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Saturday, March 31, 2012

That's about it

I've now arrived in Gainesville, FL, having spent a couple of days scouting the territory around Panacea, FL.  Glad I stopped in Panacea.  Google can tell you what a place looks like, but it's only going there that tells you what a place feels like.
That idea that you have to go to a place to get a feel for it was really the impetus for the trip down the Blues Highway.  I don't know that I'll be a better player for it, but the pictures in my mind will be different.
Along the way, I learned some things. 
First, and most happily, the blues legacy does live.  The state of Mississippi has belatedly realized that the music is a thing of value.  Mississippi is now the Birthplace of American Music.  Louisiana might take issue with that, but it's good that Mississippi values the history. 
Second, the language of the blues is alive, surviving mass media and other challenges, in people like the owner of the Riverside Hotel and many other people I listened to and talked with.
Third, I knew about the mechanization of agriculture and its effect on the rural population, but I had to go to Mississippi to understand its effects on the people and the music.  In Helena, Arkansas, I was talking to the owner of the Blues Corner.  Looking down the nearly empty street, he said, "Back then, on Saturday, the streets would be so crowded you could hardly get through.  Down here, Cherry Street, it was all white; the next street over, Walnut, all black."  In the small towns, like Tutwiler and Lula and Avalon, I got used to the fact that about 2/3 of the buildings are unoccupied.  Ghost towns.  But, the population back in the blues days was five or even ten times what it is today.  The cotton gin had made cotton the king of crops, but harvesting was done by hand until the mid-'30's.  That population shift made me understand why there could be many, many small jooks out in the country.
Fourth, when you see history being lost, look to local politicians.  Whether it's leveling Storyville or building large casinos right over the top of Tunica, the local folks lean toward 'development' over history.  I guess that's a good thing?
Fifth, there is one and only one breakfast food a national chain motel can't ruin:  sausage.
Thanks so much for traveling with me.  I will keep this blog open for an occasional update.  Sign up for an e-mail 'poke' if you want to continue...

Location:Gainesville FL

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Almost the end of the road ... and an admission

A trip with a purpose
I've just finished the first draft of a novel.  It's not precisely about music, but music threads through it. 
I always used to think it a little affected that novelists would say that the characters of a story take it over and tell their own story, but that really is how it happens.  And, at least for me, the characters can't live in a world that I don't understand.  Thus, the trip down the blues highway.
My main character, Joe Mayfield, is drawn to travel the same roads I have just passed over.   He has lost his wife, Cynthia, to cancer.  She loved blues and jazz, and they had always promised each other that they would take some time to follow the blues highway. Now Joe's making the journey alone.  He comes to New Orleans to a little B&B called L'home Joli.  Yesterday, I got a chance to walk the neighborhoods Joe would have been in, and I found a couple of places that are key to the story.
On the Internet, L’home Joli looked just right for Joe’s purpose.  Nine rooms, near the Quarter, but not so near as to be too expensive.  Hard up beside the Storyville district, where so much of the music Cynthia loved came from. Pretty picture of gables, wrought iron, bougainvillea.  However, the Internet had not captured it chief asset, which is its owner, Francine Bilodeau.  Everyone calls her Billie.
“Y’all stayin’ a while?” she said to Joe as he signed the register.
Joe smiled. “Well, a week at least.  Depends on the music.”
“Y’all goin’ to be stayin’ the summer at least if you’re usin’ that measure.” 
Billie is big, amply supplied with all the external aspects that bespeak womanhood.  Some would say oversupplied, but Joe understands from Billie’s confident stance that she would not put much value in such opinions.  She is quite possibly on the far side of 50, hard to tell.  She is, by the precise but never discussed racial accountancy of New Orleans, an octoroon.  She’s wearing a maroon shift with splashes of bright color that almost seem as they’re laughing at you.  Cynthia would have loved it.




L'Home Joli

Here's the house that I think will become L'Home Joli.  Right near Rampart, and truly hard up against Storyville.
In the story, which takes place in 2049 and 2050, Joe is being chased by ... well, it's complicated, and I hope you'll be able to read the story in the future.  Travel by car is less popular than today, one reason that Joe decides to evade his pursuers traveling by car.  Billie gives him instructions to go see her friend Big Al to find a vehicle.
He walks down to Rampart and turns toward Frenchmen Street, following Billie's directions.  He passes a large used car lot, then a smaller one, finally Big Al's … Everyone rides at Big Al’s.  It looks deserted.  He passes it by slowly, checking out the merchandise.  Surely, this must be the place.  But it doesn’t look open.  He walks a half block beyond the lot, trying to decide what to do next.
When he turns back, there is a very large black man leaning on the hood of a '41 Vanola at the front of the lot, sizing Joe up. 
Big Al, and there can be no doubt that this is indeed Big Al, is an imposing figure who carries 270 pounds easily on a six-foot-four frame.  Large features, big hands.  Smile punctuated by a toothpick. One of those rare human beings who can look friendly and terrifying at the same time. 
"Y'all in the market for a fine automobile, son?" 




"Everyone Rides at Big Al's"

And right in the place it would be in the story was my used car place, looking a little tidier than I envisioned, but correctly placed.   Is that luck or serendipity?

The story I'm writing ends in the Panacea, FL, and I'll write one more blog from Panacea before I quit.  Thank you for traveling with me.



Between gigs...




Guitarist at rest      

Sometimes, when there's a break between sets, you just have to take a nap.  (Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans)

Storyville, Jelly Roll and the origin of Jazz








 Storyville and Jelly Roll Morton







A former bordello in Storyville

I've always been fascinated by Storyville.  A lot of the music I play originated there, and I wanted to see what's left of it.  The problem is, they leveled it in 1920 or so.  There are only a couple of the original buildings left ... the rest is the Iberville housing project.  The story goes that New Orleans came up with a creative solution to the reality that you really could get anything you wanted ... and a variety of things that would never occur to people just emerging from the Victorian Age ... in the Big Easy.  So the city fathers studied European models and came up with a plan to limit prostitution and associated activities to a 20-block area.  Very progressive, they thought.  That lasted about 30 years, at which point the whole idea of legalized prostitution embarrassed the city powers-that-were, so they shut it down.  (I've noticed throughout this trip that the greatest danger to blues history seems to be tight-sphinctered local politicians.)
Jelly Roll Morton and the origin of jazz



Jelly Roll Morton's childhood home

Ferdinand LaMothe liked to be called Jelly Roll Morton.  He was born in a prosperous neighborhood and was, according to the precise racial accounting then prevalent, a creole.  His house still exists in the 7th ward, surrounded by several structures still unreconstituted after Katrina and a couple that Habitat for Humanity is rebuilding.
Jelly Roll began playing piano in Storyville when he was in his teens and became successful.  He was a dandy, always dressed to the nines, and a self promoter.  He went a little overboard by claiming that he invented Jazz in 1902.  He wasn't far off on the time or the place, just on the claim that it was he who originated the form.
It's impossible to say where exactly the blues was born, but that's not true about the music we call Jazz.  It did originate around the turn of the century, and it was born right in Jelly Roll's neighborhood.
Congo Square


A corner of Storyville that fronts on Rampart Street was called Congo Square.  It was a small park where the black community was free to congregate.  Jazz probably started with the drumming traditions imported from Africa, added instruments as ingenuity and finances permitted.  In a nod to Louis' fame and later 20th Century sensibilities, Congo Square was renamed the Louis Armstrong Park, and it now includes some wonderful artwork celebrating the epicenter of Jazz.


Everything you need

Now, THIS is one-stop living!

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Music

When I first got to New Orleans, I went out on Bourbon Street.   As a result, I was all set to go on a rant about how electricity is going to destroy real music.

 This little clip was taken in the middle of Bourbon Street. There were three bands playing simultaneously, each apparently trying to outdo the other. Two bands up against each other at max volume is cacophony.  Three is just noise. There may be a lot of great musicians in New Orleans, but it's hard to tell on Bourbon Street.


But, then I was glad I held back on the rant the next morning.  For breakfast, I had this gypsy jazz.


By evening, I had a sampling of jazz (with a fine gentleman playing a 7-string bass), zydeco, rock, folk and a wonderful brass band I wish I had a recording of.  Then, for a musical dessert, some Delta Funk like this.  A full and satisfying day.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jambalaya and the P-word


 I had dinner last night at a little restaurant in New Orleans.  I had the jambalaya, which was delicious, and it got me thinking about politics. 

Specifically, I’d like our congressional representatives to have to have a serving of this excellent dish and to reflect on its composition.  It must have started with the paella that the Spanish brought with them.  The French came later and added their jambon.  But, and here’s the important part for those who represent us in Washington, neither the French nor the Spanish could acquire all of the spices and ingredients they were used to, so they substituted native vegetables and spices. The result was entirely different than what they started with but oh, so delicious.  Even the name, both accurate and artful, combines Spanish, French and (I think) Creole

I’d hope that, in eating the dish, our representatives would contemplate the fact that if the little restaurant I ate in was running like government is today, the proprietor would offer white rice or a slab of ham steak, certainly not both together.  Surely, he would be out of business in short order.  Surely, our representatives would see that the artful combination of diverse elements is the best choice in politics, as in cuisine.  Wouldn’t they?

OK, enough on politics.  Back to the blues ....