Saving the Music

By - Oct 1st, 2005 02:52 pm
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By Phillip Walzak

In many ways, New Orleans is the heartbeat of this nation’s music scene. If indeed jazz is the only truly American art form, then the Crescent City is the womb from which it was born. Yet jazz is just one of countless musical genres with roots in New Orleans. Blues, funk, zydeco, gospel, soul, R&B, bluegrass, folk – each of these forms were sparked and/or developed in the creative, impassioned, explosively vibrant atmosphere of that special city.

Having friends in New Orleans, I’ve had the chance to get off the tourist trail and the Girls Gone Wild nonsense of Bourbon Street to see some true gems frequented by the locals. These are friends who were forced to evacuate their beloved city as Katrina moved relentlessly toward them, and have no idea what awaits them when they finally can return to their homes. Yet in happier times they took me to Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n Bowl, a two-level rock club/bowling alley, to hear the distinct rub-board and accordion of Rockin’ Doopsie Junior and the Zydeco Twisters. Or Vaughan’s Lounge in Bywater, where the legendary Kermit Ruffins and the Barbeque Swingers fire up the grill outside between numbers.

I’ve seen the explosive horns and drums of the Rebirth Brass Band on Frenchman Street, blasting out the rollicking jazz of an earlier age with a sound so big it bundled you up like an overcoat. And that was after seeing a young, backroads folk band and a Latin jazz fusion group all on the very same night. Nudged between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River you’ll find the most inspiring music scene in America – eclectic and dynamic, diverse and thrilling.

Tragically, that very geographic location has placed the grand New Orleans musical legacy in jeopardy. In addition to the hundreds (possibly thousands by press time) of dead and billions of dollars in damage, hanging in the balance is the city’s culture. And to lose it would only compound the heartbreak.


What happened is the easy part – Hurricane Katrina. A complete breakdown in the days following Katrina’s wrath, turning New Orleans into a post-apocalyptic hell straight out of a Mad Max movie: death and destruction, depravity and violence, filth and horror, suffering and degradation. Floodwaters swept through the city, engulfing homes, businesses and streets, marooning tens of thousands of our fellow citizens in one of America’s largest and – as you know if you’ve been to the gas pump recently – economically strategic cities.  The better question is what didn’t happen. For whatever reason, the local, state and federal government apparatus could not deliver food, water and medical supplies to the city’s stranded residents for days. The blame game began immediately. Former Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal blasted the Bush Administration for reacting unbelievably slowly to the crisis and, in an article on on Aug 31, pointed out that “in 2004, the Bush administration cut funding requested by the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80 percent…” totaling a complete cut in investment in the New Orleans levee system by more than 44�ince 2001.

Conservatives rallied to the president, arguing that it was Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, both Democrats, who dropped the ball. Christopher Ruddy wrote on on September 5 that Blanco delayed utilizing the state’s National Guard while Mayor Nagin simply failed to operate the “City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan,” which called for a more aggressive evacuation plan and better pre-deployment of supplies.


Yet many of these debates have devolved into purely political exercises, meant to score partisan points. The truth is that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is really everyone’s fault. Not only elected officials or agency chiefs, but our very American culture and society must shoulder  the responsibility.

Katrina makes clear that for whatever reason, abject poverty – people so poor they can’t even afford to leave a city about to be wrecked by a monster hurricane – is tolerated in the richest, most powerful nation in the world.

Katrina reveals that sexy policies, like ‘tax cuts’ or anything that could be stretched to say ‘supports the troops’ will always trump esoteric and provincial – yet desperately needed – projects like levee improvements.

Katrina demonstrates that though we miss no opportunity to spout platitudes about the greatness of our democracy, our government still operates a nefarious patronage system that rewards political allies with important positions – like Michael Brown, the (now former) head of FEMA – even though their prior job makes them uniquely unqualified – like Michael Brown, head of the International Arabian Horse Association for nine years.

Katrina shows that though the era of Jim Crowe and lynchings may be past, racism by omission – black folks out of sight, out of mind – is just as insidious.


The next question is what to do now – should New Orleans ever be rebuilt? And though those who say “no” are invariably those who have never been there, their claims that this disaster will happen again has merit – if we as a society continue to make the same choices we’ve been making. If we keep slashing investment for levee improvements to pay for tax cuts for the richest one percent or to rebuild another nation half a world away, then yes, this could very well happen again. If we do nothing to improve the living conditions of the poorest Americans, then the risk of a repeat is high.

But if we do a better job of looking out for our fellow countrymen and -women, commit more to our own infrastructure, stop accepting deplorable poverty with a shrug and start demanding more from our leaders, then this wonderful city that has provided the foundation for American music can survive and thrive again. The decision is up to us, and I pray we choose correctly, because those who perished and those who lost everything in this disaster deserve better. And I truly hope that the beautiful music tradition of New Orleans will once again blossom, so that everyone has a chance to revel in it.  VS



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