New Orleans, Part 2: Tradition & Funk | A Brief Introduction
In part 1 of A Brief Introduction to New Orleans Music we looked at the early days of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, read it HERE. In part two things get funky.
Largely neglected in the bustling city scene of New Orleans jazz, rural Louisiana continued to keep its own proud musical traditions alive during the 20th Century. The French-speaking parts of the state kept hold of Zydeco, Creole and Cajun music which did for the populations of those towns and villages what the Dixieland music was doing for the frequenters of the steamy bars and clubs of the city.
Once rock ‘n’ roll started to run its course, New Orleans had to change tack again, as it did when jazz became old hat. Funk music started to come down from the cities up north and it mixed surprisingly well with the old traditions. Just like the French settlers and freed slaves before them brought their own traditions to the city, now again new sounds were coming and integrating, continuing the city’s tradition of melting styles and sounds into something new. It was another fruitful period and as the album as a singular work became the industry norm so too arose artists in New Orleans, where before we had performers. Here again is another not comprehensive list of some of the most noteworthy songs of that era, an entry point for the green horns.
Clifton Chenier – Zydeco Sont Pas Sale
“Dancing to the music of Clifton Chenier, the king of the bayou” so sang Paul Simon on his track That Was Your Mother from his 1986 album ‘Graceland’. It’s an apt tribute to arguably the greatest accordion player of his age, who almost single-handedly brought Zydeco music out of the Louisiana bayous and showcased it to the world. Zydeco is an accordion-based music that features washboard playing and drums and, like all great music from that part of the world, is not just easy to dance to, but is almost impossible not to.
Chenier toured around Louisiana and Texas throughout the ’50s and ’60s before taking his show to the rest of the States and Europe. He is known not just as a vessel for the music he inherited but also for adapting the increasingly popular blues sound to that instrument. Blues accordion became a sensation wherever he performed and he undoubtedly benefited from the blues revival that was gaining momentum in parts of the US at that time. Chenier eventually went on to win a Grammy award in 1983.
The song Zydeco Sont Pas Sale gives an indication of where the term “zydeco” derived. In Creole French the term “Les haricots sont pas salé” means “the snap beans aren’t salty”, or a less literal translation would be “no spicy news today”. On this track Chenier and his small band are playing straight Zydeco, a form with very little structure in the lyrics, which are mostly shouted and revolve around the theme of “Zydeco sont pas sale”. The music could also incorporate waltzes which were better for slow-dancing but Chenier’s greatest contribution to the world of music was showing that the blues aren’t just for the guitar or the piano or the harp, they are a tone or an emotion that can be expressed through any musical medium as long as the player’s mind and soul are in the right place.
Steve Riley & The Mamou Players – La Danse de Mardi Gras
The sounds of Cajun music resonate strongly through American roots and country music. Its main instruments are a harshly played fiddle with an accordion in support but the style has been appropriated in other parts of the US to incorporate things like slide guitar or the strings-heavy bluegrass music as played by Bill Monroe.
Steve Riley & The Mamou Players formed in the late ’80s and kept the genre’s essential tone while adding a modern rock aesthetic with powerful drums. Their songs are almost exclusively sung in Cajun French of which La Danse de Mardi Gras is but one. The Cajun singing style is traditionally quite waivery almost to the point of breaking and going out of tune, and it’s a testament to the band that they can encompass all these styles in their sound without ever going too far either way.
This song also hints at a growing focus on New Orleans and Mardi Gras as subject matters for songs from New Orleans. Very few other cities in the world have such an obsession with the place in which they are created, so that the city is not just the setting of the song, but the whole point. There is an element of band-wagoning here in that it’s easy enough to get your track on a Mardi Gras compilation disc, but it’s hard to deny that “New Orleans” is not just a place, it’s a sound and a feeling that says all a musician could want to say more directly than if they started forcing poems into their songs.
Dr. John – Right Place Wrong Time
A direct descendant of Professor Longhair, Mac Rebennack is currently the uncontested king of rumbling voodoo piano playing. He performs his song Such A Night in The Band’s concert film ‘The Last Waltz’ appearing as a representative of New Orleans, and they could scarcely have chosen a better man for the job. He seems to hang over everything New Orleans from the late ’60s onwards, and many’s the time you would find yourself listening to a song from that part of the world only to hear his unmistakable grumble cropping up like a familiar smell.
Bob Dylan and Bette Midler contribute lyrics to this song Right Place Wrong Time from his 1973 album ‘In the Right Place’ in which a number of ironical situations are set up. The track has that style that is uniquely Dr. John’s, who – even as a prominent interpreter of New Orleans standards – manages to put his own unique stamp on everything he touches. In a way he’s a typical New Orleans performer in that he can cram so many influences into one song that they become ultimately unclassifiable.
Dr. John was the first of the artists we’ve looked at to emerge at the dawn of the “album” period in recorded music, when acts became more interested in creating art works than individual songs. In 1968 he released ‘Gris-Gris’ which fused psychedelia with New Orleans blues. In 1972 came ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ in which he experiments with taking new directions with old standards.
Donald Harrison Jr. – Hu-Ta-Nay
The Indian tradition is an important part of the Mardi Gras celebrations. It is kept alive by black New Orleanians as a mark of respect to the Native Americans who helped freed slaves find their feet in the city around the time of emancipation. The Mardi Gras Indian tribes create incredibly colourful costumes from hand each year in order to march and sing chants in the streets when the day comes around, and to tell them their costumes are “pretty” is the greatest compliment you can pay.
Donald Harrison Jr’s Hu-Ta-Nay is an ideal example of not just the Indian tradition but also of what happened to those songs once the funk influence began to penetrate New Orleans. The opening is a wild and drawn out cry from the Indian Chief featuring tambourines and other percussive instruments to which the other tribes-members respond. Eventually it breaks into a rhythmic chant to which the Indians are to march. This song – featuring Dr. John of course – goes on to introduce the boogie woogie piano and horns that are a standard of the New Orleans sound.
The Indian tradition as it exists today derives from the Congo Square section of the city. As New Orleans was host to the greatest population of free Black Americans in the Slavery years, even those born unfree were treated more leniently than their brothers and sisters in other parts of the south. Where African culture was largely discouraged and oppressed in the south, Congo Square was a place where freemen and slaves could congregate once a week and perform the music and dance that was an integral part of their culture.
The Wild Magnolias – All On A Mardi Gras Day
When a tradition becomes multi-generational, so that its origins exist in the murky waters of the past, many people get very defensive about it. Any attempts to reimagine what is perceived as being “traditional” is treated with scorn and accusations of blasphemy. So it is with the Indian tradition in New Orleans. However, seeing that this is New Orleans, we can’t expect any tradition to remain uncorrupted for too long, even the Indians. Enter The Wild Magnolias.
The emergence of The Wild Magnolias as a funk group came about more by inevitability than by design. They began – or at least a group of the same name existed – as one of the many conventional Indian tribes who marched along the streets on Mardi Gras Day. But as more musical members passed into and out of the group their sound became more music- than tradition-oriented, and they adapted the funk textures to the Indian sound using a ragtime disregard for structure. They performed songs like the standard Iko Iko which, with lyrics “my flag boy and your flag boy sitting on the bayou/my flag boy said to your flag boy I’m gonna set your flag on fire”, tells of the rivalries that existed between these New Orleans Indians.
Appealing once again to the international popularity of the Mardi Gras celebrations, The Wild Magnolias released All On a Mardi Gras Day. The song opens with Indian rhythms and a call-back of “all on a Mardi Gras Day” in response to largely unintelligible lyrics from which things like “second line” and “the Wild Magnolias” can be discerned, if you care to listen. The Indian tradition transcends the need for specific meanings, and pure musical expressions like “ho-na-nae” or “joc-a-mo-fee-nah-nae” say about as much about the tradition as needs to be said.
The Meters – Cissy Strut
Art Neville formed The Meters in the mid-1960s after spending some years as a soloist. Unlike many of his contemporary New Orleans-based musicians his band eschewed the traditional brass and woodwind instruments for the more modern sounds that could be produced by a combination of keyboard, electric- and bass-guitar and a full drumkit. An even bigger leap from the sounds of the city was the fact that they recorded music that wasn’t explicitly based in any of the city’s traditions. Nonetheless they were quintessentially New Orleans, and acted as Allen Toussaint’s house-band for a stint in the mid-’60s.
They released Cissy Strut in 1969, two years before funk music reached its popular peak with Isaac Hayes’ Theme from Shaft, but it contained many of the musical textures that suddenly became popular upon that track’s release. Cissy Strut is an instrumental piece but again it doesn’t pull any large solos or thematic breaks like the instrumental music of The Red Hot Peppers or The Hot Seven. It has more in common with Ray Charles’ recording of One Mint Julep than anything from its own city, which shows that New Orleans music was starting to open up to the influence of the world outside around this time.
As well as touring with The Rolling Stones in the 1970s the group produced several albums of note, including 1974’s ‘Rejuvenation’. Art Neville left the group and went on to form another highly successful soul group in the form of The Neville Brothers. But The Meters continue to exist under the name of The Funky Meters and in October this year the original group was nominated for entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Irma Thomas – In Between Tears
Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ has historically been credited with taking soul music to the streets, talking about issues that dealt with the day-to-day experiences of everyday black Americans. In this vein came Sly & The Family Stone’s something-of-a-response album ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’. The plight of black women went largely unsung in these years, until Irma Thomas released her album ‘In Between Tears’.
By the age of nineteen Irma Thomas had already been married twice and had four children. By the time it became acceptable for soul singers to talk about real life she had lived enough of it for a career’s worth of albums. The 1973 album ‘In Between Tears’ features nine songs of torment and woe at the hands of deadbeat men who cheat, stay out all night and have other women and children to take care of. What could have been a dreary subject matter is given a sublime treatment through a wonderful early-70’s Motown-style production, where strings and brass hum over electric guitars and drums.
Despite being a contemporary of Aretha Franklin and Etta James, Thomas never had any sort of success to rival theirs. Even today her music goes largely unappraised despite its self-evident brilliance. In 2007 her album ‘After the Rain’ was awarded the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, a small bit of recognition for a singer whose name is unjustly kept out of the annals of soul music history.
Allen Toussaint – Southern Nights
If Dr. John’s is the presence you hear on nearly every piece of music to come out of New Orleans since the late-’60s then Allen Toussaint is the guy whose presence you aren’t acutely aware of. If he wasn’t writing songs for other singers then chances are he was working out arrangements or production styles for artists from New Orleans and beyond. He produced Labelle’s hit Lady Marmalade, he arranged the horns on several of The Band’s albums including ‘The Last Waltz’, and has worked with acts from his hometown such as Dr. John and The Meters as well as international stars like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello.
But from time to time he found himself in front of the microphone as a solo artist and this year he released the live album ‘Songbook’ on which a simple piano version of his song Southern Nights appears. Apart from the song’s gentle melody Toussaint breaks away from singing for a large section of the recording to tell of trips with his father out into rural Louisiana to visit family as a child. The song was a number one hit when Glen Campbell covered it in 1977 adapting it effectively to his own country-kitsch sound.
Like many of the musicians on this list Toussaint was forced out of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and went to live in New York. The years since this occurred have seen Toussaint enjoying something of a late-career blossoming as he has become more prominently an individual artist than the man-behind-the-scenes that he had been. Still, any musician who has passed through New Orleans will mention the name Allen Toussaint, making it one worth remembering.
James Booker – Black Minute Waltz
New Orleans produced many piano-players, some of the best in the world of jazz and popular music, and for that reason James Booker’s reputation as the best of the lot means something. Besides his obvious musical talents that far outweighed that of any of his chart-topping contemporaries, by all accounts Booker was more eccentric and difficult a man to be around than even the mad world of the late-’60s rock scene could tolerate. He was the Ginger Baker of the piano, only more so.
James Booker was black, gay, addicted to heroin, had one eye, was probably bipolar and allegedly died of loneliness in a wheelchair in a New Orleans emergency room. The Booker legends are many. His musical career is littered with those movie moments where a young kid comes in off the street and knocks the socks off some established musician with his musical talent. He allegedly knew Bach and Beethoven pieces backwards and forwards, quite literally, and such was his ear and ability that he could flawlessly imitate the playing styles of any other player, to the point that Huey “Piano” Smith hired him to go on the road as Huey “Piano” Smith because Smith despised touring.
He perfected his art to the level that only an obsessive possibly could, which would go a ways towards explaining both his genius and his solitude. He played piano with the maximalist show-boating of Keith Moon’s drumming, but with the varying emotional textures of Frank Sinatra’s singing voice. In Black Minute Waltz he attacks a traditional waltz with his trademark multi-note perfection, keeping the tone of a Chopin nocturne with his left hand while teasing a rhythm & blues air with his right. He evokes an aristocratic French ball and an evening on the edge of the bayou in Louisiana in a bizarrely brilliant thematic fugue that would make any classical pianist seem dull and limited by comparison.
It was the advent of recorded music that started the change in the kind of music New Orleans made. Where Jelly Roll and Louis Armstrong were influenced by what they heard in the clubs of the city, the ’60s generation were just as influenced by what they heard on their record players, whether it came from Detroit, Havana or Liverpool. As the years went by these outside influences only increased, to the point that many of the modern artists from the city have very little noticeable grounding in its sound. Others went on to adapt the city’s style to new music, making it more accessible to a world that had started to move on. The third and final edition will look at the influence of modern jazz, heavy metal and hip-hop on New Orleans artists as well as the most iconic of all ensembles from the city, the brass bands.
Read part 3 of A Brief Introduction to New Orleans Music HERE