Monday, June 7, 2010

episode 8: insinuations

The calendar works differently in New Orleans. The change of seasons is usually subtle and almost always very late. Even the holidays arrive late, starting on Twelfth Night and peaking on Fat Tuesday when the rest of the country is trying to stick to their New Years resolutions. It's the most visible example of how New Orleans is as much a Caribbean as an American city, relating to its French (Catholic/indulgent) founding that distinguishes it from the rest of the Anglo (Protestant/ascetic) U.S. Even after 200 years of American rule, Mardi Gras still rules the calendar for New Orleanians, and for a few weeks the entire city bounces along to the same soundtrack: a handful of songs that are rarely heard outside the city limits but are as familiar as gumbo to everyone within them.

All on a Mardi Gras Day is one of those songs. When Dr. John released it in 1970 it went absolutely nowhere - the insider references to parade rhythms and Mardi Gras Indians singing Tu Way Pocky Way would have been lost on a national audience - and the song wasn't even included on the Dr.'s greatest hits CD. But it's inescapable in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, spilling out of barroom doors and car windows as revelers walk through the streets of the city. A book and a documentary movie took the song's name. So did this episode of Treme and we hear it in the background as creepy Sonny indulges in a scene of Mardi Gras debauchery (that includes my wife Alex and friend Chris from the Skeleton Krewe as extras!). Mardi Gras music seeps through the whole show, insinuating itself into the lives of the characters just like Mardi Gras insinuates itself into the lives of New Orleanians.

Professor Longhair is the acknowledged king of the jukebox during Carnival season and, much like his piano disciple's Mardi Gras Day, the Professor had his own Indian-themed recording that became a Carnival staple even as it failed to get notice elsewhere. Big Chief was written and sung by Earl King on a 1964 single with a startling horn arrangement by Wardell Quezergue and a finger-bending piano riff that is required learning for every New Orleans pianist. The song is incidental to a restaurant scene early on in the show, but later Longhair gets name-checked by Creighton Bernette as the family goes about their Mardi Gras morning preparations to the sound of Go to the Mardi Gras, which Mardi-Gras-flag-waving Creighton suggests "should be our national anthem." 

The tune's path from obscure relic to (localized) national anthem is long and twisted. Longhair recorded it with his band the Shuffling Hungarians at their first recording session, in 1949, as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but the single was taken off the market because the session violated union rules. Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun "discovered" Longhair a year later playing at a house party across the river, and they released Mardi Gras in New Orleans as his first single for Atlantic Records. (Identifiable by the clave rhythm.) Surprise, surprise, it bombed. So the piano professor stripped all the local references from the lyrics and re-cut it as East St. Louis Baby, and when that didn't fly he went into his first of many musical retirements, working instead as a professional card shark.

But his Mardi Gras song kept coming around every year, so Longhair returned to the studio in 1959 and made a record under the name Go to the Mardi Gras that finally hit. (Identifiable by the parade beat on the snare drum.) This is the version that has inundated the ears of Mardi Gras revelers for 40 years, including jazz impresario George Wein, who heard the song in a neighborhood bar in the late 1960s when he was in town laying plans for the debut of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. "Who's that?" Wein asked his protege Quint Davis. "It’s not anybody, it’s just a song that comes on every year at Mardi Gras," responded Davis. "You find that guy," directed Wein, and Davis obliged, eventually locating Longhair at the One Stop record shop where he was sweeping the floor. Davis put Longhair onstage at the first Jazz Fest and managed his career for his last, and most successful, decade. From that point forward, Longhair became enshrined in the New Orleans canon: the city's most iconic club was named for his song Tipitina and Go to the Mardi Gras finally became recognized as more than "just a song that comes on every year."

There's beaucoup Mardi Gras songs winding in and out of this episode - Al Johnson's R&B romp Carnival Time, The Meters' slinky Hey Pocky A-Way (a funk arrangement of the Indian chant Tu Way Pocky Way) - and Janette even stumbles through a solo take on Iko, Iko, yet another Indian chant made into a Mardi Gras standard, and the only one to become a national hit as the Dixie Cups' follow-up to Chapel of Love in 1964.

All of these songs are inextricably linked to this city's identity; they're all evidence of a musical style that I've always thought we should simply call "New Orleans Music"; and they all have deep histories and associations locally if not elsewhere. I'll end with one more, Do Whatcha Wanna by the Rebirth Brass Band.

Rebirth made their first record, Here to Stay, in 1983 when founding members Kermit Ruffins, Philip Frazier and Keith Frazier were still students at Joseph S. Clark High School in the Treme neighborhood. The record put the kids on the map, allowing them to tour outside the city a bit, but locally they were just another brass band until they recorded a single in 1987.  

Do Whatcha Wanna was a radical departure from the brass band tradition. It featured Ruffins singing a solo vocal, which had no precedent in a tradition identified with instrumentals and group singing, and further, Ruffins sang about life on the street - "do whatcha wanna... hang on the corner" - in a hip-hop way that broke with the respectable themes of spirituals and light popular tunes that make up standard brass band fare. The song became an overnight sensation when it beat out the latest rap records on a local radio call in show for eight straight weeks. Rebirth inherited the mantle of top brass band from the Dirty Dozen, who by then were on the road too often to maintain a regular gig schedule in their hometown, and Do Whatcha Wanna became the latest in a long line of songs that are, to paraphrase Ernie K-Doe, "internationally famous locally." (Make sure to purchase the version of the song labeled "Part 3".)

Do Whatcha Wanna provides the soundtrack for a party that draws Janette, Davis, Annie, Delmond, and others throughout the day. We also hear pianist Tom McDermott play a Mardi Gras standard of a different sort, If Ever I Cease to Love, the theme song for Rex, the elite carnival krewe that parades on Mardi Gras day, when the royalty are recognized as the "Kings of Carnival." Since 1872, the Rex parade has stood for pomp and circumstance, and their holiday ends with a lavish ceremonial ball where an eerily masked King sits at a throne alongside a debutante cherub as the exclusive membership bow before them one-by-one. An orchestra plays ballroom dance music along the lines of If Ever I Cease to Love, which is what greets Antoine Batiste when he arrives home from his Mardi Gras exploits and finds his wife passed out on the couch while the Rex ball beams from a TV set. "That might put me to sleep too," Antoine dryly observes before hitting the sack himself.

Some of the funkier Mardi Gras music puts me to sleep too, including two songs featured prominently as bookends to this episode, Chuck Carbo's Second Line on Monday at the top and Tommy Malone's Fat Tuesday at the end. But whether their tastes run hi-brow, lo-brow, or no-brow, New Orleanians dance to their own drummer on Mardi Gras day.


  1. I have trouble getting funked out to "Fat Tuesday" as well, and "Iko Iko" always sounded to me like the number a cheesy steel-drum band would play at the airport to welcome you off the cruise ship to St. Thomas island. But I did love the way this episode showed that Mardi Gras is more of a family affair, a picnic and softball game, than the beads-and-boobs debauchery we're shown on the news. Also? Davis and Annie have a much brighter future than Douchebag and Annie, not least because of their love and understanding of Nola music. Something Douchebag has been using as his street-cred card, entirely without justification. The layers upon layers of so-called authenticity get sliced thinner and thinner...

  2. I LOVE some versions of "Iko Iko," including the Dixie Cups, but it can easily veer towards cheeseville. This is what Delmond worries about in the earlier episode when Donald Harrison suggests they play it as an encore.

    And you're so right to point out the how they captured Mardi Gras as a family friendly affair. No beads-and-boobs to worry about, just kooky Sonny.

  3. The quote from George Wein to Quint Davis was "So get your ass off this bar stool and find him for our festival!"

  4. Nice review of the music this week. It's hard to make other people's parties entertaining, but Treme managed it this week. The music was a big part of that.

  5. I love this blog. I'm so glad you're writing it. There's so much to be learned by outsiders and it's great that you're taking the time to share the story behind the story.

    By the way, I just moved to New Orleans (in no small part because of what I saw on the show and read on this blog) and I'm looking to pick up my trumpet again after three years of inactivity. I was hoping to find somebody who could tell me about playing my horn like I was born here; no small order but I'm willing to do the work. If you've got any leads on anybody, knowing what you do about the local music scene, I'd love to hear what you think.

    Anyway, I'll keep reading either way and can't wait to see what you've got for this week's episode. Great show, great blog.

  6. Thanks Carmack. This week's blog is now posted... only one more to go 'til next year!