Homebound at the opening stages of the pandemic (around the time of the “Tom Hanks Crisis”) we started listening, via Internet stream, to WWOZ, roots radio from New Orleans. The music is festive, the catalog is deep: it’s kind of amazing how much music there is about New Orleans. WWOZ could fill days and days with specifically local music.
Metro New Orleans has 1.2 million people, putting it below Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh, greater Orlando, Sacramento, just a hair above Fresno in terms of size. But New Orleans punches so far above its weight culturally as to make it a unique exception and special case on a world scale.
Something about listening to an actual radio station with live DJs feels more connective, although Bryson Whitney at Spotify keeps a WWOZ playlist that has way beyond 24 hours of music at the ready.
WWOZ is the station where Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, is a DJ in the 2010-2013 HBO series Treme*, but don’t let that put you off. The DJs for the most part are remarkably unobtrusive.
Tuesday is Mardi Gras. There are enough songs specifically about Mardi Gras to power WWOZ for probably weeks of steady airtime. You will hear Professor Longhair and Wild Tchoupitoulas. It’s funny to observe the transition in music when Ash Wednesday rolls around. They really do have to dial it back!
Previous coverage of New Orleans.
* when Treme first came out we found it a little offputting, it seemed to be criticizing us, the viewers, for not appreciating New Orleans enough. This may have been partially based on a scene in the pilot where some well-meaning tourists are humiliated by Sonny (Michiel Huisman), a street musician. But we rewatched a few years ago and found the series went deeper than we may have perceived. For instance Sonny himself is a transplant. His pretentious attitude is deflated over the course of the series as he experiences a humbling journey related to his efforts to get out of addiction and restore himself. On review ,Treme does a powerful job of capturing not only what’s so special and alluring about New Orleans, but also what’s probably annoying and frustrating about living there. The dilapidations, corruptions, poverty and inevitable hangovers of a place that survives by selling itself as partytown. Some of New Orleans is disgusting, some of it is really refined and beautiful. Those contradictions are captured in the show, full of inhabited characters who aren’t always having good times. Treme is deep and interesting if not always fun.
I was checking on some ships and saw them traveling through the ship channel in Port Sulfur, Louisiana.
The town is 8 feet (2.4 m) above sea level and had not flooded during Hurricane Betsy nor Hurricane Camille. Before Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita about 3,000 people lived in Port Sulphur. Nevertheless, during Hurricane Katrina, the federal levees failed and around 22 feet (6.7 m) of water engulfed the town. Almost all single-family homes in the town were destroyed, many of which were moved off their foundations by as much as 100 feet. In the months following Katrina, some residents moved back to Port Sulphur in trailers and modular homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But many residents relocated to other parts of Louisiana, the Southeast, and Texas.
The New York Times has been all over the case of the precarious communities of Plaquemines Parish. I’d like to visit sometime. Would I feel weird staying at Woodland Plantation? Yes, but I’m prepared to do it in my role as a journalist.
Here’s the Subway in Port Sulphur. Get a sandwich and sit on that levee watching the ships go by?
A port closer to home, Port Hueneme, came up in some recent discussion of the huge backup at Port of Los Angeles / Long Beach.
I learn that 3.3 billion bananas come through Port Hueneme each year. One of these days I’m gonna go up there and get a banana right off the boat.
A medical expert once described the difficulty of surgery on the liver, a soft, fragile organ that can shred in your hands and rip with every stitch. The heart is a hard lump of muscle, but the liver is delicate spongy tissue. Manhattan is a rocky island, San Francisco is as solid and situation at the end of a long peninsula; those cities are as clearly defined as a fist or a heart. But think of New Orleans as a liver, an expanse of soggy land doing some of what a liver does, filtering poisons, keeping the body going, necessary to survival and infinitely fragile, hard to pull out of context, and nowadays deteriorating from more poison that it can absorb, including the ongoing toxins of the petroleum industry and the colossal overdose delivered by the 2010 BP blowout.
The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds – the cemeteries – and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres- palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay – ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who’ve died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here.
You could be dead for a long time
so says Bob Dylan in Chronicles.
New Orleans is illogical, upsetting. It makes a mockery. You start in Chicago, sensible enough, but float down the river and you end in African jungle, a Caribbean outpost of a forgotten empire, ruled by French pretension – but pretending to what, exactly? No matter, it’s already forgotten. What the jazz player and the performing drunk and the crooked politician all act out is the tension: this shouldn’t be here.
Vivien Kent in The Fatback of America (1948, is she cancelled?)
The minute you land in New Orleans, something wet and dark leaps on you and starts humping you like a swamp dog in heat, and the only way to get that aspect of New Orleans off you is to eat it off. That means beignets and crayfish bisque and jambalaya, it means shrimp remoulade, pecan pie, and red beans with rice, it means elegant pompano au papillote, funky file z’herbes, and raw oysters by the dozen, it means grillades for breakfast, a po’ boy with chowchow at bedtime, and tubs of gumbo in between. It is not unusual for a visitor to the city to gain fifteen pounds in a week–yet the alternative is a whole lot worse. If you don’t eat day and night, if you don’t constantly funnel the indigenous flavors into your bloodstream, then the mystery beast will go right on humping you, and you will feel its sordid presence rubbing against you long after you have left town. In fact, like any sex offender, it can leave permanent psychological scars.
Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume
Did not complete my reading of that book — it was too dense! Every page was packed! Every bite was sausage and spice, there was no rice.
In addition to the Atlas I had this one:
Books are good for getting ideas, but no information set in as permanent a form as a book should be trusted when it comes to New Orleans. Whether it’s open, what night is good, intel of that nature must be gathered by asking somebody, or a phone call, or maybe best of all by walking by.
One of these books gave us the notion to take the ferry to Algiers from the foot of Canal Street. The book claimed it was free, I believe it was $2.50. Small price to pay to be out on the river.
This book is just wonderful, I can’t recommend it enough. What gifts Lee Sandlin left the world! Lee begins his book by talking about how, when he waits for the bus in Chicago, the water under the grate at his feet is on its way to the Mississippi River, and on down to New Orleans. This book has it all: Mike Fink, the New Madrid Great Shakes, the siege of Vicksburg. And my God if he doesn’t make you feel like you’re really there in Congo Square, or at one of the true old Mardi Gras nights, a candlelight carnival, when the wildness could turn deadly, when they really thought they might summon the dead or the devil or worse. I keep meaning to devote a longer post to Wicked River, but I shouldn’t miss this chance to recommend it.
New Orleans, populationwise, at 391,006, is about the size of Bakersfield, significantly smaller than Fresno. Just a hair ahead of Wichita, Kansas.
One idea I really got out of the Snedeker Solnit Atlas is New Orleans as part of the Caribbean. Bananas were shipped through here. United Fruit Company, it was going down. District Attorney Jim Garrison may have been off but he was not wrong to smell conspiracy everywhere.
There actually used to be an overnight ferry between here and Havana. The mambo figures prominantly in New Orleans piano. Professor Longhair. It’s the Cuba Connection.
Steve Zahn’s character says in Treme. It was really funny in Treme to have a character whose main quality was how annoying he was about being “into” New Orleans. If you’re really “into” New Orleans, does that not by itself prove that you don’t get it? Is that all part of the joke?
Re: the banana connection, The Atlas had me go listen to Lil Wayne’s Six Foot Seven Foot.
Life is a bitch and Death is her sister
Sleep is the cousin what a fuckin’ family picture
This time last year I was in New Orleans. From The Atlas we learned the time of the Money Wasters second line was coming around. The WWOZ website confirms the date and a route for the parade, ending Under The 10, in the epic sonic canyon created by the concrete freeway overpass that takes I-10 across the city on its way to Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Florida. What a time! What a place! When will we feel that free again?
A guy at the second line said to me
if it’s Sunday in New Orleans and you ain’t at the second line you’re either stupid or dumb
When the wind is right it’s said you can see a dead body in the ruins of the Hard Rock Hotel. A living ghost story: how New Orleans is that?
I’ve been thinking about New Orleans, and listening to WWOZ.
Reading up on the New Orleans classic Iko Iko, made famous by the Dixie Cups, I find myself reading about Mobilian Jargon.
Mobilian Jargon (also Mobilian trade language, Mobilian Trade Jargon, Chickasaw–Choctaw trade language, Yamá) was a pidgin used as a lingua franca among Native American groups living along the Gulf of Mexico around the time of European settlement of the region. It was the main language among Indian tribes in this area, mainly Louisiana. There is evidence indicating its existence as early as the late 17th to early 18th century. The Indian groups that are said to have used it were the Alabama, Apalachee, Biloxi, Chacato, Pakana, Pascagoula, Taensa, Tunica, Caddo, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Chitimacha, Natchez, and Ofo.
A possible meaning?:
Another possible translation interprets the third and fourth lines as:
Chokma finha an dan déyè
Chokma finha ane.
Chickasaw words “chokma” (“it’s good”) and “finha” (“very”), Creole “an dan déyè” from French Creole “an dans déyè” (“at the back”), and the Creole “ane” from the French “année” (“year”).
It’s very good at the rear
It’s a very good year.
What about the possible voodoo origin?
Louisiana Voodoo practitioners would recognize many aspects of the song as being about spirit possession. The practitioner, the horse, waves a flag representing a certain god to call that god into himself or herself. Setting a flag on fire is a curse. The man in green, who either changes personality or whose appearance is deceiving, would be recognized in Voodoo as possessed by a peaceful Rada spirit, inclining to green clothes and love magic. The man in red, who is being sent to kill, would likely be possessed by a vengeful Petwo spirit.
Haitian ethnologist Milo Rigaud published a transcription in 1953 of a Voodoo chant, “Crabigne Nago”. This chant to invoke the Voodoo mystère Ogou Shalodeh is similar to “Iko, Iko” in both pentameter and phones.
Liki, liki ô! Liki, liki ô!
Papa Ogou Jacoumon,
Papa Ogou Shalodeh.
More on the topic can be found in an article in a 2008 issue of Southern Anthropologist – we find ourselves amidst controversy:
Right from the beginning, Galloway (2006: 225-226) belittles the amount of linguistic information available, which she evidently takes as a justifi cation for not addressing specifi c linguistic and historical data that Crawford and I have accumulated and analyzed over the years. Although Galloway (2006: 228) recognizes my book of some four hundred pages as “the most thorough study of Mobilian jargon (sic) now available,” she oddly does not use a single piece of linguistic data from it in her own essay; nor does she review the substantial amount of sociohistorical documentation that both Crawford and I assembled for what anthropologists and linguists had long thought lost. Instead, Galloway (2006: 240) has curiously drawn on a short, seven-page essay by Kennith H. York (1982) for inspiration and “the insight of a sophisticated native speaker of Choctaw,” which demands a short appraisal
The linguistic origin of the song is the subject of a 2009 Offbeat article by Drew Hinshaw, who traces it to Ghana:
One afternoon, 1965, the three Louisianan sisters/cousins who gave you “Chapel of Love,” unaware that the studio’s tapes were still rolling, recorded for posterity two minutes of delightful historical intrigue that had been circulating in oral obscurity for generations unknowable. “Iko, Iko,” they called that tune. The English chunks of the record came from an all-too-obvious source—R&B singer “Sugar Boy” Crawford who claimed he never saw “just dues” from the top 40 hit—but the cryptic refrain of the Carnival standard is of a lost language, entirely mysterious: “Eh na, Iko, Iko-ahn-dé, jaco-mo-fi-na-né.” You know these words. “Sugar Boy” said he remembered them from the Mardi Gras Indian tribes of his salad days, while the girl group said they heard it from their grandma, Which is where the song begins: “My grandmaw and yo’ grandmaw….”
Reminded me of this cool, dialogue-less scene in Twelve Years A Slave which probably tells us about as much as can be known about the earliest origins of New Orleans music:
Not sure why I bothered writing this post, as I already texted with MMW about this topic (he suggested I look into Pidgin Delaware) but the oddest topics have lured readers to Helytimes, and really, what else is this site for but
1) to peer into the past until the view becomes a crazy fantastical kaleidoscope
2) to celebrate the rich weirdness of the world, and
3) to delight that there are people out there fighting over Mobilian Jargon?
Took this one off my shelf the other day. Think I was supposed to read it in college but never finished it. The plot didn’t propel me along, but there’s some magic to it for sure. A relaxed New Orleans kind of existentialism.
What’s the narrator looking for? Even he doesn’t know.
He sees a young man reading on the bus, and types him:
Good old Walker Percy:
At one point the narrator sees William Holden on the street:
Ah, William Holden. Already we need you again. Already the fabric is wearing thin without you.
By the time Costa got fired for using it, ’Bama had been around for quite some time, and its meaning and use had changed. Most likely, the word was first used to put down recent arrivals to D.C.’s black neighborhoods from southern states—especially Alabama, says cultural anthropologist and long time Smithsonian staffer John Franklin. “It’s had currency over several generations,” Franklin says. It was a way of calling someone a black hick: “There was some disdain for people who didn’t live in the city and weren’t sophisticated.” The word had particular weight during the Great Migration, when many African Americans left the rural South for northern cities. Then, the point was to differentiate the newer arrivals from the longtime Washingtonians—who worried that the countrified Southerners flooding the District would reflect badly on the whole community. It was, essentially, the way D.C.’s black residents called one of their own a redneck. (Around the same time, German Jews who had already been in the U.S. for a few decades coined their own slang term to put down their less sophisticated Russian and Polish cousins—and thus, “kike” was born, only becoming a generalized ethnic slur afterwards.)
Eventually, ’Bama lost most of the geographic connotations it once had, and melted into just another piece of regional slang. Even white kids like Costa learned what it meant, picking it up by osmosis from the culture around them. Costa says his own definition of ’Bama is that it refers to a person who is “stupid.” He spent most of his life in the Baltimore-Washington area, and says he and his friends grew up using “the B-word” all the time.
In the Cajun people of Louisiana writers find what writers always find in the remote peoples of the world: pride of race, a healthy love of pleasure, a gift for spinning sorrow into beauty, ruddy confidence, a balance and a rhythm of life that seems enviable to the alienated wanderer. I have gone to their parishes myself on several auto trips.
In the wrong mood I find their men crude and ribald. But their women are at every age attractive. A girl of 13 or 14 from the Acadian parishes can be almost impossible to look at in her beauty and passion. Look her in the eye and it can stop you cold. You will think on her for days. Many of the older women spend the rest of their lives in the consequences of their first sexual blossoming.
Of their men I will say this: in a tight situation they are heroic. None can argue they bleed life.
But above all it is this, you can feel it in their humor, in their food, in their music, in their religion, in their stories: they don’t treat life as though it’s too damned important. Sad, beautiful, sorrowful, happy: it’s something, good and bad, take it as it comes, do your damnest.
– Vivien Kent, How To Travel (1947)
[HT our Virginia Beach office via Garden & Gun magazine. As of last reading, all the comments on this video were perfectly nice (“she was my substitute teacher in 4th grade!”)]