warehouse he and Fontaine owned up until a few months ago. The slogan that he’d spray-painted on its wall after “the thing” was still there, its message to the Bush administration having been filmed by Spike Lee for his Katrina documentary, When The Levees Broke, reading simply: HOPE IS NOT A PLAN.
(Of special note: Both The New Orleans Musicians Clinic and Sweet Home New Orleans, a housing relocation outreach program, continue to do invaluable work for the hard-hit music makers of the Crescent City. To learn more or to make a donation, log on to www.neworleansmusiciansclinic.org and www.sweethomeneworleans.org.)
Christine Ohlman’s Personal Delta Top 10
Charlie Patton: A Spoonful Blues
Robert Johnson: Love In Vain
Son House: Death Letter
Muddy Waters: I Be’s Troubled (field recording, Stovall Plantation)
Skip James: Devil Got My Woman
John Lee Hooker: Tupelo (tie) Mississippi Fred McDowell/North Mississippi Allstars: Shake ‘Em On Down
Junior Kimbrough Work Me, Baby
Bukka White: Po’ Boy (field recording, Parchman Penitentiary)
Elmore James: Dust By Broom (original version on Jackson’s Trumpet label)
BONUS CUTS: Any of the brilliant field recordings of Othar (Otha) Turner, available from the Library of Congress/Smithsonian, as well as “Everybody Hollerin’ Goat,” Turner’s first CD release (with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band) recorded at the age of 90 and named by Rolling Stone as one of the essential albums of the decade. “Shimmy She Wobble” was featured in Martin Scorsese’s soundtrack for Gangs Of New York. Turner’s music is the direct antecedent to the sound of that favorite son of McComb, MS—Bo Diddley.
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