How Music Helped Save New Orleans After Katrina
By Olga Bonfiglio
August 9, 2010, CommonDreams.org
No other American city values music the way New Orleans does.
Heck, one of its airports is named after legendary musician
Music is not something that is tangible, linear or
measurable, said Nick Spitzer, producer and host of the
National Public Radio show "American Routes," but it is one
of the things people value.
Even in the midst of their own gloom over Hurricane Katrina's
destruction where homes and neighborhoods were crushed and
where there was little infrastructure and not much support
from state or federal government, music helped many evacuees
rebuild their lives with a strong hope in the future and a
deep connection to a place they loved.
"That's what life's about," said Spitzer, "creating space for
Spitzer and several jazz musicians spoke at the annual
conference of the American Planning Association held recently
in New Orleans where many sessions discussed the recovery
effort after Hurricane Katrina.
Before the storm hit, Benny ("the Peter") Pete, tuba player
and leader of the Hot 8 Brass Band, headed to Atlanta with
his family. Only two of his band members were there while
the rest were scattered all over the country. One day he
received a phone call to reunite the band in Baton Rouge to
perform for the evacuees living there. He jumped at the
chance-despite the fact that neither he nor any of the band
members had their instruments. Students from Louisiana State
University and local high schools loaned them their band
instruments just to hear a concert.
Pete said that all he cared about was playing music again but
he soon realized how important it was for the evacuees who
were homesick and traumatized by Katrina to hear their music.
"We found out the power of our music, said Pete, quite
surprised. "We didn't understand that before but it was
music that pulled us all together. It showed us the value
and power of our culture."
The music Hot 8 performed that day hearkened back to the
social aid and pleasure clubs, said Pete, where a well-
dressed band led a parade down the street, forming the "first
line," while onlookers joined them to form the "second line"
with strutting, jumping and high-stepping underneath their
decorated parasols as they blew whistles and waved feathered
These clubs, called benevolent societies, developed in New
Orleans during the mid- to late-1800s to help poor African
Americans, and later other ethnic groups, defray health care
costs, funeral expenses, and other financial hardships. The
presence of these societies gradually fostered a sense of
community among the people as they provided charitable works
and hosted social events. The benevolent societies were also
responsible for the "jazz funerals" where bands play somber,
processional music from the church to the cemetery. On the
way back, the music became more upbeat and joyous as mourners
celebrated the deceased's life with tears and joy.
The evacuees living in Baton Rouge recognized their culture
and joined in the "second line," said Pete. Once they
returned to the city to pick up the pieces of their lives,
they often held similar parades in order to obtain some
relief, even though the familiar stores and landmarks of
their streetscape were missing because of the storm.
Irma Thomas, known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, said
that storms have been a part of her life and career over the
past 50 years and that she has left New Orleans three times
due to hurricanes. Katrina, however, took on new meaning for
"Katrina gave us a look at the way we are and how vulnerable
we are to weather," she said. "It also showed us how lax and
unconcerned government agencies are."
When Katrina hit, Ms. Thomas was in Austin, Tex., on a gig.
She said she saw the rooftop of her home in water on
"You always know where you live," she said. "You know it."
She and her husband lost both their home and her club, the
However, the tragedy didn't sink in for her until one night
she sang "Back Water Blues," a song written in the 1930s
about a Louisiana storm. When she came to the line: "I went
high on a hill and got no place to go," she lost it in front
of her audience.
Ms. Thomas lived in the 9th Ward. Like all evacuees who were
dispersed throughout the country, she and her husband had to
decide whether or not to return to New Orleans. For two
years they stayed in Gonzales, 60 miles upriver, until they
were able to return home "where their hearts were."
Katrina inspired Ms. Thomas' new album, After the Rain, which
won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2007.
"Music orients us to the place and provides the creative
spark for ourselves and the whole city," she said. "Music
was all Orleanians had after Katrina."
In fact, the city lost a lot of its musicians, many of whom
lived in the 9th Ward. They either couldn't return home
because of finances (many work for cash and don't have a
credit record) or the older ones were on tour in Europe.
Losing many of the city's musicians created a problem for
young people looking to be mentored by them. Most schools
had closed and opportunities for kids to join bands and play
music were severely reduced. As a result, the first Mardi
Gras after Katrina had few high school marching bands playing
in the parades.
"We want to let them know that they have a culture," said
Pete. "Without that [music] connection, they are lost. We
needed to let them know that they have a rich culture here in
"Music kept the kids out of trouble," said Ms. Thomas.
"Music teaches them discipline." If students have bad
grades, they aren't allowed to play in the band.
Since Katrina, the Tipitina's Foundation's Instruments a
Comin' program (http://tipitinas.com/show.asp?id=201004261)
has been helping students obtain musical instruments and to
learn to play them.
Music has also inspired many musicians to write songs about
saving the wetlands in Louisiana, which would have helped
protect New Orleans from Katrina by providing buffers between
land and sea.
"We're losing wetlands the size of football fields every
day," said Ms. Thomas. "If you lose New Orleans, you've lost
America," she said.
Five-time Grammy winner and singer/songwriter, pianist and
guitarist Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, Jr, known as Dr. John
also expressed his concern about the wetlands as well as his
love for the city.
"Thirty years ago we had a plan to build new wetlands," he
said, "but corruption in the state made the money go
As a boy growing up in the bayou where people lived with the
land, Dr. John learned how to hunt, fish and trap. However,
50 years later most of these wetlands are gone.
He performed his song, "Please Save Our Wetlands" on piano
for conference attendees.
Dr. John now lives in New York but he retains the reputation
not only as ambassador of New Orleans but as its social
critic through his music.
For example, he has often railed against the influence of the
oil companies whose 8,000 miles of man-made canals have
played a role in Katrina's destruction.
The companies own the politicians who built the canals for
"Black Gold," the title of another song, despite the
vulnerability of the coastline, he said.
Murphy Oil storage tanks spilled one million gallons of oil
in St. Bernard Parish, one of the worst hit places in the
city, due to Katrina's 145 mph landfall winds.
The City That Care Forgot, an album produced in 2007, won Dr.
John his fifth Grammy. He said he wrote these songs because
he found he couldn't live with himself if he didn't say
Seeing all the damage, having friends whose homes were
destroyed and going to funerals was a real heart breaker for
Dr. John. A post-Katrina function of the New Orleans Jazz
Foundation was a great relief for people, he said. They were
so glad to be there because it was a diversion from all
funerals they had been attending. Now he is trying to save
the city's Charity Hospital because "it has personally saved
me a bunch of times."
"Any civilization has health care," he said as he riled
against the hatred and confusion that had come out in the
health care debate in Washington.
"It's simple to see what's going on. The insurance
companies, chemical companies and pharmaceuticals have
everyone locked in and they're making a fortune on people
dying. That's not the thing to do. We all have a right to
Dr. John is now working on a song about insurance companies
turning their backs on Orleanians and stranding them such
that they can't come home again.
"I love New Orleans and south Louisiana. It is a real sacred
Olga Bonfiglio teaches a sustainable cities class at at
Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and is the author
of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to
the War in Iraq. She has written for several national
magazines on the subjects of food, social justice and
religion. She currently volunteers as a gardener and
LaMancha goat handler on a small farm in southwest Michigan.
Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at
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